The last time I posted in a piece entitled "Star Trek, Proxima b, Nanovehicles and the Unlikely Appearance of Life," I wrote about the Star Trek Vision - a view point that has existed for a long time (thanks to fellow CADRE member Jason Pratt for pointing that out), but has become more in vogue over the last 50 years. The unsupported idea is that the universe is absolutely teeming with life such that any time a planet is thought to have water, it is almost automatically assumed that life exists on that planet. Just this morning, there is a story on Yahoo! News which provides more evidence of this rule.
According to Business Insider, NASA is set to announce surprising news about Europa -- (spoiler alert) -- it appears to have oceans of liquid water below its frozen surface. In the article entitled "NASA will soon reveal a 'surprising' discovery about a moon of Jupiter that may support life." To say that it "may support life" isn't really all that controversial and I have no problem with that assertion because, as I pointed out, it is statistically probable that there are thousands of planets that are capable of supporting life, but that doesn't meant that there are thousands of planets that actually have life. But, of course, that is where the Star Trek Vision takes us -- if the planet can support life, it is likely to support life. And the article delivers just such a viewpoint.
Astronomers will present results from a unique Europa observing campaign that resulted in surprising evidence of activity that may be related to the presence of a subsurface ocean on Europa. Surprising evidence ... a subsurface ocean ... one of humanity's sharpest eyes in space ... could this be the discovery of extraterrestrial life?
Fortunately, the author of this article is a bit more cautious than most, because he answers that final question with "We wouldn't count on it." Unfortunately, such careful analysis is usually sorely lacking from these popularizations of science. The authors usually know that the readers expect life out in the universe and give them the hope that it has been found.
But I pointed out last time that if we don't know how abiogenesis occurred (the springing of life from non-life) then it is becomes really difficult to predict the likelihood that life came into existence outside of our own little part of the universe. If the arising of life was a freak event - an event so totally unlikely that you are more likely to win a Powerball Lottery (or Mega-Millions Lottery - don't want to leave out potential blog sponsors) where you have to select the correct six numbers on a lottery ticket with a pool over a 100,000,000,000,000 numbers from which to choose - then it is possible that Earth is the only place in the universe that life arose. Or, for that matter, if the rise of life on this planet were the result of an all-powerful being who exists outside of this universe and He chose to place life only on Earth then it's certainly possible for Earth to be the sole home of life in the universe, as well.
My last blog post pointed out that at least one scientist believes that humanity has no real idea as to how life could spring into existence independently. Talk show host and author Eric Metaxas focused on another aspect of the problem of life arising on its own in a recent article for CNS news entitled "Evolution Just Got Harder to Defend." In the article he points out how the discovery of some fossilized ancient stromatolites were causing headaches for those who believe that life arose through purely natural processes. Apparently, these stromatolites have been dated to 3.7 billion years ago -- about 220 million years older than the previously oldest existing fossils of living critters on Earth. That is a problem. Metaxas writes:
This, admits the New York Times, “complicate[s] the story of evolution of early life from chemicals ... .” No kidding! According to conventional geology, these microbe colonies existed on the heels of a period when Earth was undergoing heavy asteroid bombardment, making it virtually uninhabitable. This early date, adds The Times, “leaves comparatively little time for evolution to have occurred … .” That is an understatement. These life forms came into existence virtually overnight, writes David Klinghoffer at Evolution News and Views. “[g]enetic code, proteins, photosynthesis, the works.” This appearance of fully-developed life forms so early in the fossil record led Dr. Abigail Allwood of Caltech to remark that “life [must not be] a fussy, reluctant and unlikely thing.” Rather, “[i]t will emerge whenever there’s an opportunity.” Pardon me? If life occurs so spontaneously and predictably even under the harshest conditions, then it should be popping up all over the place! Yet scientists still cannot come close to producing even a single cell from raw chemicals in the lab.
The problem, of course, is exactly what Eric points out in that final couple of sentences. Using the best of equipment in controlled environments, scientists have not come even close to creating a single living cell. If it cannot be done in a specialized, controlled environment, how exactly does it happen naturally in a harsh environment? To say that life will "emerge whenever there's an opportunity" as does Dr. Allwood is simply the Star Trek Vision without any scientific basis establishing that life can "emerge" using purely naturalistic processes at all. Moreover, just because life exists on Earth does not mean that it emerged using only naturalistic processes unless you confine your thinking to the limited Carl Sagan viewpoint that the universe is all that is, all that was and all that ever will be. Isn't it possible that, given what we already know about life being very, very, very difficult to create in a controlled laboratory environment, scientists will never find a naturalistic means by which life arose?
By the way, I am not suggesting that we stop looking for a naturalistic process. Like the great Christian scientists of old, I believe that God has put us here, at least in part, to discover and marvel at the works of his mighty hands. If God did it through a naturalistic process, then let's find it and praise God for being so incredibly creative that he could make it work when scientists couldn't figure out even where to start looking. However, if a person tells you that we are really close to knowing how it happened and being able to create life from non-life in a laboratory, just smile, nod your head and ask them if they have seen the latest Star Trek movie. That's what they really believe is true anyway.