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A strange idea of science

A review of One Strange Rock, episode 4: Genesis

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Published: 5 March 2020 (GMT+10)
WikipediaMiller-Urey-experiment
Miller–Urey experiment

In 2018 National Geographic televised a nature documentary series called One Strange Rock. “This is the story of earth”, according to the trailer.1 This 10 episode series received high online review ratings.2 What’s not to like? A slick production with stunning scenery, a cast including the much-liked host Will Smith and eight-day astronaut Mae Jemison, and a convincing narrative of how life began. Or is it? We will focus on episode 4, “Genesis”: the story is anything but convincing, requiring little science plus a lot of imagination. Let me illustrate by commenting on excerpts of the transcript of the show, and you be the judge.

The overall theme

Before we delve into details of National Geographic’s Genesis, let’s consider the basic thrust by looking at the ‘bookends’ of this episode. And make no mistake, there is a crucial difference between this Genesis and its biblical namesake, the first book of the Bible: in promoting a naturalistic origin, National Geographic effectively pushes creation without a Creator. Narrator Will Smith (WS) opens with, “You go back far enough, and everyone, every living thing, we all come from the same place. A moment when a dead rock [Earth] came to life”. Proponents of evolution do believe this; they have to. Even the evolutionists who profess to be Christians hold that Adam and Eve were not created from the dust of the ground on Day Six (Genesis 2:7), but rather had ancestors themselves, who in turn descended from something else, and so on and so forth.

Astronaut Chris Hadfield chimes in, “it’s hard to imagine anywhere else where everything could have fallen into place, so magically”. Regardless, towards the end of the episode two astronauts imagine anyway. Beforehand, WS concedes, “We may never know exactly how life got started. But we do know it was a strange brew. A dash of magical liquid, a sprinkle of stardust, and a crackle of energy. Mixed together in a big bubbling cauldron to make our rock come alive.” Although this language is meant to be somewhat tongue-in-cheek, it rather gives the game away, sounding much like the fairy tale which indeed it is. The origin of life has been—and continues to be—a thorn in the side of the atheist, despite what this documentary would have you believe.

Astronaut Mae Jemison (MJ) “was fascinated by the question who am I, what am I?”. She described that when in space, she “felt an incredible connection to the rest of the universe”, which sounds like a religious statement—it certainly isn’t a scientific one. She lists some of the “elements that are the key components to our body”, carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen, saying these “are actually generated inside of stars that exploded. All of this stardust scattered across the universe, clumping together into rocks to form planets like ours. And the great mystery of Genesis is about how stardust came to life.” As she is an intelligent, highly qualified astronaut, it would have been nice if she had explained how this clumping together actually occurred—but of course, she wasn’t there to see this hypothetical occurrence!

WS adds to her godless line of reasoning, “You, me, the dog. We’re all made of the same dead dust that built the planet. It’s just mixed up different [sic]. The big mystery is: what’s the mixer?” That the documentary doesn’t answer this big mystery—but rather conveniently sidesteps it—is clear from WS’s remarks right at the end of the program:

“Think of that fragile moment, billions of years ago, where you and I and all of us began. … it’s the moment that nothing turned to something. That stardust sparkled to life.”

Let’s now review the main body of this episode, to glean whether that mysterious “mixer” is chance, aliens, a magic wand, or some combination—none of these, of course, remotely hint at the Creator of the heavens and the earth as the Bible clearly delineates in Genesis 1:1.

Ancient recipe

One of the concerns about this documentary is that the featured scientists seem to forget the scientific method or they speak out of turn; that is, about a field of science that is not their expertise.

For instance, Professor Hazel Barton (microbiologist) shows an almost religious reverence when viewing speleothems inside a cave, saying, “Most of these formations are a couple of hundred thousand years old. (We better not touch anything.) Yeah, let’s get through without touching anything.” But how would science ever find out anything, if we are not to touch things that are supposedly of such vast age, as she believes?

Biologist Federico Pisani, having climbed the high plateau from which the water of Angel Falls in Venezuela tumbles down, plays the geologist as he asserts that “The continuous flow of water for millions of years made this incredible island in the sky.” Just as 2 Peter 3:5-6 warns, there will come a time when scoffers will deliberately forget about the role of the Flood of Noah’s day in carving such things as South America’s famous steep-sided high plateau tepuis (when the waters were receding off the continents).

Astronaut Mae Jemison takes on the role of a chemist when she briefs us on “what makes earth so special. With all the liquid water we have, our planet is like some type of giant chemistry lab.”

