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David Attenborough’s First Life: Arrival

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Published: 26 February 2013 (GMT+10)

In this BBC-Discovery TV program1 Sir David Attenborough tells us his purpose is to look at the origin of life and for the very first living creature that appeared on Earth. As he presents the evolutionist worldview, we shall examine what he says and compare it with the biblical worldview.

He begins by showing us a rock surface in Charnwood Forest, Leicestershire, England, and he says: “A discovery was made that transformed our understanding of that mystery of mysteries, the origin of life.” In 1957 a schoolboy named Roger Mason found a fossil in these rocks that evolutionists said were 600 million years old [i.e. Precambrian]. Viewers see a computer-reconstruction of this fossil as a leaf-like plant growing on the sea-floor in darkness. It has been given the genus name Charnia.

First life: microscopic single cells

Attenborough continues:

Before Charnia and other complex organisms existed, the only living things were microscopic single cells. They first appeared about 3½ billion years ago when the earth was a very different place. … The land was dominated by volcanoes, hostile and lifeless; but deep in the oceans life had begun. The latest theory is that chemicals spewing from underwater volcanic vents … produced the conditions needed for the first cells to form. Some of these began to harness the energy of sunlight just as plants do today, and form colonies.

It is true that organisms (sometimes called ‘extremophiles’) can and do thrive in the corrosive and near-boiling environments around some underwater volcanic vents and hot springs.2 However, the claim that life originated there does not follow. Such a claim is actually a faith statement, i.e. that an unknown reaction mixture, under unknown reaction conditions, gave unknown products by unknown mechanisms, and these products were somehow alive. So a few questions are in order:

  1. Seeing, Sir David, that every one of the thousands of animals you have depicted in your many TV programs has been the product of biogenesis [i.e. life from life or they all had parents], what actual scientific evidence (as distinct from your evolutionary faith statement) do you offer in support of the above abiogenesis [i.e. life from non-life, or no parents needed], also known as chemical evolution?
  2. What about the fact that high water temperatures around volcanic vents would destroy any biomolecules formed faster than they generate them?3
  3. Plants that harness the energy of sunlight today need a complex chemical molecule called chlorophyll. In photosynthesis, plants break up a molecule of water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen then combines with CO2 from the air to make sugars, which the plant uses for food.4 This has been enormously difficult for science to duplicate—building a molecule that can break water without breaking up itself.5 So how did your first cells develop these requirements?

In fact, chemical evolution is a massive problem for evolutionists, as evolutionist physicist Paul Davies points out when he says: “Nobody knows how a mixture of lifeless chemicals spontaneously organized themselves into the first living cells.”6

The biblical worldview answers the above problems. It too is a faith statement (cf. Hebrews 11:34), but it involves the “living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them” (Acts 14:15). Jesus said that He is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). The Bible further says that “In Him [Jesus] was life, and that life was the light of men” (John 1:4). Jesus is also our Creator God (John 1:3; Colossians 1:16). He created our planet with its life-friendly atmosphere, as well as plants, animal life, and man during Creation Week, as described in Genesis chapter 1.

As for extremophiles that live in the ocean, Genesis states:

And God said, “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures … .” So God created the great sea creatures and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds … . And God saw that it was good. And God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas … .” And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day (Genesis 1:20–23).

‘Snowball Earth’

Attenborough next tells us that for some 3 billion years simple microscopic organisms were the most advanced form of life on planet Earth. Then, he says:

“Just before complex life appeared, the world was in the grip of the biggest Ice Age in its entire history … it probably extended from Pole to Pole [hence ‘Snowball Earth’] … it’s likely that those conditions lasted for millions of years.”

We are not told the reason why this Ice Age occurred or why it lasted for the claimed millions of years. But any discussion involves the sun. As the sun shines, the nuclear reaction is four hydrogen nuclei fusing into one helium nucleus. This takes less room, so the core contracts, which makes fusion easier, and the sun shines ever more brightly. This is not noticeable over the biblical timescale, but it does entail that the sun would have been much fainter billions of years ago, if it were that old. This faint young sun paradox is a big problem for the evolutionary worldview, because the evidence favours warmer climates in the past.7

USGS/Cascades Volcano Observatory/D. Burgos Volcanoes expel huge quantities of ash, blocking the sun and cooling the atmosphere.
Volcanoes expel huge quantities of ash, blocking the sun and cooling the atmosphere.

