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Have Scientists Created Life?: Examining the Miller-Urey Experiment

by  Bert Thompson, Ph.D.
Brad Harrub, Ph.D.

How did living cells emerge from nonliving chemicals? This simple question has dogged evolutionists for centuries. Try as they might, they never have been able to establish a firm foundation for how living things first appeared—a foundation on which they then could build an evolutionary tree of life.

In the past, the modus operandi was to teach the long-ago-disproved concept of spontaneous generation, hope that no one noticed the question of the actual origin of life had never been answered, and then teach the theory of evolution as if “somehow” the origin of life had been established as a fact. As a result, almost every science textbook printed within the last fifty years contains the now-famous Miller-Urey experiment of 1953. In this experiment, Harold Urey and his graduate student, Stanley Miller, tried to simulate what they thought represented the Earth’s early atmospheric conditions, in order to determine what products they could generate by adding an electrical spark (i.e. simulating lightening). These same textbooks never fail to mention that Miller and Urey were successful at producing a few simple amino acids—“the basic building blocks of life.” From there, the textbooks lead into a new chapter on evolution and the origin of life—allowing the student to draw the conclusion that scientists have thus proven that life can be generated from just a few nonliving chemicals.

It is a logical progression, and one that, admittedly, works well in the classroom. The only problem is that this notion is totally false. Not once have scientists succeeded in producing living material from nonliving material. And yet, year after year the public is led into believing that the very foundation upon which evolution stands has been resolved. Nobel laureate George Wald of Harvard admitted:

We tell this story to beginning students of biology as though it represents a triumph of reason over mysticism. In fact it is very nearly the opposite. The reasonable view was to believe in spontaneous generation; the only alternative, to believe in a single, primary act of supernatural creation. There is no third position. For this reason many scientists a century ago chose to regard the belief in spontaneous generation as a ‘philosophical necessity.’ It is a symptom of the philosophical poverty of our time that this necessity is no longer appreciated. Most modern biologists, having reviewed with satisfaction the downfall of the spontaneous generation hypothesis, yet unwilling to accept the alternative belief in special creation, are left with nothing. I think a scientist has no choice but to approach the origin of life through a hypothesis of spontaneous generation (1954, 191:46).

Evolutionist John Horgan concluded that if he were a creationist today, he would focus on the origin of life because this

...is by far the weakest strut of the chassis of modern biology. The origin of life is a science writer’s dream. It abounds with exotic scientists and exotic theories, which are never entirely abandoned or accepted, but merely go in and out of fashion (1996, p. 138).

This weakness has not gone unnoticed. In fact, the evolutionists’ modus operandi is having to be revised as biologists scramble to find new ways of “enlightening” freshman biology students on the origin of life. It is because of this weakness that Stanley L. Miller himself refuses to let the idea of the spontaneous generation of life fade into oblivion. In the September 19, 2002 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Dr. Miller and his colleagues described how they obtained bioorganic compounds utilizing carbon monoxide as a component in their model of the atmosphere (see Miyakawa, et al., 2002). As the old adage goes, “try, try again.” And, as evinced by the almost 50 years that have passed since his initial experiment, Miller appears determined to squeeze life from nonliving chemicals.

Try as he might, however, Miller is fighting a lost cause. Robert Jastrow pointed out over twenty-five years ago: “According to this story, every tree, every blade of grass, and every creature in the sea and on the land evolved out of one parent strand of molecular matter drifting lazily in a warm pool. What concrete evidence supports that remarkable theory of the origin of life? There is none” (1977, p. 60, emp. added). And this truth has not changed. As Klaus Dose so aptly pointed out:

More than 30 years of experimentation on the origin of life in the fields of chemical and molecular evolution have led to a better perception of the immensity of the problem of the origin of life on Earth rather than to its solution. At present all discussions on principal theories and experiments in the field either end in stalemate or in a confession of ignorance (1988, 13[4]:348).

Life has always come from other life, and nonliving material has never given rise to living material. In fact, scientists recognize a biological law—the Law of Biogenesis—which states this very fact.

THE FAMOUS MILLER-UREY EXPERIMENT

The most famous example of trying to create life from nonlife is the 1953 experiment carried out by Miller and Urey. Using a system of glass flasks, these two scientists attempted to simulate “early atmospheric conditions.” They passed an electrical spark through a mixture containing water, ammonia, methane, and hydrogen. However, their experiment was carried out in the absence of oxygen (something even evolutionists now admit does not reflect the early Earth’s atmosphere), because they knew that oxygen quickly would oxidize any amino acids that were formed—thereby preventing the formation of anything living. At the bottom of the apparatus was a trap, to capture any molecules produced by the reaction. This trap prevented the newly formed chemicals from being destroyed by the next electrical discharge. On the first attempt, after a week of electrical discharges in the reaction chamber, the sides of the chamber turned black, and the liquid mixture turned a cloudy red. The predominant product was a sticky, black substance made up of numerous carbon atoms strung together in what was essentially tar (a common nuisance in organic reactions). Miller was able to produce a mixture containing two simple amino acids—which are the building blocks of proteins. Yet the highly praised Miller-Urey experiment did not produce any of the fundamental building blocks of life itself. Rather, it produced 85% tar, 13% carbolic acid, 1.05% glycine, 0.85% alanine, and trace amounts of other chemicals.

