Book Review: Origins of Life: Biblical and Evolutionary Models Face Off by Hugh Ross & Fuz Rana
How did life begin? This question has perplexed humanity for centuries. Some people believe that it came along by natural processes. Others believe that a divine Designer is behind it all. These two options go head-to-head, tested against the latest scientific research in the book Origins of Life: Biblical and Evolutionary Models Face Off (hardcover, Kindle, Supplemental Site) by astrophysicist Dr. Hugh Ross and biochemist Dr. Fazale Rana. The book is divided into three sections, seventeen chapters, and 298 pages (including notes and appendices). This review provides a chapter-by-chapter summary of the contents of the book, but it must not be accepted as a replacement for reading the book, itself. The review will conclude with my thoughts and recommendation.
Drs. Ross and Rana take the position that the origin of life is by divine design. To scientifically test their hypothesis, they present their model, competing models, and the latest research; they then compare the predictions of the models to the research to build their case. Before examining the current state of origins research, it is a good idea to take a quick look at the events that led to the current state.
Part I: The Mystery Unfolds
Chapter 1: Questions, Questions– Always Questions
Drs. Ross and Rana begin the historical look with Darwin. They note the Darwin’s theory of evolution any applies after life has originated, but that he did propose that life could have originated from matter via chemical processes. This was found to be too simple of an explanation once researchers discovered that the cell was much more complex than the view of Darwin’s time that the cell was merely some kind of protoplasm. The complexity of the cell required more. The dominate cosmology of the time stated that the universe was eternal. This allowed also for life, itself, to exist eternally. Some researchers proposed that life did not actually “begin” but was transported to earth from some other solar system body. Later research into the conditions of space revealed that it was much too harsh of an environment for such a trip to be feasible.
Much encouragement and the official launch of origins research, however, began in the 1950’s with the Miller-Urey experiment. This experiment began with the understanding of earth’s primordial atmosphere and the elements that were required to produce the basic building blocks of life. Electricity was passed through the gases to the elements and resulted in the proteins required to produce life naturalistically. Unfortunately more recent research into earth’s harsh primordial conditions has dampened this excitement, and has forced many researchers to either resort claiming that life’s origin is simply a mystery or to a position of intelligent beings directing life’s arrival to earth.
Chapter 2: Are There any Answers?
In this book, Drs. Ross and Rana wish to provide an alternative not usually entertained by the scientific community: God as the creator of the first life. This second chapter explores th, e scientific community’s reluctance to allow such a hypothesis on the table. It has long been claimed by many scientists that something supernatural, even if it does exist, cannot be tested in any scientifically meaningful way. The idea is that theology and science are two separate areas of knowledge that do not overlap in any way.
All too often, Christians have not only agreed but have passionately promoted this separation, thus keeping their views of life’s origin outside the realm of scientific falsifiability, and at the same time trying to demonstrate their beliefs to be true by showing all the inadequacies of naturalistic models. While scientists have no problem with being challenged (that is what the scientific enterprise thrives upon), they do not appreciate having their models critiqued without being given the respect of being allowed to critique their critics’ models.
Drs. Ross and Rana are scientists, themselves, and share the same frustrations as many scientists. So in this book they wish to present a model that provides predictions and is testable, for if God did create in this universe, then His fingerprints will be left behind as evidence of his work. These fingerprints can be used to construct and test different models of life’s origins. The evidence presented will not merely be against naturalistic models but will positively support their alternative. This will place their model into the realm of testable science.
Chapter 3: Putting Creation to the Test
Since the model that Drs. Ross and Rana wish to offer originates within the Bible, they begin with it. Genesis 1:2 is where they begin with their model. The proper interpretation of this passage is often debated, so they utilize other passages in scripture to obtain the correct understanding before they put forth discoveries that are to be expected if this passage is historically accurate. They examine the context, original language, and passages in Jeremiah, Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Psalms, and Luke to help with the interpretation. They focus specifically on the conditions of earth described and the idea of the Spirit of God “hovering” over the “waters.” After interpreting, they put the interpretation in more scientific terms and list eight conditions around the origins of life that scientists should expect to discover.
Chapter 4: The Naturalistic Approach
In competition with the creation model is the naturalistic family of models. Naturalistic models have eight primary steps to complete to get from inorganic matter to the last universal common ancestor (the proposed beginning of the evolutionary tree of life), and each step has several options for their completion. This allows for many different models to be presented and tested. Drs. Ross and Rana describe the different possible pathways and provide a flowchart to help the reader understand the variety of models proposed by naturalists. In the end, nine common predictions are drawn from the models for testing against the evidence and comparison to the creation model proposed in the previous chapter.
