The Implications of the Hypothetical Discovery of Martian Life for Intelligent Design - Evolution News & Views

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The Implications of the Hypothetical Discovery of Martian Life for Intelligent Design

I recently received an e-mail asking about the most recent Mars lander (Phoenix) and the implications for intelligent design (ID) if amino acids, proteins, or life were found on Mars. The person asked, "would this not mean that Neo darwinism is correct and that life occurs if you 'just add water'?" I've posted a modified version of my reply to this person's question below:

These are complex questions you ask, but a scientific "conclusion" is only as good as the starting assumptions that underlie the scientific reasoning involved in making that conclusion. Now I am all for searching out the universe to determine whether life exists outside of Earth. But at present, the research that searches for extra-terrestrial life -- while valid and interesting -- is heavy laden with assumptions. Once you understand the scientific questions at stake, and the assumptions behind the conclusions that origin of life (OOL) theorists want to take from this research, I think you'll see that it poses little challenge to intelligent design (ID).

First, you have to understand that most OOL researchers and astrobiologists assume that if life exists somewhere, then it must have evolved. A striking example of this sort of assumption is found in a recent article in the Washington Post where NASA astrobiologist Paul Butler asserts that, "[i]f any extraterrestrial life is found in our solar system and we can determine it has no relation to life on Earth, then the assumption has to be that life of all sorts is quite common throughout the galaxies." Of course the his entire chain of reasoning depends on the assumption that wherever life exists, it evolved.

Reasoning under similar assumptions, the entire basis for excitement about life on Mars is the assumption that if it does exist there, then it arose through blind natural processes, thus proving that life can arise naturally. Do you see some logical jumps there, perhaps even some circular reasoning? OOL researchers want to find evidence of life on Mars because for them, it helps validate their belief that life evolves whenever the conditions are right. But if it is found there, how do they really know that it evolved naturally? That's a good question to which you won't get a good answer.

OOL theorists intuitively cannot deny that life is a highly improbable phenomenon. But somehow, they hope that if they find life elsewhere, then that means life is "less unlikely" to evolve, and they don't have to worry so much about the empirical odds stacked against the natural formation of life. Even if they don't understand how life arose, they think that if life exists then that's proof that it readily forms without intelligent guidance. Their circular logic will now become even more apparent:

(1) OOL theorists think that life easily forms under the "right conditions," and therefore...
(2) ...if life exists on Mars, then for them that proves that life does form easily under the "right conditions"--after all, they know it formed naturally on both Earth and Mars, right?

No, that's NOT right: they never established a natural origin of life in the first place, and they ruled out the possibility of ID as a starting assumption. Were they to actually rule out ID on a scientific basis, they would have to independently demonstrate through laboratory studies that life can form naturally under completely natural conditions. In other words, as discussed further below, they would have to demonstrate that life's information can arise from a non-intelligent source. But they haven't done that--they just want to take for granted that the existence of life on other planets demonstrates that it evolved there, and therefore conclude that it evolves easily.

Mars as the Earth's Interplanetary Attic?
Second, if life is found on Mars, that doesn't necessarily mean that it originated there. Astrobiologists believe that Earth has very likely contaminated Mars with Earth-born microbes, as Earth rocks have been periodically ejected into space during meteorite impacts on Earth. In fact, the idea that other bodies like Mars or the Moon may serve as an "Interplanetary attic" for Earth rocks has been partly developed by Discovery Institute fellow Guillermo Gonzalez.

Just as we've found "Martian meteorites" on Earth, so Mars might have "Earth meteorites," in which case it is entirely possible that any life we find on Mars was in fact seeded--from Earth! (This is a lively possibility that is rarely stated by OOL researchers.) We have yet to find convincing evidence of any life on Mars (living or fossil), so it may be that Mars was given a helping of Earth's life, which apparently didn't take.

Many OOL researchers assume that (1) Life easily evolves under the "right conditions," and therefore (2) if life exists on Mars then that is simply further proof that (1) is true. Again, note the circular logic? To make their case, OOL theorists must independently prove (1) through laboratory studies before their theories can pose any threat to ID. (Note: This hypothesis might be testable: it may be possible to disprove an "Earth origin" for Martian life if hypothetical Martian life turned out to be significantly different, biochemically, from Earth life.)

The Origin of Life: "Just Add Water"?
Third, finding amino acids or other simple organic molecules is not necessarily equivalent to finding life or evidence of life's existence. Many such materials are readily produced through non-biological processes. Again, measure the Darwinist assumptions: (1) Life easily evolves under the "right conditions," and (2) therefore if we find amino acids, the best explanation is that it is the result of life that evolved. But if (1) is false then the conclusions that follow are worthless. We're back to circular logic. You have to independently prove (1) through laboratory studies before you can pose any threat to ID.

