Primordial Detective Story

Everyone concedes that evolution is true to some extent. Undeniably, there are variations within species of animals and plants, which explains why there are more than two hundred different varieties of dogs, cows can be bred for improved milk production, and bacteria can adapt and develop immunity to antibiotics. This is called "microevolution."

But Darwin's theory goes much further than that, claiming that life began millions of years ago with simple single-cell creatures and then developed through mutation and natural selection into the vast array of plant and animal life that populate the planet. Human beings came on the scene from the same common ancestor as the ape. Scientists call this more controversial theory "macro-evolution."

Initially troubling to me was the paucity of fossil evidence for the transitions between various species of animals. Even Darwin conceded that the lack of these fossils "is perhaps the most obvious and serious objection" to his theory, although he confidently predicted that future discoveries would vindicate him.

Fast forward to 1979. David M. Raup, the curator of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, said:

We are now about one hundred and twenty years after Darwin and the knowledge of the fossil record has been greatly expanded. We now have a quarter of a million fossil species, but the situation hasn't changed much We have even fewer examples of evolutionary transition than we had in Darwin's time.18

What the fossil record does show is that in rocks dated back some five hundred and seventy million years, there is the sudden appearance of nearly all the animal phyla, and they appear fully formed, "without a trace of the evolutionary ancestors that Darwinists require."i9 It's a phemonenon that points more readily toward a Creator than Darwinism.

That isn't the only argument against evolution. In his book Origin of Species, Darwin also admitted: "If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, then my theory would absolutely break down."20 Taking up that challenge, Behe's award-winning book Darwin's Black Box showed how recent biochemical discoveries have found numerous examples of this very kind of "irreducible complexity."

I was particularly interested in a more fundamental issue, however. Biological evolution can only take place after there was some sort of living matter that could replicate itself and then grow in complexity through mutation and survival of the fittest. I wanted to go back even further and ask the cornerstone question of human existence: Where did life begin in the first place?

The origin of life has intrigued both theologians and scientists for centuries. "The most amazing thing to me is existence itself," said cosmologist Allan Sandage. "How is it that inanimate matter can organize itself to contemplate itself?"2i

How, indeed? Darwin's theory presupposes that nonliving chemicals, if given the right amount of time and circumstances, could develop by themselves into living matter. Undeniably, that view has gained widespread popular acceptance through the years. But are there any scientific data to back up that belief? Or, like the hair-comparison evidence in the Oklahoma murder trial, is that analysis long on speculation but short on hard facts?

I knew that if scientists could convincingly demonstrate how life could emerge purely through natural chemical processes, then there's no need for Cod. On the other hand, if the evidence points in the other direction towards an Intelligent Designer, then Darwin's entire-evolutionary house of cards would collapse.

This primordial detective story took me on a journey to Houston, Texas, where I rented a car and drove through the countryside and cattle ranches to the community of College Station, home of Texas A&M University. Down the block from the school, in a modest two-story frame house, I knocked on the door of one of the most influential experts on how life arose on primitive planet Earth.


Walter L. Bradley caused a stir in 1984 when he coauthored the seminal book, The Mystery of Life's Origin, which was a devastating analysis of theories about how living matter was created. Eyebrows were raised because its foreword was written by biologist Dean Kenyon of San Francisco State University, whose book Biological Predestination had previously argued that chemicals had an inherent ability to evolve into living cells under the right conditions. Calling Bradley's book "cogent, original, and compelling," Kenyon concluded: "The authors believe, and I now concur, that there is a fundamental flaw in all current theories of the chemical origins of life."22

Since then, Bradley has written and spoken widely on the topic of how life began. He has contributed to the books Mere Creation and Three Views of Creation and Evolution, while he and chemist Charles B. Thaxton wrote "Information and the Origin of Life" for the book The Creation Hypothesis. His more technical articles include coauthoring, "A Statistical Examination of Self-Ordering of Amino Acids in Proteins," published in Origins of Life and Evolution of the Biosphere, which reflects his personal research in the origin-of-life field.

Bradley received his doctorate in materials science from the University of Texas at Austin and was a professor of mechanical engineering at Texas A&M University for twenty-four years, serving as head of the department for four years. An expert on polymers and thermodynamics, both of which are critically important in the life-origin debate, Bradley has been director of the Polymer Technology Center at Texas A&M and has received research grants totaling four million dollars.

