Some people who watch American football only see players running in zigzags and senselessly colliding until there is a pile of men lying on the field. But to the cheering fans, they just witnessed a quarterback read the defense and call out adjustments to a complicated strategy, followed by precise player movements purposively choreographed like a ballet. This group knows the big picture of the game, which includes the mini-battles between individual players. That insight fits other areas as well.
Evolutionists and creationists seem to debate endlessly about everything. Complicated technical arguments about amino acids, nucleotides, meteorites, thermodynamics, and biological mechanisms may come across as disconnected and irrelevant to daily life, but these seemingly trivial debates are like two opposing football players’ mini-battle. Understanding how everything fits together is easier if a person can see the bigger picture.
Therefore, taking one step back from amino acid debates reveals that their context is a widespread provocative claim that “life is only chemistry.” For instance, two evolutionary authorities recently said, “Indeed, as van Helmont concluded in 1648, and as is even today the rallying cry at conferences on the origin and evolution of life, it seems quite clear that ‘all life is chemistry.’”1 Whether that is true or not may affect daily life in areas as diverse as health care policies, religion, or the wisdom of tax expenditures on projects searching for aliens.
Evidence shows that evolutionary assertions that life is only chemistry constitute another major blunder. While significant, that lesson is secondary. More important is how a “life is chemistry” declaration illustrates that quarrels over details are truly significant when they are recognized as being nested in opposing worldviews that claim to be truth. Discovering the concealed links between basic research and a worldview is a fascinating exercise.
Did God Create Nature, or Did Nature Create Itself?
Detail-level origins disputes ultimately progress to answer this big-picture question: Did God create nature, or did nature create itself? God, in this sense, would reflect His attribute as a sufficient cause so that nature could be an effect. Ideally, studying the properties of nature should indicate one way or another whether God was a necessary cause or whether nature by itself is sufficient (meaning God isn’t necessary). Realistically, however, researchers begin work by structuring their research efforts according to a presupposition that one explanation is true. Knowing a worldview’s assumptions is the first step to understanding how details like chemical bonds and molecular shapes get interpreted.
The condensed version of those who start with a “God creates nature” position is that they generally hold that matter and natural law proceed from, and are shaped by, God’s pre-existing mind. God, His thoughts, and information—all immaterial—come first and matter later. God’s mind, not matter, is the ultimate reality.
The exact opposite presupposition guides research for those embracing the “nature creates itself” view. They hold that the physical universe is the entirety of reality. A key assumption is that matter and some properties of nature are self-existent. They approach research presupposing that the way natural laws govern the interactions of matter will give rise to everything else.
Focusing on the “nature creates itself” view, also known as materialism, will illustrate how adherents of a worldview risk establishing it as scientific dogma. This happens when they automatically use it to shape the research program that is their plan for doing research.
How Worldviews and Research Programs Shape Each Other
The first step in starting a theory about life’s origin is to define what life is. Everyone knows that living things grow, reproduce, adapt, and metabolize. However, these functions only describe what living things do, but not, per se, what life is. A recent scientific article’s headline, “Why Life Is Physics, Not Chemistry,”2 exemplifies that the basic premise of materialistic models will be some type of natural process. Definitions must align with the worldview, even if they are counterintuitive. Within materialism, declarations such as “life is chemistry” or “life is physics” define what life is.
Still, for many people it is somewhat odd to declare that life is either physics or chemistry. Something is different in a living person and missing from an essentially dead person maintained on life support—even though, theoretically, all tissues (except the brain) may be transplanted from that person’s body to the living person. What exactly is maintained by the living person’s biochemical processes? If those processes could be fixed in the body on life support, would life return? Does physics explain why living things seem to act with willful, goal-directed behaviors? Living creatures don’t want just any resource but strive for the best ones. They want to reproduce. They want to live. People know they may order a pound of meat but not a pound of life. Nor can they acquire a similar quantity of consciousness or information or volition. Given these distinctions that physics and chemistry have yet to explain, why not simply declare the current scientific status, which is that so far neither human senses nor instrumentation has weighed or otherwise measured life?
