Natural selection explains how organisms that already exist evolve in response to changes in their environment. But Darwin’s theory is silent on how organisms came into being in the first place, which he considered a deep mystery. What creates life out of the inanimate compounds that make up living things? No one knows. How were the first organisms assembled? Nature hasn’t given us the slightest hint.
If anything, the mystery has deepened over time. After all, if life began unaided under primordial conditions in a natural system containing zero knowledge, then it should be possible – it should be easy – to create life in a laboratory today. But determined attempts have failed. International fame, a likely Nobel Prize, and $1 million from theGene Emergence Project await the researcher who makes life on a lab bench. Still, no one has come close.
Experiments have created some basic materials of life. Famously, in 1952 Harold Urey and Stanley Miller mixed the elements thought to exist in Earth’s primordial atmosphere, exposed them to electricity to simulate lightning, and found that amino acids self-assembled in the researchers’ test tubes. Amino acids are essential to life. But the ones in the 1952 experiment did not come to life. Building-block compounds have been shown to result from many natural processes; they even float in huge clouds in space. But no test has given any indication of how they begin to live – or how, in early tentative forms, they could have resisted being frozen or fried by Earth’s harsh prehistoric conditions.
Some researchers have backed the hypothesis that an unknown primordial “soup” of naturally occurring chemicals was able to self-organize and become animate through a natural mechanism that no longer exists. Some advance the “RNA first” idea, which holds that RNA formed and lived on its own before DNA – but that doesn’t explain where the RNA came from. Others suppose life began around hot deep-sea vents, where very high temperatures and pressures cause a chemical maelstrom. Still others have proposed that some as-yet-unknown natural law causes complexity – and that when this natural law is discovered, the origin of life will become imaginable.
Did God or some other higher being create life? Did it begin on another world, to be transported later to ours? Until such time as a wholly natural origin of life is found, these questions have power. We’re improbable, we’re here, and we have no idea why. Or how.
– Gregg Easterbrook, author of The Progress Paradox