Since early this century, scientists working in origin-of-life research have repeatedly tried to demonstrate that life’s simplest organisms could have evolved from simpler, nonliving molecules. This theory, known as chemical evolution, has dominated thinking about the origin of life for most of this century. So when Charles Thaxton, Walter Bradley, and Roger Olsen decided to critique chemical evolution, they didn’t expect their scientific audience to be ready to listen. Their audience has surprised them.
Scientists Thaxton, Bradley, and Olsen raised several compelling objections to chemical evolution in a provocative book entitled The Mystery of Life’s Origin (Philosophical Library, 1984). After 30 years of experimental cul-de-sacs, many origin-of-life researchers, indeed, seem ready to give the new critique a hearing.
Given the authors’ academic credentials, one would ordinarily expect such a hearing. Bradley, a materials engineer, and Olsen, a geochemist, hold professorships at prestigious technical universities. Chemist Thaxton has completed post-doctoral work at Harvard University in the history of science and at Brandeis in molecular biology. What makes the attention The Mystery of Life’s Origin has received so unusual is that its authors believe evidence now points to a supernatural origin for life. The authors are creationists.
They are also careful. Before publishing their book, Thaxton sent the manuscript to San Francisco State biophysicist Dean Kenyon. Kenyon’s text, Biochemical Predestination, had supplied the definitive view on chemical evolution since 1969. It was this view the authors had critiqued.
The authors also enlisted a noted secular publishing house in New York, Philosophical Library, to print the first edition. The book entered its second printing after only four months.
The authors’ careful cultivation of credibility among their fellow scientists paid off. Dean Kenyon not only agreed to write the forward, but in it he repudiated the position he had argued in Biochemical Predestination. In recent years it seemed he had come to agree with the authors. Other scientists, while perhaps not in wholesale agreement, nevertheless quickly endorsed the scientific merit and integrity of the book.
Physicist Robert Jastrow, the well-known founder of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, praised Mystery, saying, “It presents a very well thought out and clearly written analysis of the alternatives to the accepted scientific theory of the origin of life.” Several top researchers in the field, including Clifford Matthews at the University of Illinois and New York University chemist Robert Shapiro, supported its critique but stopped short of endorsing the book’s creationist implications. Yet even with his reservations, Matthews scarcely tempered his praise, “really brilliant. A superb reassessment of current thinking.”
Thaxton attributes the popularity of the book’s critique, in part, to “its interdisciplinary approach.” Origin-of-life researchers have typically been chemists who, like the famous Stanley Miller, have attempted to synthesize life’s chemical precursors in rarified (and somewhat contrived) experimental environments. Miller’s “simulation” experiment in 1953 produced laboratory amino acids from simple molecules and electricity.
By coordinating the insights of each scholar’s specialty, the authors checked the assumptions of the laboratory chemist against present knowledge from other relevant sciences. They found, for instance, that “successful” simulation experiments like Miller’s presumed a pre-life earth void of oxygen despite the geochemical evidence, suggesting an oxygen-rich early atmosphere. The authors, however, do not believe current theories of biochemical origins are simply flawed. Instead, they believe developments in a science called information theory demonstrate that natural chemical processes alone will never explain the origin of the first living cells.
Information theory developed mathematical techniques in the 1970s to distinguish radio signals generated by random or repetitive natural phenomena from those that transmitted information in the form a code. Carl Sagan, for instance, has used information theory in his search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Sagan hoped to confirm the existence of intelligent life in space by collecting signals that displayed the mathematical characteristics of intelligent code or language.
While Sagan is still looking, cell biologists are not. DNA researchers have found that the twisted helix of the DNA molecule exhibits the mathematical structure and complexity of written code or language. Like Sagan’s imagined signals from space, DNA contains a message.
Information theorists describe such coded messages, whether carried by radio signals or the sequences of chemicals in DNA, as a “specified complexity” because their meaning must be specified by intelligence. Thaxton and company use information theory to suggest that the messages transmitted by DNA in the cell must also have originated with an intelligent agent.
Perhaps surprisingly, many other scientists agree. A prominent M.I.T.-trained information theorist who now edits a technical journal on the subject recently wrote Thaxton to confirm that the authors had properly applied information theory to their analysis of genetic code.
Other top researchers, while not creationists, have recognized the connection between specified genetic complexity and intelligence. Fred Hoyle and Nobel laureate Francis Crick, who first discovered DNA, have opted for the so-called panspermia view of origins to explain the intelligent arrangements they see in the cell. Panspermia maintains that life was transported to earth by intelligent beings from space.
Yet, as the Mystery of Life’s Origin recognizes, such scenarios only transfer the question of life’s ultimate origin to the cosmos. The book does not attempt to answer such questions, readily admitting that identifying the intelligence responsible for life’s biochemical messages exceeds the purview of science.
The Mystery of Life’s Origin has done well to intimate that “we are not alone.” Only revelation can now identify the Who that is with us.