Many scientists now believe that the Earth’s early atmosphere would have made the synthesis of organic molecules virtually impossible under conditions simulated in the Miller-Urey experiment. For example, NASA has reported that a “reducing atmosphere” never has existed, although the experiment assumed one (Levine, 1983). Scientists also now realize that the ultraviolet radiation from sunlight is destructive to any developing life. Evolutionist Robert Shapiro stated regarding the products of the Miller-Urey experiment: “Let us sum up. The experiment performed by Miller yielded tar as its most abundant product. There are about fifty small organic compounds that are called ‘building blocks.’ Only two of these fifty occurred among the preferential Miller-Urey products” (1986, p. 105).

However, more recent discoveries once again have evolutionists clamoring that life has been “created.” In the June 16, 2000 issue of Science, Gerard Wong and colleagues reported a mechanism by which chemicals were able to spontaneously self-assemble themselves into ribbon-like tubules that resemble bacterial cell walls (288:2035). This discovery has led some to suggest that “artificial bacteria” were created—when, in fact, they were not! The researchers simply mixed actin (a protein that provides the structural framework for cells) with special liposomes to make actin-membrane capsules, which is a gargantuan step from “creating life.” The actin molecule does not possess DNA, it does not actively metabolize, and it does not reproduce. It is therefore a far cry from being “living.” Spontaneous organization does not equal spontaneous generation. So while this composite membrane is indeed similar to the plasma membrane that surrounds most cells—due to the fact that it can organize itself into three different layers, including a middle lipid layer—it has none of the qualities scientists use to identify life.

In a similar study, Jeffrey Hartgerink and colleagues reported that they had made self-assembling synthetic bone (2001). Using pH-induced self-assembly, these scientists were able to form a composite that may one day be able to replace diseased bone tissue. These synthetic molecules assemble into fibers that “coax” minerals into growing on top of them—bringing us closer to better prosthetic devices. News services were quick to describe this discovery as “manmade bone.” However, even if scientists were able to manufacture bone tissue, that, in and of itself, is not “life.” A bone lying on a stainless steel table is of little use in the quest to form living material from something nonliving. Artificial bone is not able to reproduce itself, and without a blood supply, it quickly dies. A close inspection of the report reveals that the bonds within this fibrous matrix can be reversed (by reducing the disulfides back into thiols). Does this sound like any living tissue with which you are familiar? Noam Lahav pointed out:

Under slightly reducing conditions, the Miller-Urey action does not produce amino acids, nor does it produce the chemicals that may serve as the predecessors of other important biopolymer building blocks. Thus, by challenging the assumption of a reducing atmosphere, we challenge the very existence of the “prebiotic soup”, with its richness of biologically important organic compounds. Moreover, so far, no geochemical evidence for the existence of a prebiotic soup has been published. Indeed, a number of scientists have challenged the prebiotic soup concept, noting that even if it existed, the concentration of organic building blocks in it would have been too small to be meaningful for prebiotic evolution (1999, pp. 138-139).

The fact is, life always comes from life—a fact that nails the lid shut on the coffin in which the evolutionary theory rests.

REFERENCES

Dose, Klaus (1988), “The Origin of Life: More Questions than Answers,” Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, 13[4]:348.

Hartgerink, Jeffrey D., Elia Beniash, and Samuel I. Stupp (2001), “Self-Assembly and Mineralization of Peptide-Amphiphile Nanofibers,” Science, 294:1684-1688, November 23.

Horgan, John (1996), The End of Science (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley).

Jastrow, Robert (1977), Until the Sun Dies (New York: W.W. Norton).

Lahav, Noam (1999), Biogenesis: Theories of Life’s Origins (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press).

Levine, J. (1983), “New Ideas About the Early Atmosphere,” NASA Special Report, No. 225, Langley Research Center, August 11.

Miyakawa, Shin, Hiroto Yamanashi, Kensei Kobayashi, H. James Cleaves, and Stanley L. Miller (2002), “Prebiotic Synthesis from CO Atmospheres: Implications for the Origins of Life,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 99:14628-14631, November 12.

Shapiro, Robert (1986), Origins—A Skeptics Guide to the Creation of Life on Earth (New York: Summit).

Wald, George (1954), “The Origin of Life,” Scientific American, 191[2]:44-53, August.

Wong, Gerard C.L., Jay Tang, Alison Lin, Youli Li, Paul Janmey, and Cyrus Safinya (2000), “Hierarchical Self-assembly of F-Actin and Cationic Lipid Complexes: Stacked, Three-Layer Tubule Networks,” Science, 288:2035-2039, June 16.




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