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Sorry Richard Dawkins, life is not a ‘happy chemical accident’


Perry Marshall reflects upon The Big Conversation between Paul Davies and Jeremy England on the origins of life as well as his own quest to find a satisfactory answer to why life arose in this universe.


Science vs. Mystery?

“Where did life come from” is a vast mystery. We have only a smattering of clues. Attempts to reconstruct its beginnings have enjoyed scant success. To many, the sophistication and majesty of life itself leaves us awestruck and speaks to a divinely ordered cosmos.

Others simply assume dumb luck, such as atheist biologist Richard Dawkins who said on radio station WBUR that “Life is a happy chemical accident.” Yet the spirit of science is to understand the systems that drive it… not ascribe what we don’t yet understand to chance or to miracles.

How do we honor science and respect the mystery at the same time?

Recently on Unbelievable, Physicists Paul Davies and Jeremy England cordially explored life’s origin. Today, a quick look at the most stubborn aspects of the puzzle, and a proposal of how theology and science can stimulate one another rather than standing at odds.

Central in the conversation between Davies and England was: What is the “spark” that makes life alive? Where does life get its ability to look out for itself? Where does a cell derive its sense of self?

It’s about information

A dead planet with the same crust as earth would never have 23% oxygen; yet our living planet maintains a robust level of oxygen, steady temperatures across a billion years, and many other things, generated and regulated by life. Dead birds don’t fly; live birds do. The phrase “far from equilibrium” is the term physicists use to describe systems that go against the flow and don’t just “roll downhill.” Jeremy England, in his book Every Life is On Fire explores how built-in biases in the flow of energy might be able to explain this.

A popular objection to the theory of evolution is that to evolve requires disorder to become order; it is said this violates the laws of thermodynamics. But instead of examining energy, Paul Davies’ Demon in the Machine approaches life from an information perspective. Davies points out that thermodynamics is being obeyed all along because living systems do consume energy.

Davies further admits that there still remains an unsolved mystery. The correct term for this order is information entropy, not thermodynamic entropy. The math for noise burying a radio signal as you drive your car is identical to the math of toast growing cold when it pops out of the toaster.

There is no such thing as “negative thermodynamic entropy”; that is why there are no perpetual motion machines, and it’s why we’re consuming so much oil. But there is negative information entropy. Erwin Schrödinger in 1943 called it “negentropy.” It is the term for birds flying and building nests; cells maintaining boundaries of their cell walls; organisms re-arranging their DNA to orchestrate evolutionary adaptations; humans building houses and machines. Non-living things do not exhibit any such ability. It is more than clear that living things do this… but we don’t know how. Below, a list of ten things we know, and ten things we don’t:

What we know
What we don’t know 
Life is present everywhere on earth and anything that contacts earth’s atmosphere Where life started
RNA strands can form spontaneously in appropriate conditionsHow life started
Life turns disorder into orderWe are still searching for a physical principle that explains this
All living cells exhibit cognition: The ability to sense changes in external or internal conditions and respondNon-living things do not exhibit cognition. “Biology is the only known source of agency in the universe.”
Cells, plants and animals produce new species in weeks or months, even hours; natural selection produces winners and losers.How applicable is “natural selection” before genes and genomes become part of the picture?
To replicate, cells require instructions in the form of code (“Von Neumann replication”)We don’t know where code came from
Almost all life forms use the same universal genetic code Which came first, the code or the protocell? (“code first vs. metabolism first”)
Obeys the laws of thermodynamicsWhat was the original energy source?
Cells self-replicate in 20 minutesHumans have yet to produce a self-replicating machine   
We have precise definitions of computers and machines [REF Levin and Joshua]We have no agreed-upon definition for life itself

God of the gaps?

It’s all but impossible to discuss this without raising the Big Questions. England and Davies laid their religious cards on the table. Jeremy England doesn’t embrace “God of the gaps” arguments. Yet as a practicing Jew, he does see a divine order in the fabric of the universe. His book, wonderfully written, weaves modest Biblical poetry into his scientific evaluation of the problem. Davies is open to the possibility of a Higher Order, but feels that a personal experience would be needed for him to believe.

