Origin of Life: Are Single Cells Really Simple?

How did life begin? Many believe it began by chance as a simple single-celled organism. But even the simplest cells reveal evidence of intelligent design.

Evidence of evolution or creation?

In the late 19th century, discoveries pointed to an ordered universe that a number of influential scientists believed could be explained through science and mathematics alone. It seemed that God was becoming more and more marginalized. Scientific materialism began making the case that natural laws were adequate to explain the observed universe without the need for God.

Then came the discoveries of the 20th century that were so profound as to dwarf what had come before. We have peered deeply into space to see a cosmos never before envisioned. We have looked inside the atom to discover an equally surprising world of quantum mechanics. We have also made incredible advances in understanding life, including the complex molecular processes occurring within each living cell.

A number of scientists have come to the conclusion that these advances, rather than undermining their belief in the existence of God, have greatly strengthened it.

The design and complexity of the cell

In light of all this, let’s consider the most basic form of life to see if it is really simple—or if there is an elegant complexity that points to intelligent design.

Obviously a short article can only scratch the surface of the vast amount of information about the amazing inner workings of the cell. As Dr. Fazale Rana wrote in The Cell’s Design: How Chemistry Reveals the Creator’s Artistry, “Careful consideration of the hallmark characteristics of biochemical systems suggests the work of a Mastermind. …

“Rather than relying on a single biochemical feature (like irreducible complexity) to argue for a Creator’s role in life’s origins, the case for biochemical intelligent design is erected upon a weight of evidence argument. Each feature, in and of itself, points to the work of a Creator. And collectively, the individual strands of evidence intertwine and mutually support one another to make the case that much more compelling” (2008, p. 270).

This article can only give a brief glimpse of such evidence—but even this basic view is fascinating and convincing.

Chance or cause?

The basic concept of scientific materialism is that nothing exists that cannot be completely explained by science. Anything outside natural science is considered outside scientific purview. Because God cannot be measured by science, many have rejected Him as the first cause of life.

The concept of evolution expounded in Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species has been generally accepted by the scientific community. The theory of evolution states that all life gradually evolved from single-celled organisms over billions of years through the process of natural selection.

<p>In spite of the title of Darwin’s book, the origin of life is a huge problem for scientists and was not addressed in his theory.</p>

In spite of the title of Darwin’s book, the origin of life is a huge problem for scientists and was not addressed in his theory.

In spite of the title of Darwin’s book, the origin of life is a huge problem for scientists and was not addressed in his theory.

If modern cells evolved from the simplest possible cell, which of its interconnected parts and systems came first? In attempting to answer such questions, the idea that God created life becomes far more credible than any evolutionary theory.

Which came first? A cell needs both “doors” and “walls”

Every living cell, from single-cell organisms to the cells of humans, is complex. No cells have been discovered in some stage of partial development. In other words, there is no physical evidence of the evolution of cells.

Virtually all cells have a double-layered membrane made of phospholipid molecules. These molecules combine to form the cell membrane that protects the inside of the cell a bit like the walls of a house. The internal workings of a cell cannot function without this protective membrane.

However, on its own, a lipid bilayer membrane would effectively seal the cell away from resources it needs: A living cell must be able to bring needed molecules in and out! So the membranes must include a complex array of protein transporters to serve as the cellular “doors.”

Lacking either the lipid bilayer or the protein transporters, a cell can’t live. In essence, both the “doors” and the “walls” had to be present from the beginning. (See the article “Irreducible Complexity” for additional information.) God explains in the first few chapters of Genesis that He created all life (which must have included both of these features of the cell) at once.

Genetics and metabolism: Who wrote the genetic code?

Next, let’s look deeper than the membrane. Modern cells produce their own transporters (and countless other proteins necessary for survival) following the instructions in their genes.

Incredibly, every living organism has the exact same chemical process for storing information (genetics) and translating the genetic code to produce proteins (one type of metabolism).This is known as the universality of the genetic code, since every known living organism has genes made of DNA.

But how could these interdependent systems based on dissimilar molecules have evolved? Could the universal genetic code have “emerged” by chance?

Many theories have been proposed for the evolution of the genetic code, but, as the scientific paper “Origin and Evolution of the Genetic Code: the Universal Enigma” concludes:

“Summarizing the state of the art in the study of the code evolution, we cannot escape considerable skepticism. It seems that the two-pronged fundamental question: ‘why is the genetic code the way it is and how did it come to be?’, that was asked over 50 years ago, at the dawn of molecular biology, might remain pertinent even in another 50 years.”

