Evolution v. Creation Watch: Felisa Wolfe-Simon on the Implications of Arsenic Based Life

In the below BBC clip for an upcoming special on whether there is life on other planets, Felisa Wolfe-Simon says something to the interviewer that ought to blow everyone away. If what she has indeed recently found at Mono Lake is an arsenic based life form—a life form in which one of its building blocks is arsenic—here’s what she says it means:

It’s either a deep root—we share a common tree—and it’s deep on that root tree of life. . . . or there were multiple point sources for the origin of life.

In other words, if this apparently arsenic based organism is not archaic, branching early in life’s evolution on earth from a phosphorus based organism, then it means that life on earth emerged from non-life at least twice—one way with phosphorus as a building block and one way with arsenic as a building block.

Those who study abiogenesis are already at a loss to comprehend how life with phosphorus as a building block came from non-life. Felisa Wolfe-Simon’s discovery suggests that scientists may now have to figure out how life could have come from non-life with arsenic as a building block. Life, in other words, may have happened more than once; there may have been “multiple point sources for life.”

Her statement about this is at the 3:30 point in this clip. Watch it and be dazzled by what she is quite clearly suggesting:

It’s hard to say how Felisa Wolfe-Simon’s discovery will be spun in the conventional atheist v. intelligent design debate: if life appears in, not one, but two distinct forms on our planet—two acts of “creation” here on earth—it seems to make life’s very existence here both more perplexing and more likely. Atheists and intelligent designers both agree, it seems to me, that life on any given planet is implausible on strictly material terms, so the atheist might spin this discovery by saying the following: 

Well, life must not be nearly as implausible as we generally imagine because it appears to have happened here twice.

The intelligent design advocate, on the other hand, will no doubt say something like this:

Exactly! It means something purposeful is going on—the dice is loaded. A designer wants there to be life in the universe (or at least on our planet). The odds of the atheist plausibly accounting for life from non-life on earth by rare good luck just went down. You’ve got two implausibilities to account for on materialist terms now, not just one. And if you posit that phosphorus based life evolved into arsenic based life, you’ve got to account for how such a branching of the two could ever have occurred. It would appear that phosphorus based life and arsenic based life represent the ultimate in irreducibly complex systems, at least in relation to one another. Unlike love and marriage, they don’t obviously go together like a horse and carriage.


This comment by Caleb Scharf on what the discovery of arsenic based life might mean—and which appeared in the New York Times yesterday—still has my mind reeling:

Caleb Scharf, an astrobiologist at Columbia University who was not part of the research, said he was amazed. “It’s like if you or I morphed into fully functioning cyborgs after being thrown into a room of electronic scrap with nothing to eat,” he said.

How could a whole building block for life—phosphorus—be switched out for another (arsenic) by a slow process of natural selection? And if it didn’t, how could life have come from non-life on this single planet twice? (And that without the help of reproduction and natural selection, for that is what life is.) Are the universe’s physical constants and chemistry really this skewed, and in multiple ways, toward the generation of life? 

Felisa Wolfe-Simon’s science is either flawed or she has discovered a mystery that will be with us for generations.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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2 Responses to Evolution v. Creation Watch: Felisa Wolfe-Simon on the Implications of Arsenic Based Life

  1. Christ's Angel says:

    We’ve only looked at about 1% of the ocean’s depths and there are creatures of God that live and thrive there at pressures and temperatures in total darkness that would kill all mammals normal to land.

    In light of this, the fact that some species of life were designed by God to survive in high arsenic levels should not be a cause of alarm.

    Anyone who denies God’s Creation is led astray by pride.

  2. Pingback: Flim-Flam Watch: Microbiologist Rosie Redfield on Felisa Wolfe-Simon’s Mono Lake Arsenic Based Life Claim | Prometheus Unbound

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