Darwin and the Origin of Life

Darwinian evolution and origin of life 

Did Darwin explain how life came into existence?  

Darwin’s theory of evolution explains how species of organisms arise and develop through natural selection and, later proposed by Neo-Darwinists, random mutation. These mutations occur during reproduction of new offspring. The theory of evolution therefore deals with how life developed into multiple forms and species, not how life originated in the first place, or defining what life is. Even with the assumption that all creatures are descendants from a single common ancestor, that first living organism couldn’t be developed through biological evolution because biological evolution requires reproduction. 

Darwin himself avoided discussing the origin of life. 

  • in the 1861, in the 3rd edition of The Origin of Species, he stated that «…it is no valid objection that science as yet throws no light on the far higher problem of the essence or origin of life» 
  • in a letter he sent to his close friend Joseph Dalton Hooker on March 29, 1863, he wrote that «…it is mere rubbish thinking, at present, of origin of life; one might as well think of origin of matter» 

So if Evolution’s mechanisms like random mutation and natural selection are not applicable when it comes to the origin of life, what should be?  

Abiogenesis 

Abiogenesis is defined as the origin of life from nonliving matter. 

To construct any convincing theory about abiogenesis, we must take into account the condition of the Earth about 4 billion years ago. Abiogenesis takes place before biology and before biological evolution can begin, hence it is prebiotic or pre-biology. The attempts to explain abiogenesis rely purely on chemistry and physics. However in reality, molecules and chemistry don’t care about life. Molecules have never demonstrated to evolve towards life. 

The main assumption by scientists in explaining abiogenesis is the possibility of matter to self-assemble, and self-replicate, given a long time horizon. This assumption tries to eliminate any source for the non-materialistic information within life and biology. However, and after so many years using the latest advanced technology, trying to explain abiogenesis using chemistry and physics alone has not been successful.  Attempts to create a living cell using perfect lab conditions have failed so far. Needless to say, it has never been observed in nature that a living thing can evolve from non-living matter. 

Summary 

  • Darwin’s theory of evolution and biological evolution in general has nothing to do with explaining the origin of life 
  • Origin of life is prebiotic, before biology, so it’s pure Chemistry (for the material aspect) 
  • Chemistry of life is very hard to figure out 
  • For non-materialistic aspects like information coding within the living organisms, there’s almost nothing to explain how information can evolve on its own from chemistry. 

References: 

1 Charles Darwin and the Origin of Life (nih.gov) 

2 Make a cell, win the Nobel! / Dr Tour critiques current life research – YouTube 

Is Evolution a Theory or a Hypothesis?

Many scientists insist that Evolution is a theory similar to the relativity theory. However, when we consider the criteria for a scientific theory, and how Evolution measures against it, we come to the conclusion that Evolution, in the wider definition of neo-Darwinism that all living creatures came from a common ancestor, is drawing unjustified inference from the observed data.   

The difference between a scientific theory and a hypothesis is that a theory must satisfy six criteria

  • Observability 
  • Experimentation and testing 
  • Ability to explain past events (retrodictions) 
  • Ability to make predictions  
  • Consistency with other scientific theories 
  • Falsifiability and correctability, i.e., there must be possible or theoretical situations in which the theory would be invalid. It should also change in light of new data 

If we compare the Relativity Theory to Evolution along the criteria above, we can assess if Evolution satisfies the conditions of being a scientific theory in the same way that the Relativity Theory does. In this article, we will discuss why Evolution is a hypothesis and not a scientific theory despite what many scientists claim.  

Observability Criterion: Evolution hasn’t been observed 

Evolution has never been observed in action. All observations that the “theory” relies on are either mutations that never led to observable speciation events beyond single cell organisms, or historical phenomena that can also be used to prove Intelligent Design (more elaboration here). However, let’s discuss in detail some of the observations that are used to prove Evolution: 

  1. Comparative anatomy: the study of differences and similarities between living things 
  1. Embryology and development: how creatures develop before being born or hatching from an egg 
  1. Fossil record 
  1. DNA similarities: the molecules that carry the codes that determine the characteristics of living things (e.g. eye color, height, …etc.) 
  1. Vestigial organs 
  1. Mutations: random changes in genes during some transitions such as replication 

