What’s In Your Primordial Soup?

 (c) Can Stock Photo / jgaunion
(c) Can Stock Photo / jgaunion

I am reminded of a Farside cartoon when I think of primordial soup. For instance, the amoeba reading a book titled, Primordial Soup for the Soul. The concept of a primordial soup isn’t a joke, of course. It is the idea that life began many millions of years ago as chaotic elements churned in the boiling atmosphere and electric charges of a primitive earth – a kind of Frankenstein-like beginning to be sure, but a serious elementary concoction.

The ramifications of this primal stew are far reaching. They imply that nothing but natural forces were necessary for the creation of life. For many, the ultimate implication is that God doesn’t exist or we don’t need God (which isn’t quite the same thing): we don’t need God to explain the origins of life because there is a plausible natural explanation.

But is that the case?

For a century or so, people have sought alternative explanations for the origins of the universe and of life as a way of chasing off the specter of God. Richard Dawkins, for instance, asserts that the “greatest achievement” of mankind is the theory of evolution, giving man the power to cast off the shackles of faith in God and allowing man to stand unfettered on his own two feet firmly planted in terra firma against all odds.

Whether God exists, or doesn’t, what ingredients might have primed that primordial soup that seems to explain how life can rise from non-life, without need of a God, without anything other than the basic stuff of an infantile universe?

The concept of a primordial soup that could give rise to life from non-life was proposed by JBS Haldane and Aleksander Oparin in the 1920’s. They developed the Oparin-Haldane Hypothesis: that the atmosphere of the early earth (the soup) in combination with discharges of energy triggered amino acids that, in turn, led to microbial life-forms as the “soup” stirred over time.

Those primitive life forms, then, were the stuff on which evolution did its work over many millions of years, growing mutation by mutation as natural selection discarded the failures and kept the successes until swarms of life grew into the present life as we know it.

The prebiotic soup was exposed to ever increasing chemical reactions that produced ever more complex molecular reactions that began associating with each other to form protocells that evolved into the first life forms. From the first life forms, evolution took over, and, over eons of time, natural selection acting on random mutations produced the evolutionary tree of life from which you and I are derived. So the story goes.

The origin of life, in this model, is a result of chemical evolution (abiogenesis) that leads to biological life forms from which biological evolution took over. The abiogenesis idea is the critical foundation for the evolutionary model of the origin of life.

Without God, life must come from an inert, inanimate, lifeless universe.  Much of science on origins is the attempt to prove up and shore up the theory of evolution that depends on such a foundation of life deriving from non-life.

A critical affirmation of the primordial soup concept seemed to be found in the 1950’s as a result of the Miller-Urey experiment at the University of Chicago. The Oparin-Haldane Hypothesis and the Miller-Urey experiment have been and are now staples of every textbook on the subject.

The experiment consisted of an elaborate glass apparatus intended to simulate the early conditions of the earth. A beaker of boiling water connected to the apparatus was intended to simulate the hot temperatures of the boiling oceans on the primeval earth. Steam rose from the boiling water in the beaker into the tubing of the apparatus. Miller carefully eliminated oxygen from the apparatus and introduced methane, ammonia and hydrogen gas. Then he introduced electrical discharges into the simulated atmosphere.

Over the course of days, Miller observed chemical reactions taking place in the apparatus. Over the course of weeks, Miller reported that amino acids began to form. Amino acids are the building blocks of protons that are fundamental molecules for life.

The Miller-Urey experiment is viewed as validation of the Oparin-Haldane Hypothesis and confirmation of the plausibility of abiogenesis, but does it settle the matter? Does it prove we are just the products of chemical reactions in a prebiotic soup? Does it prove that our DNA began in that primordial soup and not from the creative mind of God?

It might depend on what is in the soup, as any chef might tell you.

We know more now than we did in the 1950’s. For instance, it turns out that the early earth atmosphere may have been (almost definitely was) a different kind of soup. Miller chose water vapor, hydrogen, methane and ammonia for his famous experiment, but we now know that Miller’s ingredients were not present when life formed. In fact, we now understand that the early earth on which life first appeared consisted of carbon dioxide, nitrogen and water.

So, what difference does it make?

All the difference in the world, as it turns out. The Miller-Urey experiment is not a good model of the theory of abiogenesis because it doesn’t simulate the actual conditions of the nascent earth. More significantly, the combination of carbon dioxide, nitrogen and water doesn’t create amino acids. In fact, they don’t generate anything at all. The combination is chemically inert and nonreactive.

Because of these things, Noam Lahave has written, “So far, no geochemical evidence for the existence of a prebiotic soup has been published. Indeed, a number of scientists have challenged the prebiotic soup concept, noting that even if it existed the concentration of organic building blocks in it would have been too small to be meaningful for prebiotic evolution.”[1]

The fact is that no one has ever been able to produce life from the inorganic elements that existed in the early earth atmosphere from lab experiments, in spite of the popular belief to the contrary, and Lahave isn’t the only person to make that observation.[2]

One might wonder, as well, why anyone might use methane and ammonia as the elements in a chemical soup experiment designed to prove that life could emerge from non-life when those elements are primarily the products of the activities and decay of living organisms.[3]  Those elements were not originally part of Earth’s atmosphere,[4] and they were not likely present when life formed on earth, because they are byproducts of life.[5]

As byproducts of life, they could not have existed before life existed.