He has consulted with such corporations as Dow Chemical, 3M, B. F Goodrich, General Dynamics, Boeing, and Shell Oil, and has been an expert witness in about seventy-five legal cases. In addition, he is a fellow of the Discovery Institute's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture and has been elected a fellow of the American Society for Materials and the American Scientific Affiliation.

The soft-spoken, self-effacing Bradley, who talks with an unhurried Texas drawl, is a strong family man. His two children and five grandchildren all live near each other in College Station, and they get together frequently. In fact, his wife, Ann; daughter, Sharon; and grandchildren Rachel, Daniel, and Elizabeth joined us for lunch at a local delicatessen after our interview.

As a scientist concerned with accuracy, Bradley answers questions in careful and complete sentences, making sure to acknowledge nuances and not to overstate his conclusions. He talks respectfully of the evolutionists he has debated through the years, including renowned chemistry professor Robert Shapiro of New York University, who called The Mystery of Life's Origin "an important contribution" that "brings together the major scientific arguments that demonstrate the inadequacy of current theories."23

Just three months after his retirement from Texas A&M, the fifty-six-year-old Bradley was relaxed and genial as we sat down at his dining room table. He was comfortably attired in a light blue sports shirt, blue jeans, and white socks with no shoes. It was clear from the outset that he, had come prepared for our discussion: a pile of research papers was neatly stacked next to him. Ever the scientist, he wanted to be able to back up everything he said.

To lay some groundwork, I started our conversation by going back to Darwin himself. "His theory of evolution sought to explain how simple life forms could develop over long periods of time into increasingly complex creatures," I said. "But that ignores the important issue of how life arose in the first place. What was Darwin's theory about that?"

Bradley picked up a book as he began to answer. "Well, he didn't really have a good idea of how life arose," Bradley said, slipping on his gold-rimmed reading glasses. "In 1871 he wrote a letter in which he did some speculation-it wasn't even a hypothesis, just some brainstorming." With that, Bradley read Darwin's words:

It is often said that all the conditions for the first production of a living organism are now present which could ever have been present. But if (and oh! what a big if!) we could conceive in some warm little pond, with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, light, heat, electricity, etc. present, that a protein compound was chemically formed ready to undergo still more complex changes, at the present day such matter would be instantly devoured or absorbed, which would not have been the case before living creatures were formed.24

Closing the book, Bradley said, "So Darwin was the first one to theorize that life emerged from chemicals reacting in some 'warm little pond."'

"He makes it sound pretty easy," I remarked.

"Darwin may have underestimated the problem because it was widely thought back then that life sort of naturally develops every place," he replied. "People thought maggots would spontaneously develop from decaying meat. But simultaneous with the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species, Francesco Redi demonstrated that meat that was kept away from flies never developed maggots. Then Louis Pasteur showed that air contains microorganisms that can multiply in water, giving the illusion of the spontaneous generation of life. He announced at the Sorbonne in Paris that 'never will the doctrine of spontaneous generation recover from the mortal blow of this simple experiment.'"25

Bradley let that thoroughly register with me before continuing. "But then in the 1920s, some scientists said they agreed with Pasteur that spontaneous genesis doesn't happen in a short time frame. But they theorized that if you had billions and billions of years-as the late astronomer Carl Sagan liked to say-then it might really happen after all."

"And that," I concluded, "is the basis for the idea that nonliving chemicals can combine into living cells if given enough time."

"That's exactly right," he said.


I told Bradley that in high school and college I was taught that the primitive earth was covered with pools of chemicals and had an atmosphere that was conducive to the formation of life. With energy supplied by lightning, chemicals in this "prebiotic soup"-over a period of billions of years-linked together and a simple life form emerged. From there, evolution took over.

"Who conceptualized that scenario?" I asked.

"Russian biochemist Alexander Oparin proposed in 1924 that complex molecular arrangements and the functions of living matter evolved from simpler molecules that preexisted on the early earth," he said. "Then in 1928, British biologist J. B. S. Haldane theorized that ultraviolet light acting on the earth's primitive atmosphere caused sugars and amino acids to concentrate in the oceans, and then life eventually emerged from this primordial broth.

