The Spontaneous Generation Hypothesis
(Originally published in CRS Quarterly, Vol. 38, No. 2, September, 2001 and updated since then.)
Abstract: As our knowledge of life’s microscopic secrets continues to advance, it is instructive to reflect upon the history of the spontaneous generation hypothesis. Has origin of life scientific advancements indeed progressed as the anti-creationist predicted a few decades ago?
“If I have made my point, the next time you hear creationists talking about the ‘impossibility’ of making a particular protein, …you can smile wryly and know that they are nowhere near a consideration of the real issues. …Given the rapid rate of progress in our understanding of molecular biology, I have no doubt that satisfactory explanations of the problem posed here soon will be forthcoming.” (Doolittle, 1983, p. 96).
A review of the history of the spontaneous generation hypothesis, the belief that a living cell could emerge from non-living material without intelligent intervention, shows that it is only a commitment to naturalism that keeps this hypothesis from being completely rejected. Scientifically, it has no merit.
Aristotle (384-322BC), Greek philosopher and scientist, expressed the hypothesis that decaying material could be transformed by the ‘spontaneous action of Nature’ into living animals. Classical scientists as recently as two hundred years ago believed in vitalism, the idea that non-living material like dirt, damp hay, or decaying meat had innate vitality such that “simple” life would spontaneously arise from it. Francisco Redi is best remembered for his 18th century experiments demonstrating that maggots did not come from the meat but from the flies that had laid their eggs upon it. In the 1860’s Louis Pasteur conducted his famous scientific disproof of spontaneous generation in which he sterilized nutrients and put it into two types of flasks, one where dust and microbes could not fall into it and another that was open to the air. Microbial growth only occurred in the open flasks. This simple experiment demonstrated that only life begets life–the law of biogenesis. In reflecting upon this, Wald (himself a proponent of spontaneous generation) notes:
“We tell this story to beginning students of biology as though it represents a triumph of reason over mysticism. In fact it is very nearly the opposite. The reasonable view was to believe in spontaneous generation; the only alternative, to believe in a single, primary act of supernatural creation. There is no third position. For this reason many scientists a century ago chose to regard the belief in spontaneous generation as a ‘philosophical necessity.’ It is a symptom of the philosophical poverty of our time that this necessity is no longer appreciated. Most modern biologists, having reviewed with satisfaction the downfall of the spontaneous generation hypothesis, yet unwilling to accept the alternative belief in special creation, are left with nothing.” (Wald, 1954, p. 46).
Darwinists, in pursuit of this “philosophical necessity,” naturalism, have invested great effort and significant finances into attempts to bridge the gap between nonlife and life, either in the field or in the laboratory. The hope throughout the end of the nineteenth and into the beginning of the twentieth century had been that “intermediates” would be found between raw chemistry and the cell. Evolutionary luminaries like Haeckel and Huxley offered unqualified support for Bathybius, the slime dredged from the ocean floor that was briefly thought to be living. Eozoon, a metamorphic rock product, also was once supposed to be organic. “Eozoon entered the fourth edition of the Origin of Species with Darwin’s firm blessing: ‘It is impossible to feel any doubt regarding its organic nature.’” (Gould, 1980, p. 239).
Then evolutionists shifted their efforts toward synthesizing life in the laboratory. J.B.S. Haldane’s ideas in the 1920’s inspired the phrase “the primordial soup,” and origin of life experiments were designed to recreate primitive earth conditions. Even if scientists had been successful in this endeavor, it certainly would not have demonstrated that life could arise without intelligent intervention in a harsh natural environment. To date, they have failed completely. “Furthermore, no geological evidence indicates an organic soup, even a small organic pond, ever existed on this planet.” (Thaxton, et al., 1992, p. 66). There was the short-lived euphoria over Stanley Miller and Harold Urey’s prebiotic soup experiments in the 1950’s. Boiling and electrically sparking a mixture of methane, ammonia, hydrogen and water produced some basic amino acids. “There was some optimism that, had the experiment been left running, living creatures would soon be crawling out of the laboratory.” (Walker, et al. 2017) But follow-up work only illuminated new barriers between complex chemicals and the simplest conceivable life. Finding the building blocks does not solve the problem any more than finding stones could explain the naturalistic production of an ancient cathedral. After two generations of work, the problem looks more intractable than ever.
Darwinists have tried to reduce the probability problem by postulating an infinitude of other possible life-forms, unlike known life. Over against this argument the evolutionist Simon Conway Morris argues, “Despite the immensity of biological hyperspace I shall argue that nearly all of it must remain for ever empty, not because our chance drunken walk failed to wander into one domain rather than another but because the door could never open, the road was never there, the possibilities were from the beginning for ever unavailable.” (Morris, 2003, p. 12).
