Science in Christian Perspective
Biogenesis: Paradigm and Presupposition
J. W. HAAS, JR.
Wenham, Massachusetts 01984
From: JASA 27
(December 1975): 152-155.
The major experimental approaches and presuppositions employed in current biogenetic investigation are examined from a Christian perspective. Some objections in Christian thought to biogenetic studies are examined. The view is offered that these studies are worthwhile in demonstrating the plausibility of particular models posed for the Creation process. An appeal for freedom of thought in examining the question of origins is made.
The module hovered over planet Htrae, then gracefully set down within 300 yards of the designated landing point. The voyage had taken over 9 years, but a technique for slowing life processes allowed the two astronauts to pass the time in a quiescent state with body reactions occurring at only 1/10,000 of the normal rate. As they descended from the space craft they carried with them a number of miniaturized analytical instruments-a gas chromatograph, mass spectrometer, electron and x-ray diffraction apparatus, nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer and an electron miscoscope. These devices were put quickly to work relaying data to Mission Control in Houston from samples in the vicinity of the landing site and later from many areas on Htrae using the Htrae Rover. Htrae, a relatively young planet 200 million years old, was considered to have an environment at birth and during life very similar to that of Earth. A dozen other teams of astronaut-analysts were on planets of similar origin whose age varied from 1 million to 1 billion years. They pursued a common task to gain a picture of the scope and nature of carbon containing molecules on the planet at that point in its history. When the data from all these molecular cameos were combined, a history of Earth's organo-chemistry from simple molecules to self-replicating systems was evident.
President John F. Kennedy, III gave the first announcement of the results of the 77 trillion dollar project to a hushed, expectant nation.
Somewhat west of Tombstone, Arizona an opaque encompassing bubble rises some 400 feet above a 260 acre region onto which has been telescoped all the general surface conditions considered to have existed on the primitive Earth-mountains, sterile seas, reducing gases, ultraviolet radiation, cosmic radiation, lightning in infinite variation. This vast apparatus may be turned on at point zero in organic molecular history and sampled on land and sea from time to time to assess the course of molecular evolution until well after the first living form is observable. A quantum mechanical tuning device allows the experimenters to accelerate the relative rates of chemical reaction by as much as 109 during uneventful periods in history and to slow reaction by a factor of 103 at significant points in organo-history. A complete biogenetic picture was obtained in less than three years and 3946 doctoral theses emanated from the project.
These idealized experiments characterize in part the complexity (and perhaps the absurdity) of origin of life studies, yet man in his God-ordained task to subdue the Earth continues the quest to gain insight with respect to his molecular beginnings.
Although the concept of chemical evolution may be traced back to Lucretius in De Rerum Natura (about 58 B.C.), it was not until the third decade of this century that A. I. Oparin' and J. B. S. Haldane2 independently proposed a model for the origin of life which was capable of scientific investigation. They suggested that carbon-containing gases present in the primordial atmosphere were transformed by natural stimuli such as heat, sunlight, and electrical discharge into more complex carbon compounds which collected as "dilute soups" in the seas, reacting to provide more complex molecules, then protobiological and ultimately, biological material-the process taking place in a time scale of millions of years.
Scientific interest in the Oparin-Haldane model was limited to a few scattered experiments over the next quarter century. It was not until the 1OSO's that the advent and financial support of the space age and broad interest in cell biochemistry provided impetus for the significant amount of investigation currently under way.3
The origin-of-life problem is atypical when compared with day-to-day chemical questions in that it focuses on a series of events thought to occur over an immense span of time in a period of limited accessibility to modern investigation. The method of attack, degree of certainty of conclusions, and presuppositions may vary from those formed in questions explored in a laboratory setting.
In this paper we consider the presuppositions and methodological approaches characteristic of workers in this field and see how they have fared in Christian thought.
One may plead that our efforts in biogenetic investigation be allowed to continue unhindered by political, philosophical or religious authoritarianism.