"Later Nobel Prize winner Harold Urey suggested that earth's primitive atmosphere would have made it favorable for organic compounds to have emerged. Urey was the Ph.D. advisor to Stanley Miller at the University of Chicago, and it was Miller who decided to test this experimentally."

Miller's name rang a bell. I remember being taught in school about his landmark experiment in which he recreated the atmosphere of the primitive earth in a lab oratory and shot electricity through it to simulate the effects of lightning. Before long, he found that amino acids-the building blocks of life-had been created. I can remember my biology teacher recounting the experiment with an infectious enthusiasm, suggesting it proved conclusively that life could have emerged from nonliving chemicals.

"This experiment was hailed as a major breakthrough at the time, wasn't it?" I asked.

"Oh, absolutely!" Bradley declared. "Sagan called it the single most significant step in convincing many scientists that life is likely to be abundant in the cosmos." Chemist William Day said the experiment showed that this first step in the creation of life was not a chance event, but it was inevitable." Astronomer Harlow Shapley said Miller had proven that 'the appearance of life is essentially an automatic biochemical development that comes along naturally when physical conditions are right."'

That was certainly impressive. "Did that close the issue?" I asked.

"Hardly," replied Bradley. "For a while, evolutionists were euphoric. But there was a major problem with the experiment that has invalidated its results."

I had never been taught anything in school about the Miller experiment being fatally flawed. "What was the problem?" I asked.

"Miller and Oparin didn't have any real proof that the earth's early atmosphere was composed of ammonia, methane, and hydrogen, which Miller used in his experiment. They based their theory on physical chemistry. They wanted to get a chemical reaction that would be favorable, and so they proposed that the atmosphere was rich in those gases. Oparin was smart enough to know that if you start with inert gases like nitrogen and carbon dioxide, they won't react."

My eyes got wide. This was a devastating critique of Miller's experiment. "Are you saying that the deck was stacked in advance to get the results they wanted?" I asked, incredulity in my voice.

"Essentially, yes," he replied.

"What was the real environment of the early earth like?" I asked.

"From 1980 on, NASA scientists have shown that the primitive earth never had any methane, ammonia, or hydrogen to amount to anything," he said. "Instead, it was composed of water, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen and you absolutely cannot get the same experimental results with that mixture. It just won't work. More recent experiments have confirmed this to be the case."

I slumped back in my chair, amazed at the implications of what Bradley had disclosed. My mind flashed back to my biology teacher, who seemed so utterly confident that Miller's experiment validated the chemical evolution of life. Certainly that was the thinking of his day. Now new discoveries have changed everything-and yet there are generations of former students still living under the impression that the origin of life issue has been resolved.

"So the scientific significance of Miller's experiment today . . . ," I began, prompting Bradley to finish my sentence.

" . . . is zilch," he said. "When textbooks present the Miller experiment, they should be honest enough to say it was interesting historically but not terribly relevant to how life actually developed."29

I let out a low whistle. The analogy of the Oklahoma murder trial was proving to be even more accurate than I had thought.


Before we went any further, I thought it would be important to understand some fundamentals about living matter to determine whether it's reasonable to believe it could have been the product of unguided chemical reactions.

"Let's start by defining the difference between a living system and one that's not living," I said to Bradley.

"A living system must do at least three things: process energy, store information, and replicate," he said. "All living systems do that. Human beings do these three functions, although bacteria do them much more quickly and efficiently. Nonliving things don't do them." Again thinking back to Darwin's day, I asked, "Did Darwin consider basic living matter-say, for instance, a one-cell organism-to be rather simple?"

"Yes, he undoubtedly would have," came his response. "Darwin probably didn't think it would be very difficult to create life from non-life because the gap between the two didn't appear very great to him. In 1905, Ernst Haeckel described living cells as being merely 'homogeneous globules of plasm.'30 In those days they didn't have any way of seeing the complexity that exists within the membrane of the cell. But the truth is that a one cell organism is more complicated than anything we've been able to recreate through supercomputers.

"One person very creatively-but quite accurately described a single-cell organism as a hightech factory, complete with artificial languages and decoding systems; central memory banks that store and retrieve impressive amounts of information; precision control systems that regulate the automatic assembly of components; proofreading and quality control mechanisms that safeguard against errors; assembly systems that use principles of prefabrication and modular construction; and a complete replication system that allows the organism to duplicate itself at bewildering speeds."

