Abiogenesis: Life From Non-life
Updated: Apr 21
"The origin of life is certainly an interesting topic, but it is not a part of evolutionary theory. The study of the naturalistic origins of life is called abiogenesis. While scientists have not developed a clear explanation of how life might have developed from non-living material, that has no impact on evolution." ~ Austin Cline
Frequently in discussions concerning evolution, the question of how life arose from chemical ingredients is brought forward. This may be due to a genuine curiosity about the subject, but in my experience it is often from someone who is unable to accept evolution no matter the evidence so instead needs to change the subject to a “whataboutthis then?” in an attempt to deflect a discussion of evolution that may not be going in a direction they like. (1)
The answer to how life came from non-life to form the first cells is simple. We don’t know. That is a gap in knowledge and it may even be a gap that will never be filled. But that does not mean people are justified to drop the family favorite God into the gap. This theist answer even has a logical fallacy name: a God of the Gaps argument.
Abiogenesis is a prediction that flows from evolution, but the two are separate. Evolution is about species origins and not the origin of life. Natural Selection is a proposed mechanism for Evolution. Thus, Darwin’s 1859 book was titled “On The Origin of Species By Natural Selection” - not the origin of life. The formation of life from non-living chemical precursors is thus not part of Evolutionary Theory. We can still study and know that species give rise to other species, and for example that human evolution is true even if we don’t know the ultimate starting point. Appealing to an unknown does in no way discount the known.
Just because the origin of life by natural processes is a very difficult problem, it does not mean that much research in this field has not already yielded some potential advances. Studies include looking at chemical reactions and early cell like structures forming in undersea vents (3), chemical reactions in hot thermal springs (4, 7) and even clay catalyst substrates. Scientists have reported that a pair of simple compounds, which would have been abundant on earth, can give rise through some simple reactions to the three major classes of biomolecules - nucleic acids (DNA and RNA), amino acids and lipids.(8)
A common working hypothesis that became popular is the “RNA World First” hypothesis (DNA later) when it was discovered that two simple precursor compounds could undergo a sequence of reactions to produce two of RNA’s four nucleotides. Since some RNAs can act as enzymes in addition to RNA’s normal information functions, this approach to the abiogenesis problem has attracted much research activity.(2)
Some researchers have noted that the building blocks of life have been found in space, and comets or meteorites may have seeded the earth with the raw materials for life. Many organic compounds have been found in space. NASA announced the finding of key building blocks for organic molecules discovered in meteorites in 2020 (5). All of the bases in DNA and RNA have now been found in meteorites (6).
At this time, although much work on abiogenesis is ongoing, no particular series of steps have been shown to bridge the non-life to life naturalistic expectation. Choi and Dutfield summarize the seven theories on the origin of life in their 2022 article of the same name (9).
The origin of life is an active area of research. Multiple theories are being investigated and only time will tell if scientists are able to develop the steps and produce a viable cell that mimics current cellular life. In terms of evolution this however is a separate research area and does not impact directly on the Theory of Evolution. To claim this indicates a counterfeit motivation or at least ignorance about why the two theories are related but not dependent on one another. We don’t know how life arose - yet, or perhaps ever. And what if scientists succeed? Will detractors then note that it took intelligence to do that in support of Intelligent Design? Or complain that the recipe that the scientists used is not necessarily the exact one life took? In terms of evaluating evolution and the impact it has on our lives, societies and religious beliefs, the unknown of abiogenesis is interesting but does not diminish humankind’s greatest discovery.