Recently one of our materialist friends made a comment along the lines of “we’ve known life can come from non-life since the concept of ‘vitalism’ was debunked by the synthesis of urea from inorganic elements.” Our friend is wrong. Let me explain why.
It is true that prior to the nineteenth century many chemists believed organic compounds were too complex to be synthesized and organic matter was somehow endowed with a mysterious “vital force.” This is the essence of vitalism.
It is also true that vitalism was largely debunked in 1828 when Friedrich Wohler produced urea, an organic constituent of urine, from inorganic ammonium cyanate.
Moreover, it is true that since the famous Miller-Urey experiments in the 1950s, scientists have known that simple building blocks of living things such as amino acids can be synthesized from inorganic precursors under certain carefully controlled conditions.
If all these things are true, why is our friend wrong? The answer lies in the fact that “organic compound” is far from a synonym for “living thing.” Don’t believe me? Go to the nearest funeral home and examine a corpse. That corpse is a bag of extremely complex organic compounds that are perfect building blocks for a living thing, but it is not a living thing.
Simple amino acids and other organic compounds are a long way from living things. The more we learn about life the more the materialist case slides into implausibility, because organic chemical compounds are not the essence of life. Too be sure, the presence of organic compounds is a necessary condition of life, but it is far from a sufficient condition as materialist OOL (origin of life) researchers thought in the salad days of OOL studies in 50s and 60s. No, the essence of life is the precise arrangement of matter into maddeningly complex systems working together toward a specific overall purpose (i.e., living) according to a digitally encoded DNA blueprint (i.e., information).
The problem for OOL researchers is analogous to building an airplane from scratch using nothing but the forces of nature and sheer random chance (call it OOA “origin of airplane” research). Say lightning struck a patch of beach sand and produced glass. Materialists got excited when Wohler demonstrated that one constituent of urine could be produced from simpler inorganic compounds. Our OOA researchers might get excited that an element of the airplane (the glass for the windshield) was produced by the combination of sheer random chance and the forces of nature.
Now suppose a researcher performs an experiment in which he mixes anhydrous aluminium chloride with potassium (which Wohler actually did in 1827) and out pops aluminum. Our OOA researchers should be beside themselves with joy. The basic building block of almost all airframes can be created by just mixing a few chemicals together under the right conditions, surely a process well within the reach of blind chance and physical law.
By now you are rolling your eyes. Only an idiot would believe that the essence of an airplane can be reduced to glass for the windshield and metal for the airframe. The essence of an airplane is the precise arrangement of parts into extremely complex systems working toward a specific purpose (i.e., flying) according to a plan (i.e., information).
You might say that the analogy between OOL research and OOA research fails because “living” and “flying” are two different things. I would grant you that the analogy fails, but not in the way you think. The analogy fails because living things are actually far more complex than airplanes, and it follows that building a living thing through the combination of sheer blind chance and mechanical law is much less likely than building an airplane through the same process.
Even a child can see the futility of trying to build an airplane using only natural forces. Why is it then that many very highly educated people can’t see the futility of building something far more complex than an airplane using the same process? Good question. Let me suggest that someone who cannot see the obvious must be wearing blinders of some sort, in this case the blinders of materialist metaphysics.
I will leave you with a quote from Paul Davies that the UD News Desk brought to my attention:
Most research into life’s murky origin has been carried out by chemists. They’ve tried a variety of approaches in their attempts to recreate the first steps on the road to life, but little progress has been made. Perhaps that is no surprise, given life’s stupendous complexity. Even the simplest bacterium is incomparably more complicated than any chemical brew ever studied.
But a more fundamental obstacle stands in the way of attempts to cook up life in the chemistry lab. The language of chemistry simply does not mesh with that of biology. Chemistry is about substances and how they react, whereas biology appeals to concepts such as information and organisation. Informational narratives permeate biology. DNA is described as a genetic “database”, containing “instructions” on how to build an organism. The genetic “code” has to be “transcribed” and “translated” before it can act. And so on. If we cast the problem of life’s origin in computer jargon, attempts at chemical synthesis focus exclusively on the hardware – the chemical substrate of life – but ignore the software – the informational aspect. To explain how life began we need to understand how its unique management of information came about.