There is a reason materialists declare definitions that have been extrapolated past the supporting evidence. Believing that nature created itself, they are constrained to use that belief to frame explanations of natural phenomena for which non-materialistic explanations are inconceivable. By definition, something that is beyond the realm of human detection is mystical, not material—which describes our current understanding of life. One future possibility is that life itself may be materially quantified and possibly duplicated. But a second possibility is that it may remain mystical. In fact, it may be immaterial. However, many scientists will structure research programs where the criteria to rule out the first possibility are exceedingly high. This means that, for example, no matter how many chemical experiments result only in chemistry and not in life, something like the “life is chemistry” premise survives—since only materialistic explanations are conceivable. This finally takes us to understanding how different worldviews shape research programs.
Most people are uninformed and little concerned with research programs. However, in a scientific age, research programs are indispensable to achieving a dominant worldview. Why? First, a program and its underlying worldview vigorously feed each other. Second, research programs, with their attendant presuppositions, control what questions are considered legitimate, what research paths are acceptable, what research projects are allowable (i.e., funded), what views should be opposed, and what interpretations of results are permitted.3 If the same “rallying cry” inspires similar programs across research institutions, conformity may be enforced and denial of publication may muzzle contrary voices.
This explains how materialism’s declaration—not a conclusion—that life is physics or chemistry initiates and guides research programs that already believe that complex molecules arise from simple chemical elements and that simple life will emerge from complex molecules. Starting only with matter and law, a conscious mind—one capable of deciphering this whole preceding scenario—could then materialize as a byproduct of countless struggles for survival. Then, perhaps, some of those conscious minds while still in their primitive state will create the notion of God.
Research programs monopolize what findings are reported as science. Thus, we now understand why disputes over methodologies, details, and bias flowing from these programs will be the realm of debate between creationists and evolutionists and why that illustrates how a debate about whether life is chemistry is actually a debate about worldviews.
Materialists Declare “Life Is Chemistry”
Widespread belief that cellular function was extremely simple may explain early researchers pursuing chemistry-based scenarios.4 Unfortunately, the wholesale invocation of imagination into scientific scenarios—not a good practice—beginning with Darwin is gently overlooked in historical accounts.
Darwin imagined a scenario in which just the right environmental conditions craft life. Evolutionist John Priscu notes:
It was Charles Darwin who first posed an explanation for life’s origin that complemented his evolutionary theory of life on Earth. In a letter written in 1871 to botanist Joseph Hooker, Darwin envisioned: “It is often said that all the conditions for the first production of a living organism are present, which could ever have been present. But if (and Oh! what a big if!) we could conceive in some warm little pond, with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, light, heat, electricity, etc., present, that a protein compound was chemically formed ready to undergo still more complex changes, at the present day such matter would be instantly devoured or absorbed, which would not have been the case before living creatures were formed.”5
Darwin may merit a pass on thinking that life is simple due to the limited information of his time. But his introduction of the look-imagine-see methodology into science is contrary to science’s distinguishing observation-based methods of learning about nature.
Today, complicated chemical reactions are manufactured everywhere, yet their results have no resemblance to living things. Would any researcher, therefore, invoke the look-imagine-see method to declare that “life is chemistry”? Yes. The materialistic assumption that nature creates itself remains. That mindset leads to imagination-based research programs conceived in minds that visualize—and tolerate—fantastic leaps of evolutionary progress that are achieved through self-coordinated chemical processes. Chemistry, or the hardware of life, remains the focus of research, as one report recently confirmed: “Instead, hardware has dominated the discussion, in accordance with the generally reductionist flavour of biology in recent decades, with its associated assumption that, ultimately, all life is nothing but chemistry.”6
Life Is Not Chemistry: Correcting a Blunder That Harms Biology
Life-origins researchers Sara Walker and Paul Davies observed that “although it has been notoriously difficult to pin down precisely what is it that makes life so distinctive and remarkable, there is general agreement that its informational aspect is one key property, perhaps the key property.”7 Their paper explains in depth how information—not chemistry—is the key property of living things.