Thus, when asked whether originating life is more complex than "just add water," the answer is a resounding YES! Water is a necessary, but far from sufficient condition for the existence of life. Even if we could produce amino acids and all the other building blocks of life under naturally occurring conditions, that would not constitute life any more than putting all of the ingredients for a cake in a bowl and then letting it sit there would constitute a cake.

OOL theorists often dramatically oversimplify how life started when talking to the public. The famous origin of life researcher Stanley Miller, however, has been more candid in some of his statements. At an origin-of-life seminar I took from him during my undergraduate studies at University of California, San Diego, Miller plainly taught us that "making compounds and making life are two different things." Elsewhere Miller reportedly made a similar admission:

"Even Miller throws up his hands at certain aspects of it. The first step, making the monomers, that's easy. We understand it pretty well. But then you have to make the first self-replicating polymers. That's very easy, he says, the sarcasm fairly dripping. Just like it's easy to make money in the stock market--all you have to do is buy low and sell high. He laughs. Nobody knows how it's done."

(Peter Radetsky, "How Did Life Start?" Discover Magazine at http://discovermagazine.com/1992/nov/howdidlifestart153/)

During the seminar class I took from Miller, he outlined various specific steps that would be necessary to originate life:
1. Pre-biotic synthesis and the generating of a "primordial soup"
2. Polymerization of pre-biotic monomers into larger molecules.
3. Origin of a self-replicating molecule ("Pre-RNA World")
4. Evolution of the "RNA World"
5. Evolution of the "DNA / Protein World"
6. Origin of Proto-cells
There are problems with each of these steps, but for now I'd just like to highlight the major problem with steps 3 & 4.

Steps 3 or 4 maintain that sometime during the origin of life, there arose an RNA molecule, or pre-RNA information-bearing molecule, that was able to clone itself. If there are occasional mistakes in the replication process, those that are better able to survive and replicate tend to make more copies, and so on, and Darwinian evolution evolves it the rest of the way.

This origin-of-life hypothesis is implausible for a few reasons: Aside from the fact that chemists have not been able to synthesize RNA or an RNA-like information-bearing molecule under natural conditions and that we've never observed such a molecule that can adequately clone itself, the odds of getting just the right sequence of nucleotides to create a self-cloning RNA molecule is astronomically low. Even if we assume a sea of randomly sequenced RNA molecules, since there are no physical or chemical laws that mandate the order of nucleotide bases in RNA, the odds of getting a useless sequence are just the same as getting the right one. These all represent astronomically improbable events.

Imagine trying to order a relatively short RNA molecule--200 nucleotide bases--just right, so that self-replication can occur--by pure chance and sheer luck. The odds are 1 / 4^200. This is what ID folks like to call the "Information Sequence Problem": Making chemicals might be possible, but how do you generate the information required for life? This question confounds origin of life theorists because they do not accept that new information comes from an intelligent cause. Dr. Stephen C. Meyer explains this:

[T]he need to explain the origin of specified information created an intractable dilemma for Oparin. On the one hand, if he invoked natural selection late in his scenario, he would need to rely on chance alone to produce the highly complex and specified biomolecules necessary to self-replication. On the other hand, if Oparin invoked natural selection earlier in the process of chemical evolution, before functional specificity in biomacromolecules would have arisen, he could give no account of how such prebiotic natural selection could even function (given the phenomenon of error-catastrophe). Natural selection presupposes a self-replication system, but self-replication requires functioning nucleic acids and proteins (or molecules approaching their complexity)--the very entities that Oparin needed to explain. Thus, Dobzhansky would insist that, "prebiological natural selection is a contradiction in terms." ... As noted above, the improbability of developing a functionally integrated replication system vastly exceeds the improbability of developing the protein or DNA components of such a system. Given the huge improbability and the high functional threshold it implies, many origin-of-life researchers came to regard prebiotic natural selection as both inadequate and essentially indistinguishable from appeals to chance.

(Stephen C. Meyer, "DNA and the Origin of Life: Information, Specification, and Explanation," pg. 246, Darwinism Design and Public Education (edited by Stephen C. Meyer and John Angus Campbell, 2004).)

As Meyer's article concludes:
"Experience affirms that specified complexity or information ... routinely arises from the activity of intelligent agents. A computer user who traces the information on a screen back to its source invariably comes to a mind, that of a software engineer or programmer. Similarly, the information in a book or newspaper column ultimately derives from a writer--from a mental, rather than a strictly material, cause. Further, our experience-based knowledge of information-flow confirms that systems with large amounts of specified complexity or information (especially codes and languages) invariably originate from an intelligent source--that is, from a mind or a personal agent." (Ibid., pg. 262)
Thus life far more complex than "just add water," because adding water--or any other chemicals--will not magically generate the specified and complex information in life. In fact, we cannot understand how the information in life originated apart from understanding intelligent causes.

Taking a different approach, OOL researchers and astrobiologists find it much easier to just assume that life -- complete with its information-rich order -- can and does arise through blind chemical processes. And they know they're right, because they must be right, for life exists.