Then Attenborough tells us that finally Snowball Earth began to warm due to volcanic activity that spewed carbon dioxide into the air, producing a greenhouse effect, so that the earth warmed and the ice melted.

There is another, major problem with this evolutionary worldview. Volcanoes don’t only spew carbon dioxide, they also belch huge quantities of ash and aerosols into the atmosphere. These shade the earth from the sun, and the net effect is a cooling of the earth rather than a warming of it. E.g. scientists generally believe that Krakatoa is still keeping the earth cool today due to the amount of rock, pumice and ash ejected from it in 1883.

Creationists too believe there was one main Ice Age, but we say it occurred shortly after Noah’s Flood rather than 3 billion years ago, because the post-Flood conditions provided the reason for it. Following the Flood, much water evaporated from the warm oceans, and at the same time airborne volcanic ash caused cooling of the land, and this combination of features caused the precipitation of enough snow over the land to cause the Ice Age.8 For further details see the Creation Answers Book, chapter 16.

Sponges, multicells and collagen

Back to the TV program, where we are told:

As the glaciers retreated, so nutrient-rich melt-water flooded into the oceans. … Cyanobacteria and other oxygen-producing microbes began to bloom across the globe … and it was this increasing oxygen that was the key to the rise of the animal kingdom. … Up to this moment, living cells that had been produced by division simply drifted away from one another. But now, with the aid of increasing oxygen, some cells were sticking together. Some of these clumps ultimately evolved into animals.

To illustrate how oxygen drove this process, Attenborough shows us a sponge, which he calls “a living fossil” that “has survived virtually unchanged for around 600 million years”. We are told that the cells of this:

Are held together by collagen. You need oxygen to manufacture collagen, and with the rising amount of oxygen in the atmosphere at the end of Snowball Earth, cells were able to manufacture it.
Illustration by Caleb Salisbury

Question:

Collagen is a protein that is made up of the amino acids glycine, proline, hydroxyproline, and arginine arranged in a triple-helical structure; so just how did the first single cells obtain the information to synthesize these amino acids and arrange them in the right sequence to give their necessary structure?9

Next, viewers are shown a laboratory experiment in which a sponge is cut into miniscule pieces that then slowly reconstitute themselves into a miniature sponge. Marine biologist Prof. Bernard Degnan tells us that we can infer from this that 600 million years ago cells could interact to give rise to something that’s bigger and greater—a large macroscopic multicellular animal.

Question:

So, fully formed, individual sponge cells can regenerate themselves as a multicellular sponge, but how does this relate to non-sponge single cells?

The fossils at Mistaken Point, Canada

Viewers are then shown fossils at Mistaken Point, Newfoundland, Canada, claimed to be over 565 million years old. They include hundreds similar to, and many larger than, the Precambrian fossil Charnia, first found at Charning Forest, England. We are told that “none of these fossils could move, nothing had a mouth, nothing had muscles”. Attenborough refers to them as ‘creatures’ and ‘proto-animals’, with the caveat that “they are not like anything that exists on Earth today”. He calls them fractal organisms,10 and says that they “grew by a series of branches with each branch exactly the same as its predecessor from the microscopic level upwards … so ‘animals’ using it grew large for the first time in the history of life on Earth”.

Paleontologist Dr Guy Norbonne tells us:

It takes a minimum of genetic programming in order to make one. You could probably do it with six to eight commands on your PC [personal computer] to make something that was fractally branching. And then combining to make up larger elements is literally child’s play, like a toddler might take Lego blocks and put them together to make up a larger structure.

Hold on a minute! “Six to eight commands on your PC” is in the context of a sophisticated programming system that can interpret those commands! Furthermore, even the child’s play still involves intelligence, which is not part of Attenborough’s story, which is that physics and chemistry gave rise to the diversity of life, not intelligence of any form.

Finally we are told that they all vanished, and have no living descendants, because “their fractal way of growing meant they were incapable of evolving things like guts and brains and muscles and teeth”.

