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.