“In the Beginning God Created Life (cells)”
The beginning of life on Earth was primitive and simple. The questions
of how, when and why have been asked and debated since humans first appeared
on Earth. There are many theories and hypotheses from scientists
and religious scholars. One answer, though, is agreed on by scientists:
Life was not by chance but was inevitable.
Stanley Miller - Making
of Amino Acids
To test how life could have existed or began, in the 1950's two scientists
named Stanley Miller and Harold Urey conducted
an experiment in which they placed a mixture of water and gases into a
system of closed flashes and subjected the mixture to electrical discharges
to simulate lightening (Trefil 35). What they found was that amino
acids began to form out of the simple compounds that they had started
with. This lead them to their theory which said that amino acids
and other basic building blocks were created in the atmosphere by lightening
bolts or the sun’s ultraviolet radiation. Then, the skies rained
organic materials into the oceans, turning it into a rich broth that came
to be called the “primordial soup.” Thereafter, life in this prebiotic
sea was just waiting for the inevitable, deterministic reaction.
The RNA World Theory
Most biologists are convinced that life began when molecules called RNA
ruled the planet and created a reaction. It is believed that RNA
in its primitive form had “catalytic muscle,” what today’s sophisticated
cells of genes and proteins now handle. The primitive RNA acted first
by storing and passing on information and, second, by its ability to snap
bonds between atoms by acting as a catalyst. It is believed that
eventually RNA molecules would have acquired membranes and taken on additional
catalytic tasks needed to run a primitive cell (Cohen 22).
Life could have begun from a solar nebula explosion, from division
of a first living cell, or, simply, when God said, “Let there be light.”
Before this, the earth was formless and empty. Christian de Duve,
scientist, explains that the history of life on Earth is written in the
cells and molecules of existing organisms. There are several different
theories for the origin of life on planet Earth.
A few years ago a well-known scientist said that odds of life arising
anywhere in the universe is about the same as those that a Boeing 747 will
be assembled when a tornado rips through a junkyard. Research was
conducted by a scientist named William J. Schopf. He found fossils
of primitive cells without a nuclei, or cyanobacteria, in rocks dated between
3.46 and 3.47 billion years old. One simple fact is that life is
complex and many things have to be just right for it to exist.
Whatever the earliest events were that lead to the first living
cell, at some point biological molecules must have emerged, the original
One possible scenario for life’s origins would have to include the
possibility of two kinds of molecules evolving together, one informational
and one catalytic. This scenario is very complicated and highly unlikely,
feels Christian de Duve. The
other possibility is that one of these molecules could itself perform multiple
functions, and theorists considering this possibility started to look seriously
at RNA. In the 1970's, Sydney Altman
at Yale University and Thomas Cech at
the University of Colorado at Boulder independently discovered that RNA
molecules could, in fact, excise portions of themselves or of other RNA
molecules (De Duve 431).
It now appears possible that an RNA molecule could have existed
that contained the sequence information for its reproduction through reciprocal
base pairing. In 1986, Walter Gilbert,
a Harvard chemist, coined the term “RNA World” in which “RNA molecules
and cofactors were a sufficient set of enzymes to carry out all the chemical
for the first cellular structures.” De Duve concludes that today
it is almost a matter of dogma that the evolution of life did include a
period where RNA was the predominant biological macromolecule (De Duve
The RNA world was a crucial phase in life’s evolution, but it probably
was not the first. The development of RNA replication must have been
the second period in the evolution of the RNA world. The first stage,
protometabolism, probably involved a stable set of reactions capable of
generating the RNA world and also sustaining it until the development of
RNA replication. The ingredients are likely those found both
in Miller’s flask of the prebiotic soup and in meteorites (De Duve 432).
Whatever theory of the origin of life eventually is proven, it is obvious
to scientists and observers that life was bound to arise where conditions
and timing appropriate. Most biologists feel the RNA World Theory
will prevail. Gary Olsen, a colleague of
Carl Woese at University of Illinois warns
that the RNA World as the only theory is dangerous because it is only partly
proven (Cohen 27). As one of the oldest and fascinating questions
in science and religion, this topic will continue to be tested and debated
until proven, which may take billions of years in itself.
Not all scientists agree with the two popular theories of the RNA World
theory or with Stanley Miller’s amino acids. However, they do embrace
the idea that life was inevitable. Some popular arguments follow.
Jeffrey Bada, geochemist at Scripps
Institute of Oceanography, argues that Miller’s experiment is impossible.
Instead, he has found evidence that “mother lodes” of buckyballs (football
-shaped molecules) have been delivered intact to Earth from outside the
solar system. These organic building blocks came from outer space
Carl Woese, evolutionary biologist of the University of Illinois, says
the genetic evidence contradicts the RNA world theory. It fails to
explain where the energy came from to fuel production of first RNA.
There is an energy-producing metabolic cycle, not RNA, which triggered
life on Earth. It transformed energy into a form that was instantly
available for the production of organic molecules. Woese explains
that RNA appears to have been a late development in evolution and not its
starting point (Cohen 26).
