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Popular science writers are claiming MIT physicist Jeremy England has solved the origin of life, but they fail to explain how new biological information or molecular machines first arose.
In the law there’s a saying, “When the facts are on your side, pound the facts. When the facts aren’t on your side, pound the table.” Some popular science writers have apparently embraced that maxim while declaring that Massachusetts Institute of Technology physicist Jeremy England may have solved the origin of life.
At Salon, Paul Rosenberg recently asserted that England’s work shows “God is on the ropes” and threatens “to undo everything the wacky right holds dear.” Claiming England “has creationists and the Christian right terrified,” Rosenberg must be borrowing rhetorical excesses from Chris Mooney, who likewise wrongly alleged last year in Mother Jones that science “has creationists terrified.”
So what exactly are England’s momentous ideas? Business Insider reviewed his theories last month, explaining they are based upon thermodynamic principles that cause matter to “gradually restructure itself in order to dissipate increasingly more energy.”
Credit: Creation Museum
Quoting the physicist, the article maintains, “the origin and subsequent evolution of life follow from the fundamental laws of nature and ‘should be as unsurprising as rocks rolling downhill.’” According to England, “You start with a random clump of atoms, and if you shine light on it for long enough, it should not be so surprising that you get a plant.”
Rosenberg mocks the skeptics, noting that "the sun provides more than enough energy to drive" life processes, overcoming thermodynamic barriers. He’s correct that the earth is an open system receiving sunlight which maintains life, but he fails to appreciate how living organisms harness energy.
Humans often overcome energetic barriers by building machines that use energy to do work. Living organisms are similar.
Sunlight maintains life on earth only because many organisms contain molecular machines which act as miniature solar cells, collecting sunlight and converting it into chemical energy. These organisms contain information encoded in their DNA—software which is translated by additional cellular machinery to build functional proteins, some of which are then choreographed to assemble into light-harvesting molecular machines.
Other organisms can then feed on photosynthetic organisms and convert them into their own chemical fuel. Every part of life’s complex web requires enormous suites molecular machines that, again, are encoded in the language-based genomes at the heart of every living cell.
A picture with a zoom effect show a grafic traces of proton-proton collisions events measured by European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) experience on May 25, 2011 in the search for the Higgs boson. AFP PHOTO / FABRICE COFFRINI
The fundamental problem with England’s theories, and Rosenberg’s polemics, is that sunlight and other forms of energy do not generate new genetic information, nor do they produce new types of biological machines.
It’s one thing to observe that energy keeps a machine running; it’s quite another to claim energy produced the machine in the first place. You could shine light on random Scrabble tiles or disassembled computer components for billions of years, and you’ll never produce a Shakespearean Sonnet or a functional computer. No wonder Harvard biophysicist Eugene Shakhnovich called England’s proposals “extremely speculative, especially as applied to life phenomena.”
Despite the bluster of materialist science writers, many theorists have admitted no natural explanation for the origin of life.
In 2011, Eugene Koonin, a senior scientist at the National Institutes of Health, starkly acknowledged that “the origin of life field is a failure—we still do not have even a plausible coherent model, let alone a validated scenario, for the emergence of life on Earth.” In his view, “A succession of exceedingly unlikely steps is essential for the origin of life, from the synthesis and accumulation of nucleotides to the origin of translation” making “the final outcome seem almost like a miracle.”
Likewise, last year the eminent cell biologist Franklin Harold acknowledged in a University of Chicago Press book that “the study of life’s origins has failed to generate a coherent and persuasive framework.” Harold warns, “we may still be missing some essential insight.”
Dr. England’s work, interesting though it may be, does not provide that insight. Sunlight—or any known form of energy—does not produce the genetic information life needs to build its complex machinery. In our experience, only one cause generates new language-based information or machine-like structures: intelligence.
Dr. England shouldn’t be faulted if materialists are co-opting his work into an overstated crusade against God and conservative politics. But naturalistic accounts of life’s origins remain as elusive as they have ever been.
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