In the fall of 1976, despite grandiose predictions from astronomers like Carl Sagan, the Viking mission to Mars failed to detect any trace of life. (In 2012 NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity did more extensive soil analysis and further confirmed these earlier conclusions.) The statistical difficulties finally began to be acknowledged. Wilson illustrates a tiny piece of the probability problem, focusing on the ten enzymes that are involved in glycolysis:
“The random, undirected polymerization of these enzymes from a mixture of the twenty amino acids is calculated to occur with a rough probability of 10 -1000. Even with relatively fast rates of polymerization and a billion-year time scale, it is argued, the likelihood that even one copy of each of these enzymes would be spontaneously produced is infinitesimal. The overall likelihood is not much improved even if only one of the ten enzymes is considered, and, of course it becomes preposterously small for the thousand or so different enzymes in a typical bacterium.” (Wilson, 1983, pp. 95-96).
As a result of such calculations, some scientists embraced Intelligent Design theory, predicting that complex biological systems never would arise naturally. James Tour, synthetic chemist and nanotechnologist, is one such researcher. Tour discusses the complexity of making useful proteins. Other than water, the proteins are the most common material in cells. But making useful proteins is extraordinarily complex. Tour states, “If one asks the molecularly uninformed how nature devises these, the answer is often ‘Nature selects for that.’ But what does that mean to a synthetic chemist? … and how does it know what to select when the utility is not assessed until many steps later? The details are stupefying and the petty comments demonstrate a sophomoric understanding of the untrained.” (Tour, 2016, p. 2). There are so many useless ways to assemble and fold proteins that the odds of nature stumbling upon a single useful protein are very rare. Douglas Axe did ground-breaking research into protein assembly at Cambridge Medical Research Centre. He wrote, “I was able to put a number on the actual rarity—a startling number. With only one good protein sequence for every 1074 bad ones, …a decisive blow had been dealt to the idea that proteins arose from accidental causes.” (Axe, 2016, p. 52).
Nobel laureate Christian DeDuve identified intelligent design as one of seven possible origin scenarios. (DeDuve, C., 2005, Introduction). However, he did not believe that the naturalistic explanations could ever be excluded. But Alex Williams makes the case for just that because the Brownian motion in water would tear apart any precursors to life (just as we see them do to an individual blood cell under microscope). (Williams, 2015, p. 108). There must be a fully-formed, hardened cell wall to safely hold any “proto-cell” components (something like the reinforced cell wall that bacteria exhibit) from the destructively degenerating forces of water on the molecular scale. But life must have begun in water because all living cells require more water than all the other ingredients combined! So how does a complex modern cell wall develop before the precursors to a cell exist?
Eventually leading evolutionists, like Hoyle, determined that the chances of abiogenesis (first life arising from non-life) occurring on this earth are so phenomenally unlikely that they instead postulated life coming from space (panspermia):
“I don’t know how long it is going to be before astronomers generally recognize that the combinatorial arrangement of not even one among the many thousands of biopolymers on which life depends could have been arrived at by natural processes here on the earth. Astronomers will have a little difficulty at understanding this because they will be assured by biologists that it is not so, the biologists having been assured in their turn by others that it is not so. The ‘others’ are a group of persons who believe, quite openly, in mathematical miracles. They advocate the belief that tucked away in nature, outside of normal physics, there is a law which performs miracles (provided the miracles are in the aid of biology). This curious situation sits oddly on a profession that for long has been dedicated to coming up with logical explanations of biblical miracles. It is quite otherwise, however, with the modern mathematical miracle workers, who are always to be found living in the twilight fringes of thermodynamics. …The notion that not only the biopolymers but the operating programme of a living cell could be arrived at by chance in a primordial organic soup here on the Earth is evidently nonsense of a high order. Life must plainly be a cosmic phenomenon.” (Hoyle, 1981, pp. 526-527).
“The likelihood of the spontaneous formation of life from inanimate matter is one to a number with 40,000 noughts after it…It is big enough to bury Darwin and the whole theory of evolution. There was no primeval soup, neither on this planet nor on any other, and if the beginnings of life were not random, they must therefore have been the product of purposeful intelligence.” (Hoyle, 1984, p. 148).
