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Abiogenesis is not spontaneous generation. Period.

During a brief skirmish I had the other day on Twitter with young-Earth creationist Joe Cienkowski (of self-published anti-atheist tract fame), he asserted that the theory of abiogenesis is the same as the now-disproven hypothesis of spontaneous generation. This is, of course, as with pretty well every other assertion about science ever made by Joe, patently false.

Spontaneous generation held that life in its present form today could form from non-life, and did so all the time — for instance, aphids sprang from dew on plants, maggots emerged from rotting meat, and mice were created from wet hay. In 1859, Louis Pasteur performed experiments that put the final nail in the coffin of the hypothesis. He proved definitively that life does not spring, fully formed and unbidden, from any recipe of inorganic or dead organic matter. So the question of the origin of life was reopened for the first time in centuries.

Abiogenesis, on the other hand, does not predict that life in any form known today — not even the simplest single-celled life forms — were created in some flash of magic or through some arcane recipe of components. That would be creation, in the sense of a personal creator deity. Rather, it predicts that, as life is made up of chemical reactions, and the constituent components of life can self-arrange given certain conditions, there is some point in Earth’s early history wherein a chemical chain reaction went runaway and breached the fuzzy barrier between chemistry and biology. All biology is is one single long, unbroken chemical reaction that can be traced back to whatever initial condition sparked it billions of years ago.

Numerous experiments have borne out the fact that amino acids, the building blocks of life, can spontaneously self-arrange given a number of different initial conditions, and that these amino acids can self-replicate from material in the environment, can be subjected to natural selection where the quicker self-replicators beat out the slower ones, can attract lipid bilayers from hydrophobic lipids, and, given enough time, due to natural selection favoring arrangements better able to replicate themselves out of limited environmental materials, can develop into bio-machines, like prokaryotes. Abiogenesis depends on a staircase of steps from chemical reaction through to the diversity of life we see today, and every one of those steps is falsifiable. Yet we haven’t managed to do so. Scientists have been trying, desperately.

The fact is, arguments from ignorance or incredulity are often the best creationists can offer against the theory. They attack strawmen by suggesting that the organisms that self-arranged in the initial conditions are complicated machines like we see today, some four billion years down the road. They calculate the odds of materials spontaneously self-arranging into a fully functional organism — but they pick the simplest possible organism extant today, rather than the proto-organisms postulated for instance in the RNA-world hypothesis. Such ur-creatures have been proven plausible in laboratory experiments. Sure, we might have a hard time unearthing solid evidence as to exactly WHICH potential path life took. However, we’ve been quite successful in recent years at showing that there are multiple such conditions wherein abiogenesis can occur. The conditions for our particular “conception” might be lost to time, but the evidence is pretty strong that it wasn’t via an intelligent designer.

No, not even if it was via directed panspermia or directed abiogenesis by an alien life form, as William Dembski once suggested, and as Richard Dawkins once offered Ben Stein as an olive branch to the Intelligent Design movement. (Memo to future biologists – don’t give olive branches to IDers. It will be subsequently used as a club.) Ultimately, the aliens-as-IDers theory fails in that this alien life form must have had an origin of its own, and it likely wasn’t “Goddidit” given what else we know about nature’s functions. With the “evolutionary” nature of the creation of the various elements through “stellar evolution”, it’s no surprise that creationists conflate the scientific theory of the Big Bang with the scientific theory of abiogenesis with the scientific theory of evolution. Really, once you review the evidence for each step in the chain, the grandeur of the staircase to sapient life becomes apparent. It is vast, majestic, and elegant in its scope and its power to explain the whole sweeping arc of reality. And it does so with absolutely no need for a personal directing intelligence. Occam’s razor can then neatly cut such an unnecessary entity out of the picture.

Which explains why certain theists are so quick to take up arms against the scientific worldview, usually by employing intentional misdirection, misinformation and strawman attacks. Such a powerful message about how reality works as science — powerful in its ability to correctly predict and extract comprehension from reality, and also powerful in its ability to dispel djinns and deities and fairies and ghosts — is a major threat to the more rigid lines of thought found in the dogmatists’ quarters. Should such a scientific worldview be adopted by the wider populace, the gaps in which God could possibly reside would shrink so far that only deists and pantheists stand a chance at reconciling reality, as proven by the evidence available to us, with their doctrines. Whole swathes of philosophy and theology would be obviated and excised as failed hypotheses.

