Musings of the ASA Director Emeritus
Blog Home All Blogs
Search all posts for:   


View all (52) posts »

Theistic Evolution: The Origin of Life

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Tuesday, January 9, 2018

In the middle of the first nine chapters of the scientific critique, the editors inserted chapter 4 by chemist Jim Tour. Tour is a distinguished chemist at Rice University who has done outstanding work in manipulating and designing molecular scale mechanical devices such as cars and trucks, thereby elucidating many issues of quantum chemistry.

In his introduction to the book, Stephen Meyer includes this note:

We should make clear, in introducing his chapter, that Tour does not regard himself as a partisan to the debate over theistic evolution, one way or another. He has, nevertheless, kindly given us permission to publish an abridged version of a previously published essay in order to make more widely known the scientific problems associated with chemical evolutionary theory—in particular, its lack of any demonstrated mechanism for generating the molecular machinery necessary to the first life. (p. 51)

In my opinion, this disclaimer should have been repeated in the chapter itself and not just buried in the general introduction. In any case, Tour has allowed his essay to be used as an argument in this book. His view that there is no known mechanism for the origin of life is well known and, as far as I know, has universal agreement in the scientific community.

The quest to understand the origin of life, aka chemical evolution, is an unrelenting search for knowledge which most scientists agree may never be fully satisfied. At most, say active researchers in the field of origin of life, we might be able to discern a possible way in which life could have arisen.

The lack of a scientific explanation for chemical evolution is often raised in debates about biological evolution. Many times during a discussion of biological evolution, a critic will cry out “But where did the first organism come from?” And since there is no scientific answer, the scientific part of the debate is over. I would suggest that the lack of a scientific solution to the problem of chemical evolution has no bearing on the validity of the theory of evolution. Darwin’s concluding sentence in The Origin of Species clarifies his starting point:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

In editions 2 through 6 he inserted the words “by the Creator” after “breathed” though later he expressed regret at having used the term Creator. Nevertheless, his starting point is clear. His theory starts with the existence of one or a few initial life forms, and presumably a large population of that form. That is, the theory of evolution is independent of how those initial life forms came to be. Biological evolution is independent of chemical evolution. Theistic evolution deals with the biological theory of evolution and the presence of Chapter 4 in this book is somewhat of an anomaly.

The question of the origin of life does raise an important metaphysical issue. The key issue is the implication of the lack of a scientific explanation. There are generally three possibilities for the absence of a scientific explanation:

1.       More time and research is necessary to obtain the solution

2.       The solution cannot be attained because the necessary information is forever lost

3.       The solution does not exist because there was a unique cause and effect which cannot be repeated (e.g., a miracle)

It is not unusual for people to quickly assume a miracle when no scientific solution is at hand. Unfortunately, one cannot distinguish among the above three possibilities scientifically until a solution is found which affirms that the answer had been the first one. No scientific information can be obtained to distinguish between #2 or #3. For this reason, the current lack of a scientific explanation for the origin of life does not enable us to determine which of these three possibilities is correct. A discussion of chemical evolution is of little value in a debate on biological evolution. Debates may flourish about whether or not a scientific solution is possible but they cannot be settled scientifically unless and until such a solution is found.

Tags:  theistic evolution 

Share |
Permalink | Comments (1)

Comments on this post...

Craig M. Story says...
Posted Tuesday, January 9, 2018
Well said Randy. Of course, biological evolution of life forms, say, starting with bacteria (or mega-viruses?) through mammals once was firmly in the same logical 1-2-3 situation you describe above. And while many details are not fully known, the scientific community has overwhelmingly agreed that the system of nucleic acid-encoding is abundantly capable of providing the descent with modification necessary for change to happen, given the right selective pressures and time. We still have trouble intuitively grasping a lot of what goes on in biology, but our limitations do not mean the system itself is limited or lacking in capability. As Christians, we can appreciate the amazing freedom the Creator granted to the creation. Rather than "simply" form everything one at a time by a miracle at some time in the past, we have a world that is still unfolding and being created. God is doing it in a way we would never expect, just like nobody expected the savior to come to die. God always surprises.
Permalink to this Comment }