There are several general experimental approaches currently employed in biogenesis investigation. One method involves "synthesis of life" studies where the concern is to find a set of reactions that, under controlled laboratory conditions, convert relatively complex matter into living material. Here the concern is not "how did life originate?" but rather the demonstration that such an event can occur at all. Presumably this approach, if successful, would provide encouragement and direction for historical studies.4
A second direction seeks to determine general reaction conditions and types of chemical species which react spontaneously to form living substances. This basically theoretical approach places emphasis on finding the minimal set of conditions without concern for original earth conditions.5
The third approach is more comprehensive in that one works in the context of apparent primitive Earth conditions in an attempt to establish "the historic process," or better "a process" by which life may have originated. The Oparin-Haldane model is followed and experiments carried out to evaluate the plausibility of particular reaction sequences leading to the "simplest forms of life". This constructional-historical approach has provided significant insight in understanding the spontaneous formation of molecules of biological importance. The future will judge the value of efforts currently underway to establish the complex patterns of organization and cell formation from smaller molecules.
Investigators in the field have been quick to recognize the tenuous nature of their efforts and have variously described the broad working assumptions on which their investigation is based. In the widest sense it is assumed that the universe is ordered, that the pattern of natural behavior observed today has operated through the Earth's history,6 that the laws of logic and mathematics are true by definition or by axiomatization of basic principle, and that these laws are applicable to the world of experience.7 It is also assumed that natural phenomena must be explained (at least in the context of scientific method) without recourse to the supernatural.6
There are at least three presuppositions which relate specifically to biogenesis studies. The first considers life on earth to have a beginning-a time of origin. Another suggests that the origin of life on the primitive Earth involved a series of relatively probable chemical and physical events and did not critically depend on the chance occurrence of very rare events. A third assumes that the compounds which occur ubiquitously in contemporary life were also essential to the origin of life.8
These operational assumptions require a view of "scientific
one recognizes it, arrives at it,
finds its limitations and how it shapes our choices. At one level
truth may appear
to be objective and impersonal, to have meaning only where capable of
This view however overlooks the role of man's mind in the knowledge
constantly invokes his personal judgment and acts on the basis of
things he holds
to he true. He is influenced by educational background and cultural setting and
well may be motivated in his efforts by a heuristic search for rational beauty.
While truth for the scientist is not that of the poet, there is a little of the
poet in all scientists.
Most scientists take their theories to represent real events in the world. They have little patience for the intense and often contradictory philosophical analysis of language and methodology which would limit the scope and meaning of their effort. Barbour has drawn together many elements of the discussion into a helpful statement.9
The scientific enterprise is a many-faceted phenomenon. Its genius has been precisely the interaction of components which oversimplified accounts have portrayed in isolation. It involves both experiment and theory, neither of which taken alone constitutes science. It requires both logical processes and a creative imagination transcending logic. Its theories are evaluated at once by empirical agreement, rational coherence, and comprehensiveness. Individual activity and originality are significant but occur within the tradition of a scientific community and under the influence of its paradigms. Scientific language does refer to the world, but only symbolically and partially, sometimes using analogies or models of limited scope.
The resulting theories are not guaranteed to he the truth; any of them may in the future be amended, modified, or in rare cases, overthrown in a major "revolution." Yet scientific theories do have a reliability, and the scientific community does eventually achieve a consensus, seldom found in other types of inquiry. Although some aspects of scientific knowledge change, many aspects are preserved, contributing to an over-all cumulative advance that differs from that of other disciplines.
Although specific comment on the topic of biogenesis has been limited, the topic of origins has dominated the science-Christianity dialogue for over a century. The complexity of the subject and the diversity of response continue to provide frustration and division in the Christian community.
From a Christian view the assumptions of origin, order and uniformity are derivable from the broad sweep of Scripture encompassing the doctrines of Creation and Providence. Indeed some would attribute the rise of modem science in the 16th and 17th century to the theistic convictions prominent in the lives and culture of many of those active in science at that time.10
The presupposition that eliminates the supernatural from intervention
in the biogenetic
process is no doubt offensive to some, yet reflects more the
limitation of scientific
methodology in describing the role of God in Creation than an
mindset on the part of the investigator. Science does not deny
or "miracle"; it is just blind to them.
