Sunday, September 28, 2008


Reasons to Believe is a Christian ministry that deals primarily with science apologetics. A common objection to using science to defend Christianity, or any religious claim, is that appealing to supernatural causality is not falsifiable, since it does not make risky predictions, and hence is not really science. (Of course, many people who so object tend to see science as refuting -- that is, falsifying -- Christianity. This is a rather striking inconsistency.) To counter this objection RTB has come out with several books in the last few years which present models that make predictions that future scientific discoveries can verify or falsify.

The first book they published is entitled Origins of Life by biochemist Fazale Rana and astrophysicist Hugh Ross, RTB's vice-president and president, respectively. Origins of Life addresses ... wait for it ... the origin of life. The book's subtitle notwithstanding, they write

This is not a book about evolution per se. That is, it is not about the theory by which life accumulates changes over time, so that simple, early organisms change over eons into more complex, advanced ones. It is not about the entire history of life on Earth either. Rather, this book has a narrower, yet crucial, focus ... This book is about the origin of life -- the first appearances of living organisms on Earth. We address such questions as: What was first life like? When did it appear on Earth? How did it get here?
Rana and Ross contend that natural processes are incapable of bringing life into existence out of non-living material, and thus life's origin requires a supernatural agent. To this end, they take the baton from The Mystery of Life's Origin written by Thaxton, Bradley, and Olson in 1984. Rana and Ross attend the International Society for the Study of the Origin of Life (ISSOL) conferences held every three years, so their knowledge of the field is extensive and up to date.

Rana and Ross specifically make eight predictions based on their interpretation of Genesis 1 which they say can be falsified. Some might suggest that basing their model on the Bible immediately excludes it from consideration as scientific. But how one comes to hold a model or hypothesis or theory is irrelevant in science; what matters (at least according to contemporary philosophy of science) is whether it can be verified or falsified. Friedrich Kekulé came up with the ring structure of benzene after daydreaming of a snake biting its own tail, but no one would use this to suggest that benzene isn't characterized by a ring structure. Of course, I don't consider the Bible to be as fanciful as daydreams; my point is that even if you think it is as fanciful, or even that it is anti-scientific in the extreme, this is no argument against Rana's and Ross's model. If it can be verified or falsified by evidence, then its origin is simply irrelevant.

At any rate, these are the predictions that Rana and Ross offer:

1. Life appeared early in Earth's history, while the planet was still in its primordial state.
2. Life originated in and persisted through the hostile conditions of early Earth.
3. Life originated abruptly.
4. Earth's first life displays complexity.
5. Life is complex in its minimal form.
6. Life's chemistry displays hallmark characteristics of design (they discuss what these hallmarks are in their conclusion).
7. Early life was qualitatively different from life that came into existence on creation days three, five, and six.
8. A purpose can be postulated for life's early appearance on Earth. ("[Our] model bears the burden of explaining why God would create life so early in Earth's history and why (as well as when) He would create the specific types of life that appeared on primordial Earth.")
They contrast this with what they claim are the predictions from a naturalistic (i.e. non-miraculous) perspective. They acknowledge that there is great diversity here, and that often the predictions made from a particular model are based on that model's specifics. Nevertheless, they are able to derive nine general predictions made by naturalistic models:

1. Chemical pathways produced life's building blocks.
2. Chemical pathways yielded complex biomolecules.
3. The chemical pathways that yielded life's building blocks and complex molecular constituents operated in early Earth's conditions.
4. Sufficiently placid chemical and physical conditions existed on early Earth for long periods of time.
5. Geochemical evidence for a prebiotic soup exists in Earth's oldest rocks.
6. Life appeared gradually on Earth over a long period of time.
7. The origin of life occurred only once on Earth.
8. Earth's first life was simple.
9. Life in its most minimal form is demonstrably simple.
Rana and Ross then test the predictions of both models against the scientific facts as we now know them, and argue that their model receives strong support, while naturalistic models are undermined. Moreover, they point out that their model can continue to be tested as future scientific discoveries will either support or undermine their predictions (as well as those of naturalistic models).

