Big Science Questions and the Gospel, Part III: The Creation of Life

Like most Latter-day Saints, my testimony of the Church is based more on the numinous than the intellectual. However, I still remember the moment when, ruminating on my AP biology class while taking a break during my summer lifeguarding job, I decided that there is no way life could have just spontaneously happened, and that I’d be a believer in something out there even if my Latter-day Saint faith cratered. 

As I type that last sentence I can hear the shrieking and eye scratching from the Dawkins disciples in the back of my head. Because of the catastrophic political and social alliance between people who are skeptical that chance could have led to the first cell and people who want to put disclaimers on biology textbooks teaching evolution, there is more of a visceral reaction to “design” among biologists than there is to “fine tuning” among physicists. (Indeed, before he passed away the great physicist Steven Weinberg admitted that the only options left for explaining fine tuning was God or a multiverse). And that makes sense, the “intelligent design” people are professional adversaries of the evolutionary biology and biology education discipline in ways that the fine tuners just aren’t for professional physicists. 

So to just be clear, I don’t think intelligent design should be taught in schools. If anything my “design” based realization that afternoon at the Riverside Country Club probably would have been muddied had it been immediately framed by my high school teacher as some kind of grand politica/social/philosophical conflict. Origin of life researchers should be generously funded, their efforts should be well respected and followed, and they should be encouraged to give it their best shot. However, after many years I’m still basically where I was then; I think it’s clear that that first foray into life required something more than chance.

The theologian William Paley made the classic argument that if we saw a watch on the ground that showed evidence of being designed for a specific purpose, it would make more sense to assume that it was created than to assume that it happened to spontaneously form from natural processes. The discovery and testing of evolutionary principles for the most part showed the cracks in this argument. Even classic cases for design, such as the extremely technically sophisticated eye, have been explained for the most part via evolutionary reasoning. I agree with Darwin that “there is grandeur in [evolution’s] view of life…[that] from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

However, for evolution to operate it requires a basic protected, reproducing, powered cell carrying information that it can transmit. After we have that cell, I assume the evolutionary framework can, with enough research, take us more or less the rest of the way to a human being, but that just begs the question of how the initial cell got started, and in this case, we are still stuck with a watch on the ground that we are trying to explain through natural processes. 

Does a cell have to be that complex? Yes, and this is an area where the more we know the harder the problem. Earlier scientists believed that cells had a little bit of cytoplasm and a few other bits and pieces, but with modern cell biology it is clear that they are sophisticated, complex, fine-tuned machines. (Anybody who’s hurt their brain studying for a cell biology test has learned this lesson the hard way). Again, complexity is fine and explainable if we start from something even more basic and apply evolutionary reasoning, but even stripped down to its most basic essentials a cell on which evolutionary processes can operate is still a watch,and the ghost of Paley still haunts us. (If anything the watchmaker analogy fails since we know how to make a watch, we still have yet to create a complete artificial cell [only parts so far] from the ground up, so it’s more like finding a teleporter in the sand at this point).

Even the most basic cell requires 1) protection, 2) reproduction, 3) energy, and 4) information to transmit either to other creatures or offspring. To give you a sense of how difficult this problem is:

The “information” is the software used to control the cell. My understanding is that some scientists believe that theoretically a “software code” of an RNA strand of about 40 nucleotides (basically, letters in a 4-letter alphabet) long is enough to provide the information needed to perform basic processes in a stripped down cell. If we were bashing a four-letter typewriter at random, the chance that we would come up with any one particular script 40 letters long is 4 to the 40th power, that’s one out of 1,208,9 25,819,614,62 9,174,706,176. Now, nucleotide connection doesn’t happen just willy nilly, but in very particular circumstances, so even the typewriter bashing analogy is extremely generous.  

Of course, it’s not this simple, and there are a lot of other variables; one fascinating recent paper by a Japanese astronomer bit the bullet and, after concluding that the chance life spontaneously arose was infinitesimally small, found a clever, mind-blowing way to maintain his secular, scientific honor by not just throwing up his hands and saying “God did it.” (I mean, I think God did do it, but if we’re paying you to figure out a natural way that it happened it is a copout to throw your hands up and say “God did it.”) He argues that, just like enough monkeys typing on typewriters over eons can eventually produce Shakespeare, so too, if the universe is big enough, could a watch spontaneously form, or in this case, the software code for a reproducing cell (he doesn’t use these specific analogies, but that’s basically the point). 