No wonder they’re doing whatever they can to conflate repeatedly-validaded hypotheses like abiogenesis with disproven hypotheses like spontaneous generation! It’s like judo, only of a hamfisted sort, without any sort of grace or knowledge of kinematics. It is a blatant attempt to turn the scientific method on itself, knowing that science was employed to disprove spontaneous generation. If you can play the semantics game enough, you can conflate any two concepts with one another, even in total contradiction with reality. And it seems to me this is something we must guard ourselves against, for though it is dirty pool, it is a tactic I’ve seen employed too frequently in my experience — this despite religious tenets suggesting against lying.

Comments

  1. says

    I have had this very same conversation with YECs on more than one occasion. They seem to revere Louis Pasteur as some sort of “demi-prophet”.
    Spontaneous generation should serve as no more than a good lesson in jumping to conclusions from simple observations; a caveat more about “bad science” than anything else.
    Yet it persists in the imaginations of YECs as a foundational rebuttal to evolution in general and abiogenesis in particular.
    It is this same inability to differentiate between long, logical processes and instant, magical ones that spawns the ridiculous logic that new species have no partner to mate with.
    Thankfully, arguments like this one do more to harm biblical literalism than help it. I have faith that the average person isn’t quite that stupid…

  2. says

    I have had that thrown in my face on a number of occasions. It is astounding to see that so many Creationists still cling to such blatantly dishonest claims and wordplay.

    YECs never fail to make my jaw drop.

  3. says

    Spontaneous generation/Abiogenesis is another of the points that Christians often use in their “So you believe that something came from nothing” spiel. It’s usually that or the Big Bang. The reason they continue to use it is that they do not understand it (simple ignorance of the science), or refuse to acknowledge that they understand it (they’re liars for Jebus).

  4. jay says

    does anyone have a short experiment that could be told of or used that could debunk spontaneous generation in 2010 … this must include an observation, hypothesis and how you would run this observation

  5. says

    This sounds significantly like a homework assignment. I’m not sure I feel compelled to do someone else’s homework.

    Do you know how spontaneous generation was proposed to work? Pick a “life recipe”, e.g. creating maggots from rotten meat, then let meat rot in a sealed container where flies can’t lay eggs. Developing the hypothesis and method of experimentation, then running the experiment and recording your observations, is up to you. Here’s a tip: have a “control” meat, that’s not sealed, so flies can get at it and lay eggs.

  6. says

    Forget about “spontaneous generation”–ain’t no such process. Biopoesis (the gradual development of life forms from inorganic chemicals), on the other hand, is well accepted. See pp. 211-223 in “The Scientific Worldview” for a simple explanation on how it works.

  7. Yehuda says

    Something cannot arise from nothing. Period. Abiogenesis may explain how chemicals can self-arrange and create living organisms. However those chemicals had to arise from somewhere. The conditions had to arise from somewhere. All you show with abiogenesis is that each creation did not necessarily need its own “seed” , but may all have arisen from the same initial chemical reaction and associated chain reactions. The chemicals and the conditions must have been a creation – amazing, complex ideas that would develop into the universe we have today. Something does not arise from nothing. You need that first seed to set things into motion. You can talk of chemicals, of photons, whatever, but then you are not realizing what “NOTHING” actually is. Nothing is absolutely nothing – no chemicals, no photons, no molecules, no nothing… and something cannot come from nothing.

    The only thing abiogenesis can explain is the process of the universe’s development after the appearance of something – i.e. creation. You cannot skip the critical first step.

  8. says

    Yahuda: You are absolutely right about one thing. Something cannot arise from nothing. That essentially is the Fifth Assumption of Science, conservation (Matter and motion of matter can be neither created nor destroyed). The opposing indeterministic assumption is creation (Matter and the motion of matter can be created from nothing). There is no such “thing” as nothing, just as there is no such “thing” as solid matter. Reality consists of everything in between. The deterministic assumption of infinity (The universe is infinite in the microcosmic and macrocosmic directions) describes the infinite complexity of all things as well as the observation that all things come from other things, infinitum. The infinite universe has no “first cause,” as much as we may hope that to be the case.

  9. says

    It doesn’t have to, Yehuda. One does not need a theory for one thing that explains every other thing as well — we don’t expect the theory of gravity to explain how cells divide, for instance. Though that is certainly the end goal — to form one grand unified narrative from the beginning of this universe (if beginning is the right word) to the end.

    At that, how exactly do you know that there ever WAS “nothing”, rather than just “all the matter that we see now, only in a different form”? How do you know that “nothing” is a stable state? Are you aware that the net energy of the universe is exactly zero? Are you aware that the vast majority of the universe is empty space, and that even that “empty space” is not empty at all? Are you aware that at the quantum level, stuff pops in and out of existence all the time?