For example, consider this challenge mentioned earlier in the paper:

“At the heart of this problem is a dreary vicious circle: what would be the selective force behind the evolution of the extremely complex translation system before there were functional proteins? And, of course, there could be no proteins without a sufficiently effective translation system.”

Reviewing genetics

To understand the dilemmas involved, it is useful to have a brief review of the way cells use their genetic molecules to store information, copy that information and manufacture proteins—a cell’s molecular machinery. DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) stores all biological information in every cell. James Watson and Francis Crick discovered its famous double-helix structure.

The vertical sides of this “twisting ladder” are formed by alternating molecules of sugar (deoxyribose) and phosphate groups. The rungs of the ladder are made of pairs of four bases: adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine. These are designated by their first letters: A, C, G and T. These bases match up so that A always links to T and C always links to G.

There is no limit to the length of a DNA strand that can store and encode genetic information in its strings of A, C, G and T. Segments of DNA, called genes, carry the code to make proteins from chains of components called amino acids. Along a gene, each set of three bases represents one amino acid or signals the end of the chain.

If this process sounds complicated, it is indeed astoundingly complex and only a part of the intricacy of a living cell. All elements of a cell are combined in an amazing mosaic of functionality. Remove one piece, and the whole system may collapse!To actually produce proteins, three different types of ribonucleic acids (RNA) play a role: messenger RNA, ribosomal RNA and transfer RNA. Messenger RNA copies the gene sequence from the DNA and brings it to the ribosome. The ribosomal RNA provides the chemical machinery to link amino acids together in the exact order dictated by the messenger RNA. Finally, individual transfer RNA molecules bring the correct amino acids into place, matching each set of three bases to the amino acid it represents. Eventually a complete protein is assembled.

The intricacy of a living cell

If this process sounds complicated, it is indeed astoundingly complex and only a part of the intricacy of a living cell. All elements of a cell are combined in an amazing mosaic of functionality. Remove one piece, and the whole system may collapse!

All living cells have the complete functionality described above. Could such a complex system have just randomly sprung into being?

In his book Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, physicist Stephen Barr refers to a study giving thought to the minimum requirements for a self-reproducing one-celled organism. “It appears that it needs to have quite an elaborate structure, involving dozens of different proteins, a genetic code containing at least 250 genes, and many tens of thousands of bits of information. For chemicals to combine in random ways in a ‘primordial soup’ to produce a strand of DNA or RNA containing such a huge amount of genetic information would be as hard as for a monkey to accidentally type an epic poem” (2006, p. 74).

What really came first?

Natural laws of physics cannot explain the origin of life and the genetic code that seems to define it (see “Creation Demands a Creator”). Neither can natural selection, since that process requires existing life. The only other alternative science offers is pure chance.

But what are the odds? Biophysicist Hubert Yockey determined that natural selection would have to evaluate about 1055 (that’s 1 followed by 55 zeros!) different genetic codes per second to find the universal genetic code (referenced in The Cell’s Design, p. 273). Would you want to bet on those astronomical odds?

There is another alternative revealed in the Bible. There is a God, and He is responsible for the origin of life. Consider these passages:

  • “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion. … So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:26-27).
  • “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him and without Him nothing was made that was made” (John 1:1-3).
  • “O LORD, how manifold are Your works! In wisdom You have made them all. The earth is full of Your possessions. … You send forth Your Spirit, they are created; and You renew the face of the earth” (Psalm 104:24, 30).
  • “For by Him [Jesus] all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him” (Colossians 1:16).

God existed before the physical universe (see “Who Created God?”), and the physical evidence points to a miraculous origin of life. There is no evidence of a gradual emergence of the complex cell membranes and the genetic code common to all organisms. The cells of all living things are similar and have a consistent, intricate and interdependent design that could only result from an instantaneous creation of life.

So what came first? God did, and His creation was perfect, not incomplete. As Moses said in praising God: “For I proclaim the name of the LORD: ascribe greatness to our God. He is the Rock, His work is perfect” (Deuteronomy 32:3-4).

This perfect creation—life—is one of the many proofs that God exists. For more on this important subject, see the articles in the section “Proof of God.” Be sure to look at all the evidence.

About the Author

Rick Avent

Dr. Rick Avent is a retired professor of civil engineering at LSU. He is happily married to Sandra with three grown children, and is an elder in the Church of God, a Worldwide Association.

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