MadSci Network: General Biology

Re: can life be created in the lab

Date: Sun Jan 4 18:41:44 2004
Posted By: Dave Williams, Science Department Chair, Valencia Community College
Area of science: General Biology
ID: 1072597167.Gb

To properly answer your question would require that I have more 
information about your education. You have had 12 years of 
elementary and high school and one year of college I presume. My 
question would be "Have you had any science courses?" Especially, 
"Have you had any biology courses?"

Also, I'm not at all sure what you mean by "the theory of religion's 
creation." There are many different religions and about as many 
creation stories. Given these qualifications, I'm afraid that my answer 
will have to be quite long. I hope you can bear with me.

Judging by your question, I would assume that you are stuck in the 
"proof" mode of thinking. This "proof" requirement is often used by 
opponents of science to discredit scientific ideas. For example, there 
is no proof that one type of extinct animal evolved into another type of 
extinct animal because no one was there to see it. I would counter 
this type of argument with the assertion that I am 100% sure that my 
mother's egg was fertilized by my father's sperm. By 'my mother' and 
'my father' I refer to my biological parents regardless of who I may 
think they are. But how can I make such a positive assertion if no one 
was there to see it? Are there alternative explanations? I suppose I 
could have been cloned in 1943 by some advanced biological 
technology as yet unheard of. Perhaps I was a product of a virgin 

Do you see what I mean? There are some things that we are sure of 
because the alternative explanations do not correspond to our 
perception of reality.

In order for science to work as a tool for gathering knowledge we 
must admit two assumptions. The first is the existence of an 
objective REALITY. By 'objective reality' I mean one that is 
independent of our perception.

At first glance this may seem like an odd requirement but this is only 
because you are probably not familiar with philosophy and, 
especially, epistemology. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy 
that deals with the nature of knowledge, its presuppositions and 
foundations, and its extent and validity (I got most of that from the 
American Heritage Dictionary). The point is that there are those who 
believe that our perception creates what we think of as reality, just as 
our brain alters and manipulates the image projected onto our retina 
to help make sense of what we "see." There are even those who will 
insist that reality itself, not only our perception of it, varies from person 
to person and from time to time.

It should be clear to you that to the extent that such suppositions are 
valid our ability to predict natural events is greatly diminished. In an 
extreme view, which I will here call relativism, science is basically no 
better than any other method of attaining knowledge about the 
universe, such as introspection or philosophy (both of which are 
probably involved in the conception of religious ideas).

But what is the evidence? What are the "facts?" Science has given us 
technologies that have enabled us to fight or cure disease, travel 
around the world in hours rather than years, communicate with 
friends on the other side of the Earth instantaneously, protect 
ourselves from the elements, and feed and clothe ourselves on an 
undreamed of scale. When it gets right down to the real nitty gritty 
most of us will go to a doctor or a hospital, not a church or philosophy 
lecture room when we are really sick or injured. We may pray for help 
but the bottom line is scientifically generated technology. So, to some 
extent, our perception of reality, at least our scientific one, must 
coincide with some aspects of the presumptive objective reality or 
science would not be so successful.

So, the first assumption of science is the existence of an objective 
reality. The purpose of science is to expose the core or bedrock of 
this reality in a way that is UNDISTORTED by our perception. Human 
perception is notably fallible. We are just coming to realize that 
eye-witness testimony is the worst of all kinds of evidence upon 
which to convict someone of a crime. The process of examining 
evidence and drawing valid conclusions, the subject of a 
philosophical discipline called logic, is loaded with pitfalls for the 
non-logician. Our brains are designed by a process of natural 
selection to jump to quick conclusions and believe them. Then, our 
brains become very resistant to change. To paraphrase Aristotle, the 
purpose of a good education is to enable one to entertain an idea 
without accepting it.

The rules and procedures of science (sometimes put into lists as 
"the scientific method) are mainly designed to avoid perceptual errors 
in our observation of the universe, be it the sub-units of a proton, the 
location of planets in another solar system or the probability of 
contracting cancer from second hand smoke. Properly speaking, 
science has no beliefs, only working explanations that are called 

Beliefs, in the biological sense of what that means to our minds, 
bring about stagnation because if we believe, we have no motivation 
to look for better ideas. This immutability of belief is the power base 
of authoritarian social systems like dictatorships and religions.

What I am saying here is that good scientists don't "believe in" their 
theories. They simply work with them until better explanations are 
found. A corollary to the first assumption of science, that there is an 
objective reality, is that it is POSSIBLE to know what it is.