Part II: The Facts of Life
Chapter 5: An Early or Late Appearance?
Dr. Ross and Rana begin examining the evidence for the timing of life’s appearance. The creation model they propose predicts that scientists will discover that life began early in earth’s history, and naturalistic models predict a much later appearance (due to trial and error). Both fossil and biochemical evidences are provided. For the fossil evidence, stromatolites and microfossils are examined. For the geochemical evidence, they provide carbon-12, nitrogen-14, and sulfur-12 isotope enrichments. They examine the controversies regarding some of these evidences, but they make note that none of the controversial evidences would allow for life appearing on earth later than 3.5 billion years ago. Thus the weight of this evidence is against naturalistic models and favors a creation model.
Chapter 6: A Slow or Sudden Arrival?
According to naturalistic models the environment of early earth would need to be hospitable to life for a long period of time while chemical evolution took place to bring forth life (likely with many trials and errors). The Reasons to Believe creation model, rather, predicts that as soon as earth could sustain life, that life would appear. Dr. Ross and Rana take the reader through the evidence that scientists use to examine the conditions of the early earth. What has been discovered is that the earth had numerous collision events that would have sterilized the entire planet up to about 3.5 billion years ago. This means that life appeared at the earliest moment in geologic history that earth could sustain life. Earth’s turbulent history stands as a powerful challenge to naturalistic models, while it provides confirmation of the creation model derived from the text of Genesis.
Chapter 7: Where’s the Soup?
Naturalistic models of the origins of life on earth posit that a primordial “soup” existed where all the required molecules to form and come together to create life. Biochemists have had quite a bit of success synthesizing a few of the prebiotic molecules in the lab, but have discovered many challenges that put dampers on their excitement. Recent studies have revealed that the conditions used in the lab were not the same conditions on the early earth. Synthesis of some of the prebiotics can only take place in mutually exclusive environments (e.g. boiling vs. freezing temperatures). Paradoxically, oxygen destroys prebiotics but is required to filter ultraviolet radiation, which also destroys prebiotics. To overcome these challenges, scientists have proposed that prebiotic synthesis took place either in volcanoes or underwater vents. Drs. Ross and Rana explain each of the challenges and critique the possible solutions. They conclude the discussion with direct evidence that no prebiotic soup existed and the recognition of this evidence by origin of life researchers. While this conclusion does not have an effect on the creation model (a naturalistic mechanism is not required), it is devastating to naturalistic models of life’s origin.
Part III: From the Bottom Up and Top Down
Chapter 8: The Search for Chemical Pathways
Even if a prebiotic soup existed, scientists have discovered many chemical challenges that would have greatly frustrated the processes that would eventually lead to life. One of the largest challenges is the chemical environment. Drs. Ross and Rana explain roadblock in place of early earth of phosphate compounds (critical to DNA and RNA formation), They then explore two different proposed theories surrounding the first functioning components of life: self-replication or metabolism. Both are required for life, but one of them had to evolve first. Each one has its own extreme challenges. These are explored and shown why proponents of each theory believe that the competing one fails in the natural environment, thus should be abandoned for their preferred model. Drs. Ross and Rana conclude that even if there is a chemical pathway to life, its ability for either self-replication or metabolism to take place first by natural processes on early earth is not likely.
Chapter 9: Look! Only One Hand
However geochemical relevance does not even have a chance to become part of the equation due to an issue with protein folding. Proteins have two mirror-image 3D configurations that determine their ability to fold and combine with one another. This is called chirality, or left-handed/right-handed. In order for life proteins to fold into the proper shapes and combine together to produce DNA and RNA molecules, they must all be in the same chiral configuration (all left-handed or all right-handed). Unfortunately, there is no natural environment in which to get a homochiral (all the same configuration) proteins. Even in the lab this has not been achieved, yet 100% homochiral solution of proteins is required for the origin of life. Scientists have hypothesized several possibilities to produce the required solution in the lab and in nature. Drs. Ross and Rana show theoretically how all these would fail and provide the research to show that this is, in reality, the case. Even extraterrestrial options have been proposed, but those also have several issues that would frustrate the process, not to mention the issues already described with the early earth’s environment (in earlier chapters) that would destroy anything necessary for life once it arrived on earth. Without the natural environment (on earth or in outer space) that could produce a homochiral solution of life-essential proteins, there cannot be a naturalistic origin of life.