So why do scientists hold stubbornly to the idea of the primordial soup?[6] Why did Miller use the ingredients of methane and ammonia, though they were not present in the primordial atmosphere? Miller explains the latter:

“It is assumed that amino acids more complex than glycene were required for the origin of life, then these results indicate a need for CH4 (methane) in the atmosphere.”[7]


“We believe that there must have been a period when the earth’s atmosphere was reducing, because the synthesis of compounds of biological interest takes place only under reducing conditions.” [8]

Miller assumed what was necessary based, not on what we know about the Earth’s atmosphere at the time, but based on the kind of atmosphere that might be able to produce life. He attempted to show that the “building blocks for life” could arise of their own accord, without anything but natural forces, by priming the pump with the stuff that is produced by life.

Miller succeeded in showing that life can arise from the right kind of soup, but it appears that the right kind of soup did not actually exist when life was actually formed. Miller only showed that he could produce some of the requisites for life, given the right kind of soup, but he fell far short of proving that life arose from the actual soup that existed in the primordial earth.

Miller was guided by the underlying principles of modern science: that science is designed to produce only natural explanations.[9] The reasons that Miller chose his ingredients is the same reason why scientists hold so dogmatically to the evidence of the possibility of a natural explanation for the origin of life (like a primordial soup – even when the soup is clearly under cooked). He made the soup to suit his own taste.




[2] “I want to note that it is a common, though given what many classes teach, forgivable misconception that the natural chemical origin of life has been proven because these experiments created life in the lab. This is mistaken, for not only has nothing close to life ever been produced in lab experiments, but even if true life were one day created, it still wouldn’t prove anything about what actually took place when the first life-forms came into existence. (See Science and Creationism, A View from the National Academy of Sciences, 2nd Edition (National Academy Press, 1999))  As professor William Stansfield says,

‘Creationists have looked forward to the day when science may actually create a ‘living’ thing from simple chemicals. They claim, and rightly so, that even if such a man-made life form could be created, this would not prove that natural life forms were developed by a similar chemical evolutionary process. The [evolutionist] scientist understands this and plods on testing theories.'”

(Stansfield, William D., “The Science of Evolution,” [1977], Macmillan: New York NY, 1983, Eighth Printing, pp10-11.) (http://www.ideacenter.org/contentmgr/showdetails.php/id/838)

[3] Methane is primarily a product of living organisms on earth. Most methane, we are told, comes from human activities. (See https://www.reference.com/science/methane-gas-come-b70c6a1cb19d0dd8) Methane on Earth comes primarily from living or dead organisms (See the United States Geological Society (USGS), the science bureau of the US Department of the Interior, identifying microbial methane produced through the decomposition of organic (living) mater and derived organic matter transformed over millions of years under high temperature and pressure. In fact, over 90% of the methane on earth comes from biological sources. (See The Mystery of Methane on Mars and Titan, by Sushii K. Atreya, The Scientific American, January 15, 2009, noting that the presence of methane on Mars and Titan is evidence that exists or has existed in the past on those planets.) Methane from whatever source has a short “lifetime” in geologic terms. (Id.) Before living organisms existed, there would have been far less methane on earth than the present time. Because of methane’s short life, the small amounts of methane occurring from abiotic sources could not have been sustained at the high levels that occur on Earth at the present time. Ammonia, like methane, on Earth is primarily the byproduct of the activities of living organisms or decaying organic matter. (See https://www.reference.com/science/ammonia-come-66353eba7adaef89)

[4] Where Did Earth’s Water and Ammonia Come From? By Katie Bo Williams, Discover Magazine, September 2015 (regarding ammonia).

[5] “Modern geochemists know Miller was wrong to make these assumptions because the early earth probably had a non-reducing atmosphere that did not contain methane…. Stanley Miller admits that he assumed that the atmosphere had methane and ammonia—he did not test that hypothesis…. [G]eochemical evidence says the atmosphere was hydrogen, water, and carbon dioxide (non-reducing). [See “Chemical Events on the Primitive Earth,” P. Abelson, PNAS USA, 55:1365-1372 (1966).] See http://www.ideacenter.org/contentmgr/showdetails.php/id/838 for a full explanation why Miller’s ingredients could not have been present when life formed.

[6] To be fair, scientists are finally moving away from the primordial soup context. See New Research Rejects 80-Year Theory Of ‘Primordial Soup’ As The Origin Of Life, Science Daily February 3, 2010. (Discussing how hydrothermal vents are a more likely source of the origin of life – note, however, that the old clearly invalid theory was not abandoned until a new possibility existed – anything to avoid a super natural explanation and to hold to a natural one.

[7] “Prebiotic Synthesis in Atmospheres Containing CH4, CO, and CO2” by S. Miller, G. Schlesinger, Journal of Molecular Evolution 19:376-382 (1983).

[8] The Origins of Life on the Earth, by S. L. Miller and L. E. Orgel, p. 33 (Englewood Cliffs, Prentice Hall, 1974).

[9] “[I]f a living cell were to be made in the laboratory, it would not prove that nature followed the same pathway billions of years ago. But it is the job of science to provide plausible natural explanations for natural phenomena.” (emphasis added) (Science and Creationism, A View from the National Academy of Sciences, 2nd Edition (National Academy Press, 1999))

The following video provides a look at the same subject from different angles:

2 thoughts on “What’s In Your Primordial Soup?

  1. I have to agree with you – the underlying assumption is that science must give explanations in terms of natural material causes alone. I think the origin of life problem is one that cannot be solved in principle by science. Most scientist focus on what I call the “parts list” how did all the necessary parts (nucleotides, sugars, amino acids) originate. A problem you have pointed out has insurmountable problems. But then there is the genetic code problem – how do three specific nucleotides come to represent a specific amino acids. How does chemistry explain the origin of a genetic code. The origin of the genetic code cannot be explained by physics and chemistry anymore than the origins of any language.

    Liked by 1 person

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