|Feature Article - September 2005|
|by Do-While Jones|
The Origin of Life Foundation, Inc. is offering a one million dollar reward for anyone who can present a plausible, naturalistic explanation for how life began. In order to do that, one must know how to tell if something is alive or not.
Last month we rather carelessly said that the Origin of Life Foundation, Inc. did an excellent job of defining what life is. Upon further consideration we realize that isn’t precisely true. A proper definition of “what life is” probably should include some metaphysical and/or spiritual aspects which transcend science. What the Origin of Life Foundation, Inc. actually defined was a method for determining if something is alive or not. It defined the observable characteristics of life, rather than defining the essence of life. But, since we don’t want to get tangled up in faith-based arguments of what life is, this prescription of how to recognize life is really more useful to us than a definition of what life is.
Before [biochemist Gerald] Joyce shows off his experiments, I ask him a question that has been bothering me: "What does it mean to be alive?" Dressed in khaki pants and looking no older than his students, Joyce gets antsy as he tries to respond. "You can't put forward a firm scientific definition of life. It's a term that really only has popular meaning." Although scientists have offered many definitions of life, all fall short at some level. Some are so broad they encompass nonliving entities, such as fire or mineral crystals. Others are so narrow they disqualify mules, which are sterile. Joyce favors the definition of life as "a self-sustained chemical system capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution. 1
The simple definitions of life generally fail. If one says anything that grows is alive, then mineral crystals satisfy the definition. If life is just a self-sustaining chemical reaction, then fire is alive. Since mules don’t reproduce, they can’t undergo Darwinian evolution, so mules aren’t alive by Joyce’s self-serving definition, either.
As we have already said, the Foundation did an excellent job of describing the attributes of life, so, let’s examine the Foundation’s criteria for recognizing life. Their 9-point definition was surrounded by these statements:
By sustained, free-living "life," the Foundation means any system which from its own inherent set of biological instructions can perform all nine of the following functions:
[nine attributes of life listed here]
All classes of archaea, bacteria, and every other known free-living organism, meet all nine of the above criteria. Eliminate any one of the above nine requirements, and it remains to be demonstrated whether that system could remain "alive." 2
So, the Foundation says that if something exhibits only eight of their criteria, it may or may not be alive. Someone would have to come up with a compelling argument that something that didn’t meet all nine criteria could win their prize. It is apparently the consensus of the nearly 200 expert (evolutionist) judges that living things really need to meet all nine criteria.
We found the phrase “inherent set of biological instructions can perform” interesting. It casts living systems as biological computers. It implies that all living things must have the equivalent of memory and a central processing unit. In a moment, we will see that one of their nine required functions is input/output. Therefore, a living thing must be at least as complicated as the simplest computer.
Now let’s look at the nine functions in detail.
Alan Sherman wrote a parody of the song, “You Gotta Have Heart” called, “You Gotta Have Skin. The first two lines of that song were:
You Gotta Have Skin.
That’s the stuff that holds you in.
The Foundation makes skin (or, at least some kind of membrane) the first criteria.
1. Delineate itself from its environment through the production and maintenance of a membrane equivalent, most probably a rudimentary or quasi-active-transport membrane necessary for selective absorption of nutrients, excretion of wastes, and overcoming osmotic and toxic gradients, 3
This criterion actually encapsulates two different concepts. First, a living thing must be tangible. That is, it must have some physical boundary so that one must be able to tell what is inside it, and what is outside it. Fire fails this definition because, although you might be able to see the flame, it doesn’t really have a boundary wall. The flame just consists of gasses hot enough to glow. The same gasses surround the flame, but at a lower temperature, so they don’t glow. There is no change in substance, just in temperature.
The second, more important concept is input and output. Living things need to absorb nutrients and excrete waste. Since they need to exchange things with the outside world, one has to be able to differentiate “inside” from “outside”.
The thing that separates inside from outside is usually a membrane. They use the term “membrane equivalent” to allow for anything that acts like a membrane, keeping the things that need to stay in, in, and the things that need to go out, out.
