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‘Acellular’ first life?

Published: 6 May 2012 (GMT+10)

Dr Don Batten engages in an exchange with long-time sceptical correspondent Dr Richard M. (in red) from the United States, who writes in response to Is ATP synthase found in all life? concerning whether or not the hypothetical ‘first life’ needed to be cellular.

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Dear CMI,

Brian Thomas, along with virtually all other creationists (as well as some evolutionists, unfortunately), makes the tacit but unwavering assumption that there was in the past some entity that they call the “first cell.” This implies a sharp and distinct line between the chemistry of life and of non-life and further that cellularity is a prerequisite for life. This is an assumption, and a shaky one at that. It is much more likely that that this “demarcation line” was instead a broad area in which many configurations came and went before cellularity was well established. We have in the present world instances of acellular organisms, as well as borderline forms such as viruses. Holding up the “first cell” as a prerequisite entity is a ‘straw man;’ other possibilities are readily conceivable and are the subject of scientific investigation.

Dear Richard,

Maybe the evolutionists who recognize that there must have been a first cell that allowed reproduction are actually correct. You ought to know that viruses are not ‘borderline forms’ of life at all, but are wholly dependent on the panoply of cellular enzymes, ribosomes, tRNAs and cofactors for production of their proteins and replication of their DNA or RNA. Furthermore, even evolutionary virologists are increasingly recognizing that viruses are derived from cellular life; they are not the precursors of life.

Acellular organisms? Please name one (note: a cell with multiple nuclei is not really ‘acellular’).

Life begets life and no one has ever observed anything to the contrary. Once again the evolutionary paradigm trumps the evidence and conjecture replaces sound science to preserve the belief.

Some time back you said you were a Christian. Christians believe that Jesus was conceived miraculously (virginal conception), so I find it odd that you as a Christian would not believe in the miraculous origin of life but rather defend the idea that it arose naturally. Even atheist Francis Crick acknowledged that it was “almost a miracle” (A single-celled irony).

With kind regards,

Don Batten

Hello Don,

I realize that you reject the “RNA world” hypothesis, but it is still a topic of intensive research and has by no means been discarded. (See Forterre , P. and Gribaldo, S.HFSP J. 2007 September; 1(3): 156–168 for a fairly recent review.) As for the status of modern-day viruses, it may be largely a matter of semantics. I agree with your statements regarding the multitude of processes that cells must call into play to help viruses to reproduce-this very fact indicates that viruses are not independently alive in the same way that cells are. However, we have the example of the mimivirus, which does seem to straddle the border between cellular and acellular life, in that it is not totally dependent on the machinery of the amoeba within which it reproduces, but does have independent coding for some of its essential functions. You would consider this to be just more semantics, but its status and its role in the origin of cellular live is a subject of active investigation.

It puzzles me that you exclude, a priori, that “a cell with multiple nuclei is not ‘acellular.’” Why do you make this exclusion? In addition to many types of multinucleate cells, the body contains syncytial tissues with many nuclei (the placenta comes to mind); they are not divided into membrane-separated compartments (a key component of the definition of a cell), and they function as one extended cell. And in response to your invitation to “name one”, I offer the case of the migratory phase of the slime mold Physarum polycephalum. (In fact, it is usually referred to in the literature as the “acellular slime mold.”) It is an independently mobile, metabolizing organism that carries out its functions without being compartmentalized into cells-therefore it is reasonable to call it an acellular organism.

Regarding your last point, it is a huge stretch to compare a diffuse series of events in the distant past, events on both sides of a fuzzy line of demarcation, with the singular event of the conception of a human being (I assume that you believe in the humanity of Jesus as well as his divinity). How this latter event may have occurred I do not know, but I do know that it did not involve a transition from pre-cellular to post-cellular life.

Keep well,

Richard

123rf.com/Vladimir Nenov

Dear Richard,

There are plenty of current research programs that are ‘dead in the water’ and wasting precious research dollars. RNA world is one of them. Almost none of the problems outlined by Cairns-Smith have been solved and more problems have been discovered.

Mimivirus is still not on the way to self-sustaining, self-reproducing life. It is a long way short.

‘Acellular’ life? Yes, it is called that, but it is really a misnomer. It is really multi-nucleate life. There is still a cell membrane/cell wall, which is a fundamental problem for the origin of life. I did research on plant cell differentiation where the DNA in the nucleus doubles up as the cells get bigger, measured with fluorescence microscopy (up to 16n). I never published it. Some protists can make their cells bigger by a different strategy: more nuclei. They are all choreographed to divide at exactly the same time, so this is no happenstance. But they are still cells, so this does not in any way make the boundary between life and non-life ‘fuzzy’ at all.