These are interesting speculations, but they don’t really help answer the question put by evolutionist physicist Prof. Paul Davies concerning life’s origin: “How did stupid atoms spontaneously write their own software … ?” His answer is “Nobody knows … .”11

The fossils at Ediacara, South Australia

Viewers then see the Ediacaran Hills in South Australia, where there are fossils of soft-bodied creatures that paleontologist Dr Jim Gehling tells us were squishy things that lived flat on the shallow sea floor, and which had begun to move.

But how did these animals originate? We have only been told of single-cells, sponges, and fractal organisms that left no descendants. So what were the parents of these squishy things? Evolutionary biology, it seems, has no answer.

Instead, Attenborough introduces us to Dickinsonia, “a cushion-like creature that lay flat on the sea floor, crept from one feeding place to the next, perhaps with the help of hundreds of tiny tubular feet, as starfish do today”. Again, instead of telling us how Dickinsonia acquired the genetic information to grow hundreds of tiny feet, Attenborough tells us that “animals everywhere were on the move, actively seeking food”. And “this new mobility was only made possible by a major change in the layout of animals’ bodies”, namely bilateral symmetry. This is “a body with the head at one end, a tail at the other, and almost identical halves if you split it down the middle”, and in between, “segments on which you can add appendages”.

He continues:

Between the head and the tail there are numerous segments, so these animals could increase in size by simply adding more segments; what is more, each segment could do a particular job. … On the front end that’s where you need sense organs—eyes, feelers. On the appendages you can modify them to be hooks and claws so you can catch things. And at the back end there will be a pore from which you excrete the waste products. And that is the basic body plan of almost all the animals that are alive on the earth today.

Well, that’s a nice evolutionary story, but we have not been told how any of this occurred. E.g. how did any animal acquire the genetic information needed to grow eyes and feelers? Or hooks and claws? Or an excretory organ? How is it that the first time a fossil appears it has all the design features that make it special, whereas the theory of evolution postulates the gradual accumulation of body parts through random mutations? In short, how was it that animals had suddenly become so complex? This ‘Ediacaran explosion’ is actually another huge problem for evolutionists.12

Origin of sex

Attenborough’s answer to the last question is that animals acquired the ability to change with the changing environment by exchanging genetic material with other individuals, i.e. by reproducing sexually instead of by cell division. Paleontologist Dr Mary Droser enthusiastically tells us: “Sexual reproduction is why we have the diversity we have; it’s the story of the birds and the bees.” However, neither she nor Attenborough tells us how this or any other organism gained the genetic information to do this.

Sexual reproduction is another huge problem for evolutionists. Evolving a male without the female would be useless, so how did the transition from asexual to sexual reproduction evolve simultaneously in each sex and at each biological level? The fact that it gives diversity once it is already in place does not explain how it originated, because all transitional forms, e.g. half a sex organ, would be highly disadvantageous, and natural selection would eliminate them. Also in any stable population there is on average one surviving offspring per parent, so asexual reproduction is twice as efficient at passing on genes to the next generation.13

No such problems exist for the creationist worldview. On Days 5 and 6 of Creation Week God created sea-life, bird-life, and land animals, all with the organs necessary to multiply. In the case of the first human beings, Adam and Eve, the record specifically says that God created them “male and female” (Genesis 1:27). Furthermore, since the first of all of these animals and humans were originally created by God’s command, none of them needed to have parents.14

Predators

The TV program closes with paleontologist Dr Phillip Donoghue using an X-ray microscope to look inside a fossil of a tiny marine worm called Markuelia that we are told “lived just 20 million years after the animals of Ediacara”. It had teeth, and Attenborough says: “The fact that it had teeth suggests that it had a new diet—other animals.” Donoghue goes further than this cautious suggestion and says: “The fact that it’s got rings of teeth around its mouth that it would have ejected out of its mouth to grasp prey items tells us that this thing was a predator.”

This is an interesting speculation, given that Donoghue fails to name any animal alive today with a similar circular tooth structure, and among today’s animals, fruit bats have extremely sharp teeth but use them to eat only fruit.