As for the second assumption of science, it is simply that the 
universe is governed by discoverable laws that are themselves both 
a part of and the source of objective reality. Often this assumption is 
called universality. This is the idea that given similar conditions, 
things will behave in the same way. Anything else would be magic or 
miracles. I prefer to think of it as CONSISTENCY.

To sum up, to the extent that there is an knowable objective reality 
that operates consistently (no magic), a scientific view of the universe 
is feasible.

To get to your direct question, "how did [life] come to be 'in the 
beginning' of the creation of the earth," scientific ideas and theoretical 
explanations about this phenomenon are firmly grounded in 
observation, experimentation, and critical analysis. There is a 
significant amount of evidence to support the idea that essential 
molecules critical as building blocks of living cells will arise 
spontaneously under appropriate circumstances that may have been 
common during the early stages of Earth's history. There is a 
significant amount of evidence to support explanations involving the 
ability of many kinds of molecules to self-assemble and to 
self-replicate. The components of the cell membrane, the biological 
structure that marks the point of delineation between what is alive 
and what is not, can be induced to form sheets and spheres without 
direct human manipulation.

Estimates of the age of the Earth, determined by multiple, mutually 
supportive methods and agreed upon across scientific disciplines 
(physics, biology, chemistry, geology) put the origin of the Earth at 4.5 
billion years ago. To give you some feel for the enormity of such 
lengths of time, it would take you about a million years to count to 4.5 
billion if you counted 1 number per second.

Solid observational evidence has been gathered indicating that life 
was present on Earth as early as 3.5 billion years ago. If that life did 
not get there by processes consistent with objective reality, as we 
currently understand it, then there are at least two other optional 
explanations. It was a miracle (a notion that is not consistent with our 
current perception of reality) or the result of some natural process, 
one consistent with the bedrock of objective reality but that we have 
not yet properly perceived. This prediction highlights the corollary to 
the second assumption of science, consistency, which is 
SUFFICIENCY. Sufficiency is the idea that complete knowledge of a 
consistent, objective reality will ultimately explain everything and that 
no miracles or magic will have to be invoked as explanations.

In summary, the scientific theory of the origin of life predicts that life 
did not originate as the product of a miracle or magical event but was 
the product of natural processes. During unimaginable lengths of 
time, self-assembling, self-replicating molecules became 
encapsulated by membranes and began to function as 
self-perpetuating entities. If we are correct in our assumption of 
sufficiency, it should someday be possible to recreate this process in 
a laboratory setting. Such is not now the case.

As for the "theory of religion's creation," this is not a theory but a story. 
The story varies with the religion. Based on the way you posit this 
assertion, that there is a (as in one) religious "theory" of creation, and 
on your location (Canada), I will assume that your are coming from a 
Christian perspective.

The Christian story of creation is inherited from the Hebrew creation 
narrative as the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament of the 
Christian Bible. If you read it carefully, which, in my experience, few 
ever accomplish, you will find a number of surprises. Not the least of 
these is that there are two distinct, inconsistent accounts of the 
creation. Many read the first few chapters of the Book of Genesis and 
don't notice the transition. This was no doubt the case with the 
editors (scribes) who consolidated the biblical narratives in the 
seventh century B.C.E. The disjunction occurs in the second chapter 
between verse 3 and 4.

This particular story of creation, as is the case with the other creation 
narratives of the diverse cultures that populate the Earth, is not 
supported by evidence. It is, in fact, contradicted by a great force of 
evidence. It does not coincide with objective reality as we know it. It is 
riddled with vague references to things for which we have no 'proof' if 
you will. To believe such a story is a matter of faith. Faith, by definition, 
is belief that disregards the evidence.

To predict that living systems arose as a part of the natural 
processes that govern the universe is consistent with evidence. Such 
possibilities, which have only been under close scrutiny for about 50 
years in a few laboratories scattered over the world, are consistent 
with objective reality as we now understand it. In the short time that 
these investigations have been underway, we have seen the potential 
for spontaneous, autonomous origination (that is, following known 
laws of physics and chemistry) of phospholipid bilayers, DNA 
(deoxyribonucleic acid), RNA (ribonucleic acid), and proteins. Barring 
magic and miracles, the initial spontaneous, autonomous generation 
of living cells and the subsequent evolution of all existing earthly life 
from those initial forms is the most reasonable explanation we have 
for the organic diversity we see today.

I will end my answer with a quote from the second Judeo Christian 
creation story (Genesis 2:7) "And the LORD God formed man of the 
dust of the ground ... ." Bear in mind that the literal truth of this 
particular assertion is consistent with science.

I sincerely hope that my answer has helped to clear things up for you 
and moved you a bit further down the road on which you seem to 
have embarked. Good luck!

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