By Stephen Caesar
Associates for Biblical Research
“Hydrothermal Vents and the Origin of Life”
In the 1970’s, geologists discovered hydrothermal vents, holes in the ocean floor that spew out scalding hot water. They subsequently learned that these seemingly inhospitable environments actually permitted the existence of primitive life forms. Some scientists believe that such conditions, and not the “warm little pond” theorized by Darwin, might have been the setting for the formation of the first life on Earth.
According to the October 2010 issue of the journal Smithsonian, mineralogist Bob Hazen and his colleagues at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, DC, are using “pressure bombs,” small metal cylinders that compress and heat minerals to temperatures and pressures equivalent to those at the Earth’s core, “to decipher nothing less than the origins of life” (Lucidon 2010: 49).
In his first “bomb,” Hazen encased a tiny amount of water, a chemical called pyruvate, and a powder that produces carbon dioxide, in 3 non-reactive gold capsules. He heated the capsules to 480 degrees and pressed down on them at 2,000 atmospheres. Smithsonian reported the results:
“When he took the capsules out two hours later, the contents had turned into tens of thousands of different compounds. In later experiments, he combined nitrogen, ammonia and other molecules plausibly present on the early earth. In these experiments, Hazen and his colleagues created all sorts of organic molecules, including amino acids and sugars — the stuff of life” (Ibid. 50).
Further research by Hazen showed that “the basic molecules of life…are able to form in all sorts of places: near hydrothermal vents, volcanoes, even on meteorites” (Ibid.). Because of this, Hazen doubts the reigning theory of origins, which maintains that the first life began, as Darwin wrote in 1871, “in some warm little pond” (Ibid.). More specifically, scientists believe that the first chemicals that combined to form life were not in a little pond, but floating freely in the ocean, and that by pure chance, over a vast amount of time, they came together and eventually formed the first life.
The Smithsonian article pointed out the difficulty with this scenario: “How did the right building blocks [of life] get incorporated? Amino acids come in multiple forms, but only some are used by living things to form proteins. How did they find each other?” (Ibid.). Hazen voiced similar doubts:
“We’ve got a prebiotic ocean and down in the ocean floor, you’ve got rocks. And basically there’s molecules here that are floating around in solution, but it’s a very dilute soup. So the chances of a molecule over here bumping into this one, and then actually a chemical reaction going on to form some kind of larger structure, [are] just infinitesimally small” (Ibid. 50-51).
Given the unlikelihood of such a scenario, combined with the results of his experiments with the pressure bombs, Hazen believes that the mineral deposits that are known to pile up around hydrothermal vents may have provided the setting for amino acids to meet, join, and eventually form the first life (Ibid. 51).
Even if Hazen is right, there is still the problem of how this haphazard meeting of amino acids near a hydrothermal vent could eventually lead to the creation of life. As the Smithsonian article noted:
“How long will it take to go from studying how molecules interact with minerals to understanding how life began? No one knows. For one thing, SCIENTISTS HAVE NEVER SETTLED ON A DEFINITION OF LIFE. Everyone has a general idea of what it is and that self-replication and passing information from generation to generation are key” (Ibid. 52 [emphasis added]).
The main problem with Hazen’s origins scenario, as always, is the supposition that what he created with deliberate guidance in the laboratory had come into existence by itself in the distant past. This is the central dilemma plaguing scientists who are trying to re-create the first occurrence of life on Earth: creating something on purpose, and then concluding that that something could have come about by accident.
Lucidon, A. 2010. “Before There Was Life.” Smithsonian 41, no. 6.
Stephen Caesar holds his master’s degree in anthropology/archaeology from Harvard. He is a staff member at Associates for Biblical Research.