Creation v. Evolution Watch: The New York Times Reports Today That RNA Nucleotides Can Form Spontaneously And Are Thus Not The Product of a “Miracle”

A major science story today (in the New York Times) reminds us to be cautious about what we might regard as “impossible” and capable of explanation only via a “miracle.”

Exhibit A: One of the great problems of evolution is how life’s RNA building blocks—that is, its nucleotides—could have gotten started on the primitive Earth in the first place. Creationists have often insisted that RNA molecules are so complex that they could have appeared on our planet only via direct intervention by God. But the New York Times reports today that a perhaps historic solution to this prebiotic chemical puzzle may have been found. A paper on the molecular experiments of John Sutherland, an English chemist, is scheduled to appear tommorrow in the prestigious science journal, Nature: 

The spontaneous appearance of . . . [RNA] nucleotides on the primitive earth “would have been a near miracle,” two leading researchers, Gerald Joyce and Leslie Orgel, wrote in 1999. Others were so despairing that they believed some other molecule must have preceded RNA and started looking for a pre-RNA world.

The miracle seems now to have been explained. In the article in Nature, Dr. Sutherland and his colleagues Matthew W. Powner and Béatrice Gerland report that they have taken the same starting chemicals used by others but have caused them to react in a different order and in different combinations than in previous experiments. They discovered their recipe, which is far from intuitive, after 10 years of working through every possible combination of starting chemicals.

Instead of making the starting chemicals form a sugar and a base, they mixed them in a different order, in which the chemicals naturally formed a compound that is half-sugar and half-base. When another half-sugar and half-base are added, the RNA nucleotide called ribocytidine phosphate emerges.

A second nucleotide is created if ultraviolet light is shined on the mixture. Dr. Sutherland said he had not yet found natural ways to generate the other two types of nucleotides found in RNA molecules, but synthesis of the first two was thought to be harder to achieve.

In other words, a major obstacle to the natural and spontaneous generation of the building blocks of life seems not to be an obstacle afterall. And the New York Times article quotes a scientist as saying that the discovery appears to represent something historic—“one of the great advances in prebiotic chemistry”:

“It is precisely because this work opens up so many new directions for research that it will stand for years as one of the great advances in prebiotic chemistry,” Jack Szostak of the Massachusetts General Hospital wrote in a commentary in Nature, where the work is being published on Thursday.

In short, it appears that a directly intervening and miracle working God is not, in fact, necessary to the formation of RNA nucleotides. Thus science appears to be closing in yet again on another big “God of the gaps” argument used by creationists and “intelligent design” advocates to suggest that life on Earth can only be the product of an actively intervening fashioner.

This is not to say that God doesn’t exist. It is only to say that God seems not to be necessary to explain RNA nucleotides. It may be, of course, that the “God of the gaps” in our knowledge lingers and hides elsewhere, or (S)he designed the universe so that its chemistry would, under the right conditions, naturally and spontaneously go organic.

And that might make a good Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s grocery slogan: “3.8 billion years ago Earth went organic. Now how about you?”

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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7 Responses to Creation v. Evolution Watch: The New York Times Reports Today That RNA Nucleotides Can Form Spontaneously And Are Thus Not The Product of a “Miracle”

  1. I think the theory of evolution is losing it’s relevance.

  2. santitafarella says:

    St. Louis:

    Obviously, the NY article summary above suggests the opposite of your statement that “evolution is losing it’s relevance.” What supports do you offer for your claim?

    —Santi

  3. aunty dawkins says:

    Santi

    This doesn’t change my view that evolution is the most likely explanation for creation but the ontological mystery as you have previously coined it still remains a mystery does it not?

    One question for you .Is human antipathy to other humans as experienced in the Holocaust, Balkan ethnic cleansing etc stronger than the human philanthropy evident in selfless acts of compasion and concern for others? If the ‘love’ outdoes the ‘hate’ or at least holds it at bay can we discern any work of a higher being in this? Has evolutionary survival ‘red in tooth and claw’ in some way been contradicted here by a nobler more selfless instinct? If so could this be evidence of Gods’love’ manifesting itself as the ‘fruit’of obeying his commands? Todays gospel from John 15 v 9-17 might suggest this.

  4. santitafarella says:

    Aunty Dawkins:

    I like your idea about love overcoming hate by just a little bit, and so justifying life, and even God. There is a poem titled, “A Brief for the Defense.” I wonder if it might be on the internet for you to read. I can’t remember the poet’s name, but it was in the Atlantic Monthly (as I recall) or perhaps the New Yorker about three years ago.

    I do think, against all the suffering in the world, that the game is probably still worth the candle. I wonder how many Holocaust victims, if you could speak to them before their death, would have expressed a wish, like Job, that they had never been born at all.

    I don’t think that if life has a mechanistic beginning (and not a miraculous one) that it takes away from the ontological mystery one bit. The mystery is that there is anything at all, and that there should be a mechanism that produces life under certain conditions is quite astonishing—an ontological mystery in itself.

    If there is a god, I doubt she is an “abracadabra” god. She doesn’t have to intervene at crucial moments to make her initial creation “go.”

    —Santi

  5. santitafarella says:

    Aunty Dawkins:

    I posted the poem, “A Brief for the Defense”, for you. I hope you like it. See here: https://santitafarella.wordpress.com/2009/05/17/a-brief-for-the-defense-jack-gilberts-great-poem-on-theodicy/

    —Santi

  6. Pingback: Miracle From God Or Natural Chemical Reaction – Afraha ! The Next Big Thing!

  7. Dov Henis says:

    RNAs Mysterious Ways

    “Translation Revelation
    More findings confirm that small RNAs work in mysterious ways.”
    http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/56173/

    I suggest that unraveling the mysterious ways of RNAs would plainly follow:

    – 1st, acceptance of the revelation of the commonsensical lifehood of genes, of the concept presented in “Updated Life’s Manifest May 2009”
    http://www.the-scientist.com/community/posts/list/140/122.page#2321

    – 2nd, a rational resolution of the question if/when the initial, independent pre-biometabolism sunlight-fueled genes were RNAs and if/when they evolved into DNAs prior to celling and genoming, and

    – 3rd, a resolution of the rational possibility that ALL RNAs are representative of the original archae-genes rendered into the primary nessengers-toolings of their DNA genes-genomes follow-ups, and

    – 4th, acceptance of the rational possibility that the RNAs are also the environmental feed-back communicators to the genomes thus signallers of accordingly biased genes expressions effectors,

    – 5th, effecting the genes expressions per “Genes’ Expression Modification”
    http://www.the-scientist.com/community/posts/list/200/122.page#3649

    Suggesting,

    Dov Henis
    (Comments From The 22nd Century)
    Cosmic Evolution Simplified
    http://www.the-scientist.com/community/posts/list/240/122.page#4427

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