The first four categories of observations are not observations of Evolution in action. They are historical information which have been inferred in ways to support Evolution. However, the same observations can support Intelligent Design as well (more elaboration here). Some of the inference from observations is even “bent” to support Evolution, such as the claim that two chromosomes in chimpanzees fused together in humans (read more here

The fifth evidence, from mutations, is observable, but it doesn’t support evolution in the wider sense that all living creatures come from a common ancestor. Mutations are changes in the genetic code of the cells that compose our body. However, it is the accumulation of mutations through a sufficient amount of time – millions of years – that leads to the conclusion that variations in all living creatures come from mutations and are filtered by natural selection. This claim however is an extrapolation and never tested or observed. While mutations do occur, the extrapolations that these mutations accumulated to change a fish to an amphibian or create a new functioning organ within the same species are just merely extrapolations that were never observed in life or in labs.  

Experimentation Criterion: Evolution hasn’t been repeatedly experimented and tested 

The present-day scientific community claims to have proven Evolution through experimentation. However, these experiments fall into one of three categories: selective breeding, lab-controlled experiments of mutations/adaptations, and computer simulations. None of these three categories of experimentation has demonstrated a creation of a new organ or transition from amphibians to reptiles or mammals, etc.  

In lab experiments, only mutations have been observed. These mutations are mostly neutral or harmful. No positive mutations have ever been demonstrated — adaptations to antibiotics or herbicides are equivalent to immunological adaptation to diseases. In the case of bacteria adapting to antibiotics, it’s attributed to bacteria’s ability to exchange genetic material through the sharing of circular DNA called plasmids in a process referred to as “horizontal gene transfer”.  

Retrodiction Criterion: Evolution fails to explain several past events (retrodictions) 

There are several observable phenomena that evolution fails to explain such as: 

  1. How acquired beneficial mutations pass on to the descendants. For a mutation to stay in a population it has to be transferred to the offspring. It is easy in single-celled organisms, but not for higher organisms where germ cells are separated early during embryogenesis and there is no further communication between somatic cells and germ cells during an individual’s life (in higher organisms, we have to talk about individuals rather than populations). The only way this can happen is if the mutation is acquired in a fertilized egg or an early embryo; but in that case how can it be a mutation in response to the external environment? the environment in this case would be the parent organism (temperature of the parent, the nutrients that the parent absorbs from the food it eats, etc). The only answer neo-Darwinists give to that idea is “horizontal gene transfer” which is again clear and documented in single-celled bacteria, but not for higher organisms. 
  1. Fossil record. According to Darwin and later Dawkins, evolution has to be gradual. The core prediction of Darwin’s theory of evolution is gradualism, which means that all the transitional changes in the history of life are not supposed to have happened as sudden big changes, but by a continuous accumulation of small changes over vast periods of time. Therefore, he mentioned not fewer than six times in his magnum opus On the Origin of Species the Latin phrase Natura non facit saltus, which means that nature does not make jumps. This claim is still made by Darwinians today. The most well-known modern popularizer of Darwinism, the infamous atheist Richard Dawkins, wrote in his 2009 bestselling book The Greatest Show on Earth the following remarkable statement: “Evolution not only is a gradual process as a matter of fact; it has to be gradual if it is to do any explanatory work.” This shows that gradualism is not just one optional element of Darwinism, but that it is very much essential for its success as a naturalistic explanation for the complexity and diversity of life. If gradualism is wrong, then Darwinism is refuted.  

However, the fossil record is highly discontinuous and strongly contradicts Darwin’s prediction of gradualism. Darwin was quite aware of this problem for his theory and therefore tried to explain it away as a mere artifact of undersampling a very incomplete fossil record. However, such appeals to the incompleteness of the fossil record are no longer tenable. Intelligent Design theorist and philosopher of science Paul Nelson cogently explained why: Imagine you have a new hobby, beachcombing. Every day you walk along the shore and collect what the tide washes in. In the beginning you are surprised each day by new discoveries — shells of new types of snails and mussels, starfish, sand dollars, driftwood, etc. But after a while you are finding mostly the same stuff over and over again, and you must be lucky to find something new that you have not seen before (like a stranded whale or a message in a bottle). When you have reached this point of mostly repetition, then you know that you have sampled enough to be sure that you have not missed much that is out there to find. 