Attenborough continues:

For the first time there were hunters in the oceans [do you mean this microscopic marine worm?], and that had enormous evolutionary imputations. There was about to be an explosion of life that would lay the foundations for modern animals. In another wave of evolution, the animal basic body plan became more and more elaborate. Fearsome predators appeared in the seas, great monsters on the land, and animals became masters of the earth.

So did the microscopic Markuelia evolve into these? If not, how did they form? Saying that various animals “appeared in the seas” or “on the land”, “in a wave of evolution” is mere hand-waving and gives no indication that they arose via random mutations and natural selection from any mutual ancestor.

Tree trunk fossils that cut across several geological layers, like these at Joggins, Nova Scotia, Canada, are evidence for fossil formation by the global Flood recorded in the Bible. See creation.com/polystrate-fossils-evidence-for-a-young-earth. Pictures from Ian Juby.

Conclusions

  1. Discerning viewers of the TV program will have noticed that Attenborough has been unable to say how life began, or how fractal organisms appeared, or how squishy things formed in the sea, or how any animal acquired complex organs, or how his first predator either originated or changed into any other predator.
  2. We have not been shown a single transitional fossil of one organism partly changing into a more complex organism. The missing links are still all missing.
  3. The most sensible and scientific reason why we don’t find fossils of the ancestors of the Ediacaran creatures is that they did not evolve from anything, but were created by God in the beginning.
  4. Attenborough quotes millions of years to support his thesis, but a better timeframe is that given by the Genesis Flood, where the unproven evolutionary deep-time sequence is replaced by the order in which the fossils were deposited during the Flood.
  5. The fact that many fossils are of soft-bodied creatures means that they were buried quickly (and thus avoided scavenging or oxidation), all of which is a problem for billions of years and uniformitarianism, but what we would expect as a result of the Flood 4,500 years ago.
  6. Evolutionary story-telling is no substitute for hard facts.

References

  1. Shown in the UK and USA in 2010 and in Australia on ABC1 in Dec. 2012. Return to text.
  2. Catchpoole, D., Life at the extremes: It shouldn’t be there. But it is. Evolution struggles to explain … , Creation 24(1):40–44. 2001; creation.com/extreme. Return to text.
  3. Sarfati, J., Hydrothermal origin of life? J. Creation 13(2):5–6, 1999; creation.com/hydrothermal. Return to text.
  4. Sarfati, J., Green power (photosynthesis): God’s solar power plants amaze chemists, J. Creation 19(1):14–15, 2005; creation.com/greenpower. Return to text.
  5. Catchpoole, D., In pursuit of plant power, creation.com/plantpower, 25 September 2012. Return to text.
  6. Davies, P., Born lucky, New Scientist 179(2403):32, 2003. Return to text.
  7. Oard, M., Is the faint young sun paradox solved? J. Creation 25(2):17–19, 2011; creation.com/young-sun-paradox. Return to text.
  8. The evidence for this post-Flood Ice Age is accepted generally, but it is not the one that Attenborough is talking about. Return to text.
  9. See also Doyle, S., Evolution of multicellularity: what is required? J. Creation 23(1):5–7, 2009; creation.com/multicellularity. Return to text.
  10. A fractal is a self-similar repeating geometrical pattern. See Blakefield, M., Order or chaos? Creation 20(3):46–48, 1998; creation.com/order-or-chaos. Return to text.
  11. Davies, P., Life force, New Scientist 163(2204):27–30, 18 September 1999. Return to text.
  12. Doyle, S., Ediacaran ‘explosion’: Another thumping headache for evolutionists, creation.com/ediacaran-explosion, 5 March 2008. Return to text.
  13. See Sarfati, J., Refuting Evolution 2, Chapter 11, Argument: Evolution of Sex, Creation Book Publishers, 2011. Return to text.
  14. See also Harrub, B. and Thompson, B., The Origin of gender and sexual reproduction. J. Creation 18(1):120–127, 2004. Return to text.

Helpful Resources

The Fossil Record
by John D Morris, Frank J Sherwin
US $20.00
Hard Cover
Evidence for a young world
by Dr Russell Humphreys
US $0.60
Soft Cover