Dan Brown's Origin of Life

Continuing the discussion from Does ID's origin of life information argument entail the special creation of the first life?:

There has been at least two attempts to show that the Origin of Life requires Intelligent Design (or God), on this site. (1) The Semiotic Argument Against Naturalism and (2) The Origin of Life: Can Science Show Intelligence Was Required?.

I haven’t been convinced by these, because they seem to be just doing a lot of work to say what we already know: No one knows how the first cell arose. Still, the mathematical proofs that this required Intelligent Design are, from my point of view, “lacking.”

The best argument against ID on the origin of life is the exact opposite of this. We may never no the details of how life first arose, as this is the most idiosyncratic and temporally distant event in the entire history of life. Even if we can create life from scratch in the laboratory (and we cannot), this is a long way from demonstrating this is how life arose billions of years ago on earth.

That is to say we do not expect to understand how the first life arose. To be clear, we do not know how. But the fact that we do not know does not really tell us one way or another what to make of this.

It is not just that this is at the absolute limits of biology, stretching into pre-biotic chemistry on an unknown primordial earth. There is good reason (like information arguments!) to think that a key component is expansive amounts of time and expansive amounts of material. In the laboratory, however, we cannot watch a planet or universe size system for a few million years to see if life arises.

There is a science fiction book by Dan Brown that might have the necessary preconditions for scientific advance here correct:

In front of hundreds of millions of viewers, Kirsch explains that he mimicked the famous Miller-Urey experiment and coupled it with various components using the laws of physics and entropy, along with E-Wave’s ability to digitally speed forward time, to recreate what he believes is the moment of abiogenesis. This is Kirsch’s proof that humanity was created by natural events. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Origin_(Brown_novel)

It might take this sort of advance, a way of creating a time-space bubble where we can observe millions of years play out in a laboratory experiment, ideally at a massive scale (think the marble galaxy of Men in Black, Orion’s Belt). It might take that sort of technological advance to show life arising spontaneously in the laboratory. If it does take this sort of advance, needless to say, we are very far from demonstrating this in the lab.

Though notice the deus ex machina non-sequitor in the Dan Brown novel, that this would “prove that humanity was created by natural events.” Showing that life arose by natural processes does not either (1) prove that God did not intervene or was unnecessary, or (2) prove that humanity arose in the same way. One does not follow from the other. It is transparently absurd on a logical level, even though we see many people acting if this is true on an emotional level. Though necessary as a plot device, this seems to be among the more fictional elements of this fictional story.

Ultimately, though there has been a ton of interesting progress in Origin of Life research, we just do not know precisely how it arose. I’m not sure we ever will.

The Dan Brown book “Origin” is more than a science fiction book. It is more of a book on present day AI (artifical Intelligence) and its influence on society today and in the near future. It is a fun book to read. I myself like non-fiction better, and find Yuval Harari’s Homo Deus intriguing. This is Harari’s sequel to “Sapiens” I say that I am a Homo Sapien but my kids may be Homo Deus. Certainly any grandchildren that I have will certainly be evolved Homo Deus. In my opinion Google is more God-like than any God in ancient fictions.

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Science will ultimately find how life originated on Earth by looking at all the evidences and eliminating the one hypothesis after another until only one is left that fits the data. Once enough evidence is found in rock from 4 billion to 3 billion years ago, the slow process of how the first cell came about will be known. Then the problem will shift to drawing the line between life and non-life. It will be the same problem as drawing the line between human-nonhuman, and new species and previous species. The question of “who created it” will be moot.

Hi everyone,

It may interest readers to know that there’s an Intelligent Design argument in Dan Brown’s latest novel, Origin. There’s an article about it over at Evolution News and Views. In the book, Langdon distinguishes between a pattern and a code: “A pattern is any distinctly organized sequence,” whereas “codes must transmit data and convey meaning.” Here’s the crux of the argument:

[C]odes do not occur naturally in the world. Musical notation does not sprout from trees, and symbols do not draw themselves in the sand. Codes are the deliberate inventions of intelligent consciousness.

In other words, “codes always have an intention or awareness behind them,” which means that they “must be created,” prompting Ambra to ask: “What about DNA?”

The assumption here, of course, is codes cannot arise naturally. I think it’s certainly true for semantic codes, but I don’t think the genetic code qualifies as a code of that sort. My two cents.

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The science optimism here is great. However, we already have such fossils:


Unsurprisingly, this tells us nearly nothing of how the first life arose, only that it arose. We cannot mistake the brute fact that life arose, to be some how an explanation for how it arose. That something arises does not tell us much about how it arises.

It is hard to even imagine what we could find in a 4 billion year old rock that would untangle this puzzle.

Isn’t Dan Brown just bringing up the argument to, ultimately, show it is false? By definitively disproving this argument with his experiment, belief in God is supposed to collapse.

Of course, ID advocates will find that a laughable narrative, and rightly so. None of them (right?) believe in God because of the Origin of Life argument. Which for me, puts spotlight on a different causation. I think they find the arguments for ID compelling because they already believe in God, not because such arguments have much at all to do with demonstrating whether or not God exists. Grounding for belief in God comes from other places, not ID.

While Dan Brown’s understanding that belief in God depends on ID argument is incorrect, it seems he is just taking ID advocates at their word sometimes. Is this one of the costs of pushing these arguments with such intensity?

Hi Joshua,

Actually, the argument is put forward right near the end of the book, after Brown describes the experiment that simulates the creation of life. I’m not sure exactly how he squares the evidence for design (codes) with the evidence that it arose naturally (as shown by the simulator). Maybe he’s a front-loader of sorts.

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The “how” question will be figured out by looking at the chemical/evolutionary processes going on. And it will be at first fragmentary and tentative. As more results come in, the how picture will emerge. But it will still be provisional. That’s how science works. Incremental, provisional. Look at the Big Bang theory today compared to 1964 (the Penzias/Wilson CMBR dsicovery). We now have 1% precision on the parameters of the FLWR six-parameter model of the universe. Science can explain the universe evolution in precision from the first femtosecond (10^-15 seconds) until now. In the 1980’s, it was from the first 3 seconds until now. Isn’t a femosecond of uncertainty good enough to say that we pretty much know how the universe evolved and how it will continue to expand for trillions of years? Saying God did it, is just plain laziness. Admit you don’t know and at least be honest about it.