The same approach is used by paleontologists for a statistical test of the completeness of the fossil record; it is called the collector’s curve. In most groups of fossils, we have reached this point of demonstrable saturation, where we can be pretty confident that the distinct discontinuities that we find are data to be explained and not just sampling artifacts. There is another reason why we know this: If the gaps and discontinuities in the fossil record were just artifacts, they should more and more dissolve with our greatly increasing knowledge of the fossil record. But the opposite is the case. The more we know, the more acute these problems have become. “Darwin’s doubt” did not get smaller over time but bigger, and if he were still alive, he might likely agree that the evidence simply does not add up, since he was much more prudent than many of his modern followers. 

For example, the Cambrian Explosion, which is the unparalleled emergence of organisms between 541 million and approximately 530 million years ago at the beginning of the Cambrian Period, doesn’t support gradual evolution. It is an event that is similar to walking 80 yards of a 100 yard football field with bacteria, and then suddenly finding animals appearing altogether in the 81st yard. The event was characterized by the appearance of many of the major phyla (between 20 and 35) that make up modern animal life. Similarly, other evidence from the fossil record includes “explosions,” “jumps,” and “revolutions” in the history of life that cannot be explained given the assumption of Darwinian gradualism. The most popular fossil animals of all probably [are] dinosaurs. There was a paper a couple of years ago about the origin of dinosaurs in the Triassic. It was published in Nature Communications. Lead author Dr Massimo Bernardi, Curator at MUSE and Research associate at Bristol’s School of Earth Sciences, said: “it’s amazing how clear cut the change from ‘no dinosaurs’ to ‘all dinosaurs’ was.” 

Evolution fails to explain many more observations from the fossil record. For more on this, please watch this video and this video by Paleontologist Gunter Bechly. 

  1. Consciousness, morality, arts. Atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel has been a vocal critic of evolution in favor of a “Naturalistic Teleological” event. In his book, “Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False,” Nagel holds that evolution fails to explain the emergence of morality and consciousness. In fact, much of our modern day civilized morality goes against the morality necessary for survival. Nagel claims that the failure of a materialist reduction of mind to matter has implications for science in general, including natural selection. Since the brain does not adequately explain consciousness, neither can natural selection, even if it adequately explains the brain. The mind-body problem becomes the mind-evolution problem. Nagel supplements his argument from consciousness with two others, to the effect that natural selection is incompatible with the possibility of theoretical knowledge and the objectivity of ethical judgments. But he also more generally entertains the notion that natural selection is too implausible to explain much of anything. Nagel finds it “highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection.” He seems to doubt that there could be enough time in the world or available mutations to produce something as remarkable as a squirrel, much less human beings and consciousness. 
  1. Devolution of many organisms. While neo-darwinism is directionally agnostic by definition, it is mostly used to explain complexity but not necessarily the evolution of simple living things to more complicated ones. However, it has been exhibited that organisms are more likely to evolve into less complicated structures which is also compatible with the Second Law of Thermodynamics (entropy). For example, race formation (microevolution), which is not a small step in macroevolution because it is a step towards a reduction of genetic information and not towards its increase. In fact, decreasing complexity is common in the record of evolution. For example, the lower jaw in vertebrates shows decreasing complexity, as measured by the numbers of bones, from fish to reptiles to mammals. According to neo-darwinists, Evolution adapted the extra jaw bones into ear bones. Likewise, ancestral horses had several toes on each foot; modern horses have a single toe with a hoof, and four “vestigial” toes. 
  1. Impossibility of explaining the evolution family tree, based on genetics, and the convergence of anatomical structures in distant creatures within the family tree. Such convergence in anatomical structures  actually points to Intelligent Design. For example, a shark and a dolphin are distant from each other in the family tree. One is a fish and the other is a mammal. However, both are morphologically “similar” – both have fins but one is a fish the other is a mammal. Similarly, bats and birds have wings and are able to fly, yet are distant from each other in the evolution family tree. Over the past twenty-eight years, experimental evidence has revealed that family trees based on genetics are divergent. Just as troubling for the idea of macroevolution, family trees based on different molecules yield conflicting and contradictory family trees. As a 2012 paper published in Biological Reviews of the Cambridge Philosophical Society reported, “Incongruence between phylogenies derived from morphological versus molecular analyses, and between trees based on different subsets of molecular sequences has become pervasive as datasets have expanded rapidly in both characters and species” (read more here
  1. Archeological, palaeontological, and historical evidence that dinosaurs coexisted with humans. Most illustrations of dinosaurs are NOT reconstructions from the fossil record, they are based on actual drawings by ancient civilizations of dinosaurs. The Inca’s in Latin America, Cambodian’s in Asia, and Pharaohs in Egypt all drew dinosaurs, and sometimes dinosaurs eating humans or being chased by human hunters. Moreover, there is paleontological evidence supporting the recency of dinosaurs. Historical evidence includes Alexander the Great’s army encountering a dragon, and Marco Polo recording dragon dealings. Flavius Philostratus provided this sober account in the third century A.D.: 

