Thursday, November 13, 2014

Evolutionary Magic Wand Does Not Explain the First Cell

Continuing with one more reflection from a book called A Meaningful World; let us now turn our attention to “the cell”.

A few months ago the Two Catholic Men presented the following scenario that related intelligent design and physical size. Imagine you were walking in a forest with a friend when you both stumbled upon a log cabin. You would naturally assume that someone created it (a person or a group of people), even if there was no empirical evidence of a builder other than the cabin itself. Unless you had more evidence, you will NOT presume a specific builder by name, but the assumption of “intelligence” will become a base premise that is non-negotiable.
Now suppose your traveling companion said the cabin is just a result of the random forces of nature, matter and energy coming together over time to form the cabin. To accept your friend’s conclusion would be not only unreasonable, but also irresponsible.
  • Now, just begin to increase the physical size of the cabin. Suppose it was the size of an Egyptian pyramid. You will not presume the builder must specifically be King Tut, but the same impartial assumption about an intellect remains.
  • Now, increase the size of the cabin to the size of planet earth. Reason’s responsibility leads us to the same conclusion about intelligence, although you might drop the part about the source of it being human. Observing the planet earth itself and how it works points to the same assumption. Just because the earth is big and not made by us, why should we conclude it is a product of mindlessness?
This thinking & sizing process can also work in reverse.
  • Suppose you observe a cabin the size of a single cell under a powerful microscope. To your astonishment, you observe not only the ordered structure of the building frame, but also indoor plumbing, electricity, a security system and a fully functioning HVAC system. Any reasonable person might ask, “Who built this?!?”
  • Finally, consider a single living cell with a membrane, centrosome, cytoplasm, Golgi complex, lysosome, mitochondrion, nuclear membrane, nucleolus, nucleus, ribosome, rough ER, smooth ER and vacuole…all much more complex than any cabin. We reach the same conclusion. Intellectual honesty tells us that it’s all beyond what random mindlessness can do for itself.

“We know that even the simplest functioning cell is almost unfathomably complex, containing at least 250 genes and their corresponding proteins, each one extraordinarily difficult to produce randomly and none of which can function apart from the intricate structure of the cell.” (A Meaningful World, p. 201.)
The evolutionary magic wand of natural selection and/or survival of the fittest cannot be used to explain how the first living cell (or cells) came to be. The first cell had no parent(s), no genetic ancestors to evolve from; to say it came about through the random jostling of matter and energy might be a kin to saying a running car could come about through the random jostling of car parts. Whether a living cell or a running car, it’s not just a matter of the right parts being in the right physical location; the parts need to be integrated and interdependent for anything meaningful to happen. There is no reason for an alternator, an alternator belt and a battery to be carefully integrated together unless there was some intention behind it. It’s the same with the parts of a living cell.
The famous Miller-Urey experiment offered an explanation for the origins of life, but hardly a convincing one. The experiment involved passing an electrical current through gaseous methane, ammonia, hydrogen and water (all assumed to be in earth’s early atmosphere). The result was the formation of some carbon-based compounds. I can see at least three problems with this as an explanation.
  • Carbon-based compounds are not living cells.
  • The experiment was not “mindless”. The experiment demonstrates (rather ironically) how a precise set of intelligently designed conditions are necessary to from a “primordial soup”.
  • There is no evidence of a primordial soup and atmosphere ever existing on earth as it did in the Miller-Urey experiment. “For materialists, in order for God not to exist, it was necessary for them to invent the soup.” (A Meaningful World, p. 209.)
The authors of the book also offered an interesting allegory about an intellectual blindness that can be found in regard to the first cell. Imagine you are invited to a science laboratory for a special demonstration. When you arrive you see hundreds of small magnets strewn about the floor and strung together with some wire. A scientist then pulls an electrical switch. Suddenly, the magnets come together to form an elegant shape and the new creation begins to clean-up the laboratory. When the last beaker is cleaned, dried and put way, the host scientist turns off the switch and all the magnets fall lifelessly to the floor. You are absolutely astonished and shout, “That’s amazing!” The scientist replies, “Why? It’s just a bunch of magnets.” A similar attitude might be taken in regard to first cell or cells on earth, “It’s just a bunch of amino acids.”
Such blindness finds its root in the sin of pride and the danger arises when we become more attached to our assumptions and over-generalizations than we are to reality. Our theories then become our idols.
“Our bringing up idolatry here is not a mere metaphorical device; rather it strikes to the very heart of the problem. Idolatry at its deepest is the worship of something that is human-made. In demanding that the universe must conform to human reason, to our theory, to what is simplest and easiest for us to understand, we are refashioning the universe into an idol.” (A Meaningful World, p. 246.)

Shortly after reading A Meaningful World I took note of a popular song on the radio that my kids always want to hear called “A Sky Full of Stars” by Coldplay. I’m often appalled by popular music lyrics or just left unimpressed, but on some occasions I’m touched, and even reminded of “Omnipresence”.

…'cause in a sky full of stars
I think I see you…
Such a heavenly view
You're such a heavenly view

I mentioned to my 12 year old son that the song reminds me of God.
He promptly replied…“Of course.”