    Your incredulity notwithstanding, you’re not talking about abiogenesis. You’re talking about the “critical first step” that is not at issue, discussed, or even relevant to this post. I realize you need to have SOME gap to shove your god into, but really, please, try to stay on topic.

  10. Yehuda says

    You are welcome to imagine, decide for yourself where that first chemical came from. I think the assumption of believers is that it had to come from somewhere even though it’s hard to recognize or understand something that has never been seen… well, at least not photographed :D. How else can this chemical come from nothing? If you have another explanation, fine. To theists the answer is simple – spontaneous generation cannot occur. For that to happen, some outside force must be at work. Abiogenesis does not have to answer this question. It seemed however from the article/post that there were comments against theists.

    Jason, my pure and unbiased gut :) tells me that there must have been nothing before there was the something. Yes, it is an assumption. It just makes sense. Is ‘nothing’ a stable state? By definition, pure nothingness cannot be defined. I would say it is neither stable nor unstable. It simply does not exist. To suggest that ‘nothingness’ is unstable would be to say that there exists another state for it to become. Perhaps nothingness is as hard to comprehend as a creator as they are two things that can never truly be studied.

    I don’t think the idea that the 0 net energy is the same thing as ‘nothingness.’ I don’t think “empty space” is nothingness. The fact is that our universe now exists with all the laws of physics. Even what appears to be empty and void is part of that universe which all somehow came into being at some point. We can visit any of these empty places if we could overcome our own physical limitations and master the technical requirements of space travel.

    You can call it a flawed assumption, but common sense tells me that the matter as it exists today may have changed form millions of times, and is constantly changing, but it cannot have always existed. Just as a plant comes from a seed, a human from an embryo, and the universe from a chemical stew, those chemicals, the atom and its precursors must have come an initial source. Call it an assumption, but it makes perfect sense to me. Glenn, you say ‘nothing’ does not exist. Yes, ‘nothing’ cannot be explained by science just as god cannot be explained by science. But the word has a pretty clear meaning and the universe, despite all its unexplored voids cannot be termed nothingness. If I can visit it, if I can theorize about it, it is not ‘nothing.’

  11. says

    That’s right. There is no such thing as nothingness. Even the intergalactic regions have matter. If they didn’t the MBR would be 0K instead of the well-measured 2.7K. No perfect vacuums exist. One either assumes infinity or finity. Each part of the universe has a beginning and an end, having formed from other things. This is not true for the universe, for it is infinite and has been here for an infinite amount of time.
    - Show quoted text -

  12. Yehuda says

    Please. Nothingness does not exist in the universe since it is now made up of matter that in some unexplained way came into being, and as discussed, snowballed into the current universe and all it contains. And you won’t find ‘nothingness’ in intergalactic regions. Any area that one can define and exists is not going to contain nothingness. If it exists, it is not nothing. You cannot find nothingness in the current reality. Wow, you just cannot grasp the concept of there just plain being nothing! No existence. No matter. No space to contain matter. It’s not such a lofty concept. There are things science cannot explain. Nothing is nothing. You cannot prove that the universe has existed for an infinite period of time.

  13. Yehuda says

    To clarify, I agree there is no such thing as nothingness in this universe or any other universe. By virtue of there being a universe, there is no longer nothingness. I maintain however that there once was nothingness. The universe cannot have existed for an infinite period. That simply cannot be proven.

  14. says

    Yehuda:
    By virtue of there being a universe, there is no longer nothingness. I maintain however that there once was nothingness. The universe cannot have existed for an infinite period. That simply cannot be proven.

    Yehuda,
    Philosophically, if there once was nothingness, then where was the something that created everything? If “He” existed on a different plane than the plane that we postulate was “nothingness”, then why would it seem entirely wrong to assume that matter existed in this separate plane and burst into our plane instead? Isn’t that what M-theory is partly about?
    If nothingness ever did exist, and I humbly admit that I don’t know if this is even the case (though I can imagine it, quite poorly- in the same way I might imagine God), it seems to not answer any questions at all. If there is “nothing” then there is no Prime Mover, because a Prime Mover seems to me to be “something”!

  15. says

    Yehuda:
    I maintain however that there once was nothingness. The universe cannot have existed for an infinite period. That simply cannot be proven.

    But that’s a bare assertion with no evidence. We’ve never encountered “nothing”, nor do I think we’d be able to. It’s postulated without evidence, without even theoretical possibility of existing. Even if there was nothing in this physical plane, could there be nothing in all physical planes? That also simply cannot be proven. Because it’s an unevidenced assertion, an “entity” that doesn’t need to be to explain this universe, it can be sliced out by Occam’s Razor. We are left with the material universe we see around us because we know that it is.