Gunter Wachtershauser, organic chemist
at the University of Regensberg in Germany suggests such a “machine” of
an energy-producing metabolic cycle. The mixture of iron and sulphur
in the primordial soup combined to form iron pyrites. Short, negatively
charged organic molecules then stuck to its positively charged surface
and “fed” off the energy, creating longer organic molecules (Cohen 26).
Kauffman, theoretical biologist at the
Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, argues that it was a chaotic and complex
mess in the primordial soup, which naturally generates a degree of complex
order. Any sufficiently diverse mix will form autocatalytic sets,
live and evolve. He believes the RNA/DNA arose as an accessory to
already flourishing ancestral autocatalytic set (Cohen 27).
Pope John Paul II made a speech on
October 23, 1996 addressing the subject of evolution and the origin of
life. He starts by stating: In fact, truth cannot contradict truth.
He reiterated Pius XII’s 1950 encyclical Humani generis: There is no opposition
between evolution and the doctrine of the faith about man and his vocation,
on condition that one does not lose sight of several indisputable points.
He goes on: Today, almost half a century after the publication of the Encyclical,
new knowledge has lead to the recognition in the theory of evolution of
more than a hypothesis. . . . ontological difference. The sciences
of observation describe and measure the multiple manifestations of life
with increasing precision and correlate them with the timeline. . . . while
theology brings out its ultimate meaning according to the Creator’s plans.
The Pope was not endorsing evolution but “recognizes” evolution as more
than a hypothesis. (Online).
Pope John Paul emphasized: Revelation teaches us that he [man] was
created in the image of and likeness of God [the soul] . . . [Pius XII]
if the human body takes its origin from pre-existent living matter, the
spiritual soul is immediately created by God [from nothing]. The
Pope stressed the immediate creation of the human soul by God even if God
used other forces to create the human body. He states that the Church
does not teach theories of science as matters of faith, stating science
is not a matter of theology. (Online).
The Pope is reminded that the Church cannot have another “Galileo incident,”
science’s first “martyr.” Galileo presented his correct heliocentric
views to the Church, and the Church clung onto dogmatic tradition
-- incorrect scientific views. Unfortunately, there is a lot of ignorance
of the historical details concerning Galileo. Today, as well
as in Galileo’s time, there are biblical “hyper-literalists.” The
Catholic Church agrees that the Bible is not a scientific treatise.
F.J. Sheed presents in Theology for
Beginners that the “Fathers and Doctors of the Church
never thought of Genesis as giving us a scientific blueprint of creation.”
St. Augustine, over 1,400 years before Darwin,
wrote “De Genesi ad Litteram, ” expressing
that Genesis was not meant to be taken literally (Sheed 56).
St. Augustine states, “With the Scriptures it is a matter of
treating about faith . . . it was not the intention of the Spirit of God,
who spoke through them [authors of the Bible] to teach men anything that
would not be of use to them for their salvation.” On creation, St.
Augustine points out “ . . . the first three days of all were passed
without sun, since it is reported to have been made on the fourth day.
. . Light was made by the word of God. God separated it from
the darkness ‘night’; but what kind of light that was. This is beyond
our senses; neither can we understand how it was and yet must unhesitatingly
believe it.” St. Augustine states that we must bear in mind that
these days indeed recall the days of creation, but without in any way being
really similar to them.” (Online). Remember, “The day of the
Lord is a thousand years” (Ps. 90:4).
There are many theories for the origin of life offered by scientists.
Many religious scholars believe that actually the origin of life is quite
simple. God created it. Although since science is not based
on faith but fact, there are many conflicting views and theories.
The one I believe and hold true is that God created the earth and all that
is in it. I will now quote several passages from the Holy Bible.
"In the beginning God created the heavens
and the earth. And God said, "Let there be light," And
God said, "Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds:
livestock, creatures that move along the ground, and wild animals, each
according to its kind."
"Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and
let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the
livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along
Many may not agree but I believe that God created every living creature
uniquely. God made man in his image. Man did not evolve from
monkeys or anything else. We are not changing and we did not change
in the past. Stated plainly, evolution is false. Although there
seems to be all this evidence for evolution, it just seems to not be interpreted
the right way and so far it has not proven anything to me(Greg Foster).
Cohen, Phil. “Let There be Life.” New Scientist 151 (1996):
De Duve, Christian. “The Beginnings of Life on Earth.”
American Scientist 83 (1995): 428-437.
New Advent Catholic Website. http://www.sni.net/advent
(1 June 1998).
Sheed, F.J. “Creation.” Theology for Beginners Ann Arbor,
MI: Servant Books (1981): 56.
Trefil, James. “However it Began on Earth, Life May Have Been
Inevitable.” Smithsonian Feb. 1995: 35-40.
Photos: Expert software royalty free Photo CD Gallery #2.
Created by Joyce Kane and Greg Foster: Geo 102, Dr. Pamela Gore,
DeKalb College, Georgia
Document last modified on 6/14/98