Evangelical objection to the "possibility" of abiogenic molecular evolution follows two general lines of argument. One is based on the biblical text and theological formulations which stress the "rapidity" of creation, the inability of scientific models to explain "Adam and Eve" or the "image of God" and an apparent scriptural limitation on man's ability to understand his beginnings. This thread of Christian thought places the epic of origin either entirely in the realm of miracle or so interwoven with the miraculous as to be inaccessible to scientific study." Both Scripture and scientific data are used to support this view.
One scriptural argument is based on parallels between Christ's miracles and the Genesis account of creation and the language of Scripture which implies a short time span for God's creative activity in contrast to that (presumably) required for the Haldane-Oparin Model. Clearly the Bible is critical to those who profess it to be the authority for their lives. Yet, not all commentators draw these same conclusions from Scripture, but consider that science can contribute to man's quest for understanding in this domain.
Further, it is eminently unclear just which criteria may he used to decide where Providence (capable of scientific study) and Miracle (incapable of study) intersect, especially at the time of origin.
In this respect Kline has suggested
... the avoidance of unnecessary supernaturalism in providence during the "six days" accords well with the analogy of subsequent divine providence for the latter is characterized by a remarkable economy in its resort to the supernatural.12
Kline develops this principle on exegetical grounds in demonstrating the inadequacy of traditional scriptural interpretations that hold the 24 hour-day theory or any strictly chronological interpretation of Genesis 1.12
is used to draw attention to defects in the work and conclusions of biogenesis
investigators or to expose the complexity of the problem and the
paucity of results.13
Surely, scientific effort requires constant critical scrutiny to
in the context of the current state of knowledge, yet a strategy
involving a biogenesis
"truth squad" seems unproductive in the long run. One must
negatively) to each paper that appears (a never-ending task) if a
against biogenesis is to be maintained. One has the problem of what to do when
work cannot be discounted. Again there may be no basis for deciding
arguments against biogenesis have any more validity than those
proposed in support.
For example, there is considerable interest in the possibility that oscillating
reactions exhibited by a variety of biological systems may provide mechanisms
by which a chemical reaction could have been induced. 14 One must now rush to
the task of demonstrating the implausibility if not the impossibility of this
approach even though an understanding of the phenomena in
systems is still in an early stage.
Another objection to biogenetic investigation concerns the assumption of the principle of uniformity. It is felt that the forces and laws operating during that period were different in some respects from those we see today, thus rendering invalid any attempt to extend present molecular behavior to the time of origin. However, significant scientific and scriptural evidence to support this view is lacking.6
An alternative approach currently being advanced by some Christians involves the attempt to demonstrate that scientific data fit a "modem creationism" view more closely than "modern evolutionism." While this approach is preferable to one which simply attacks the other side, it suffers from the problem of attempting to prove something incapable of direct proof. One can only construct a model and then demonstrate the extent to which the data provide support. The danger that a model will become the model for orthodoxy is all too clear from church history.15
Some attention has been given to the nature of the "driving force" which culminated in living forms. Is there an innate molecular direction, or did life arise as the result of a long series of random, improbable molecular events?
The first view is receiving increasing attention. Kenyon and Steinman have described the driving force as Biochemical Predestination.
...by this I mean that the association of units toward the ultimate development of the living cell is determined by the physiochemical properties possessed by the simplest starting compounds from which these systems evolved . . . . the ultimate characteristics of the living cell can be traced back to the nature of the starting compounds from which it was produced . . . we should not look on the appearance and development of the living cell as an improbable phenomenon but rather as one which followed a definite course governed and promoted by the properties of the simple compounds from which the process began.16
Three presuppositions of biogenesis studies: (1) life on earth had a beginning, (2) the origin of life on earth involved a series of relatively probable chemical and physical events and were not critically dependent on chance occurrences of rare events, and (3) present-day compounds were also essential to the origin of life.
Paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin incorporated this view in developing his encompassing "cosmogenesis" view.