Yockey shows that Hoyle is not unique:
“Faith in the infallible and comprehensive doctrines of dialectic materialism plays a crucial role in origin of life scenarios, and especially in exobiology and its ultimate consequence the doctrine of advanced extra-terrestrial civilization. That life must exist somewhere in the solar system on ‘suitable planets elsewhere’ is widely and tenaciously believed in spite of lack of evidence or even abundant evidence to the contrary.” (Yockey, 1981, pp. 27-28).
Though many evolutionary origin-of-life researchers admit that the evidence continues to mount up against them, they still profess complete belief in spontaneous generation over against any form of intelligent design.
- Dr. George Whitesides, a leading chemist at Harvard University, stated: “The Origin of Life. This problem is one of the big ones in science. It begins to place life, and us, in the universe. Most chemists believe, as do I, that life emerged spontaneously from mixtures of molecules in the prebiotic Earth. How? I have no idea. Perhaps it was by the spontaneous emergence of ‘simple’ autocatalytic cycles and then by their combination. On the basis of all the chemistry that I know, it seems to me astonishingly improbable.” (Whitesides, 2007, pp. 12-17).
- Noted physicist Freeman Dyson wrote: “The origin of life is a total mystery, and so is the existence of human consciousness.” (Dyson, March 10, 2011).
- “Exactly 20 years ago, I wrote an article for Scientific American that, in draft form, had the headline above. [“Pssst, Don’t Tell the Creationists, but Scientists Don’t Have a Clue How Life Began”] My editor nixed it…. That editor is gone now, so I get to use my old headline, which is even more apt today…. Geologists, chemists, astronomers and biologists are as stumped as ever by the riddle of life.” (Horgan, Feb. 28, 2011)
- “The transformation of an ensemble of appropriately chosen biological monomers…into a primitive living cell capable of further evolution appears to require overcoming an information hurdle of superastronomical proportions, an event that could not have happened within the timeframe of the Earth except, we believe, as a miracle.” (Steele, August 2018
- “The Early appearance of life on Earth suggests that there is a good chance of the spontaneous generation of life in suitable conditions.” (Hawkins, 2018, p. 75).
Origin of life chemistry, from the “proteinoids” thought to have formed on the rim of a volcano, to the RNA-world preceding DNA, to novel ideas about inorganic mineral clays has been gamely pursued. The utter failure of these theories is highlighted by the evolutionists following Gould’s lead, believing in a biochemical predestination that is vaguely reminiscent of vitalism. After reviewing evidence that life on earth started far earlier than previously thought Gould stated: “…I don’t know what message to read in this timing but the proposition that life, arising as soon as it could, was chemically destined to be, and not the chancy result of accumulated improbabilities.” (Gould, 1990, pp. 16-17). Since known processes plus chance failed to rationalize a naturalistic origin of life, naturalism proponents were forced (by the data and their philosophical predispositions) to retreat to untestable assertions that unknown deterministic processes were sufficient. The biochemist DeDuve concurs with Gould:
“Another lesson of the Age of Chemistry is that life is the product of deterministic forces. Life was bound to swiftly arise under the prevailing conditions, and it will arise similarly wherever and whenever the same conditions obtain… Life and mind emerge not as the result of the freakish accidents, but as natural manifestations of matter, written into the fabric of the universe.” (DeDuve, 1996, pp. xv-xviii).
Paul Davies imagined that:
“some sort of self-organizing physical processes could raise a physical system above a certain threshold of complexity at which point these new-style ‘complexity laws’ would start to manifest themselves, bestowing upon the system an unexpected effectiveness to self-organize and self-complexify. …Under the bidding of such laws, the system might be rapidly directed towards life.” (Davies, 1999, p. 259).
ReMine points out that “It merely replaces the old unknown mystical forces with new unknown ‘naturalistic’ forces. Either way it is not science.” (ReMine, 1993, p. 95).
The aforementioned Hoyle citation refers to the laws of thermodynamics. These have been applied to biological complexity in the growing field of information theory. Much like the complex instruction sets that drive computer systems, living systems are built using vast libraries of information stored in the genetic code. Information theory predicts that just as useful computer routines will not randomly arise, so increases in DNA information to code for biological functions will not happen without intelligent intervention. Even evolutionists like Davies acknowledge the problem:
“Communication theory–or information theory, as it is known today–says that noise destroys information, and that the reverse process, the creation of information by noise, would seem to be a miracle. A message emerging on its own from radio static would be as surprising as the tide making footprints on the beach. We are back with the same old problem: the second law of thermodynamics insists that information can no more spring into being spontaneously than heat can flow from cold to hot.” (Davies, 1999, pp. 56-57.)
