Posted by jlwile on February 26, 2011
Last year, I posted my take on Dr. Craig Venter’s amazing accomplishment in which he copied the genome of one bacterium and transplanted it into a different (but very similar) species of bacterium whose DNA had been removed. It was a marvel of biochemistry, but as I pointed out, it clearly demonstrates the impossibility of abiogenesis (the fantasy that life originated by natural processes). One commenter announced that my claim was bogus and undermined my credibility. He further said that the claim was “infantile and wrong on so many levels.”
Well, I guess there are now at least two PhD chemists whose credibilities have been undermined and who are “infantile and wrong on so many levels.” It turns out that Dr. Fazale Rana, a PhD chemist (with emphasis on biochemistry), also takes the same position in his book, Creating Life in the Lab. Indeed, the theme of the entire book is how modern developments in the attempt to make artificial life have conclusively demonstrated that life cannot the the product of strictly natural processes.
While the goal of Rana’s book is to survey all the different ways scientists are trying to produce life in the lab, he starts out his first discussion of actual laboratory results with Venter. This is probably because Venter has come the closest to producing artificial life. However, as I stated in my original post, Venter’s team had to rely on already-living cells no less than three separate times in order to produce their “synthetic” life form. As Dr. Rana states in his discussion of Venter’s results:
Though not their intention, Venter and his colleagues have provided empirical evidence that life’s components and, consequently, life itself must spring from the work of an intelligent Designer. (p. 46)
After discussing Venter’s work, Rana spends some time discussing other (less successful) approaches to making synthetic life. As a part of that discussion, he talks about DNA, and he makes this interesting point regarding any attempt to understand how the genetic code itself evolved:
Biophysicist Hubert Yockey determined that natural selection would have required exploration of 1.40×1070 different genetic codes to hit upon the universal genetic code found in nature. Yockey estimated 6.3×1015 seconds as the maximum time available for the code to originate. Natural selection would have had to “evaluate” roughly 1055 codes per second to find the code. (p. 68, emphasis his)
So even under the scientifically-irresponsible assumption of an old earth, there simply isn’t the time for the genetic code to have evolved.
Rana spends the majority of time in his book talking about the various means by which people have tried to imagine that life could have been formed by natural processes. As has been detailed in many other books, this area of research has met with nothing but miserable failure (see here and here, for example). In that sense, then, Rana covers very little new ground. However, he does bring up some good insights along the way.
Some of his most interesting comments are related to the various International Society for the Study of the Origin of Life (ISSOL) meetings he has attended over the years. For example, early in the discussion of how scientists have tried to recreate abiogenesis, he talks about the famous Miller-Urey experiment that showed some of the simplest biologically-relevant molecules could be produced from conditions similar to those thought present on the early earth. Later on, he talks about the chief scientist involved in those experiments (Stanely Miller) at the 2002 ISSOL meeting:
With Miller seated at the front of the room in the place reserved for his wheelchair, the conference chairman pointed out in his introductory remarks that Miller’s work could no longer be considered relevant. (p. 123)
While Rana talks about how heartrending that must have been for Miller, I immediately thought, “If the current origin-of-life community has known since 2002 that Miller’s work is not relevant to the origin of life, why does nearly every high school biology book still discuss it as if it is relevant?”
Another interesting report from the 2002 ISSOL conference continued Rana’s theme of how current origin-of-life research is simply confirming that life needs a designer:
I had the pleasure of attending [James] Ferris’s opening lecture…I was deeply impressed with the amount of work his group had done…During the question-and-answer session, Robert Shapiro, a well-known origin-of-life researcher in his own right…summarily dismissed decades of work, asserting that Ferris’s research efforts…had provided elegant proof of intelligent design. Shapiro’s comments were about as unwelcome as someone cursing out loud at a church service. (p. 155, emphasis mine)
Of course, Shapiro was right. Ferris’s lab has done incredible work related to whether or not clays could be involved in the origin of life, but all his systematic studies show is that even many of the basic chemicals of life can only be formed by forethought and design.
Probably the most powerful part of Rana’s book comes when he is discussing the problems that origin-of-life researchers have when trying to produce (from scratch) enzymes, which are proteins that act as catalysts, speeding up chemical reactions that would otherwise be too slow to support life. He first discusses all of the careful steps that must be followed in order to attempt to produce enzymes in the lab from scratch. Then, he discusses one of the “successful” projects, which managed to produce an enzyme that catalyzed a certain non-biological chemical reaction. He notes that after all the hard work and careful laboratory protocols:
…the enzyme operated with ten thousand to a billion times less efficiency than enzymes typically found in living systems…If it takes this much work and intellectual input to create a single enzyme from scratch, is it really reasonable to think that undirected evolutionary processes routinely accomplish this task? And with far superior capability each time an enzyme emerged in nature? (pp. 93-94)
Obviously, it is not. As Rana makes clear in his book, if modern origin-of-life research has taught us anything, it is that life cannot be the product of natural processes. It must have been designed.