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Biological Chemistry

In the beginning

March 28, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 94, Issue 13

Celia Henry Arnaud’s article on life’s origin titled “With Protocells, Scientists Probe the Chemistry that Started Biology” (C&EN, Feb. 29, page 20) gives a speculative view of how life might have started naturalistically. Not surprisingly, there are several “mights” in the article: “Chemical mixtures ... might have formed,” “cells might have formed,” “something we might recognize as an early cell,” and “protocells might not have needed membranes.” The list of “mights” adds up to a scenario that is full of imagination but short on probability and evidence.

Arnaud lists three features that are needed for life. The first is the “storage of information (including the instructions for self-replication).” Information and instructions are nonmaterial entities, and there is no evidence that such entities can form naturalistically. A source of intelligence (a mind) is needed to produce the genetic code.

The second is “metabolism,” which involves numerous multistep processes requiring specified biomolecules of high complexity. Again, intelligence is required to set up the metabolic pathways.

The third is “Darwinian evolution”—that is, random DNA mutations accompanied by natural selection. “Neo-Darwinism” or the “modern synthesis” has been discredited for many years and is not believed to play an important role in change over time. Biologists are still looking for viable naturalistic mechanisms for macroevolution.

Arnaud’s article only considers materialistic processes, so she and the scientists she quotes wouldn’t recognize an intelligent source for the origin of life—even if it stared them in the face (which, in fact, it does). You’re never going to solve the mystery of life’s origin if you look in the wrong places.

The last sentence is revealing: “We’re not going to prove that life originated in a certain way but that, given some conditions, we don’t need a miracle.” Actually the evidence indicates that you do need a “miracle”—that is, intervention by an intelligent agent. Naturalistic mechanisms alone just aren’t up to the task.

Robert Lattimer
Stow, Ohio



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