As our understanding of what might constitute the simplest, single-celled organism becomes more precise we can better appreciate the odds against spontaneous generation. Estimates for the number of genes required range between 1,400-1,500 genes. (Delaye, 2010, pp. 469-470.) Incidentally researchers have independently arrived at about this same number by analyzing 37,402 genes across 184 genomes (including genes from eukaryotic organisms) seeking to establish a minimum gene content for the last universal common ancestor (LUCA). LUCA would require about 1,340 genes. (Ouzounis, C.A., et. al., 2006, pp. 57-68.) What are the odds of this “self-assembling” 3.5 billion years ago?
“This allows for a calculation of the probability of the first primordial cell arising from the chemical soup through random mutations. After looking at proteins from completed genomes representing one million sequences, scientists have been able to recognize 50,000 protein families; up from earlier estimates. If we assume, conservatively speaking, that a protein has only 100 amino acids, then this means that the probability of a random sequence of 100 amino acids constituting a viable protein sequence is 6×104/20100 ≈ 3.9×10-126. However, if we need 1,340 proteins (the number of proteins in the genome of the LUCA) to be available all at once, then the probability is further reduced to ≈(3.9×10-126)1340 ≈10-167,500. This is the probability that a single-celled organism can arise from the the chemical soup, and it is clearly unfeasible.” (Micks, 2015, p. 115.)
Hurdling the barrier that is the Law of Biogenesis has proven so vexing that some evolutionists have sought to dodge the problem by removing it from the realm of the biology, which merely relocates the problem in the naturalistic model. After calculating the mind-boggling unlikelihood of a primitive replication-translation system emerging in the known universe, Koonin states:
“The origin of life is the most difficult problem that faces evolutionary biology and, arguably, biology in general. Indeed, the problem is so hard and the current state of the art seems so frustrating that some researchers prefer to dismiss the entire issue as being outside the scientific domain altogether, on the grounds that unique events are not conducive to scientific study.” (Koonin, 2012, p. 351.)
But Michael Behe argues that intelligent design theory need not invoke the supernatural to present a compelling argument for the creation of these biological systems. After discussing Sir Francis H.C. Crick’s 1992 Scientific American interview exploring his belief in “Directed Panspermia,” Behe explains:
“The primary reason Crick subscribes to this unorthodox view is that he judges the undirected origin of life to be a virtually insurmountable obstacle, but he wants a naturalistic explanation. For our present purposes, the interesting part of Crick’s idea is the role of the aliens, whom he has speculated sent space bacteria to earth. But he could with as much evidence say that the aliens actually designed the irreducibly complex biochemical systems of the life they sent here, and also designed the irreducibly complex systems that developed later. The only difference is a switch to the postulate that aliens constructed life, whereas Crick originally speculated that they just sent it here. It is not a very big leap, though, to say that a civilization capable of sending rocket ships to other planets is also likely to be capable of designing life–especially if the civilization has never been observed. Designing life, it could be pointed out, does not necessarily require supernatural abilities; rather, it requires a lot of intelligence. If a graduate student in an earthbound lab today can plan and make an artificial protein that can bind oxygen, then there is no logical barrier to thinking that an advanced civilization on another world might design artificial cells from scratch.” (Behe, 1998, pp. 248-249).
It now becomes clear that, even for the committed naturalist, there is a more rational alternative than the spontaneous generation scenarios. But some might object that this solution involving intelligent design of earth’s life still leaves the problem of initial life unsolved. Behe responds that time travel (allowing future engineers to seed life) has been seriously proposed by some physicists; or naturalists can postulate that alien life is so radically different than anything we have known that it would not exhibit the design features of empirical biology. For those whose philosophical predisposition does not preclude the consideration of supernatural intervention, the most reasonable conclusion to be drawn from the longstanding inquiry into the spontaneous generation hypothesis is that the phenomenon of life implies a Creator. Dembski notes that there are only “two options: Either the world derives its order form a source outside itself (a la creation) or it possesses whatever order it has intrinsically, that is, without the order being imparted from outside.” In presenting his “Law of the Conservation of Information” he concludes: “the only coherent account of information is design.” (Dembski, 1999, pp. 15, 99). After reviewing the creative action of God, the scriptures make clear that “In him was life; and the life was the light of men.” (John 1:4). Regardless then of one’s metaphysical worldview, the time has come for spontaneous generation hypothesis to die a natural death.
Special thanks to Walter ReMine for insightful comments on an early draft of this article. The author is also indebted to the reviewers for valuable suggestions.
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