RE: Origin of Life

Peter Vibert (
Fri, 12 Apr 1996 13:00:35 -0400

- on Origin of Life studies:
> Paul Arveson wrote:
>> Apparently the main outcome of the research so far has been a humbler
>>attitude on the part of scientists. (I wish we Christians could show such
>>humility when we don't know something!)The original work by Oparin et al. made
>>it seem that life in a test tube was right around the corner. That was
>>in the
>>arrogant days of scientism.
>>...The easy problems have now been solved, packaged in shrink-wrap,and sold in
>>the local shopping center...
>>...every field of science has its tough problems,
>>and if so inclined you can add to the list of gaps as much as you please.But I
>>fail to see why they have any apologetic significance. And
>>philosophically, I
>>recall the law that a negative, such as "there is no natural process that can
>>originate life" can never be proved, and it doesn't lead to any research
>>programs. On the contrary, it shuts science down. No wonder Christians are
>>accused of being anti-scientific.

I don't want Paul and I to be 'talking past each other', for as he has said
in another context, that's very easy to do. So let me sharpen my point
about 'gaps' and their apologetic significance, and implicitly defend a
little 'mild concordism', to ensure that he and others know what I am
talking about:

I cannot view the past 40 years of research on 'origins' as benignly as
Paul seems to. The attitude of the practitioners and especially of the
popularizers has been anything but humble, and I don't think humility is a
very accurate description of their attitudes today. On the contrary,
experimental work in abiogenesis (some of which in my opinion would have
been unpublishable in other fields because such vastly inflated conclusions
were based on such slim observations) has been used to assure the public
(esp. in schools and colleges) that there is (so-to-speak) a 'seamless web
running from molecule to man' whose mechanistic basis is understood not
only in principle, but in sufficient detail to warrant confident statements
of the form 'whereas in the past, people believed in vitalism or creation,
we now know that matter alone can and has achieved all this...'.

Such statements have implicitly or at times quite explicitly created a
public atmosphere in which it has been all too easy for any and all
religious views on God, creation, man ... to be ridiculed as
'pre-scientific' and incapable of belief by an educated person in the 20th
century. (Try on, for example, the image that Richard Dawkins paints of
Christians: either ignorant or evil - ie. we don't *know* what's going on,
or we do but *deliberately* repress it).

Therefore from an *apologetic* viewpoint, Christians (esp. young ones) have
been placed severely on the defensive. Cultural analysts (including - in
their very different ways - Francis Schaeffer, Mark Noll, Chuck Colson, or
Philip Johnson) have emphasized that a battle has been going on for hearts
and minds which Christians have been losing. And several (including, I
suppose, Schaeffer in his last years) have seen that from a *cultural*
perspective (though not an *intellectual* one, as Mark Noll has made
clear), the YEC 'protest' has been appropriate (and so today you can find
YEC views promoted on Colson's Breakpoint broadcasts).

A complaint against non-YECs like many of us in ASA has been (see Noll,
Johnson) that we are too sanguine about what is going on culturally, and
that while we are arguing interminably over the historicity of Genesis, our
children are being taught "scientific" atheism. So whatever I can do as a
pastor, a parent (I still have school-age children, so I am perhaps
sensitized to these issues), and especially as a professional scientist, to
tell Christians that "it ain't necessarily so" that Creation has been
disproved by research in abiogenesis is, I believe, a service. I will tell
my students and my children (positively) that Creation is too big a
doctrine to be destroyed by lab findings, and (negatively) that 'origins
science' is still in its infancy, is changing fast, and that the
extravagant metaphysical claims that have been made on its behalf are not
scientifically justified.

This does NOT mean, as I have tried to make clear, that I hold that "there
is no natural process that can originate life". I do not know that, any
more than Paul knows that there is. Likely there is, and we should keep
looking; and maybe there will turn out not to be, and we shall have learned
something from that too. I have no desire to shut down research programs,
nor do I believe it is "anti-science" to say that science MAY not be able
to answer everything (or even some particular thing). For saying such
things, Christians are indeed sometimes "accused of being anti-scientific".
Let it be so; I plead guilty to being (in that sense) "anti-scientific".
But while scientism lives and flourishes, it will be necessary at times to
appear to be "anti-scientific".


Peter J. Vibert
Senior Scientist Interim Pastor
Rosenstiel Basic Medical The Congregational Church
Sciences Research Center in North Chelmsford
Brandeis University 15 Princeton Street
PO Box 9110, Waltham, MA 02254 N. Chelmsford, MA 01863

tel: (617) 736-4947 tel: (508) 251-1261
fax: (617) 736-2419