Thursday, January 6, 2011

Evolution vs. Abiogenesis - Know the Difference!

Last year I attended a conference and listened to a student explain that evolution was heretical because non-living matter cannot turn into living matter.  I thought there was a problem with this approach, so I raised my hand when it was time for questions.

"Augustine said that God may have created the earth through a seminal method.  If he is correct, wouldn't that make evolution possible within orthodoxy?"  I asked.

"No," I was adamantly told, "because you can't get something like a rock and turn it into a living thing.  Evolution is impossible."

Obviously, I had worded my question poorly, so I tried again.  "But I'm not talking about getting life from non-life.  This sort of seminal creation means that God could have planted a seed that grew into the earth as we know it."

His reply: "Augustine was wrong."

His thesis had nothing to do with evolution (a change in the gene pool of a population from generation to generation by such processes as mutation, natural selection, and genetic drift).  Instead, he was arguing against the possibility of abiogensis (the theory that living organisms can arise spontaneously from inanimate matter).  This is a problem, because these two are not the same thing.

 Oddly enough, there is a board game called Primordial Soup and the object of the game is to help your amoebas evolve into higher life forms.  It wasn't a hit at youth groups.

I should probably make a disclaimer here and say that I'm not interested in teaching you what to believe about evolution.  I'm not a biologist.  But I do want to be sure that in our enthusiasm to understand our world we do not forget to really know what we are talking about.  Arguing that evolution is impossible by denying abiogenesis is a logical fallacy, because evolution is not concerned with the origin of life.  Also, the notion of evolution does not imply that life came from non-life.  It's unfair to criticize biologists on those grounds.

I've heard plenty of people tell me that evolution can never help us understand where we came from, but I find this to be a strange argument.  The biologists I've spoken to are not looking into their microscopes in an effort to satisfy their existential longings - they are simply curious about science.  Their observations have led them to believe that life as we know it evolved from previous forms of life, but the origin of that "first life" is still a mystery to them.

So, if you want to debate or protest evolution, then I want to ask you to do it correctly.  Don't argue against the wrong thesis, because that just shows that you haven't done your homework. Of course, whining over evolutionary theory is the sort of thing that makes Christians a laughing stock on the internet, so maybe there are better uses of our time.


obclhorn said...

laughingstock of the internet = foolishness to the Greeks, perhaps?

Adam D Jones said...

Not when it's deserved. When Christians write anti-evolution posts without doing the proper research then they are not being persecuted - they are just being careless.

Dustin Cade said...

You would be hard pressed to find a scientist worth his salt who believed he/she could determine where life came from. Any hypothesis would be difficult to test and much harder to confirm. This is where we atheists find a problem. Theists ask us, " where did life come from?"

Our best answer is that we believe it happened by chance, possibly through abiogenesis, but no one knows. We can't prove any hypothesis. This is similar to the way that theists have no empirical proof of a deity.

Any rational person can see that evolution is grounded in logic and evidence. Scientists do not claim that "man came from monkeys." They claim that we have a common ancestor.

Sam said...

You said, "We can't prove any hypothesis. This is similar to the way that theists have no empirical proof of a deity."

So do you think it is only rational to believe in that which is scientifically verifiable or empirical?

Dustin Cade said...

Not really. Mostly though. The sad fact is that it's remarkable how much we don't know as a species. (i.e. We have determined that some vitamins and minerals are essential to life, but have no idea why they are essential.)

I made the point to express the similarities between our two groups. In essence even atheists take some things on faith.

I also meant that we can't prove where life came from. A scientist most likely wouldn't use language like that. They would call something "the earliest known form of life."

I was ask by a Christian once, "Are you an atheist because you know everything?"

I replied, "Exactly the opposite, I know nothing."

Sam said...

Wouldn't that make you an agnostic then? An atheist holds the belief that "God does not exist."

Adam D Jones said...

Dustin's response ("I know nothing") is obviously a hyperbole - he clearly knows something (or he wouldn't be able to type and follow conversations). He is too smart of a fellow to mislabel himself.

Sam said...

Well, of course that was an exaggeration. But it was a "lack of knowledge" that appeared to help solidify his viewpoint. I just thought that sounded more like agnosticism...

Jared said...

> "you can't get something like a rock and turn it into a living thing."

Unless you're God, of course (Gen. 2:7).

Dustin Cade said...


I am an atheist. I believe that no deity exists at all. There is no proof of one; however, if there was proof, I'd be the first to eat crow.

I do not believe that there will ever be proof of one though. I can't prove the negative just as you can't prove the positive.


You are correct. I know something, but in the grand scale of life, the universe, and everything, I know very little. It's not even enough to count.

Just thinking about how much we don't know is amazing, and I can't understand it.

S said...

Fair enough, Dustin. I think there are a lot of things that can't be "proven" with absolute certainty, though we are perfectly rational to believe them. For example, can you "prove" there is an external world? Or that you and the universe weren't created 5 minutes ago with an appearance of age? There are numerous other examples. I'll just add that you mind want to check out the book "Reasonable Faith" or "The Case for a Creator." You might be surprised how reasonable theism truly is. After all, the question, "Does God exist?" is perhaps the most important question a person could ask...

Human Ape said...

Has anyone here seen this video?

The Origin of Life - Abiogenesis

"It's been 55 years since the Miller-Urey Experiment, and science has made enormous progress on solving the origin of life. This video summarizes one of the best leading models. Yes there are others. Science may never know exactly how life DID start, but we will know many ways how life COULD start. Don't be fooled by creationist arguments as even a minimal understanding of biology and chemistry is enough to realize they have no clue what they are talking about."

My comment: The god of the gaps has run out of hiding places. A god who was never necessary for anything is a god who doesn't exist.

Tusk said...

Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

Jack said...

Very nice post. I've seen far too many people confound abiogenesis with evolution.

It's also great to see a Christian who understands that the main motivation for scientists is to learn about science, not to explore religion or philosophy. I can't tell you how many people I've talked to who literally think evolution was formulated by a series of atheist scientists to defame religion.