One of the major lines of demarcation and a constant source of disagreement between theists and atheists is that of Life. Primarily human life, but in general, all life. How did living things get their beginnings, how did we come about as a result of creation? It’s one of the great mysteries of…ummm…life. How life began.
And of course, most theists believe that life began when their particular god created them. Christians believe the story in the Bible about Adam and Eve, either literally or figuratively. In either case, it’s a supernatural being that consciously and affirmatively decided to create that which we call life. Other religions have their own creation myths, but they all share a beginning story that attempts to explain how we got here.
Science actively seeks the answer to the question, while religion doesn’t bother looking, confident in the belief that it already has the answer. There are a few scientific theories about how life began, and of course the theory of evolution pretty much explains to most thinking adults how human life began. But given the fact (and it is a fact) that the first bits of life began billions of years ago on this planet (unless you ascribe to panspermia theories), it’s difficult to ascertain with any degree of certainty exactly how life began. We can’t go back that far in time and hope to find even a small part of the evidence for those first signs of life. Time has a way of destroying evidence, and evidence is the rock upon which science rests. But that doesn’t stop scientists from trying.
60 years ago the Miller-Urey experiment was able to substantiate one possibility, one hypothesis, by simulating the environment, the so-called “primordial soup”, that may have existed on primitive earth, in the process creating organic matter by adding a little energy.
And recently scientists at the University of York have shown how simple sugars, which are some of the building blocks of life, could have been originally created. In the cited article, the quote from one of the scientists struck me:
“There are a lot of fundamental questions about the origins of life and many people think they are questions about biology. But for life to have evolved, you have to have a moment when non-living things become living — everything up to that point is chemistry.
This strikes to the heart of the issues that divide Christians and non-Christians, theists and non-theists – the point where non-living matter becomes living, organic matter. The accepted understanding of the evidence is that the earth consisted of completely inorganic material up to a point when life began. – chemicals, essentially. “…Everything up to that point is chemistry.” After that, biology comes into existence, along with organic material, that which we call living things. Single cell organisms, RNA, multiple cell organisms, simple creatures,eventually plants and animals as we know them today, but evolved over a long period of time. All of them that originally arose from the primordial soup.
Perhaps our difficulty in coming to terms with the origins is life is that we have defined a bright line in time between life and non-life, and designated two scientific disciplines to study the two sides separately. Chemistry on one side, biology on the other. Perhaps that line is not so bright, that both chemistry and biology simply describe different aspects of the study of matter on what is essentially the same, single continuum. After all, all life is made up of chemicals. Are we not now discovering more and more of the chemical bases for all human functions, from mental disorders, to diseases? The entire pharmaceutical industry depends on the chemical assumptions for life.
More to the point, perhaps there is no single juncture where chemistry stops and biology begins. Maybe it’s all chemistry, and that what we call biology is simply the study of more complex areas of chemistry and chemical interactions. Perhaps our inability to come to grips with the origin of life is because we have defined ourselves into a box. We like to have holes to put our pegs into. In this case, life is a biological peg, and needs a biological hole, when perhaps it’s not. Perhaps it’s still a chemical peg, and we simply don’t fully understand the chemical processes that combine to provided the phenomenon we call life. These processes are so complex, and occur at such microscopic levels, that we may not have advanced enough in learning and knowledge to properly understand it. Instead of continuing to look for something that causes life, what we should be doing is attempting to understand why and how chemistry evolves in such a complex matter.
Stop calling it life, as if it’s something distinct from non-life. It’s not. Before the first single cell organisms came into existence, it was simple chemistry. Life is just complex chemistry.
If you accept the fact that chemistry explains simple chemical processes, then why doesn’t complex chemistry explain complex chemical processes? And if you accept the latter, then you don’t need a little bit of supernatural magic to create what we call life. No puff of divine breath, no wave of the magic wand, no removal of ribs from sleeping males. Just a whole lot of chemicals doing what chemicals do in accordance with the rules of chemistry.
I know this won’t sit well with people who want to believe they are somehow special, more special than a rock or a starfish or a monkey. They won’t abide the thought that we are explained by chemistry (as they pop their Prozac and Aspirin and Viagra and Vicodin), because they need to believe there is some purpose for their existence, that some conscious being made a conscious choice to create them, especially since they were not consulted in the decision making process. They can’t accept a possibility that life simply created itself, through predicable, albeit difficult to understand chemical processes.
Occam’s Razor says this is a far simpler explanation than the creation myths of religion(s). We know that chemical interactions can produce amazing processes, all naturally and predictably. We are learning every day how the chemical imbalances in our physical make up, in our brain, can affect our day-to-day existence. Why not this, rather than creation ex nihilo? At least chemical processes use existing materials and come from somewhere.
You can’t say that about