Life In A Test Tube? Or Jumping To False Conclusions?

Posted in Evolution, Logic, Science on  | 5 minutes | 3 Comments →

A presupposition occurs when we make an exclusive statement that depends on a questionable assumption as opposed to a genuine fact. Ironically, one fond memory I have that involves a presupposition comes from my high school science class. I can still remember my sophomore biology teacher expounding with the utmost glee and detail on Stanley Miller’s famous spark-discharge experiments at the University of Chicago. Working under Nobel laureate Harold Urey, Miller recreated what was presupposed as Earth’s primitive gaseous environment, then passed electricity through the mixture to simulate lightning. In doing so, Miller found he had created amino acids, the basic building blocks of protein, and ultimately, life.

The experiment bore a strong resemblance to Darwin’s hypothetical early-Earth scenario of cellular life assembling itself in a warm, chemically rich pond, and newspapers were quick to exclaim: “Life In A Test Tube!” Soon, other researchers including Russian biochemist Alexander Oparin had created amino acids, and subsequent repeats of Miller’s experiment demonstrated that amino acids can form spontaneously under purely natural circumstances. With a little fancy packaging, but no conclusive proof of anything, these results were prematurely used to bolster mainstream support of abiogenesis and by extension, Darwin’s general theory.

But did the work of any of these men justify media headlines of "Life In A Test Tube?"

Reality check: In Miller's experiment, only a meager 2% of the reaction Miller produced contained amino acids, but the truly damning difficulty is with the presupposition of science at that time that Earth's early atmosphere contained viable amounts of ammonia, methane and hydrogen. These were the gases selected for the experiment. New discoveries change everything, and current knowledge suggests these gases were not present in Earth’s primitive atmosphere. The modern scientific community now generally agrees that early Earth was composed of water and the inert gases carbon dioxide and nitrogen. Recent repeats of Miller’s experiment with these elements have failed.

Secondly, the amino acids created in the Miller experiment were 100% incapable of leading to a LUCA (Lowest Universal Common Ancestor). The principle of chirality refers to what could be called 'handedness.' The principle is easily understood by looking at your left and right hands (if you are fortunate enough to have both), which aside from being mirrored images of one another are otherwise physiologically identical. Molecules can also demonstrate chirality, and two molecules are said to be chiral when they differ chemically only in being mirrored images of one another.

Third, the reason the amino acids created in the Miller experiment were 100% incapable of leading to a LUCA is because they were a racemic mixture of achiral molecules. It so happens that every amino acid in the DNA double-helix must display left-handed chirality. When nucleotides collide and become DNA, they develop a twisting pattern that forms the coil of the double-helix structure. This occurs because each of the molecules shares the same left-handed chirality. If even one molecule was right-handed, so to speak, the DNA double-helix could not exist, and DNA could not function properly. So far as I know, it is still a foundational truth of chemistry that chirality cannot be artificially induced in chemical molecules using a random or uninformed process.

Lastly, there are fundamental chasms between an amino acid and the basic cell. Spontaneous generation of amino acids is not synonymous with spontaneous generation of cellular life, and even if amino acids can form randomly, several key questions remain unanswered. Where or what is the impetus that organizes them into simple proteins that eventually become complex multicellular organisms? What is the mechanism of such protein interaction? By what means did genetic information develop, and how was it transferred? Acceptable answers to such questions should definitely precede irresponsible journalism, but unfortunately by the time bogus claims hit the general public, they are already unquestioningly accepted as truth by a significant number of people who care not to pursue the matter themselves.

As was the case with the Church presupposing Earth to be the center of the solar system, science also presupposes certain conditions that could dramatically alter modern theories should these presuppositions prove incorrect. How many years passed before we realized that all the continents used to exist on a single land mass known as pangea? What did this do to every hypothesis concerning geology that did not include pangea? How many years passed before the discovery of asteroids? What did this do to every hypothesis concerning Earth history that did not include asteroids? How many years passed before we recognized the phenomenon of the atom? What did that do to every theory of physics that did not include atomic structure? New discoveries change everything.

