Differing Ideas about the Origins of Life: Narrowing the Gap

By Karen A. Bellenir

In popular thought, the chasm between religion and science often seems to gape the widest concerning accounts of life's origins.

Evolutionary biologists have postulated a story for the beginning of life that goes something like this: In the beginning, the earth's surface was covered with the geological consequences of its formation, including some basic elements, minerals, and water. Mineral development eventually led to chemical processes that created the precursor compounds needed for life. When those were assembled in the proper environment, biological processes emerged.

Laboratory experiments have demonstrated some of the early steps, including the development of amino acids, but so far scientists haven't pinpointed the mechanisms that account for the final transition from nonliving to living. One proposition involves a watery mixture existing in places such as ancient oceans, tidal pools, volcanic bubbles, or atmospheric droplets. This wet mixture is often called the primordial soup.

The term for this type of life development is abiogenesis. The prefix "a" means not, "bio" means living, and "genesis" means beginning. In other words, the process is a not-living-beginning to life.

Many religions offer their own accounts of about how life got its start. A brief summary of several can be found in Creation Stories from Around the World, by Bruce Railsback of the University of Georgia. Here are some salient points:

Native American stories include accounts of celestial beings who created prototype animals out of mud and clay. In some Hopi stories the Spider Woman mixes earth with her saliva and song to create plants, animals, birds, and humans. In a Babylonian story about human beginnings, Marduk killed the god Kingu and mixed Kingu's blood with clay and saliva to make humans. A Chinese story about human origins tells of the goddess Nuwa who created people from mud she found at the edge of a pond. The Yoruba people in Africa credit the creation of humanity to the gods Obatala and Olorun. Obatala formed lifeless bodies out of clay. These were later infused with life by Olorun's breath. And, perhaps one of the most well-known creation stories—at least in Western culture—is the biblical account recorded in Genesis, chapter two. That story says God created man from the dust of the earth and then breathed life into him.

What these and other similar stories share is the notion that an earth substance (mud, clay, dirt, or dust) was used to create a body into which life was added. The term used for this type of life development is creation, making something alive out of something that was not originally living. In certain respects, other than employing a primordial soup, it seems remarkably similar to abiogenesis.

The gap between the scientific and religious explanations may have narrowed slightly last month when researchers at Cornell University published the unexpected results of some work they had been doing on clay hydrogels. Additional details can be found in the press release and in the original article. The press release, "Clay May Have Been Birthplace of Life, New Study Suggests," is written for people without a technical background. For the more scientifically literate, the complete article "Enhanced Transcription and Translation in Clay Hydrogel and Implications for Early Life Evolution," by Dayong Yang, Songming Peng, Mark R. Hartman, Tiffany Gupton-Campolongo, Edward J. Rice, Anna Kathryn Chang, Zi Gu, G. Q. (Max) Lu and Dan Luo, Scientific Reports, is available from Nature Publishing Group.

To sum it up, a gel is a specific type of semi-solid substance. A hydrogel is a gel based on water, and a clay hydrogel is a hydrogel formed from clay. The researchers discovered that the properties of clay were ideally suited to serve as an intermediary between nonliving chemical processes and the development of biological cells. In other words, they may have found evidence for the evolutionary biologist's primordial soup within the very dirt featured so prominently in religious stories.

It's too early to declare unity. Scientific progress is notoriously unpredictable, and today's findings may be tomorrow's fallacies. Additionally, religious beliefs vary considerably and different groups may emphasize dissimilar points. For example, in the Genesis account, a less-specific version of the creation story is given in the book's preceding chapter.

Nevertheless, even a tiny step toward bridging the gulf between the two rival groups could be a major stride toward mutual understanding and respect.