  1. Hi, as a fellow Catholic (or at least one who goes to a Catholic church and shares many views with Catholics, and who was confirmed in the church and married in it), I question why you are so quick to attack the science that has been done on the origins of life and its development on this planet.

    God created this universe - indeed, created all that is seen and unseen, which may comprise much MORE than just the universe. But God also seems to have created a universe that is logically consistent within itself; as a system, it appears to be fully explanatory for any part of the system. Wherever we look, it seems as though when we look long enough, the answer to questions about our material existence can be usefully answered by application of the scientific method, and that whatever the answer may be, it can be fit into a narrative of the universe in which the universe's mechanisms explain themselves. It is beyond me why God would create a universe this way, with no signs of a breakdown in causality - but he obviously has done so to such an extent that it may be easily proposed he desires that we see reason in all things he has made. Is it not therefore folly to look for the inexplicable in that which our perfect God has labored to render so wholly explicable? Is this not tantamount to expecting God to have made something imperfect, inconsistent with itself? And are we not eternally repudiated for this folly when the materialists eventually do find a satisfying answer to these questions and laugh at us for our superstition?

    It is as easy to claim that the sin of pride resides in the materialist as it is to claim that the sin of pride resides in the man who thinks that if he cannot presently determine the answer to a question himself, then obviously no one ever shall, and it is surely a sign of the unknowable divine.

    Evolution and the Church are not enemies; Science and God are not enemies. I wish we would stop behaving as such. Certainly this will require materialists to make a bigger leap than those who already believe, but if we do not show them the way I fear they will never find it at all.

    1. Hi Adam,
      Anything that leads to truth is good including science. This post (and much of the book) is attacking the premise that the origins of our being MUST come ultimately from something mindless. I think the sin of pride comes in when one holds on to the theory of "mindlessness" no matter how much evidence there is to the contrary.

  2. The mistake in your argument is this, " The first cell had no parent(s)". That's just wrong. Today's environment because of living cells is too competitive for things like free floating enzymes to function. But create an early world of lots of free floating organic molecules directly available in the soup of the ocean and enzymes can act directly the way they do in cells that emulate the primitive conditions.

    Moreover the soup came from observing what's inside cells. Inside your cells is something very much like what an ocean would look like with lots of organic materials available and no aggressive forms of life consuming most of them.

    Which means the order was:

    1) Organic molecules formed (can be reproduced in a laboratory)
    2) Replicating molecules form via. combinations of organic molecules. These exist in all cells today but are composed only of primitive organic molecules.
    3) Replicating molecules form a membrane to allow them to store organic molecules for later use
    4) Enclosed environments allow for specialization of replicating molecules. This is the primitive cell.
    5) Cells then evolve into modern structures and can additional complexity.

    We can observe today cells that are vastly more primitive than those that exist in animals and plants. For example stage (3) in the above is the structure of most viruses. So we have (2), (3),(4),(5) running around in today's world and (1) can be created in a laboratory.

    1. Doesn't that imply a laboratory, though? Meaning something had to come before the cell, right?

    2. Hi CD,
      Careful not to get caught up in the arcane details. By saying the first cell had no parent(s), I don't mean it came from nothing. Rather, it could not have come about by being an "offspring" or by genetic mutation and/or survival of the fittest. A living thing does not come from a non-living thing via that mechanism.

    3. @Leila --

      The laboratory simulation is creating organic molecules from inorganic materials. It allows us to do solve the "life coming from non-life" critical step. Essentially it is emulating the conditions that would have existed on earth prior to life changing the environment.


      A living thing doesn't come from a non-living thing. But a cell comes from a proto-cell and that solves the problem in the post.

    4. If we accept part of the definition of a living thing as “an organized structure made up of a cell or cells”, then presumably, the first living thing would have been a one-celled thing.

      By “parent” I mean to say a living thing, so the very every first cell could have no parent that was also a living thing by the definition above. It must have come from something non-living. In this case, the darwinistic form of evolution would not apply to it.

    5. @Ben

      You can't have it both ways. If you want only living things to have parents then your definition of life is reproduction and/or growth not cellular structure.

      I'd want a strong definition and require all of: metabolism, growth, reaction to stimuli, and reproduction. If you are going to limit yourself to cells then "non-living" include lots of organisms that engage in metabolism, growth, reaction to stimuli, and reproduction. Viruses have parents but they don't have cells.

      That's not even getting into the issue of what is a cell is a bit ambiguous.

    6. Just for clarity here is what I’m using as the definition of a living thing:

      •an organized structure, being made up of a cell or cells
      •requires energy to survive or sustain existence
      •ability to reproduce
      •ability to grow
      •ability to metabolize
      •ability to respond to stimuli
      •ability to adapt to the environment
      •ability to move
      •ability to respire

      Whatever we use for a definition of life, we can reasonable say that the very first living thing could not have a parent that was alive; otherwise it would not be the first one. Main point is that going from not-alive to alive is outside the scope of darwinistic evolution.
      Good chatting with you.