Out of nowhere, it’s natural creation

OK, so last time we did away with Adam and Eve. Now what?

If there’s no evidence of the special creation of our First Parents, there’s also no evidence of an intentional agent’s conscious pronouncement of “Let There Be Light” — unless perhaps Isaac Asimov was right, in the delightful 1956 sci-fi story “The Last Question.”

On a more local level, what about life here on Earth? Those little molecules who grew up to become us? Somebody had to tell them to get evolution started, right?

As we get closer and closer to repeating the process of kick-starting life without prior life, we get closer and closer to demonstrating that life can happen spontaneously, thanks to the inherent properties of the chemical bits of which it remains composed.

In “First Life: The Search for the First Replicator,” in the August 15, 2011 issue of New Scientist, Michael Marshall reports on research into the chemical processes by which self-replication occurs — and particularly on the efforts to mimic a first-life process in the laboratory.

The moment of the very first self-replicating process was what Marshall calls “the dawn of evolution.”

Once the first self-replicating entities appeared, natural selection kicked in, favouring any offspring with variations that made them better at replicating themselves. Soon the first simple cells appeared. The rest is prehistory.

Half a century ago, the first likely candidate for the first self-replicator was RNA. But conditions on the early Earth weren’t conducive to making RNA, so what made the first molecule that made the first copy of itself?

When it was discovered that RNA could act like DNA, mimicking the creative action of some simple proteins, science seemed closer to the answer. The problem was that the leap from mimicking DNA to actually working like DNA was entirely without evidence. And science doesn’t like unsupported speculation very much, or at least, not for very long.

In the 1980’s, researchers discovered a few exotic RNA types which did catalyze enzymes. And in 2000, the chemical processes in living cells were shown to depend on an RNA enzyme, which clearly predated the proteins it generates.

Today’s research is taking the next step, creating RNA enzymes that can replicate ever longer pieces of itself. It seems that it won’t be long before scientists have created an RNA molecule capable of replicating itself.

But is this what happened on the early Earth? Using what we know about the chemistry of that primordial era, researchers are confident that it won’t be long before they create the right mix of constituents, secondary materials, and physical conditions to create the simpler molecules — which have already been shown to “pop” into being spontaneously under early-Earth conditions — that then create RNA molecules, that then recreate themselves, that is, become alive.

So the chemistry increasingly shows how life could have generated spontaneously on the cooling Earth four billion years ago.

Notice that this is not a “just so story” — much less, a revealed belief.

Today’s chemists are not interpreting vision quest relics of a dead language or merely constructing a logically consistent but untestable hypothesis. This is neither religion nor social science.

What’s going on here is science at its empirical best. Look at the evidence — life exists. Discover the mechanisms — it works this way. Replicate the natural result — we made it happen the same way in the lab.

So excuse me if I don’t mourn the passing of Adam and Eve. The real story is much more compelling– and, for that reason, much more interesting.