They address whether life arose early in Earth's history or late; whether it arose quickly or slowly; whether there is any evidence for a prebiotic soup; whether chemical pathways can account for the origin of proteins, DNA, and RNA; the difficulty of accounting for homochirality (that proteins and sugars must be uniformly right or left "handed"); the information content encoded in DNA and RNA; the origin of cell membranes; the lower limit of complexity that a cell must have in order to survive and propagate; the role of organisms that thrive in extreme environments (extremophiles); the possibility of life on Mars, Europa, and other extraterrestrial locations; and "directed panspermia", the theory gaining in popularity (due to the problems outlined in the preceding chapters) that an advanced alien civilization intentionally seeded Earth with life. (Indeed, it seems to me that any supernatural explanation for the origin of life amounts to divinely directed panspermia).

Origins of Life is a fascinating discussion of the subject. Several chapters are worth the cost of the book all by themselves. Their chapter on cell membranes, for example, addresses a subject that is rarely raised. "To date, no studies have been conducted on the long-term stability of octanoic and nonanoic bilayers." ... "Despite its importance to naturalistic origin-of-life scenarios, researchers in this field focus only limited attention on membrane origins."

Other examples are their chapters on alternate life-sites in our solar system, including Mars, Europa (one of Jupiter's moons), and Titan (one of Saturn's). The latter is particularly interesting, since the Huygens Probe landed on Titan a few years ago, although (unfortunately) several months after Origins of Life was published. Again, this book is very comprehensive in its approach, so to discuss their arguments at length would take pages.

Other books they have published employing this model are Who Was Adam? by Rana and Ross which deals with human origins; Creation as Science by Ross which deals with their creation model in general; The Cell's Design by Rana which deals with the complexity of individual cells; and just released is Why the Universe Is the Way It Is by Ross. I have not yet read these books and don't know anything about them beyond their general descriptions. But I'm looking forward to them.

(cross-posted on Quodlibeta)


Doctor Logic said...

I saw Ross give a presentation to a group of churchgoers a few years back.

Here is my report.

The whole thing is either fraudulent or nonsense depending on one's generosity.

Ross spent much of his time lying to the audience, or giving the audience irrelevant, misleading probabilities.

The so-called predictions are simply the result of known scientific facts. We already know that life has been evolving from simple forms on Earth for around 4 billion years. All of the predictions you quote are necessitated by the known facts. None of these things are susceptible to experimental challenge because they were scientifically verified when Ross was still in diapers.

Jim S. said...

Thanks for your comment, and sorry to take so long to respond.

I would say that I'm not impressed by the claim that the theory of Rana and Ross relies on well-known facts. They aren't claiming to be making new scientific discoveries themselves that make their theory relevant when it previously wasn't. They're claiming to have a theory which covers the facts in question.

If their predictions are things already known, then it would be disingenuous of them to present them as if they were unknown. But merely saying that they are likely given the facts that we do know is not a point against the theory of Rana and Ross, it's a point in its favor. If a theory can explain known facts but not the likely consequences of those facts, it probably won't survive when the consequences are verified.

I suspect what you're saying is that their theory isn't really connected in the right way to the facts. That is, the facts can be explained just as well by other theories, so the facts don't or shouldn't really count as evidence for their theory. Or to put it another way, the theory in question would not have predicted the facts that we have now if the theory had been proposed earlier. It's just too vague. I think this is a plausible objection, and I haven't had the time to look at it myself.

I should also point out that I have objections to the theory of Rana and Ross too. They say they derived it from their interpretation of Genesis 1. But if I were to make one prediction about the origin of life from Genesis 1 it would be that life arises by natural processes. Two times (in verses 11 and 24) the text quotes God as saying, "Let the land produce" various forms of life. That sounds much more consonant with a naturalistic origin of life, and even its subsequent development, than a supernaturalistic one. But if we have good reason to rule out naturalistic explanations, as Rana and Ross argue, then the only option left open is to appeal to something other than nature.