With the same fallacious reasoning employed by your typical creationist teacher denying evolution, my sophomore biology teacher arrogantly flaunted the Miller experiment as proof that life could start all on its own. Such had not been proven then, and such has not been proven today. Of course we're much closer, and it is not my intent to denigrate the Miller experiment, for it does retain immense inherent worth and contributes greatly to the body of science. The intent is merely to illustrate how irresponsibly mainstream media and Darwinian agendists of that time bolstered Miller’s results.

Although science may be completely authoritative, our interpretations of it are not always so. Just as we do well in learning to distinguish between personal interpretations of scripture versus what scripture actually says, we do equally well in learning how to distinguish between interpretations of experimental results versus what those results actually say.The claim that Miller's results are tantamount to synthetic life is absurd. In a mixture of gases that was not present in Earth's early atmosphere, a racemic mixture of amino acids can form spontaneously under the right conditions. This is what the results of the Miller experiment actually permit.

Far stretch from "Life In A Test Tube," eh?


  1. mike


    So far as I know, it is still a foundational truth of chemistry that chirality cannot be artificially induced in chemical molecules using a random or uninformed process.

    It seems very out of character for you to assert a categorical negative like this. It’s true that homochirality is not yet 100% understood, but to say that it cannot be induced by random or “uninformed” process implies that you think it could only have happened purposefully via a designer.
    Besides, I can assure you that no such law of chemistry exists. For example, circularly polarized can induce an initial bias in chirality, which many other natural reactions are known to amplify all the way to homochirality. See for example
    this page.
    As for misreporting of science, I agree it can be quite forehead-slapping at times. In my field (cryptography), the small amount of journalism we do get usually hypes up things as “unbreakable encryption”, which is a quite dangerous misconstrual of reality..

  2. cl


    I sympathize with your concerns about the categorical negative, and you’re right, it is out of character for me. And sincerely, thanks for catching that. It is for reasons exactly like these that my commenter’s criticisms are of such immense value to me. Well, at least my rational commenters, like you, jim, James and others. Anyway, I didn’t mean to imply that such was impossible, I’m by no means aligning myself with the ID camp or GOTG arguments. Obviously such is possible, or you and I wouldn’t be discussing its possibility. Homochirality resulted somehow.
    However, in the spirit of rational rigueur, I think you made a few goofs as well. You said,

    I can assure you that no such law of chemistry exists. For example, circularly polarized can induce an initial bias in chirality, which many other natural reactions are known to amplify all the way to homochirality.

    1) I never said a law of chemistry existed that precluded the possibility of homochirality’s emergence. In your defense, I used the term foundational truth, so I can see how I may have misled you and for that I apologize.
    2) The word homochirality appears three times in the pertinent document, all in the opening paragraphs, and never as you used it.

    In summary, a plausible scenario for the stereospecific synthesis of D-sugars (up to > 99% ee) on the prebiotic earth can be envisioned from all the findings described:

    Now certainly, 100% qualifies as > 99%, but why do you think the authors were so cautious? You may call it nitpicking, but there’s at least the potential for difference between > 99% and homochirality. Why wouldn’t they just say up to 100%? Is it possible true homochirality has not yet been synthesized?
    This is also relevant:

    Sediments were ashed in order to remove organic matter which could introduce chiral bias. The authors are cautious: “The possibility that the ashing process actually etches and activates the mineral surface as it burns off natural (chiral?) organic matter cannot be discounted.” However, they also note that it is remarkable that such strong selectivity should occur at all.

    Lastly, I took much away from this:

    In fact, creationists should seriously ask themselves if their concept of God is not a belittling one: the Intelligent Designer as “tinkerer” who is forced to break his own created laws of nature once in a while because they are insufficient to achieve certain stages in the development of the material world. From a theistic philosophical perspective, the actual findings of science suggest a much grander idea of God: the Designer who laid out an elegant and self-sufficient set of laws of nature that accomplish the unfolding of his creation by inducing self-organization of the material world. This idea is easily compatible with the concept of God of many mainstream religions, including most Christian ones.

    Couldn’t of said it better myself.

  3. tom


    The Truth is There is no demonstrated source for such non-racemic mixture of sugars in any plausible pre-biotic environment!
    Life never came about by time chance natural processes! IMPOSSIBLE!! Atheists need to Learn Homochirality! And all biochemists do today is copy, synthesize and manipulate reactions! They rearrange pre existing genetic information! They dont create Anything!

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