Saturday, August 25, 2007

Spontaneous Generation

Joel Hunter and Josh S have been sparring over the theological significance of the -- somewhere between "alleged" and "unconfirmed" -- discovery of microbial life on Mars. Here's the news article that started it off, and here's some of the commentary: Joel Hunter starts, John H, Matthew Johnson, Joel's questions on its significance, and Josh S and Matthew Johnson's answers.

This is a strange debate that would have made no sense before Louis Pasteur. Let's review the history of belief in spontaneous generation among natural philosophers. Aristotle and many others believed in it for insects, fleas, mice, and so on. FThis seems to be the pretty general folk belief of unreflective humanity absent any modern biological education.

But a minority current, wielding the slogan omnium vivum ex ovo ("everything living from an egg, i.e. from something already living") began to make headway against this belief, based on purely scientific arguments in the late 1600s -- until the discovery of microscopic life. That pretty much sealed the case for spontaneous generation. Microbes appeared everywhere touched by air, no matter how you sealed it.

But in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, spontaneous generation died for three reasons:

1) Louis Pasteur's famous experiment disproved it empirically, at least for the present and short spans of time, and demonstrated that air was full of living spores.

2) Similarly, the unified field theory of biology (otherwise known as Total Common Ancestry) relied on the fact that when life had appeared once, it could no longer appear spontaneously again. This meant that all living creatures could be treated as descended from a single common ancestor.

3) Finally, increasing knowledge of the complexity of even prokaryote cellular life began to open up the possibility of arguments like those of Michael Behe, that even bacterial cells show irreducible complexity.

Suddenly the way was open, as it had never been before, to see any form of life, even bacterial, as a unique creation of God, in a way that a quartz crystal or a nebula isn't. The origin of life for the first time became a topic on which Christian theologians were generally expected to have a different viewpoint from natural philosophers. But this is a development which I think has no foundation in the text of Genesis 1 at all, and was purely governed by the scientific developments I listed above.

Let's look at Genesis 1 on the origin of plants:

And God said, "Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, on the earth." And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds, and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.

For comparison, let's look at the following passage on the origin of the sun, moon, and stars:

And God said, "Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years, and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth." And it was so. And God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars.

Contrast the two bolded phrases. Reading it without Louis Pasteur and Michael Behe in mind, they can naturally be read as saying that God's creation of plants was mediated by natural processes: He spoke (primary cause) and the earth brought forth (secondary cause). But with the sun and moon, He spoke (primary cause), and He made (no secondary cause). This is in fact the argument made by Gerald Schroeder in his books, Genesis and the Big Bang and The Science of God: although science cannot show any case, or even any genuinely plausible scenario, of life originating from inorganic matter, it must be so because the plain word of Scripture teaches it.

But why is it that the average Christian today is convinced that the origin of life is a miracle that demands God's direction intervention, but that the sun could have been naturally formed by a contracting cloud of gases? Not because of anything in Genesis, but because science has so far not been able to successfully explain the origin of life, but it has successfully (more or less) explained the origin of nuclear fusion.

As for me, I'll stick with Schroeder's reading.

P.S. If there IS life on Mars, it still might be of terrestrial origin -- and unless it is chemically radically different almost certainly is.

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