However, all of his calculations are just for the cell software code, we haven’t even gotten to the hardware spontaneously generating yet. Suffice it to say, there are so many layers of complexity to get to that point I just don’t see how scientists can salvage this without either invoking a deity or some version of the extreme version of the law of large numbers, even if at the margins of the four requirements above they occasionally discover that it can be more simple than they thought. If I had to make a prediction I suspect that the astronomically high odds of a single cell making it will gradually start to filter into mainstream scientific acceptability and the “monkeys on typewriters,” cosmological explanation will start to receive more attention. It would be the ugliest, most inelegant explanation ever, but that doesn’t mean it’s not right. If that is the case, then we could be the one work of Shakespeare in an unimaginable sea of gibberish, and could truly be the only life in our observable universe (or a universe of universes beyond this one), which would have implications for the search for extraterrestrial life

(On a more meta-level, the molecules of life themselves have very particular characteristics that would change things if they were different. If carbon was heavier it is unlikely it could form life, if the polarity of water was different life would likewise be very difficult.Just because molecules can in a certain configuration produce a cell, doesn’t mean that from first principles they had to be able to.) 

In terms of the Church, if there is some breakthrough and we did figure out a pathway for how we got from basic organic chemicals to a reproducing cell, I doubt it would matter much since the Church has reached a sort of detente with evolution. There isn’t some official Church statement endorsing evolutionary theory, but neither are we bedfellows with the anti-evolutionists like some of our other Christian counterparts. In this “live and let live” atmosphere further progress on origin of life research won’t rock the boat one way or the other, since we’re sort of officially agnostic on it. 

Interestingly, recent research on the genes that we may have traced back to the cellular “mother of all living,” (or “last universal common ancestor”), suggests that life may have arisen not in a shallow pond, as we once thought, but in the hydrothermal vents at the floor of the ocean. If this is the case, it would have a certain ironic poetry to it. The “great deep” of the ocean was seen as a place of diabolical chaos in Hebrew, but it may have been the original cradle of creation, where God first breathed the “breath of life.” 


19 comments for “Big Science Questions and the Gospel, Part III: The Creation of Life

  1. One of the books I’m reading now is “The Genealogical Adam & Eve: The Surprising Science of Universal Ancestry” by S. Joshua Swamidass. He is trained as a computational geneticist. His basic argument is that Adam and Eve were created by God alongside human evolution and that through a few thousand years of intermarriage all humans became their descendants. Based on his computer models, it appears his hypothesis is scientifically plausible. One implication of this argument is that God appears equally adept at creating humans in his image over millions of years through evolutionary means as well as creating humans in his image through de novo methods.

  2. I find it strange and actually very bizarre that LDS evolutionists reject intelligent design when in fact the most basic core fundamental doctrine we believe is the creation with intelligent designers. It’s like saying you are Christian yet do not believe in Christ.
    The scientific facts are that nothing intelligent has ever arisen from a nonintelligent source. That’s a scientific fact reproducible in the lab and in observing nature.
    Evolutionists obviously don’t embrace facts though. Crazy!

  3. @Sterling: Interesting possibility, It seems more simple to me that Adam and Eve were created via evolution as well but I guess that’s another option.

    @Rob: I get the hesitancy when “intelligent design” is used to attack evolutionary theory in general, or as an explanatory stopgap for holes that could plausibly be covered with enough time, but I do see the pre-evolutionary origin of life as a different category. Generally, I think most LDS evolutionary biologists believe that God did create humans, just via evolution, so it depends on your definition of “intelligent design.”

  4. Regarding calculations of the probability of life arising from first principles, I just think we don’t have enough of a sample size or experience base to make any such calculation. It could be as close to zero as makes no odds, ergo we’re all walking watches and there must be a god. It could be as close to one as makes no odds, ergo we’re all perfectly ordinary blocks of protein and there’s no reason for there to be a god. We. Just. Don’t. Know. Enough. To. Make. A. Useful. Calculation.

  5. @Pontius Python

    Deductively we do know though. We know what makes up a cell and what the requirements are. While in theory there may be some speculative less complex form that can evolve towards a cell, at some point once they’ve spent enough time looking for the Loch Ness monster that we can be fairly confident that there is no Loch Ness monster.

    Inductively you’re right, as we only have this planet as a reference. If in the next century or so we do find that microbiotic life is plentiful in the universe that would be evidence that abiogenesis is easier than it seems.