    As George points out, if there’s nothing, how can there also be something (the ‘prime mover’)? If the prime mover is the cause, what caused the prime mover? And what caused the cause of the prime mover? If the prime mover can exist without being caused, why couldn’t the universe also exist without being caused? You should also look up “special pleading” if you want to go down this road. Trust me, it’s important.

  16. Yehuda says

    George,

    So you’re asking how a G-d, or whatever force caused that first spark of space and matter, could ‘exist’ in a state of “nothingness.” I would think the answer is that the idea of a G-d suggests the unexplained. It is as unexplained as nothingness itself. It could not be any other force but a G-d or whatever you want to call it, or you would be right because such a force could not exist. At least in my religion, G-d has no shape nor form and is omnipresent, or at all places and nonplaces at all times. It is not composed of matter as hard as that could be to understand. It is the epitome of the unexplained because as you correctly state, it cannot be understood according to our physical laws. But it must be true according to believers as that first piece of matter with all its masterful, self-arranging properties, needed a source. It needed a creator. And believers proceed to say that we must show gratitude to that creator for the universe and our lives. You are welcome to hypothesize what else such a source could be, but as you state, it cannot be explained. Your last sentence stating ,”if there is nothing, then there is no prime mover” assumes the prime mover has mass and can be explained according to our physical laws. Not being a physical entity, this does not hold true. Science can only explain that which exists and has mass or could be defined with some other variable. Without such data, it cannot be explained via scientific means.

  17. Yehuda says

    Jason,

    It cannot be proven either way whether the universe existed for an infinite period or not. I am merely suggesting that it makes more sense that there was a point of ‘creation.’ Simply because we’ve never encountered nothing and are liable never to encounter it, does not mean it never was.

    >>”Even if there was nothing in this physical plane, could there be nothing in all physical planes?”

    No. Nothing cannot have existed on any “physical” plane. By virtue of it being physical, it exists and cannot contain nothingness. Whatever existed before our physical plane must not have been physical. You could call it a spiritual plane, unexplained plane, plane X, or some other word if your prefer. In my mind, using the word ‘plane’ to even describe it almost suggests some sort of existence which in a state of nothingness could not be. In physical terms there would be nothing in such a place. But in spiritual terms, there could be. There is no other way to explain. You appear to be stuck on the idea that these things cannot be proven, and they cannot be. But I think the fact of the matter (pun intended) is that it is the only possible explanation for how that original speck of volume and matter came into being. And I think it makes more sense than the universe having existed for an infinite period.

  18. Yehuda says

    Glenn, i disagree. Jason suggests that the universe existed ad infinitum. Being a physical plane, I find that impossible. It’s much easier to understand G-d, an unexplained concept with no binding laws, as having existed ad infinitum than the physical universe bound by the laws of physics having existed ad infinitum. And therefore the creator would not need a creator. Matter needs to have an original source. Not being matter, this would not need to hold true for the creator. That’s how I see it. Even by your logic, you have not disproven G-d. You merely believe if there was one creator, there must be many creators, ad infinitum. Certainly not monotheistic, but theistic nonetheless. I on the other hand, am suggesting that the creator could indeed have existed ad infinitum. And it is more likely that, than the physical universe having existed ad infinitum (which I would say is simply impossible).

  19. says

    I’d strongly recommend, again, that you look up “special pleading.”

    “You can’t claim infinity for your thing, because it’s impossible. But mine is totally possible.”

    “Nuh-uh!”

    “Uh-huh! Coz I said so!”

    “Well mine’s infinity before yours is!”

    “You can’t do that because mine called dibs!”

    This isn’t a philosophical discussion, it’s a children’s playground argument.

    You might also want to look up “burden of proof”. We claim only that there is a universe, and that we know some things about it, and that there are a number of possibilities for how it began, but that we don’t know for sure one way or the other. You’re postulating that it all got here because of a god, but you’ve provided no evidence for it and demanded that we disprove it. We cannot disprove your concept of god any more than you can disprove our concept of an infinite universe, so there’s nothing to decide between them which hypothesis is better. You’ve chosen your concept of god for other reasons than the ones you’re presenting to us — you’ll, in other words, never convince us the way you’re attempting to. Why don’t you, instead, tell us what convinced you?

    And do you have anything at all to say about abiogenesis itself? Because I just got done banning someone for refusing to talk about the topic at hand when there was a readily available thread for discussing what they wanted to discuss (incidentally: they wanted to discuss themselves). I’m not threatening you with a ban, merely suggesting that we try to find some way to make this discussion actually relate to the post’s topic.