My own foray into these questions began in a scuffle with my ex-missionary, bordering-on-atheism brother on a bus ride in China. “Look at the hand at the end of your arm, that’s a nice piece of engineering!” I argued. He volleyed a well-articulated “evolution by natural selection” comeback.

We couldn’t agree. I set our dispute aside, then tore into it once I got home. I quickly discovered current scientific knowledge falls short of explaining life and the detailed mechanisms of evolution. Nevertheless I became convinced that evidence for evolution having occurred was robust. What we lack is a detailed knowledge of what drives it.

I initially embraced “God-of-gaps” arguments; particularly in the origin of life and the genetic code. But over time came to prefer taking order and design “wholesale” rather than “retail.”

Is the origin of life an all-out miracle? At present it’s impossible to rule that out. But we can never find out for sure unless we assume a natural explanation may be in the offing. This is the rationale behind the $10 million prize I announced two years ago at the Royal Society, and discussed with Lee Cronin on Unbelievable.

No scientist gets to say, “God did it, that settles it, let’s go out to lunch” and publish that in a scientific paper. Having been raised a Young Earth Creationist, imagine my surprise upon discovering cells perform merger-acquisitions, generating new species in a few weeks, and protozoans can cut their DNA into 100,000 pieces and re-arrange them in hours. Today I don’t believe there is any place in nature where you can point to a dotted line and say, “See, just on the other side of that line, that’s God.”

Naturalism of the gaps?

At the opposite extreme, I also could not accept Richard Dawkins’ flippant answer that “Life is a happy chemical accident.” We cannot dumb down science to fit whatever we can manage to understand.

Instead, I propose we embrace two complementary principles:
  1. Any theory that takes a job away from a scientist is probably wrong.
  2. Any theory that attempts to eliminate God as an ultimate explanation is probably wrong.

Any scientist, naturalist or atheist can get behind item #1. Less obvious, but perhaps just as important, is the damage quietly done to science by rejecting #2. For decades the “Junk DNA” theory insisted that 97% of our genome was junk – evolutionary leftovers and genetic garbage. This was advocated by the atheist community from the 1970s until not very long ago. “Junk DNA” fit a certain narrative: Look at how clumsy and ineffective this alleged ‘god’ really is.

But when the ENCODE project and ubiquitous genome sequencing revealed that “non-coding DNA” is where the ‘interesting stuff’ is – including coding regions that organisms use to engineer evolutionary change! Then 10 years ago, CRISPR, the very gene editing technology that has taken the world by storm, came from segments of bacterial DNA that had once been believed to be “junk.” Turns out it was a bacterial database of past viral attacks.

Or consider the multiverse theory. Should we be invoking 10500 “junk universes” just to avoid having to explain the fine-tuned universe we ostensibly live in now? What if there are 10500 other universes… and what if every single one of them is also fine tuned, beautiful, and filled with wonders we can’t yet imagine?

Atheists underestimate nature… and creationists underestimate God

Oxford physicist Andrew Briggs and Roger Wagner’s book The Penultimate Curiosity begins with 100,000 year old religious cave paintings and traces how, from ancient times to the present, science swims in the slipstream of ultimate questions. Science and theology need not be at war, but properly understood, live in a healthy and productive tension. Like a mostly-happily-married couple.

So let’s bring this re-frame to the Origin of Life. What if the capacity to create life is “baked into the universe” from the big bang itself? What if principles of cognition and consciousness are wired into the laws of physics and chemistry? What if the potentialities for all those things are present at the ignition of the big bang? And…what if all this is discoverable?

What if life is neither a “happy chemical accident”… nor an instantaneous divine miracle… but the fruit of a purposeful cosmos endowed with the capacity to develop as it wishes to develop? Then and only then would all creatures be capable of expressing their desires in freedom, and we hope, the ultimate desire – love.

Perry Marshall is founder of the Evolution 2.0 Prize, a $10 million award for the origin of the genetic code, and author of Evolution 2.0: Breaking the Deadlock Between Darwin and Design.

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