Teilhard feels that at some point, which he calls Alpha, primordial matter came into being that has within it (through the creative act of God) the propensity to become complex and unified. Electrons and protrons have as it were, a built-in affinity for each other and in time form more complex atoms. Atoms in torn form increasingly complex molecules and macromolecules. Molecules coaccrvatc to form pre-cells and these entities eventually form living cells-and so on up the evolutionary scale.17
Needham has commented
Laboratory work therefore has in general strengthened the view that biological reactions are the innate spontaneous properties of materials which are synthesized spontaneously under natural conditions and that life originated and evolved for this reason . . . . Applied to the eobinlogical systems the contention is that life has always been precisely the most probable, opportunist exploitation of the most spontaneous pathways.18
While these formulations are not without problems, they may well represent the limit of man's ability to characterize God's creative direction. The concept of Biological Predestination should receive serious consideration by the Christian philosopher and theologian as well as the scientist.
One feature that distinguishes chemical evolution from its Darwinian counterpart is that there is a strong likelihood that a plausible process can be demonstrated in the finite future using the historical-construetionistic approach, while considerably less confidence is exhibited in the ability to view major transitons in life forms after the Darwinian model, Perhaps in this generation, as the landmark efforts of the Spiegelman group on self-replicating RNA are expanded, we shall see if the current optimism is more than wishful thinking.19 As Scientist-Christians we should follow and engage in these efforts with critical, but open minds. We have in Scripture the basis for understanding the fullness of reality; it is here that creation is described in terms of purpose, meaning and direction. As Christians we gain deepening insights at this level as we mature in our faith. As scientists we attempt to extend our understanding of the process of creation by viewing nature in the context of scientific method. One may plead that our efforts in biogenetic investigation be allowed to continue unhindered by political, philosophical or religious authoritarianism. In the words of Carpenter:
I am free, I am bound to nobody's word, except to those inspired by God; if I oppose these in the least degree, I beseech God to forgive me my audacity of judgment, as I have been moved not so much by longing for some opinion of my own as by my love for the freedom of science.20
1. Oparin, "Proiskhozhdcnie zhizni," lzd. Musknvskii Rabnchii, Moscow, 1924.
2J. B. S. llaldane, Rationalists Ann., 148 (1929).
3J. W. Haas, Jr., Christian Scholars Review, 1, 291, (1971) and the references therein.
4G. Schramm, in S. W. Fox (ed), "The Origins of Prehiological Systems," p. 299, Academic Press Inc., New York, 1965.
5H. H. Pattee, J. Biophys., 1, 683 (1961).
6D. K. Kenyon and G. Steinman, Biochemical Predestination, p. 30, McGraw-Hill Book Co., New York, 1969.
R. Hooykaas, Natural Law and Divine Miracle, K. J. Bril, Leidcn, 1959.
7R. Schlegel, Completeness in Science, p. 77, Appleton, New York, 1967.
8Biochemieal Predestination, pp. 31 If.
9I. G. Barbour, Issues in Science and Religion, p. 173, Prentice-Hall Inc., Englewood Cliffs, 1966.
10R, Honykass, Religion and the Rise of Modern Science, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1972.
See, however, M. H. Rienstra in V. J. Eblers and R. D. Griffinen (eds.) The Christian and Science, p. 1, Calvin College, Grand Rapids, 1969.
11C. F. I-lowe, Journal ASA, 17, 93 (1965).
H. M. Morris and J. C. Whitcnmb Jr., The Genesis Flood, pp. 223ff. Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., Philadelphia, 1961.
12M. C. Kline, Westminster Theological Journal, 20, 146 (1958).
13D.T. Gish in Aaldert Mennaga (ed.) The Christian in Science, p. 62, Dordt College, Sioux
14A. T. Winfree, Science, 175, 634 (1972).
15R. Hooykaas, Christian Faith and the Freedom of Science, The Tyndale Press, London, 1957.
16Biochemical Predestination, p. 266.
17Sr. J. Van Denack, The American Biology Teacher, 35, 216 (1973).
18E. Needham, The Uniqueness of Biological Materials, p. 8, Pergamnn Press, New York, 1965.
19D. R. Mills, F. B. Kramer, and S. Spiegelman, Science, 180, 916 (1973).
20As quoted in Reference 15, p. 24.