Traditional cell membranes are remarkable things. They let in food, but keep poison out. They allow waste out while keeping everything else in. They protect the inside from things outside. So, we don’t even have to look inside the cell to see some remarkable complexity. All living cells are wrapped up in an ingenious covering.
2. Write, store, and pass along into progeny prescriptive information (instruction) needed for organization; provide instructions for energy derivation and for needed metabolite production and function; symbolically encode and communicate functional message through a transmission channel to a receiver/decoder/destination/effector mechanism; integrate past, present and future time into its biological prescriptive information (instruction) content, 4
In other words, there must be inheritance. When cells reproduce, the offspring need to inherit information. Or, expressed in engineering terms, the parent cell must be able to transmit information to the child cells, which must be able to understand that information and use it.
The information has to contain instructions for how to build all the necessary system components, how to put those components together properly, and how to harness energy to run the system.
Not only must the living cell understand the information, it must be able to perform what the instructions tell it to do.
3. Bring to pass the above recipe instructions into the production or acquisition of actual catalysts, coenzymes, cofactors, etc.; physically orchestrate the biochemical processes/pathways of metabolic reality; manufacture and maintain physical cellular architecture; establish and operate a semiotic system using "signal molecules" 5
I know how to hit a baseball out of Dodger Stadium. Just take a wooden bat and smack the baseball with the bat when the ball crosses the plate. But knowing what to do, and being able to do it, are two different things. I know how to hit a baseball out of Dodger Stadium, but I can’t do it.
Metabolism is a complex, coordinated process. Knowing the process is only part of the problem. The greater part of the problem is being able to perform the process. The cell must not only know to swing the bat—it has to have the muscle to hit the ball out of the park.
Living things have to work.
4. Capture, transduce, store, and call up energy for utilization (work), 6
Rocks roll downhill naturally. They don’t naturally roll uphill. It takes work to move them uphill. Metabolism is an uphill battle. It takes work to move the fuel and raw materials into the cell. It takes work to turn the raw materials into useful products. It takes work to move the waste products out through the membrane.
Therefore, a living cell has to have some mechanism for obtaining and using energy to do this work.
Animals obtain fats and sugars from some outside source, and then use oxygen to break the fats and sugars apart, releasing energy. Again, there are two parts to the problem. First, one needs the ability to release the energy. Second, one needs to be able to control the release of the energy. You may recall a scene in a movie where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid use “a little bit too much dynamite.” Great care has to be taken to make sure nuclear power plants don’t release all that nuclear energy at once.
The need for inheritance implies the act of reproduction, but the Foundation doesn’t want to leave anything to implication, so they specifically mention reproduction.
5. Actively self-replicate and eventually reproduce, not just passively polymerize or crystallize; pass along the apparatus and "know-how" for homeostatic metabolism and reproduction into progeny, 7
There is a difference between life and growth. Crystals grow, and stalactites grow, but these things aren’t alive. Even though things may gradually get bigger, that doesn’t mean that they are alive. Crystals are formed when atoms naturally fall into an arrangement that has lower energy. It is the same process that is responsible for the disclaimer, “some settling may occur,” on cereal boxes. Therefore, crystallization releases energy. On the contrary, life consumes energy.
6. Self-monitor and repair its constantly deteriorating physical matrix of bioinstruction retention/transmission, and of architecture, 8
Modern document copying machines make such good copies that it is hard to tell the copy from the original, but it wasn’t always so. In older copy machines it was easy to see that the copies had a few extra black smudges, and usually were missing some ink that should be there. When a copy of the copy was made, the second copy had all the smudges of the first copy, plus some more smudges. Reproduction mistakes accumulated with each copy.
When cells reproduce, the best that can happen is that the reproduction is an exact copy. If there is a reproduction error, that error will be propagated, and errors will gradually accumulate after many generations.
Living cells have the remarkable ability to detect and repair many reproduction errors. If they did not have that ability, so many reproduction errors would rapidly accumulate that the cell would quickly die.