  20. Yehuda says

    1) “You can’t claim infinity for your thing, because it’s impossible. But mine is totally possible.”
    The first part is impossible based on physical limitations and this is not physical. The second part – that the universe having existed for an infinite period is possible – I do not agree for reasons stated previously. If you feel differently, that’s your right.

    2) I never suggested you disprove the theory of a creator. Nor do I suggest that you accept it. I suggested you provide an alternate acceptable explanation for how matter came into being. Neither your point of view nor the theistic one can be proven nor disproven. I said pretty clearly it is unexplained but appears to be the only possible explanation. I am coming from a process of elimination. There must be a source and that source must not be physical (because anything physical would itself need to be created). Though I am one, I am not arguing as a theist but simply presenting the reason for such a theory. To explain the unexplained. Your theory that matter existed forever would explain things, but I just don’t think such is the nature of physical things to just exist without source.

    You are suggesting that matter existed forever and I simply don’t recognize that as possible. That is the crux of the issue. I never argued with abiogenesis; I just felt that your article was somehow using abiogenesis to disprove religion while I don’t think there is a connection. The debate is over and we can disagree. That is how most debates end, is it not? The point of a debate is to present ideas so others can decide using the information presented. I never expected to convince you just as Barack Obama cannot convince Michele Bachman to vote for him in 2012, or convince Iran’s President to set aside their differences and be his golf partner.

  21. says

    If we want to postulate an entity that breaks the law of non-contradiction, then yes, your argument makes perfect sense.
    I just have a habit of considering the laws of logic to be useful both in theory and practice.
    But just to play along with your own logic, I postulate that there once was a single particle on a different dimensional plane, this particle was not sentient and both existed and didn’t exist at all- it had the property of having infinite mass and no mass at all- from this particle, all that we see came into existence. How is my postulation any more or less helpful then your own? How is it any more or less likely, other than the fact that we can and have observed particles, and have observed no sentient prime movers?

  22. says

    Yehuda: I never argued with abiogenesis; I just felt that your article was somehow using abiogenesis to disprove religion while I don’t think there is a connection.

    Sorry, incorrect. My article specifically rebuts an assertion made by one theist that believes that this assertion “proves” religion to be true (by “disproving” science). I’m not the one making the claim that science and religion are directly contradictory in that case, though I do in fact think they intersect and that every place they do intersect, science has uniformly come out victorious. The fact that I’m rebutting a person who believes his claims prove religion over science, does not mean that I’m using my article to prove science over religion.

    Yehuda: I never suggested you disprove the theory of a creator.

    Um, what about:

    Yehuda: Even by your logic, you have not disproven G-d.

    Frankly, I’m not interested in DISproving something that’s been suggested without evidence, nor am I particularly interested in going round and round about whether one thing is “more likely” than another without some kind of baseline. Saying something is “more” or “less likely” actually has to mean something — you can’t just use it to buttress your own feelings when what you mean to say is “I would prefer it if X were true rather than Y”.

    One of the things I’m suggesting is that yes, matter could conceivably have been “in existence” forever, in other forms. We can’t see back beyond the Big Bang, so we don’t know what those forms might have been, though we could conceivably develop testable hypotheses in the future. But honestly, saying that matter has existed forever is NOT the only alternative. There are other plausible alternatives. For instance, matter might have come from the collision of multiple branes of reality (look up brane-world). Or perhaps matter could have come from energy since we know energy and matter are interchangeable. If matter came from energy, I know of one really energetic event in our distant past — the Big Bang. Or perhaps this universe has Bang’d and collapsed repeatedly, and all the same matter that’s here now is the same matter that was here last time.

    The ideas you’re using to support your god do not lend to there being other alternative possibilities. You’re suggesting that because one cannot DISprove this alternative, it’s the only possible explanation. That’s definitively not the case. One must eliminate all other impossibilities, and whatever’s left, however improbable, must be the truth.

    As George postulates, if his single particle that had infinite/zero mass on a different dimensional plane was somehow testable as a hypothesis, we could actually learn something about the universe from it. But since it’s unfalsifiable, like your god, it has no explanatory power. It’s a just-so story, mythmaking of the purest kind. I’m not going to accept pure mythmaking, especially when your myths have testable parts that have been tested and shown to be incorrect.

    But you’ve still not explained why you believe what you believe. In fact, you haven’t told me what you believe. Is it the Judeo-Christian god? Is it the god of the Bible? If it is, why do you accept abiogenesis where others (like Joe Cienkowski) believes the Bible contradicts the possibility via the account of Genesis?

  23. Yehuda says

    tons of work to do, so if Jason is interesting in continuing this discussion, i’ll continue when i get a chance in the next few days. but thanks for considering and responding rather than just attacking. just sharing my thought process.

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