In a candid interview on their work, Walker stated, “Chemical-based approaches…have stalled at a very early stage of chemical complexity—very far from anything we would consider ‘alive.’ More seriously they suffer from conceptual shortcomings in that they fail to distinguish between chemistry and biology.” To which Davies added, “To a physicist or chemist, life seems like ‘magic matter’…[that] behaves in extraordinary ways that are unmatched in any other complex physical or chemical system.” Unlike being just chemistry, living things actually “harness chemical reactions to enact a pre-programmed agenda, rather than being a slave to those reactions.”8
A report on the work of physicist Nigel Goldenfeld and microbiologist Carl Woese bluntly synopsized their criticism of all “life is chemistry” beliefs: “Goldenfeld and Woese say that biologists’ closed way of thinking on this topic is embodied by the phrase: all life is chemistry. Nothing could be further from the truth, they say.”9 That author summarized the bold assessment of Goldenfeld and Woese’s own paper that challenged the “rallying cry” that all life is chemistry, which, they concluded, “has arguably retarded the development of biology as a science, with disastrous consequences for its applications to medicine, ecology and the global environment.”10
The Folly of Imagination-Based Research Programs
Reality and such self-affirming statements as “Darwin’s ‘warm little pond’ idea was supported experimentally by two University of Chicago researchers [Miller and Urey] in the early 1950s”11 are enormously different. Walker and Davies opened their paper by acknowledging, “Of the many open questions surrounding how life emerges from non-life, perhaps the most challenging is the vast gulf between complex chemistry and the simplest biology.”12 They quoted chemist George Whitesides, who stated, “How remarkable is life? The answer is: very. Those of us who deal in networks of chemical reactions know of nothing like it.”13 They reproved simplistic research programs like Miller and Urey’s, saying, “Often the issue of defining life is sidestepped by assuming that if one can build a simple chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution, then the rest will follow suit and the problem of life’s origin will de facto be solved.”14
For those who believe that God created nature, there is also a note of caution. The Bible says that the Lord formed Adam from dust and then breathed into him the breath of life (Genesis 2:7). Did the breath of life turn simple chemistry into complex chemistry or impart something altogether different? Criticisms of “life is chemistry” programs must not be aimed solely at the simplicity of their stories and their trivial results—which may leave the impression that life could still somehow be complicated chemistry. The main problem remains evolution’s invocation of wholesale imagination to build research programs that, paradoxically, are closed to considering all non-material explanations. Life could be something totally distinct from chemistry, as even Walker and Davies acknowledged: “The heart of the issue is that we do not know whether the living state is ‘just’ very complex chemistry, or whether there is something fundamentally distinct about living matter.”15
- Goldenfeld, N. and C. Woese. 2011. Life Is Physics: Evolution as a Collective Phenomenon Far from Equilibrium. Annual Review of Condensed Matter Physics. 2: 375-399.
- Why Life Is Physics, Not Chemistry. MIT Technology Review. Posted on technologyreview.com November 22, 2010, accessed September 27, 2016.
- Gould, S. J. 2002. The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 61, 157-159, 451.
- Meyer, S. C. 2009. Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design. New York: HarperCollins, 43-44.
- Priscu, J. C. Origin and Evolution of Life on a Frozen Earth. National Science Foundation. Posted on nsf.gov, accessed September 27, 2016.
- Walker, S. I. and P. C. W. Davies. 2013. The algorithmic origins of life. Journal of the Royal Society Interface. 10 (79): 1-9.
- Ibid, 1.
- Derra, S. ASU researchers propose new way to look at the dawn of life. Arizona State University news release. Posted on asunews.asu.edu December 12, 2012, accessed September 26, 2016.
- Why Life Is Physics, Not Chemistry.
- Goldenfeld and Woese, Life Is Physics, 375.
- Priscu, Origin and Evolution of Life on a Frozen Earth.
- Walker and Davies, The algorithmic origins of life, 1.
* Dr. Guliuzza is ICR’s National Representative.