Does Abiogenesis Require Magic?
Is a Creator necessary for life to begin?
Example of Primordial Soup
Table of Contents for this "Scientific Knowledge is Power" Hub Series
- Does The Big Bang Theory Require Magic?
- Does Abiogenesis Require Magic?
Can life arise from a primordial soup?
This question often elicits very lengthy and passionate discussions among people from a wide variety of backgrounds. The creation of this hub, in particular, was inspired by a question asked on the topic of Biochemistry/Biological Chemistry here on HubPages: "For the 'Primordial Soup Theory' and/or Abiogenesis to work, would it require magic?"
Abiogenesis basically entails the creation of life from non-life: living things randomly coming about from a "primordial soup" of simple chemicals/compounds. The unfortunate thing is that scientists don’t currently know whether life actually started on this planet, or was brought here via an asteroid from another planet (Panspermia). These are the only two scientific theories about the origin of life on Earth: Abiogenesis and Panspermia. Either theory is valid and has assuredly occurred several times in the known universe, but for the sake of this discussion, we will focus on Abiogenesis (since it is required in either theory of how life originated on Earth).
In truth, Abiogenesis requires as much “magic” as winning the lottery does…it’s little more than a game of odds. A cellphone would certainly be considered “magical” to a caveman, but that is only because the caveman would have no knowledge of any technological advancements beyond the Stone Age. This helps explain why Abiogenesis seems like “magic” to people who are not Biologists or Chemists. Without a solid foundation in modern scientific knowledge/understanding, laypeople are often unable to realize how many things in life depend upon statistics. So, I will attempt to lay out some basic principles of Abiogenesis and then lead into how statistics play an important role in this concept.
Amino Acids are Similar to Nucleotides in Complexity
How can nonliving material form life?
The formation of life from abiotic factors is a delicate matter that requires the right raw materials to be in the right place at the right time. The conditions present “shortly” after the Earth formed (the "primordial soup") were favorable for spontaneously creating a wide variety of amino acids (at least 25 different ones; just by raw chemicals randomly bonding to others in water when exposed to lightning). We have also discovered amino acids in comets and meteorites.
In addition, we have determined that simpler organic molecules can form in the gas clouds that collapse to form new stars (when the gases freeze/solidify and bond together on dust particles to form molecules such as glycolaldehyde, ethylene glycol, methyl formate, and ethanol). As amino acids are similar in structure to nucleotides, one could hypothesize that nucleotides would be able to be created in the “primordial soup” as well.
It has also been shown that it only takes five nucleotides randomly joining together to form an RNA compound which is capable of catalyzing chemical reactions. This is among the simplest semblance of “life” that we have described, as biotic things commonly serve to create order from chaos (organize materials) in an effort to enhance their own survival. It wouldn’t take much to imagine that this could initiate a snowball effect, resulting in the hoarding of mass amounts of complex molecules, which would aid in the creation of small, self-replicating molecules that are capable of evolving to better survive in their environment (life).
Additionally, scientists have found that certain chemicals (in the primordial soup) undergo spontaneous self-assembly into RNA-like molecules, since bonding together is energetically favorable in some instances. So, it appears that RNA, or something like it, may be the most promising lead for the origin of life.
Is Abiogenesis a common occurrence?
Probably not. The truth is that we won't really know until we start exploring other planets to a thorough extent (this is part of why Curiosity's recent landing on Mars was so important) . Why has life not "come from nonliving material" a second time here on Earth? Well, that's because most of the chemicals and compounds in the environment have already been taken up and used by living organisms.
Even if new, primitive life was to form, it would quickly become prey to some modern form of life or otherwise be lost/destroyed. It might be that anywhere in the galaxy where you can find a good chemical backbone (either carbon or silicon), liquid water (still somewhat debated, as certain other fluids may also work), and a heat/light/energy source, the creation of life from abiotic components is virtually inevitable.
Just in our solar system, we have at least a handful of places that possess those ingredients: Earth, Earth's Moon, Mars, Ceres (in the asteroid belt), Enceladus (a moon of Saturn), and some of Jupiter's moons (Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto). Conditions must be somewhat ideal for "advanced" life like animals/humans to form, but "simpler" lifeforms can thrive in some pretty harsh environments. It can be rather ignorant to assume that, with galaxies containing approximately 100 billion planets and there being roughly 100 billion galaxies in the universe, life doesn't exist anywhere else but Earth.
Under current atmospheric conditions, the Earth experiences an average of 1,400,000,000 lightning strikes per year. If you imagine that kind of lightning activity over hundreds of millions of years, you can begin to see how a plethora of complex molecules (amino acids and the like) could accumulate in the environment and serve as a backbone to form the simplest forms of life, such as RNA. Basically, even if the chances of creating the simplest form of life is 1 in 1,000,000,000,000,000 (one quadrillion), there were over 140,000,000,000,000,000 (140 quadrillion) lightning-based opportunities for this to occur.
Alternatively, it is possible that lightning was not required at all. Ultraviolet light from the sun may have powered reactions involving HCN (hydrogen cyanide) from comets, leading to the creation of the chemical precursors to RNA, amino acids, and lipids. So, in that case, there were endless opportunities to create each of those precursor molecules and mix them altogether (perhaps via rainwater), lending further support for the origination of life from RNA.
All life had to do was form, survive, and replicate. This may have required a large number of different instances of Abiogenesis before a lifeform was able to survive to reproduce. Just think of the powerball jackpot: the odds of winning may only be 1 in 175,223,510, but people appear to win it with some degree of frequency. This is not because the lottery is "rigged" or because those few winners were subject to some divine miracle (or "magic"), it is simply a matter of statistics. Many will lose, but somebody is bound to win eventually.
What can we conclude about Abiogenesis?
The creation of life from non-life is a purely random occurrence that can happen when given the necessary raw materials under the proper conditions. It comes down to little more than a numbers game, not "magic" or "divine influence." If the formation of life (and the universe) does not require a "creator," then one can deduce that a divine creator does not exist. Although this may serve to upset religious folk, it is merely Science. All it will take is the finding of a single "extra-terrestrial" life form on another planet to solidify this conclusion and discredit most religious systems. The more knowledge that is illuminated by Science, the less breathing room there is for religion and mysticism (magic).
The problem comes when people who aren't "up-to-snuff" with their knowledge/understanding of Science attempt to draw conclusions about the world around them, as they often attribute topics that they are confused about to divine explanations. The moral of the story: scientific knowledge/understanding removes the "mystery" from life and the need for magic or religious explanations. So, the next time you find yourself asking a question about the natural world, please consider looking to Science for the answer, as opposed to coming up with your own (magical) explanation or consulting a religious text. If you would like to learn more about Abiogenesis, please see the Amazon links throughout this article for some useful book resources.
Strength of Religious Faith Poll
If we were to discover life on another planet, would you change your religious beliefs?
I would like to start off by thanking Insane Mundane for inspiring me to write this article in response to his question. This hub is intended to educate people ranging from experts to laymen about Abiogenesis from a practical perspective. This information contains generalizations and by no means encompasses all exceptions to the most common "rules" presented here. This information comes from my personal experience/knowledge as well as various primary (journal articles) and secondary (books) literature sources (and can be made available upon request). All pictures, unless specifically noted otherwise, are my property and may not be used in any form, to any degree, without my express permission (please send email inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org).
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© 2012 Christopher Rex