Saturday, December 25, 2010

Finding Life

Evolution really is one of the greatest things human beings ever came up with.

It, quite neatly, answers many of the questions people for thousands of years used God for, so neatly that, for people like Richard Dawkins, God has become quite unnecessary.

Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist.  I consider myself an evolutionist, although not nearly as well studied as Dawkins.

While evolution does a great job at explaining the breadth and depth and diversity of life on earth in a way that makes God quite unnecessary, there is an important step that both Dawkins and Darwin rarely ever mention, a step so important that it threatens to bring God back into the equation, that is: once you have a genome evolution explains it all, but how do you get a genome?  How do you get life from non-life?

There are a number of theories on this, but if you're dealing with an honest scientist he'll admit none of them are quite complete and have a number of short comings, among them are:

Whatever theory you have on the origin of life, they all lack evidence.  While we have evidence for any number of, what we consider, very primitive life forms, they're still life forms, we don't have any fossil or contemporary evidence explaining how they came from lifeless chemicals.

Similarly, and most confoundedly, whatever caused life to come from non-life, it seems to have stopped happening.  If it were a natural process, you'd think we could witness it happening even now, but we don't.

There have been a number of, what were thought at the time, very likely candidates, but they all proved insufficient.

One was lightning.  During the electric age of Tesla and Edison, many scientists believed life arose from lighting striking the ocean, and indeed lighting on water does some very remarkable things to the chemistry of the water, but it doesn't produce life.

Another likely, more recent, candidate was the volcanic vents at the bottom of the ocean.  These were very promising because the local chemistry and the temperature and the water pressure produced something very like amino acids, and amino acids are the building blocks of the genome. 

The phenomenon was studied closely for almost fifty years, but there was a problem, creating chemicals very like amino acids was as close as it got, there were no further developments after that, no chain leading to life.  If life once came from these deep-water volcanic vents, it's not happening now.

Even more recently, a tantalizing meteorite from Mars revealed evidence for what might have been genetic material within it.  Perhaps we don't see evidence for the beginning of life here on Earth because it didn't happen on Earth, it came here from outer space.  Perhaps life was seeded  here, accidentally by natural forces or intentionally by intelligent extra terrestrial beings.

That's still not an answer though, it just moves the question of how life began from here to Mars.  Whatever it was must have happened there.

Until we can answer the question of how life arose from non-life, it might be premature to dismiss the concept of a creator God.  Many scientists, like Dawkins, would answer me saying, science may not have these answers now, but they have complete faith it will develop them.  I would argue, that this faith in science answering all questions is not all-together different from religious people who believe God will one day answer all questions.  Perhaps it will, but don't count your chickens before they're hatched.

The story in Genesis of God creating life from dust is unlikely in the highest degree, but, for the moment, it comes as close to an explanation as science does.  Perhaps the Genesis story works, not as a scientific delineation for creating life (which bronze age people lacked the ability to understand anyway) but a metaphoric explanation meant for the ages.

We know that life came from dust or water or mud or some simple lifeless matter, but we don't know how.  Perhaps calling the process, whatever it is, the breath of God is as close as we're going to get for a while, and even when we do one day know how it happened, can you really say it wasn't the hand of God doing it?

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