The question of the origin of life poses a far more formidable challenge to materialism than does the inconsistent evidence for evolution. This is important to remember, because evolution and origin of life are often lumped together as though they were parts of the same question. They aren’t.
One of the reasons for confusion is that one argument against spontaneous generation of life is irreducible complexity, which is also counted as one of the major criticisms of macroevolution as an explanation of speciation.
The basic unit of living things is the cell, but the cell isn’t the same wherever one finds it. It’s not like a molecule of carbon, for example. The cell is a working mechanism, and it works differently depending upon its function in the body. The cell is in turn made up of a number of fairly complex and specialized machines. These cannot be reduced, but are unique to their function within the cell and within the cell’s function in the body. Flagellum, for example, cannot be reduced; meaning, that all of its parts are necessary to make the whole functional, and none of the parts by itself has any function.
The significance of the irreducibility of the cell machinery is that there are not smaller components that could have arisen and combined to make the machinery function until all of the machine’s components are in place. The theory of evolution supposes there is no purposeful direction to the development, so the end function of the components could not look back, so to speak, so as to drive that development to a functioning machine.
In the same way, systems larger than the cell are similarly irreducible. Light-sensitive components of the eye, for example, are not reducible to simpler developing components, because those components would not have had any function until they become further developed. That ultimate function cannot drive the development, because that is incompatible with the theory of constraint acting on random mutation. Complex tissues and organs of living things are therefore irreducible, but they would have to be reducible for macro-evolution to be possible.
To understand the distinction between the issues of biogenesis and evolution, one must remember that evolution involves material which is said to evolve to more fit, adaptable material. But it is a process acting upon living, organic material.
The issue of biogenesis, by contrast, is that of how non-biotic materials become living material. It is not encompassed within the theory of macro-evolution.
Evolution theory depends on environmental constraints acting on random mutations, such that amino acids can evolve to multi-cell organisms which can evolve to dolphins, elephants, and man. But, 4.5 billion years is a long time. With evolution, it’s tempting to think that, with enough time, anything is possible.
It is very much open to question whether macro-evolution is rendered possible because of the very long time span believed to be involved. (See Evolution and Science). Even if it can, however, we must understand that it is an entirely distinct question we address, when we consider the change from pre-biotic material to the organic, living material that is said to then evolve.
Whether and how and on what time-frame pre-biotic material could become organic, living material is not explainable in the same terms as macro-evolution. It turns out that the probability of the necessary amino acids forming is incredibly low, and the probability is even less that those amino acids will combine as necessary to form proteins. So low that the probability does not sufficiently improve even with 4.5 billion years to do the improving in. (Though it’s not really 4.5 billion years, because there still has to be eons of time remaining to get from an amoeba to a man).
Some scientists strive to overcome these difficulties by postulating self-formation, to avoid the improbabilities of chance formation. Victor Stenger attempts this, for example, in a book reviewed here. The core problem with that, however, is this. The formation of biological structures is not like the seeming self-organization of non-biological physical structures, like snowflakes and crystals and the like. The complex ordering of amino-acids into proteins is a language-like structure. The source of order in DNA is encoded information, not the physical properties of the substance. As Stephen Meyer said, “What needs explaining is not the origin of order . . . but the origin of information.” Information is certainly not self-organizing.
The Origin of Information
Biology was traditionally viewed through the lens of matter and energy and time. With the startling discoveries relating to DNA and its replication, biology proceeds more and more on a theory of information. The big question is how the genetic code for living things, and the mechanisms for its translation, originate. The genetic code is not just a precisely-ordered collection of proteins. It is the encoding of vast amounts of information.
Inferences of design are made all the time, in all kinds of scientific disciplines. Why shouldn’t we make an inference of design from the overwhelming evidence of it in living things? Design includes the mechanisms for information formation and replication. Design suggests that the presence of information in the biological mechanisms is not the end result of unguided processes, but was present at the beginning.
Perhaps information actually precedes physical matter. Perhaps it is more fundamental than material, energy, and time. The intelligibility of the universe means we can make sense of it all, not only because it is comprehensible unto itself, but because we have the ability subjectively to bring our intelligence to the project of finding it out. Both point to the existence of a Mind that is responsible, both for the universe and for our minds. The advances of science point ever more clearly to the existence of this Mind; this God. In Genesis we read of a personal God, who spoke the universe into being. With advances in our understanding of the primacy of information in biology, it appears that something provided an informational input into the system which is the universe.
There is not a better explanation available, than that it was God.