Actor Will Smith, admitting he’s no scientist at all, simplifies it. “Water takes dust from the stars, breaks it down and shakes it up.” He then continues, “If you want to make stardust into life, there’s a bit more to it than just add water. A recipe is more than a list of ingredients. It also tells you how to put them all together.” Really? But whose recipe is it? Who (or what) wrote the list?

Energy

wikipedialightning
Lightning strikes

We see plenty of footage of a brave worker at the top of a sky-scraper checking that its lightning rod is functional. MJ relays that, worldwide, “There are over a 100 lightning strikes per second; that’s eight million a day.” Although lightning strikes in the present are observable, she then assures us that “at the start of our planet billions of years ago, there was even more energy on display. That’s what life needed to get started: energy.” How does she know what happened so long ago? She elaborates, “Meteors rained down. There were volcanic eruptions. Super tides churned deep seas. The earth was a much more energy rich, violent place.” Nothing uniformitarian there. Uniformitarianism is the concept that only processes observed today (slow sedimentation, slow erosion, etc.) should be used to explain the history of the rocks. So the experts on this NG documentary are actually breaking their own evolutionary narrative’s ‘rules’.

Mae Jemison’s last two words are especially revealing. Not only does she depart from gradual processes that allegedly were in place over the vast eons of time, she (unwittingly) discloses that energy can destroy things. She hints at the notion that energy acting on stardust, and water somehow involved too, will start life. However, energy—unless directed in specific ways—tends to be destructive, not constructive. In fact, the trailer for this episode includes this point in its descriptions of Earth: “so destructive”, “so fragile”, “so perfectly calibrated”, “it’s amazing we’re even here”.1

MJ brings up the Urey and Miller experiment, but this life in a test-tube idea has been rebutted as the explanation for life many times and in many different ways. One of the problems raised with the Miller-Urey experiment (that water—like energy—destroys delicate organic molecules) is addressed in a rather unscientific way later in the documentary. Before indoctrinating the viewer about membranes though, there is a focus on hydrothermal vents, and WS concludes, “the origin of all of us, all the way back, was fired out of a chimney at the bottom of the ocean. But, it would have been nothing more than hot mud, if there wasn’t one very special element in that stardust.” So we humans owe our existence to a substance vented from a deep sea belching event?! Read on.

Carbon

Wikimedia CommonsBubbling-mud
Bubbling mud with bursting mud bubble

MJ explains “that for us to be here now, the right combination of stardust, energy, and water had to come together. And not just any bit of stardust.” Following this, the viewer is treated to several minutes of footage of a Hindu ceremony. A 10-year old Indonesian boy tells us about the burning of his great grandma’s bones and how he hopes she is happy because so many people came to this burning ritual. This interjection is very strange indeed because the producers have been trying to describe the origin of life in naturalistic ways, but then they insert this religious section. WS relates, “For the Hindus of Bali, death is a part of the cycle of life, not the end. It’s up to all the members of the family to make sure the spirits of the dead get to the right place.” This is perhaps not so surprising after all since, despite his Christian roots, Will Smith has dabbled in the Hindu religion and had undergone a ritual in the year this documentary was launched.3

MJ continues, “When you burn something that was once alive, and drive off all the water, what emerges in the flame is the essential bit of stardust that makes life possible. That charred black stuff, carbon.” And, “Carbon’s versatility enables the construction of a miraculous molecule inside nearly every living cell: DNA. Our DNA is one of the most complex molecules in the entire universe. Billions of carbon atoms combined to help hold it together. And this beautifully tangled formation is like an organic super computer. It contains the instruction manual for life.” I see, a molecular manual like a super computer that wrote itself. Now that is miraculous! But wait, there is more…

Cell membranes

WS starts off the final section by asking, “how are you supposed to make DNA in the middle of an endless ocean?” He continues with a cooking lesson:

“Take a pinch of star, a splash of water, turn up the heat, and bang! Happy birthday life. Not quite. There’s still something missing from our recipe: the pot you cook it all up in. Everything alive needs to be held together and protected. That’s true if you’re a strand of DNA, or an astronaut.”