  6. Stephen,
    Evolutionists use “time” as their God of the gaps. Evolutionists use large amounts of time to explain the irrational- just throw a billion years at it and the problem suddenly is fixed. Ironically, science is supposed to be falsifiable through observation of facts, tests, procedures etc, except for “time” so distant and long that it is their holy trail for being untouchable by their own scientific methods. I mean who really is going to observe something that could take a billion years?

    Every LDS should embrace intelligent design at it’s basic core belief that intelligent life only is brought about by an intelligent design preceding it and that intelligent design being the Creator.

    Evolution, by itself, cannot explain how life first arose on earth. There has never been any self replicating intelligent organism that has arisen from nothing preceding it. That’s an observable scientific fact!

    I like the monkey typing analogy because it also proves it is absolutely impossible for monkeys randomly typing for eternity to ever produce anything but gibberish. Every study and test ever done has proven that a purposeful ntelligenintelligent plan/design can only come from an intelligent plan or purpose preceding it. Computer programmers are well aware of this fact and can only create programs to do exactly, and only, what they program it to do.

  7. What bothers me most about critics of intelligent design is that to accept ID one must accept or allow for God in the creation. The argument really boils down to the acknowledgment of The Creator and whether we should or shouldn’t acknowledge the Supreme God in answering why life exists on this earth and whyvorder appears in the cosmos.

    Thus, it’s really a war or battle between theism vs. atheism. Whose side should LDS be on? Acknowledging God as the Supreme Creator of all intelligent life. Acknowledgment means that without God’s intelligent plan, no life would have ever arose here.

  8. Rob,
    An argument between atheism and theism? Not really. While some scientists do argue in favor of atheism or theism, science can’t acknowledge something for which there is little or no empirical evidence.

  9. Stephen C. @ January 19, 2022 at 2:26 pm

    “If in the next century or so we do find that microbiotic life is plentiful in the universe that would be evidence that abiogenesis is easier than it seems.”

    Depending on what this microbiotic life looks like that may just be evidence that God seeds life far and wide.

  10. Nice post, Stephen–well written.

    I’m no scientist–but it seems to me (according to my limited understanding) that evolutionary theory has become much less random over the last while than it used be. It seems like the cosmic constants and other forces–in the domain of physics–play a major role in shaping and channeling evolutionary pathways–and I’m of the opinion that we may yet discover even more “constraints” that will account for the development of something so complex as the cell.

    The human body is an unbelievably complex multicellular organism that has left enough breadcrumbs along its evolutionary pathway for us to get a sense of its development over time and how both cosmic and local channeling forces have influenced said development. My sense is the same could very well be true of the cell–that is, we may yet discover its breadcrumbs though at present they’re too small to detect.

    That said, at this point (in my uneducated ruminations on the subject) I’m content–for now–to assume that the development of the cell was half the battle for evolution–with the development of complex multicellular organisms being the second half.


    Latter-day Saints don’t seem to have too much difficulty accepting the broad expanse of space. But even so, we might ask ourselves, for the sake of argument, why God would design a universe that seems–on its face–to be rather wasteful in terms of space and material. Well, of course, most of the Lord’s modus operandi is a mystery to us. But that’s not to say that it’s impossible to learn anything about his MO by observing his Creation. I believe that great purpose and meaning can be discovered — about God and his way of doing things — when we allow the truths of science to inform our religious sensibilities.

    And that brings me to the point I want to make: I think the same argument can be made for the seemingly wasteful use of *time* as well as space and material in the Lord’s creations. How might our study of the known universe, including life on earth, and the immense amount of time required to bring about its development inform our understanding of the Lord’s character and kingdom?

  11. Old man,
    There actually is a plethora amount of empirical evidence for intelligent design. The very workings of every biologic organism on the planet is a system and organized material of extreme intelligent design. Wjen we observecany of these organisms we conclude that it’s intelligent design is the product of the intelligent design that preceded it. Science has every right to conclude that things that are composed of intelligent designs are made from intelligent designs/plans preceding it. Science even goes so far to theorize that life on this planet may have come from another place in the universe that got transplanted here somehow. They absolutely will refuse to believe that came by an intelligent person because it would infer God. They can’t do that, they are atheists!

  12. One nit to pick — I see some people talking about “guided evolution” — usually this is what we mean we say that “God used evolution to create man and the current varieties of plant and animal life, and, of course, I see people using the term “intelligent design”. I have not found any real consensus on whether the two terms are the same or different, but I find that it is easier for me to understand how I view the issue by drawing a clear distinction between intelligent design and guided evolution (even if evidence of said guidance is not present in the fossil record).

