What Will the Next Biological Breakthrough Be?


Physicists have spent enormous amounts of time and billions of dollars building supercolliders to search for fundamental particles, including the European Large Hadron Collider, which is designed to find the elusive Higgs boson.1,2 A recent article in Nature asked what kinds of discoveries in biology would garner similar attention—"the biological Higgs."3

The Higgs boson is a hypothetical elementary particle that some scientists believe dwells deep inside atoms. This tiny particle is predicted by the Standard Model of the structure of matter, but hasn't yet been confirmed. So, many physicists are interested in discovering whether or not it really exists.

In a similar way, the evolutionary model of life's origin predicts that some combination of nonliving elements could somehow come to life, and numerous theories have been offered regarding how that could have happened. Intense interest has backed both the biological and physics research questions, but the Nature article comparing the two ignored the fact that the questions involve inherently different types of investigation.

For biologists, discovering how life supposedly arose from nonliving chemicals would be worth billions of dollars. Princeton University planetary scientist Christopher Chyba wrote in 2005, "Why should we suddenly become giggly when it is biology at stake, rather than physics?"3 Stated another way, why shouldn't biologists garner the same level of enthusiasm about finding the answer to their fundamental question as physicists get in searching for theirs?

There is a clear answer: Physicists are asking a science question, but the biologists are asking a history question.

Repeatable experiments are appropriate tools to discern whether or not a Higgs boson exists in the present. But discerning "where and how life started" is a question answered by historical methods of investigation.3 Since no experiment can be performed on a past event, the historical clues can always be reorganized. Why spend so much on historical research with so little promise?

And yet much has been spent on the search for life elsewhere. Astrobiology is the study of extraterrestrial life, a "science" that George Gaylord Simpson long ago said has "yet to demonstrate that its subject matter exists."4 NASA astrobiologist Chris McKay suggested to Nature that the discovery of extraterrestrial life could verify "a standard model of biology."3 But that kind of evidence would fit into a biology-related historical narrative "model," not a physics operational "model."

To reasonably test historical models, one could compare how each fits the available clues. The best model should accommodate the most clues with the fewest caveats. Based on the assumption that raw chemicals constructed the first life on earth, the historical model of astrobiology predicts that the same process ought to have occurred elsewhere many times in a universe this vast. But how well do the data fit this model's prediction?

So far, there is no evidence for life anywhere but on earth, and there is no evidence out there for even the general conditions required for life. This is the essence of the Fermi Paradox, named for the physicist Enrico Fermi. He hypothesized that if life evolves naturally from chemicals to intelligent thinkers, then "why haven't we seen any traces of extraterrestrial life such as probes or transmissions?"5

In contrast, the biblical model of life's origins straightforwardly accommodates the fact that life has only been found on earth.6 Nor does the search for the origin of life require billions of dollars. That discovery is made simply by following the historical clues back to Genesis.

References

  1. Thomas, B. The Significance of the Successful Supercollider Startup. ICR News. Posted on icr.org September 12, 2008, accessed April 4, 2012.
  2. Vardiman, L. 2012. Did the "God Particle" Create Matter? Acts & Facts. 41 (3): 12-14.
  3. Ledford, H. 2012. Life-changing experiments: The biological Higgs. Nature. 483 (7391): 528-530.
  4. See reference 1 in Simpson, G. G. 1964. The Nonprevalence of Humanoids. Science. 143 (3608): 769-775.
  5. Bates, G. 2010. Alien Intrusion: UFOs and the Evolution Connection. Powder Springs, GA: Creation Book Publishers, 79.
  6. Lisle, J. Are ETs & UFOs Real? The New Answers Book. Posted on answersingenesis.org December 6, 2007, accessed December 7, 2011.

* Mr. Thomas is Science Writer at the Institute for Creation Research.

Article posted on April 25, 2012.