The whole of India is girt with dragons of enormous size; for not only the marshes are full of them, but the mountains as well, and there is not a single ridge without one. Now the marsh kind are sluggish in their habits and are thirty cubits long, and they have no crest standing up on their heads. 

Pliny the Elder also referenced large dragons in India in his Natural History. More recently, historian Bill Cooper described many ancient news accounts of dinosaur encounters from England and Europe, which to this day contain place names that reference the dragons that were once there, like “Knucker’s Hole,” “Dragon-hoard,” and “Wormelow Tump.” 

  1. Mating in Bees. The behavior of worker casts, which are the female siblings of the queen bee, is hardly an example of the idea of the survival of the fittest that the “theory” of evolution rests on. The worker casts do not mate and, therefore, behave against their individual “fitness” for the sake of the species. 

Prediction Criterion: Evolution can’t make deterministic predictions 

In his 1838 Essay on Theology and Natural Selection, Darwin insisted that any good scientific explanation had to be capable of making predictions – which is precisely what led him to reject creationism in the first place. Since the will of God is not subject to any law, it is unpredictable. For this reason, Darwin regarded theological explanations of biological diversity as scientifically useless. What’s more, Darwin believed that any explanation of a phenomenon in terms of physical laws had to be a deterministic explanation: as he put it in his Autobiography, “Everything in nature is the result of fixed laws.” (Page 87, Nora Barlow’s 1958 edition. For Darwin, the course of evolution was not only fixed by deterministic laws; it was also predictable, at least in its broad outline. Darwin maintained that over the course of time, evolution tended to produce organisms that were more and more complex, in the degree of specialization of their body parts. In the concluding chapter to The Origin of Species, he argued that the evolution of life, viewed as a whole, was guaranteed by the laws of Nature to progress ever upward, and that the evolution of the “higher animals” was the inevitable outcome of simple biological laws: 

“And as natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection. It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows.” 

(1st edition, 1859, Chapter XIV, pp. 489-490.) 

One example of the failure of neo-Darwinism to make the correct predictions is in malaria. With its billions of microbes living within billions of hosts, malaria offers abundant opportunities to test neo-Darwinism. The emergence of resistance to a drug that requires one mutation can be expected to occur regularly. Resistance that requires two coordinated mutations takes much longer. Three coordinated mutations, however, are so improbable as to never occur.  

Since chloroquine resistance requires two mutations, it does occur from time to time. Beyond that, a drug will be past the edge of evolution. Like a soldier reaching safety beyond a mine field, a drug requiring three or more coordinated mutations will likely be immune from the emergence of resistance. 

Running the infected cells through a flow cytometer, they could then use single-cell sequencing to look for new mutations. What they found did not fit neo-Darwinian predictions. Ian Cheeseman, co-leader of the study, explains: 

“We would expect these brand-new mutations to be scattered randomly throughout the genome,” Cheeseman says. “Instead, we find they are often targeting a gene family that controls transcription in malaria.” 

But that’s not the only notable thing about the results. What really excites Cheeseman is that when the team compared single cell sequencing data for P. vivax and P. falciparum, the same transcription gene family contained the majority of new mutations for both species. 

Mutations are supposed to be random. They should occur anywhere in the genome. Why are the majority of new mutations appearing in a gene family that controls transcription? Why are they appearing in two species not in contact with each other?  

Astute readers should take note that sounding excited is a coping mechanism for evolutionary biologists when findings don’t match expectations. 