    As for the OP’s question on abiogenesis, I concur. It seems that modern scientific theories do not really have a working theory or hypothesis about how we get from no life to a self-replicating “life form”. I hesitate to simply insert God here, because we have a long history of putting “God in the gaps” and then later figuring out how naturalistic processes can fill those gaps. It often seems that our attempts to put God into this gap feels something like “a naturally occurring intelligence (inside the universe??) takes naturally occurring “life seeds” inside the universe and does something to generate the first life.” Because these are “naturally occurring” we end up simply pushing the problem of abiogenesis back in time and/or out into space, but do not really answer the question. My preference is to hypothesize that the intelligence is outside of the universe (I’m not sure what “naturally occurring” means for something outside the universe), but then I run into real trouble trying to understand what evidence such a being would leave on the universe when he/she/it/they interact with the universe (how does an observer in the snow globe know that a super being outside the snow globe shook his universe?). At that point, I devolve into something that can no longer use language coherently and start babbling.

    My 2 cents worth, and 2 cents is probably a lot more than it is really worth.

  13. I think that’s a good nit to pick, MrShorty. I don’t really favor the kind of “intelligent design” we see coming from Michael Behe and his ilk–though I laud them for their zeal and courage in defending that which they sincerely believe to be true. But I do favor something akin to “guided evolution.” Though, I prefer to view the process more in terms of being *inevitable* rather than guided. But in saying that, I don’t mean to suggest that Deity merely wound up the cosmos and let it go. I believe that God is both distant *and* intimate. Distant–in the sense that he’s not easily found through the instrumentality of science or other materialistic means. And intimate–in that he permeates all of creation; he is the light that giveth life to all things.

  14. @MrShorty

    To reiterate a point made on the consciousness post: yes we should avoid God of the gaps, but still, that’s a pretty big, fundamental gap.

    I do wonder (sincerely, I’m not making a rhetorical point): after, say, 100 years of cutting edge origins of life research, at what point is the gap here to stay? We’ve gone about as far as we can with making airplanes more efficient, what if, after an AI revolution and all that, we’re still on step 5 of a 100 step process to explain how a cell can form abiotically? Again, I am curious as to whether the creeping realization that the gap is here to stay will lead to further consideration of more esoteric possibilities like the cosmological monkeys on typewriters argument.

  15. Maybe after 100 years of research we will have finally crossed the broad threshold of the Millennium–and then our knowledge will really skyrocket. :D

  16. One thing fundamentally lost in our day is that we have removed ourselves so far from godliness that we no longer view nature, and the cosmos as testifying of the reality of God. We have gone completely opposite in now saying nothing testifies of God- that it’s not possible to see the Creator’s signature in anything. We are like those poor frogs in the boiling pot!

  17. “I like the monkey typing analogy because it also proves it is absolutely impossible for monkeys randomly typing for eternity to ever produce anything but gibberish.”

    This is not at all how the science of evolution works, so this analogy is not analogous.

  18. The theory of abiogenesis is very analogous to the infinite monkey typing analogy as scientists do indeed calculate the odds of life arising from nonliving matter. The odds are incredibly steep and thus it is analogous to monkeys randomly typing Shakespeare.

    Scientists have devised myriads of hypothesis and done tests to try to simulate lufe first evolving. The best minds have spent the better part of a century trying to unlock this mystery and really haven’t gotten anywhere. To date, no lab tests have yielded anything substantial. We know a lot about DNA and amino acid chains now but all this shows is that life indeed is fundamentally complex at its simplest level. We jave found that DNA is a very complex intelligent blueprint. It’s a code for replicating intelligent life.

    If we logically think about it- why should chemicals, by themselves, self assemble into a complex blueprint that creates self replicating cells and chains together to create a self sustaining, repairing, replicating entity capable of self awareness, thought, problem solving, feelings? The very laws of chemistry and physics do not self assemble ever to create new intelligent information. It’s never been observed, never documented, never proven.

    Thus, one would have better odds of an infinite amount of monkeys typing the complete works of Shakespeare.

    It’s why in the Book of Mormon we read that “all things denote there is a God”. For without God, there is nothing.

  19. People interested in this topic would likely benefit considerably from reading Stephen C. Meyer. His most recent book is compelling–Return of the God Hypothesis–though his earlier ones are, too. He’s a scientist and he frames is argument in science.

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