My point about the virginal conception (I’m glad you agree that it happened, and yes, I believe that Jesus was both God and man; God incarnate), seems to have flown right over your head. I was merely drawing out the incongruity of you (possibly) believing in a miraculous birth of Christ but then doing your darndest to defend the non-miraculous origin of all life on earth, something that atheists have to defend ‘tooth and nail’ to remove any thought of a Creator from their thinking. It would be nice if you would side with God occasionally (as in Romans 1) rather than the atheists! The origin of life is an open-and-shut case for intelligent (divine) design.

All the best,
Don

Dear Don, Actually, the problem of a cell membrane is one of the least of the problems, since there are a number of natural mechanisms whereby a small region can be separated from the larger space. By the way, are you aware that there are biologists who dismiss the functionality of the cell membrane in favor of a structured gel that maintains cell selectivity and integrity? While this point of view is ably argued by its proponents, it has never gained much traction. But the dissenters have not been suppressed by the “establishment”.

You said in your reply that “There are plenty of current research programs that are ‘dead in the water’ and wasting precious research dollars.” Perhaps we could add to the ‘RNA world” research the R.A.T.E Project of the ICR. This endeavor consumed hundreds of thousands of dollars of contributors’ money and was supposed to shake the foundations of nuclear physics. As far as I know (and you can correct me with specific citations if I am wrong), none of this work has been published in any reputable journal that is directed to the scientific community. (Please do not raise the usual objection of biased editors, discrimination against creationists, etc.–as your recent editorial pointed out, if a scientific idea has merit and has sufficient evidence to support it, it will eventually be given the credence due to it.) And the ICR continues to spin its wheels in research projects that will go no farther than the community of true believers.

Your comment about my “siding with the atheists” illustrates one of our major differences. And I think that I know why you feel that I am in this position. Here are my comments that may shed some light here. I have been a scientist for almost 50 years. Throughout that time, I have learned how to read and write scientific papers with care and critical thought. I have learned how to design, conduct, and analyze experiments, and I have been rather successful in this career. Most fundamentally, I have learned how (and not just in my own field) to compare experimental results and claims with objective reality. If I encounter a claim that runs contrary to what has been established by many decades (or centuries) of scientific research, my skeptical nature is aroused, and I test the assertion against this background, all the while keeping in mind the possibility that new knowledge may invalidate some of what we held to be well established. This often leads to my “siding with the atheists.” For example, my knowledge of physiology, anatomy, physics, and chemistry leads me to discount the literal truth of Jonah having been swallowed by a great fish and surviving inside it for three days, as the Bible literally asserts. This, I suppose, places me in the atheist camp. So be it.

©iStockphoto.com/Henrik5000

However, I cannot accept the way of “doing science” that is championed by creationists and other biblical literalists. A scientist who has subscribed to the statement (which you will recognize) that “By definition, no apparent, perceived or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the Scriptural record.” is not functioning as a scientist. This person has painted him(or her)self into a corner, wherein it becomes necessary to develop elaborate circumlocutions to explain away the obvious. For example, the Bible clearly asserts that some diseases are caused by demons and evil spirits, and it devotes considerable space to this notion. Suppose some scientist comes along with experimental evidence that demonstrates that bacteria, viruses, and environmental toxins are actually the causative agents. To be consistent with your position, you would have to say that the scientific evidence must be invalid, or you must invent a complicated and tortuous explanation of how such knowledge was present in scripture all along. And here is another area in which this approach to science falls down-it forces one to ignore the well-demonstrated consilience of science. While a creationist proposition may appear valid in one area of science, if it is completely at odds with what is known in other fields, it lacks scientific validity, and this again leads to all sorts of makeshift “repairs” to save the original assertion. Consider some examples from the flood of Noah. It is obvious that there is not enough water in today’s world to cover the highest mountains on earth. So the claim is made that the mountains were not there, or were not nearly as high, prior to the flood. But they are here now, and this necessitates the assertion of high-speed mountain-building; this is buttressed by co-opting the idea of plate tectonics. However, the time scale is all wrong, so “rapid plate tectonics” is invented, ignoring the energetic and thermal problems that this raises. And if the time scale is wrong in other contexts, “accelerated radioactive decay” is asserted, again ignoring the consequent huge thermal and lethal radiation that this occurrence would entail. (Although these problems were temporarily shelved by invoking passages in the old testament about “stretching out the heavens”, apparently an attempt to provide a rationale for ‘volumetric cooling’.) In the area of biology, the proposed time scale would require the speciation of the world’s present fauna from the “kinds” on the ark in the space of a few thousand years, all without the addition of any new biological information, a possibility inconsistent with what we know (from empirical scientific research) about how animal and plant reproduction actually occurs.

It is your view that my skeptical analysis of creationist claims places me on the side of the atheists. It also, however, places me on the side of many Christians who are accomplished scientists (but who are dismissed as “compromisers” in the YEC view.) And it saddens me greatly that the creationist approach to science and biblical literalism virtually invites the ridicule of Christianity by the scientific community.