Chapter 10: The Codes of Life
Another challenge to naturalistic origin of life scenarios (also prior to geochemical relevance) is the function of proteins. The function is determined by the sequence of amino acids, which is similar to a code or a written human language. Numerous sequences of characters exist, but only a relative minuscule number are significant for human communication; likewise, only a relatively minuscule number sequences of amino acids are significant for life. Researchers have calculated that the probability of biologically significant proteins coming together (even if the entire universe consisted of proteins) to form even one molecule necessary for life would take the universe more than a trillion times as long as its current age. Of course, granting that much material is being exceptionally generous to naturalistic models. Drs. Ross and Rana conclude that the universe does not have enough material nor time in order to produce life. On the other hand, the creation model they propose does not require a naturalistic mechanism for this particular step in the process; God could easily provide the right proteins with the right amino acid sequences, at the right place, at the right time to create life.
Chapter 11: Beneficial Boundaries
The cell membrane is what defines the boundary of the cell and regulates what enters and exits the cell. This is a critical component if the cell is to operate properly, thus it is critical to any origin-of-life model that its origin be considered. Drs. Ross and Rana explain its composition of phospholipids and that they can form the cell membrane by self-assembly. Many origin-of-life researchers have taken this knowledge as a given and not spent much time on the subject. However, what research has taken place has revealed that this is not as simple, and thus a given, as many do think. The self-assembly can only take place under specific conditions related to salinity, PH, and temperature. Fluctuations outside the narrow limits of these variables prevent self-assembly and destroys any already-assembled phospholipids. It has already been determined that the early earth’s oceans were far outside the salt tolerance (salinity), so they would have both prevented any creation of cell membranes and would have destroyed any that came to earth from an extraterrestrial source. If life were to originate at all (which it did), it would have to take place on (or land on) a piece of dry land where the salinity, PH, and temperature remain within the narrow tolerable limits. The “protection” of the first cellular membranes in the just right conditions makes more sense with an agent guiding the process- a Designer proposed by the creation model.
Chapter 12: Life’s Minimum Complexity
The previous chapters have focused on the possibility of natural processes producing a single gene required for life. But that is only a fraction of the story. Scientists have been busy determining the minimum number of unique genes required for the simplest lifeforms. The current estimates range from 1,500 to 1,900 for organisms that exist independently; however, parasitic life’s estimates are roughly half. Based on the numbers already given in previous chapters for the “best case” scenarios that are not impossible for a single gene to originate, Drs. Ross and Rana calculate the probabilities for a naturalistic origin of merely parasitic life. Of course, parasitic life cannot exist independent of another organism. The reader can see just from this improbability just how much less likely the possibility for the real-world scenario of independent life would be…and again, these number depend on a best-case scenario for every gene’s origin. Humans have developed processes that are much less complex but require their intervention to produce the desired result just once. Even if the origin of life could have taken place via a naturalistic pathway (a process orders of magnitude more complex than any humanly developed process), the entire process conducted hundreds of times with perfect precision, experience has demonstrated time and time again, can only be the product of an intelligent, guiding agent. Naturalistic processes cannot produce a single gene, much less hundreds of them, while a Creator can.
Part IV: Looking for Loopholes
Chapter 13: Extreme Life
Recognizing the challenges that the extreme conditions of early earth pose to the origin of life, researchers have been excited to discover that many organisms do exist and thrive in some of the harshest of conditions. Extreme temperatures, PH, and/or salinity in an environment often provide the only possible home for these organisms. It is often posited that if organisms live in the conditions that they must have been able to originate there also. Drs. Ross and Rana address each of these possibilities. They appeal to not only the extreme conditions’ abilities to prevent biochemistry (established in previous chapters), but also to the fact that these organisms can only survive in these harsh conditions, so the environment and all genes in the organisms would have to evolve simultaneously and instantly for these organisms to be the ancestors of organisms that cannot exist in the extreme environments but thrive in moderate ones (not to mention the opposite extreme on any of the three scales mentioned above). Because of these challenges, this possible loophole has been effectively closed to naturalistic hypotheses.
Chapter 14: Life on Mars?