Unfortunately, the ability to detect and repair reproduction errors isn’t perfect. We see the effects of aging in our older citizens. If cells did not have any self-monitor and repair capability, then we would all get old at a much younger age. If we all died of old age before reaching puberty, then the human race would go extinct.
7. Develop and grow from immaturity to reproductive maturity, 9
Right off hand, we can’t think of any living thing that is able to reproduce immediately after being born. Even single-celled animals which reproduce by dividing in half need time to get large enough to divide again.
Therefore, part of the information in the DNA (or equivalent) has to be a timeline for maturity. It has to tell the living thing how to grow enough to become strong enough to reproduce.
8. Productively react to environmental stimuli. Respond in an efficacious manner that is supportive of survival, development, growth, and reproduction, 10
Animals look for food. Houseflies try to avoid being swatted. Plants turn toward the sun to capture the most energy. Seeds respond to gravity, sending roots down and stems up. All living things are aware, in some sense, of the environment, and respond to it.
9. Possess relative genetic stability, yet sufficient diversity to allow for adaptation and potential evolution. 11
This is the really tough balancing act. Criterion 6 stressed the necessity to make faithful copies. The offspring have to be enough like the parent to function properly, but they also have to have the capability to be slightly different if necessary to survive.
Living things have “alleles.” Alleles are different variations of existing genes. The classic (admittedly oversimplified) example is that there are genes that contain instructions for creating eyes. But there are variations of these genes, so that some produce brown eyes and some produce blue eyes. That is, there are brown alleles and blue alleles of the eye genes. If there were some survival advantage associated with eye color, then natural selection would cause one color allele to become more frequent in the population, perhaps even to the total elimination of the less advantageous color.
This kind of variation is called “microevolution.” Microevolution is a real scientific process, which can (and should) be studied in a laboratory. No creationist organization that we are aware of disputes the reality of microevolution. No creationist organization that we are aware of protests the teaching of microevolution in public schools.
The disagreement is about “macroevolution,” which is an entirely different process. Macroevolution is not just a whole lot of microevolution building up over time. Microevolution is a process that involves the shuffling, and sometimes loss, of genetic information. Macroevolution would require the spontaneous generation of previously non-existent genetic information.
Natural selection can produce limited variation by selecting and combining the most advantageous existing characteristics. Natural selection cannot, however, invent entirely new characteristics from thin air.
Confusion arises because the term “evolution” is used for both microevolution and macroevolution. Evolutionists falsely claim that since microevolution has been proved to be true, macroevolution must be true as well.
The Prize has not yet been awarded, for good reason. There is no plausible naturalistic explanation for the origin of life.
Despite that, in public schools it is generally taught that chemicals, through some unknown but natural scientific process, assembled themselves into the first living cell. But nobody has ever proposed any natural process that would gather the required chemicals and cause them to combine properly. Experiments, such as the one done more than 50 years ago by Stanley Miller, have taught us why this can’t happen.
The popular fable about the origin of life never addresses the complex nature of life. The fable just claims that over hundreds of millions of years, reproduction errors somehow resulted in new genetic information that caused different populations to evolve into entirely different creatures.
The first living thing, from which all others evolved, had to have a discriminating membrane, transmit genetic information to its offspring, had to be able to process that information, had to acquire and use energy to process that information, had to reproduce, grow and repair itself when necessary, react to its surrounding, and adapt to its environment.
After careful consideration of the nine attributes of life, we can’t help but wonder, “Is life an act of genius or an act of chance?”
There are people with political and religious axes to grind who want to make sure students won’t think about this. That’s why high school students won’t be taught the nine attributes of life, and will be told that life is so simple that it just happens by chance. Ironically, the people who want to keep students ignorant about the complexity of life, do so in the name of “good science".
The more we learn about life, the clearer it becomes that science is against evolution.
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Richard Monastersky, National Geographic "The Rise of Life on Earth" March 1998 page 69
2 http://lifeorigin.org/rul_defi.htm (Ev)