This reply has taken longer that I had intended and is probably too lengthy. But you raised some issues that are at the crux of the problems that we discuss. I do not expect to change your mind (you have promised that you will not do that regardless of the evidence), but I would like you and other creationists to try to appreciate that my being “on the side of the atheists” is due to a false dichotomy of your (plural) own making.

Regards,

Richard

Dear Richard,

Just some brief responses (I won’t respond to everything; it would seem that there is little point in doing that, but please don’t take silence as tacit admission that you have a point on any issue; I just have to use my time judiciously).

  1. Cell membranes? Soap bubbles are not membranes. It is not just a matter of separating one space from another. You should know that. Cells have to control what comes in and out; there is no example of a passive cell that relies on simple diffusion.
  2. Of course dissenters to particular models of abiogenesis (etc.) are not suppressed if they continue to hold that evolution is still true. However, censorship of anyone who contradicts naturalism is rife in modern day science: See, Not too old to be expelled.
  3. RATE research was privately funded where the donors knew what the money was being used for; it was not funded by theft of taxpayers’ dollars. It has provided powerful evidence for a biblical time-frame for the earth. Of course there are unanswered questions; that is the nature of all attempts to piece together the past when we only have measurements in the present to work on.
  4. I could make similar claims about my own experience and knowledge of ‘doing science’. However, we have both been doing experimental science and it is in the area of history that we differ, where no-one can do experiments on what happened in the past (see ‘It’s not science’). I don’t believe it is the evidence that is the problem in our differing understanding of history, but our axioms, where we are starting from. Probably the most important of those is our differing attitudes towards the Bible-as-the-Word-of-God (not just ‘containing’ the word of God)—the authority of Scripture and our respective approaches to hermeneutics.
  5. You say, “A scientist who has subscribed to the statement (which you will recognize) that ‘By definition, no apparent, perceived or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the Scriptural record.’ is not functioning as a scientist. This person has painted him (or her)self into a corner, wherein it becomes necessary to develop elaborate circumlocutions to explain away the obvious.” This reveals an ignorance of epistemology (how we know anything). Let me re-phrase this to make the point: “A scientist who has subscribed to the statement (which you will recognize) that ‘By definition, no apparent, perceived or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can say anything regarding God or the Bible’ is not functioning as a scientist. This person has painted him (or her)self into a corner, wherein it becomes necessary to develop elaborate circumlocutions to explain away the obvious.” In fact you are constraining the science, not us. Where the evidence suggests natural causes, that’s fine with us. Where it suggests supernatural causes (such as the origin of the universe or life or the diversity of life, mankind, etc.), that’s also fine. But you have bought into ‘scientism’, that supernatural conclusions are excluded, no matter what the evidence. This is atheism, not science. Your faith in the ‘consilience’ of science is misplaced, particularly as it takes no account of the fallenness of scientists and the fallibility of the enterprise, particularly as it tries to deal with history, where conclusions are predetermined by the materialism of the majority of the operators. The existence of any miracles in history means that the assumption of uniformitarianism cannot be correct when it comes to origins; but your ‘science’ is based on this very assumption.
  6. The primary finds of the RATE group based on helium retention/diffusion have been beautifully confirmed by parallel data on argon.1 Both lines of evidence point to a period of rapid decay in the past and a biblical age for the earth. We can only speculate about the mechanism (recently-published measured variations in the decay of radioisotopes, apparently in synchrony with Sun cycles,2 shows that much is still not known about radioactive decay; this research had quite a problem getting traction because of the ‘standard model’ does not allow for it.).

I once thought as you, doubting the Bible’s early history, so I can understand where you are coming from and I’m afraid that it does make you a compromiser (as I was). Your fresh admission that you don’t believe the story of Jonah underlines the problem. Jesus said,

“An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. (Matthew 12:39–41).

So, Jesus believed that Jonah was swallowed by a ‘great fish’. Was he wrong? One thing that any Christian must do is worship Jesus. How could you worship someone who was so ‘ignorant’ as to believe the story of Jonah? The Bible says that all things were created through Jesus (John 1:1–5). Perhaps you don’t believe in the Resurrection either? You gave your reason for disbelieving the account of Jonah thus: “my knowledge of physiology, anatomy, physics, and chemistry leads me to discount the literal truth of Jonah having been swallowed by a great fish and surviving inside it for three days, as the Bible literally asserts.” It would be entirely consistent for you to say, “My knowledge of physiology, anatomy, physics, and chemistry leads me to discount the literal truth of Jesus having been in the tomb for three days and rising from the dead.” I trust you are indeed inconsistent in this!

But perhaps you are further down the track outlined by Cal Smith than you realize: What all atheists have to believe.

Yours most sincerely,

Don

References

  1. Humphreys, D.R., Argon diffusion data support RATE’s 6,000-year helium age of the earth, Journal of Creation 25(2):74–77. Return to text.
  2. Stober, D., The strange case of solar flares and radioactive elements, August 23, 2010; physorg.com/news201795438.html. Return to text.

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