From Mystery to Wonder: Science vs. God of the Gaps

Guest blog

The following post was written by my wife, Connie Barlow.

"Science cannot explain the origin of life," a man told me as I managed the book table at my husband's evening program last night.  The man had been explaining how he had come to accept evolution while maintaining his belief in God.  Then a younger man entered the conversation, warning, "But science may one day crack that mystery, too." I concurred, "A God of the Gaps is a dangerous approach for resolving science and faith."

Michael's program that evening (23 March 2009) was his newest illustrated talk, "Evolution and the Global Integrity Crisis", which he will also be presenting at the United Nations next week.  We were at Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church near Philadelphia.  The event drew an audience from the surrounding Philadelphia community.  It was co-sponsored by the Metropolitan Christian Council of Philadelphia, Metanexus Institute, Narbarth Havurah, Church of the Redeemer, Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, St. Luke United Methodist Church, and The Earth Center of the Delaware Watershed.

In order to make time for the global integrity theme in his new program, Michael had dropped some of the theology that he ordinarily presents (and that entails a large chunk of his book, Thank God for Evolution).  Specifically, he had excised the arguments leading up to a bold assertion: "An understanding of God that does not at least include the entire creative process of the Universe is, given our modern understandings, a trivial notion of God."  Alas, absent this perspective, moderate Christians will have little option but to continue taking refuge in today's version of "God of the Gaps" theology—that is, Intelligent Design.

Just how secure is the mystery of life's origin?  Is this argument in favor of a designer God well fortified from possible intrusions by explanatory science?  That is, how great are the gaps in scientific understanding of (a) the formation of complex organic molecules on or within the early Earth, and (b) natural and unguided processes for linking up such molecules into precursors of living systems?

A stunning gain in understanding the formation of complex organic molecules was reported in December 2008 - and not just in the science media: Nature GeoscienceUSA Today also printed an article titled "Life from Asteroid Collisions?".  A team of Japanese scientists performed experiments that simulated (in miniature) the chemical conditions of Earth's early atmosphere and ocean during the time of the late "Heavy Bombardment" of asteroids in Earth's pre-life history.  The heat and shock of such impacts would have destroyed any complex organic molecules in the vicinity of the impact, but the subsequent fallout of materials raining down through the atmosphere over a vast area would have generated far more complex molecules in the process—molecules that would persist in the chemical conditions of Earth's early ocean.

In 1997, as a freelance science writer, I was privileged to help a brilliant scientist write his final book.  The education I gained in his presence opened my eyes to the prospects of an eventual solution to the mysteries of life's origins.  The scientist was Thomas Gold (1920-2004), and the book is titled, The Deep Hot Biosphere.  Back in 1992 Gold had published a scientific paper by this same title (now available online here), and it had entranced me from the outset.  The origins of life ideas he presents in his final book include a speculation that he made in one of the interviews I taped of him, but which he hadn't yet published.  Knowing that this book would be the only place that particular idea would appear, I made sure to work it in.  The gist is this: So long as scientists go about their work as "surface chauvinists"—that is, assuming that the best conditions for life to originate would be at or near Earth's surface, they will fail to experimentally test chemical interactions under conditions of exceedingly high pressures.  Gold hypothesized that catalytic organic molecules (organo-metallics) may actually originate easily and in abundance by natural processes operating at depth within Earth's upper mantle.

Time will tell.  Meanwhile, may secularists and religionists alike find awe and a sense of the sacred in not just the unknown mysteries of the universe, but the known wonders—the workings of which simply could not have been perceived, much less understood, in the time of the biblical writers.  Thank God for evolution—and thank God for the scientific endeavor that consistently works toward filling mysterious gaps with known wonders!