Thursday, May 17, 2012

What Do You Mean By "Life"?

As an outspoken atheist and science-freak I often get asked some pretty standard questions about the more shall we say “controversial topics” in science. Some of them I cannot answer, some only in part, but many are so often repeated that I have decided to make blogposts out of the ones where I wind up having to repeat myself. This morning I got one such PM about abiogenesis, and since it is a pretty standard version of the questions I get about this topic I figured I’d post it here with my reply – a handy link to this post will save me time in the future.

Subject: Evolution

Well here we have our first problem. As I’m sure many of you have already heard, evolution is not a theory about the origins of life. Evolution explains the diversity of life as we see it today; it makes no speculation about how the very first living organism began. This may seem like splitting hairs for some, but it is fundamentally important.

You can believe in the theory of evolution without believing in the theory of abiogenesis, and I know far more people that choose this as their belief system than I know people who deny both. You can believe that the lighting that struck the primordial soup was God’s finger to zap together those first little building blocks of life, without denying a single piece of evidence that supports the theory of evolution. Even if scientists find a way to create a multicellular organism from nonliving compounds in a lab you can still believe that that’s not what actually happened all those billions of years ago. I’m not saying I agree or that it is particularly logical, but alas to each their own opinion.

I have a question for you. You obviously do not believe in God so I was wondering if you could help me out with something I have been wondering. Since life had to begin by chance from nonliving material I would like you to give me a SPECIFIC EXAMPLE of a living organism created ENTIRELY FROM NONLIVING MATERIAL in a lab, controlled environment, etc. ( I assume you know the difference between creating life from nonliving material and genetic engineering/bioengineering since genetic engineering and bioengineering are processes that deal with naturally occurring cells found in nature as well as DNA. Obviously this is not creating life from nonliving material.)

Well here we have another problem. What does God have to do with any of this? It is a common misconception that science exists to prove or disprove God, or that science has anything to do with the supernatural. If God is supernatural then by definition he (She? It.) lives outside of the natural world, and therefore cannot be tested for by natural means. Science involved testing the natural world, the two cannot be further apart.

Secondly, I do not like the “God of the gaps” fallacy that this question is implying. The argument “you can’t explain that! Therefore God” has no basis in logic or reasoning and you should all know this. It is a giant cop-out, and an arrogant way of implying that we as a species have learned everything that there is to know. The real statement to make about such things is “you can’t explain that yet”. Where would we be as a species if we were content with just “Goddidit” or “Devildidit”? Modern medicine, among other things would not exist.

I also spot a little misinterpretation of abiogenesis theory with “life had to begin by chance”, but he does not elaborate on the faux creationist probability argument so I’ll let it go as a slip up for now.

On to the question at hand. He wants a specific example of a living organism created by scientists, I’ll let him elaborate (and since genetic engineering is pretty much what I do yes, I know the difference between creating life and altering it).

Several examples of scientists who work with synthetic engineering and bioengineering are Dr. Venter and Dr. Szostak and multiple others.

They have admitted what they are doing is not creating life from nonliving material. The process of life coming from nonliving material is called abiogenesis so I want you give me a specific example of abiogenesis that has been successfully done in a lab by scientists. Since according to atheists life came into existence completely by chance billions of years ago, surely we can create life from nonliving material as well. So here is what I want you to give me IN SPECIFIC DETAIL:

1. The name of the organism that was created by scientists.
2. The location of the lab it was created in.
3. The name of the scientists who created it completely from nonliving material.
4. The year in which life was created by these scientists.

Well here we have to fix the goalpost from shifting with a simple question: What exactly do you mean by life? No scientist will tell you that a complex cellular organism popped up from nonliving materials in a single step: only creationists believe that complex organisms rose from nonliving material (In Genesis God makes Adam from clay, does he not?). Complex organisms came about after billions of years of evolution involving multiple steps that can be traced back to eventually a nonliving material. So at what point to we say this step is still nonliving, whereas the step right after can be called alive? It is a question that even scientists vehemently fight over. However, there are three criteria that are essential to calling something “alive”:

  1. It has to be able to make copies of itself, either directly or by placing itself in such a way so as to take advantage of something else’s replicating machinery
  2. Those copies have to resemble the original, meaning that the peculiarities of the original have to be “inherited” by its copies (although the copies need not be perfect)
  3. Those copies also have to be able to replicate, as per criteria 1.

Those are the criteria that are indisputable, and whether or not to tack on more is something fought over. If you wish to bring up other criteria to tack on there we can certainly have a follow up of this debate.

Anyway, what evidence do we have of this so far? Well, a specific example could be the self-replicating peptide created in 1996. So let’s give him what he asked for:

  1. Name: alpha-helical peptide based on the leucine-zipper domain of GCN4
  2. Location: La Scripps Institute, La Jolla, California.
  3. Scientists: David H. Lee, Juan R. Granja, Jose A. Martinez, Kay Severin, M. Reza Ghadiri.
  4. Year: 1996

I’m guessing a self-replicating peptide is not going to be good enough for this person. However, before firing back with “a molecule is not alive! Give me LIFE!” please include a very clear definition of what you consider “life” to be. Also, please note that no scientist claims a fully functioning E. coli just popped out of the mud.

If you cannot answer these questions, there is a huge problem we have here. If life cannot come from nonliving material, there would be no life on the planet. So hopefully, you can give me these answers in very specific detail otherwise the idea that life can come from nonliving material is in serious trouble.

Again with this fallacy. Just because something has not been done in a lab does not mean that it cannot be explained. You cannot hold a star in your lab and watch it die, but astrophysicists can tell you what happens when one does. Even if you can’t do it in a lab because you don’t have an explanation does not mean that an explanation does not exist or is impossible. New things are discovered all the time, it is one of the wonders of humanity. 

Also, do not bother giving me THEORIES as to how life could have arrived here. I love reading those, I have read many of those, but I am looking for actual experimental results. I am not interested in theories that have never been proven. So, please, do yourself a favor and give me specific details about actual experimental results, not theories, because if you give me theories about how life could have come into existence on Earth by itself billions of years ago by chance from nonliving material, surely we can create life from nonliving material as well. Remember, no theories, just RESULTS. Thank you.

Well good, that saves me the time of looking up all of the evidence that there is in support of abiogenesis theory and reviewing it in bitesize chunks for this blog. For those of you who are not well versed in the evidence out there I strongly suggest searching for abiogenesis on the Talk Origins Website, they are much better at explaining it in a user-friendly way than I will ever be (especially since abiogenesis is very far from my field of expertise).

I hope this answers some questions for others as well, and I will always try to answer your questions to the best of my capabilities, so don’t hesitate to voice any concerns (but do hesitate on the trolling, for that I don’t have time).

Sources: Lee et. al (1996) A self-replicating peptide Nature: 328 525-528

1 comment:

  1. 'However, there are three criteria that are essential to calling something “alive”: ....'

    Whether or not this makes it "alive" is irrelevant. What these three criteria mean is that it will evolve. Once you have evolution, just wait long enough and whatever characteristic you deem constitutes "alive" will evolve.