Whatever is going on, it doesn’t look like random variation that Darwin expected to be the feedstock of natural selection. And the mention of plural mutations looks like what is happening is beyond the edge of evolution. If coordinated mutations in one species are improbable, how does it help to posit similar coordinated mutations in two species? 

If indeed the findings point to a non-random process at work, this would indicate foresight, a hallmark of a designing mind. Designing a cell that can recognize and respond to unforeseen threats requires good engineering. Whether malaria was designed to cause harm originally or devolved into what it is now is more a philosophical or theological issue, but findings from design-based research in this situation could help all microbiologists. It could begin to nudge them away from the default appeals to neo-Darwinism and convergence, and start them thinking about how an engineer would design cells for robustness in a dynamic world. 

Consistency Criterion: Evolution is not consistent with other scientific theories 

Among the most vocal critics of evolution are scientists from different fields, specifically mathematics and physics. Some of the theories that evolution is not consistent with are: 

  1. Second law of thermodynamics (increasing entropy). The supposed evolutionary process breaks the most universal and best-proved law of physics, the law of increasing entropy, known as the second law of thermodynamics. It applies not only in physical and chemical systems, but also in biological and geological systems, in fact all systems, without exception. The law stipulates that all systems tend to lose order. They go towards disorganization and loss of complexity. The law of increasing entropy therefore precludes evolution, because all evolutionary systems are expected to increase in order and complexity. Physicists E.H. Lieb and Jacob Yngvason explain: “No exception to the second law of thermodynamics has ever been found, not even a tiny one. Like conservation of energy [the `first law’], the existence of a law so precise and so independent of details of models must have a logical foundation that is independent of the fact that matter is composed of interacting particles” (“A Fresh Look at Entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics”, Physics Today, vol 53, April 2000, p32). A neo-Darwinist might object that with the help of external energy, systems can defy entropy. For example, sunlight enables plants to make photosynthesis. While this is true, photosynthesis itself is not proven to be the result of a random mutation. It seems infinitely more likely to be intelligently designed. 
  1. Probability theory. What is the probability of an average-size protein occurring naturally? Walter Bradley, PhD, materials science, and Charles Thaxton, PhD, chemistry, calculated that the probability of amino acids forming into a protein is: 

4.9 x 10-191 

This is way lower than the approximate value of ZERO probability (1×10-50), and a protein is not even close to becoming a complete living cell. Sir Fred Hoyle, PhD, astronomy, and Chandra Wickramasinghe, professor of applied math and astronomy, calculated that the probability of getting a cell by naturalistic processes is: 

1 x 10-40,000 

No matter how large the environment one considers, life cannot have had a random beginning. . . . There are about two thousand enzymes, and the chance of obtaining them all in a random trial is only one part in 1020×2000 = 2040,000, an outrageously small probability that could not be faced even if the whole universe consisted of organic soup 

Correctability Criterion: Neo-Darwinism hasn’t been corrected given new evidence against it 

Unfortunately many in the scientific community do not approach evolution in a scientific way. As much as they criticize scientists who support Intelligent Design for doing so out of religious biases, they fail to consider evidence incompatible with evolution to the extent that they have become invincible to scientific thinking itself. Reading through the reviews of one book by Atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel, who argued against evolution as an explanation for morality in his book “Mind and Cosmos”, it is astonishing to find the reviewers arguing that (1) even if the origin of life should prove to be a fantastically improbable event that would not be expected to happen even once in the entire history of the cosmos, (2) even if scientists are utterly unable to predict the general course of evolution, (3) even if all attempts to reduce the science of biology to physics and chemistry are doomed to failure, (4) even if it can be shown that we will never be able to explain consciousness in terms of physical processes, and (5) even if neo-Darwinism proves to be incompatible with the existence of objective moral truths, such as “killing people for fun is wrong,” they will still prefer Darwinism to any other account of origins, for to do otherwise is unscientific (please refer to this video for a discussion of whether Intelligent Design can be a valid scientific alternative to evolution). Has evolution become a religion, with the scientific community as its infallible Pope? It is not unknown that many of the intellectually honest scientists who dared to question evolution with scientific evidence have had their academic careers ruined, and their research defunded.  

We keep on searching for natural explanations of everything in nature. If we have no explanations we should say so, and not claim that an unproven hypothesis is a scientific theory. After all, if religion is a culture of faith, science is a culture of doubt.