Since extremophiles do not provide an avenue for overcoming the challenges of the origin of life on earth, scientists must look beyond our planet. A meteorite discovered in Antarctica and of martian origin triggered much excitement in the 90’s due to the discovery of some of life’s elements in it. Drs. Ross and Rana show how further research demonstrated on four levels that the life on the meteorite was the result of contamination and could not have had a martian origin. Still just because that one did not have martian life does not mean that life does not exist and/or originate on Mars. Unfortunately, several factors come into play that remove Mars from the possibility of being the cradle of life, including the fact that it would have had more extreme conditions than early earth and that it also was a victim of the hadean era during the time that life originated. The age at which Mars could have had an environment that could originate life was even closer to that of earth’s, so the window for the origin of life to take place would be even smaller. All of these issues effectively remove it as the birthplace of life even more than early earth.
Chapter 15: Europa and Beyond
Other solar system bodies have also been proposed as the sites for the origin of life, specifically Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Titan. Drs. Ross and Rana investigate both possibilities. Scientists are excited about Europa because of the possibility of a liquid water ocean under its icy shell. But this shell proposes the problem. It is a minimum of 6 miles thick and could be thicker than 12 miles. This thickness prevents any sunlight to reach the ocean (if it exists), thus no origin of life can take place. Titan also has triggered enthusiasm due to its high volume of hydrocarbons (necessary for life’s origin). Unfortunately, recent research has revealed other, biochemically destructive features of Titan, including its lack of ammonia, over abundance of oxygen, and scarcity of water. These two locations were the last remaining possibilities of our solar system bodies, so some scientists have proposed that life originated and was transported on smaller grains of debris; however, solar radiation and other harsh conditions of outer space remove this from possibility.
Chapter 16: Life, Seeded on Purpose
That last option pretty much removes all natural options from the fully naturalistic table. The last place to look is to an intelligence, a natural intelligence- aliens. Some have speculated that aliens created life, then seeded earth purposely once, if not several times. Dr. Ross and Rana explain that this is not a viable option either because not only does it merely push back the problem one step (where did the aliens come from), but physics stands in the way of traveling the extreme distances required for such a mission.
Part V: A Model for Life
Chapter 17: Solving the Mystery
Even after examining and being confronted with the case against the possibility of a naturalistic origin of life and the case for life’s origin being orchestrated at the hand of a designer, many people still reject the design hypothesis based on the idea that the Designer wasted too much time by waiting so long to create life. Drs. Ross and Rana describe several resources necessary for the existence and thriving of advanced life and the intricate interactions of the processes involved in their production. They demonstrate how such orchestration takes time and demands precision beyond what human designers are capable of producing. If human processes can be considered designed, how much more should we consider the processes, that culminated in the origin of life, designed?
This is actually my second time reading through Origins of Life. The first was several years ago when I was much newer to the scientific discussions between atheists and theists. The first time I read it, the power of the case presented by Drs. Ross and Rana was quite impressive, even though I did not quite understand all of the content. This second time, though, I was in a much better position to understand the power of the case against any naturalistic scenario and the positive case for God as the Designer. For someone with a natural attraction to the scientific realm, I appreciated how they explicitly listed the predictions of their model and the naturalistic models, then concluded each chapter with which predictions were confirmed by the discussed evidence and which were falsified. This allowed for easy tracking. I enjoyed how they looked at the detail of the research and the many different variations of naturalistic models that could have provided ways around the falsification of the predictions. They did not seem to leave many options (if any) without some kind of response.
Many theists are accused of showing the problems with naturalistic models then simply concluding that God must have done it. This strategy limits evidence to providing only a negative argument against the other view, without providing evidence for (but rather simply asserting) an alternative. This is often referred to as “God-of-the-gaps” reasoning. Drs. Ross and Rana, however, do not take that approach. While they do provide powerful critiques of the naturalistic models, they provide a positive case for their model to be accepted in the place of the failed naturalistic options. For anyone who is scientifically minded and is looking for powerful evidence that supports God as the author of life, this is a book that must be in your library. Any skeptic who is honestly looking for answers needs this book. Any Christian who interacts with unbelievers on even basic scientific levels should get this book. I cannot recommend it enough.
Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer Luke Nix is a Computer Systems Administrator in Oklahoma, USA. He has a beautiful and supportive wife, but no kids yet. In his spare time he enjoys studying theology, philosophy, biology, astronomy, psychology and apologetics. If you liked this review, more of his writing can be enjoyed at lukenixblog.blogspot.com.