"That's extremely impressive," I said. "But maybe one cell organisms are more complicated today due to the fact that they have developed and evolved through the eons. Maybe the first cells produced on the primitive earth were much more basic and therefore easier to create."

"Let's accept that theory," came Bradley's reply. "But even when you try to imagine what the minimal living cell would have been like, it's still not simple at all."

"What would go into building a living organism?" I asked-and then, before Bradley could open his mouth to reply, I quickly added: "And keep it basic."

"Okay," he said, clearing his throat. "Essentially, you start with amino acids. They come in eighty different types, but only twenty of them are found in living organisms. The trick, then, is to isolate only the correct amino acids. Then the right amino acids have to be linked together in the right sequence in order to produce protein molecules. Picture those plastic stick-together chains that kids play with-you have to put together the right amino acids in the right way to ultimately get biological function."

Imagining kids playing with plastic toys made the process seem-well, like child's play. "That doesn't sound very difficult," I said.

"It wouldn't be if you were applying your intelligence to the problem and purposefully selecting and assembling the amino acids one at a time. But, remember, this is chemical evolution. It would be unguided by any outside help. And there are a lot of other complicating factors to consider."

"Such as what?"

"For instance, other molecules tend to react more readily with amino acids than amino acids react with each other. Now you have the problem of how to eliminate these extraneous molecules. Even in the Miller experiment, only two percent of the material he produced was composed of amino acids, so you'd have a lot of other chemical material that would gum up the process.

"Then there's another complication: there are an equal number of amino acids that are right-and left-handed, and only left-handed ones work in living matter. Now you've got to get only these select ones to link together in the right sequence. And you also need the correct kind of chemical bonds-namely, peptide bonds-in the correct places in order for the protein to be able to fold in a specific three-dimensional way. Otherwise, it won't function.

"It's sort of like a printer taking letters out of a basket and setting type the way they used to do it by hand. If you guide it with your intelligence, it's no problem. But if you just choose letters at random and put them together haphazardly-including upside down and backwards then what are the chances you'd get words, sentences, and paragraphs that would make sense? It's extremely unlikely.

"In the same way, perhaps one hundred amino acids have to be put together in just the right manner to make a protein molecule. And, remember, that's just the first step. Creating one protein molecule doesn't mean you've created life. Now you have to bring together a collection of protein molecules-maybe two hundred of them-with just the right functions to get a typical living cell."

Whew! Now I was beginning to see the enormity of the challenge. Even if Miller had been right about the ease with which amino acids could be produced in the primitive earth's atmosphere, nevertheless the process of putting them together into protein molecules and then assembling those into a functioning cell would be mind-boggling.

"In living systems," continued Bradley, "the guidance that's needed to assemble everything comes from DNA. Every cell of every plant and animal has to have a DNA molecule. Think of it as a little microprocessor that regulates everything. DNA works hand-in-glove with RNA to direct the correct sequencing of amino acids. It's able to do this through biochemical instructions-that is, information-that is encoded on the DNA."

That raised an obvious issue. "Where did the DNA come from?" I asked. "The making of DNA and RNA would be an even greater problem than creating protein," he replied. "These are much more complex, and there are a host of practical problems. For instance, the synthesis of key building blocks for DNA and RNA has never been successfully done except under highly implausible conditions without any resemblance to those of the early earth. Klaus Dose of the Institute for Biochemistry in Mainz, Germany, admitted that the difficulties in synthesizing DNA and RNA 'are at present beyond our imagination."31

"Frankly, the origin of such a sophisticated system that is both rich in information and capable of reproducing itself has absolutely stymied origin-of-life scientists. As the Nobel Prize-winner Sir Francis Crick said, 'The origin of life appears to be almost a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have had to be satisfied to get it going.'"32

Even so, scientists have tried to come up with creative theories to try to explain how biopolymers (such as proteins) became assembled with only the right building blocks (amino acids) and only the correct isomers (left-handed amino acids) joined with only the correct peptide bonds in only the correct sequence. I decided to ask Bradley for his analysis of the most common hypotheses that scientists have proposed in recent years.

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