The cookery program over, it is time for the astronauts to respond. First, after some scenes with the International Space Station, Chris Hadfield says, “the space station is like a cell, in a way. It’s like a bubble of life.” This is followed by Leland Melvin’s comment that, “Inside we have all the ingredients and systems to keep us alive.” What an interesting analogy. There is no doubt that the space station was designed, yet we are supposed to believe that random chance processes produced the vastly more complex cell! MJ joins in, “Water is a critical solvent for life. But if there’s too much water, the solution might be dilute and the molecules of life never bump into one another. So you need something to contain them [the ingredients and systems]. Think of the [soap] bubble that we blow. It surrounds this pocket of air. And it keeps the air contained. There’s something similar encasing all living cells: membranes.”

We have already seen the use of words like “magic”, “miraculous” and “mystery”. Now things proceed on the same note, with Prof Liane G. Benning (biogeochemist) stating, “The holy grail4 for me, is to find out how the first membranes formed. It could have formed in a hot spring, in an ice pool underneath an ice sheet. It’s a huge mystery.” So it would seem; nothing certain (“could have”), nothing scientific. And note the religious language. There’s nothing holy or precious about her ideas of the mysterious naturalistic origin of cells. Instead, it is a defiant attempt to explain these building blocks of all life without God.

Continuing, Prof Benning states “In the early earth you can envisage these bubbling mud pools where water dissolves the rocks and makes clay. As the gas comes out it forms a membrane which then bursts. So think of that membrane not bursting and actually preserving at the very, very small scale. Then if you mix organic molecules inside, you all of a sudden have an organic molecule inside a membrane to form a cell.” We can pretend to mix molecules (in a thought experiment) all we like, but that doesn’t make it real. This hypothetical scenario ends when the day-dreaming is over.

MJ’s faith in non-supernatural processes is strong also. “Everything came together in just the right way to create the first living cell, with DNA at its heart. Fast forward billions of years. And we find that all life today uses the same basic chemistry. And this points to one thing, it all originated in that first primitive cell.” Note that word ‘create’. The very word implies a Creator, a deliberate action, not happenstance. If these ‘evolutionary experts’ were truly open-minded and rational, surely they would at least consider the possibility that the Creator used the same four-letter alphabet to write many different recipes to make the various created kinds. After all, real science demonstrates that life never comes from non-life, nor information from non-intelligent matter.

But WS attempts to come to the rescue, “If you check out pretty much anywhere in the universe you’re gonna find the same ingredients to cook up life, they’re not exotic, they’re staples. Now sure, mixing them up just right is hard, but the universe is vast. So does that mean there is a big piping hot serving of life somewhere else out there?” Prof. Kenny Broad (environmental anthropologist), shown scuba diving into an underwater cave, thinks there is: “Wow, looks like we’re descending down into another planet. It’s like the rings of Saturn. That red [hue visible in the water] is the pigmentation in the cells of billions of bacteria. You can sort of imagine the most primordial simplest blobs of life like this living in this alien-like environment in the outer reaches of the universe.” Right, we shall have to ensure that the verb ‘to imagine’ is added to our list of key words in understanding the origin of life. There’s no law against imagining that life is simple, but true science and reality paint quite a different picture.

Conclusion

National Geographic claims creationists are at war with science, yet they have broadcast a documentary (Genesis) that shows remarkably little empirical science and expects its audience to suspend disbelief, stifle any scepticism, and imagine that a magical, miraculous, and mysterious process produced biological life. It’s all about something that allegedly happened in the unobservable past or distant universe. Will Smith referred to a cooking pot of life; I can think of a fitting expression here with the word ‘pot’ in it. ‘The pot calling the kettle black’ is an English expression which, according to the online Cambridge Dictionary, means: “something you say that means people should not criticize someone else for a fault that they have themselves”. In short, the National Geographic team who made this episode of One Strange Rock are guilty of hypocrisy.

Rather than buying into unsubstantiated just-so-stories, Creation Ministries International staff like real science, and we love the omniscient Creator and take Him at His Word, since He was present at the beginning and does not lie (Numbers 23:19; Titus 1:2).

References and notes

  1. Trailer for One Strange Rock, National Geographic, YouTube.com, 2 March 2018. Return to text.
  2. An 8.9/10 score from IMDb (5000+ votes on Internet Movie Database) and 97% likes from Google users. Return to text.
  3. Kumar, Y., In Haridwar, Will Smith performed ‘Rudra Abhishek’ to nullify ill-effects of Saturn, timesofindia.indiatimes.com, 11 October 2018. Return to text.
  4. The Holy Grail allegedly is a religious artefact. Some say it is the cup of the Last Supper. However, in a non-religious context, the term holy grail is a metaphor for a major breakthrough in an unsolved problem in a given area of investigation. Return to text.

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