What Is the Origin of Life On Earth?

This question has occupied the best minds since the beginning of human history. The answer has not yet been found in the halls of science.

From the earliest time, many men of sound thought have believed in the spontaneous generation of life. Aristotle (384-322 B. C.) for example taught that decaying matter, under the influence of moisture and the sun's heat will produce living things. He even went so far as to teach that the higher forms of life were spontaneously generated. St. Augustine (354-430 A.D.), made the doctrine one of the church. His reasoning was simple: As the Lord could make wine from water, so life could be made from the soil and water and air of earth. In his opinion, spontaneous generation was but a manifestation of the will of God. Even such minds as that of Newton (1643-1727) could see no inconsistency in the doctrine. Up to the middle of the last century, the doctrine was very generally accepted.

However as the more exact methods of science were developed, doubt was cast upon the theory. For example, van Helmont, great scientist as he was, had explained that dirty linen, mixed with grain, would, in twenty-one days produce mice. Subjected to scientific scrutiny, the folly of this formula was revealed.

Finally came Louis Pasteur, who, in the middle of the last century by a series of brilliant experiments, laid low the doctrine of spontaneous generation. It was, however, only after a terrific battle with his contemporaries that he set up the law that only life can beget life. For a number of decades now, the world has rested secure in the correctness of his conclusion.

Recently, however, it has been suggested that, while, under the conditions now prevailing on earth, spontaneous generation of life is impossible, there may have been times under different conditions, when living organisms might have been produced from lifeless matter. The reasoning is somewhat as follows: As the molten earth cooled conditions were such as to form large quantities of the substance cyanogen, composed of carbon and nitrogen, essential constituents of living tissue. As the new-born atmosphere gradually changed to its present conditions, complex chemical compounds were formed from the cyanogen, which, as the earth cooled, increased in complexity, approached the nature of living tissue, and at last acquired the properties that characterize life. From these simple units of life, the theory holds, have developed the forms of life now known to man. It is added that life cannot be so formed today, for conditions are so different. It requires an abnormal faith in science to accept this theory (Oparin, The Origin of Life, 1938).

The question has been raised with respect to the viruses, which are so small as to pass through filters: Do they perpetuate life? Existing evidence favors the belief that they also obey the law that life begets life.

If life was not spontaneously generated on earth, if life is necessary to beget life, the first life on earth must have come from some point outside of the earth. So reasoned many men of unimpeachable standing in the world of sound thinking. That raised two questions at once: Does life exist beyond thee earth? And if life exists beyond the earth, how can it reach the earth?

Men of the highest standing have believed that the earth is not the only home of living beings -- such men as von Liebig, von Helmholtz, and Lord Kelvin.

The existence of life in space is exceedingly difficult to prove by the methods of science for us who live on earth. An attempt was made by the famous bacteriologist, Charles B. Lippman, to discover whether meteorites, which fall from the sky, contain living organisms. Every precaution against error was taken. The best-known technique was followed. Lippman came to the conclusion after this careful work that live bacteria and spores of living things were found in the interior of the rocky meteorites studied by him. Many objections were offered against these findings. The bacteria he found were identical with some known on the earth; the heat generated by the falling body would kill the germs -- and so on. The controversy still goes on.

Other workers, assuming that life does exist beyond the earth, undertook to study the possible means by which living germs could be carried through space to the earth. The scientist, Richter, called attention to the fact that it has been shown that germs of life may remain dormant for long periods of time, may exist without food or water, yet may be revivified as soon as the conditions necessary for active life are available. The eminent physicist, von Helmholtz, followed this up with the proposition that meteorites in their descent through the air are heated only on the surface. Carbon, easily combustible, is found unchanged inside of meteorites -- hence life germs could survive any heat that might be generated.

In the progress of science it has been found that light, passing through space, exerts a pressure on the objects it encounters. This principle was seized upon to explain how life might have been brought from other heavenly bodies to the earth. The world-famous physicist, Arrhenius, suggested that microscopic germs of life might be carried within atmospheric currents and electrical disturbances into space and, under the pressure of light, be carried within reach of other bodies in space. Arrhenius even subjected the hypothesis to mathematical treatment, and showed that such particles, leaving the earth, would pass beyond the limits of our planetary system in fourteen months, and in nine thousand years would reach the nearest star, Alpha Centauri. He also showed that the heat attendant upon such a journey would not exceed 100° and that only for a short time (Arrhenius, Worlds in the Making, 1908). A barrage of objections was pointed upon this hypothesis. The chief weakness, it was claimed, was that the ultra-violet light and cosmic rays of space, not softened by the atmosphere, would destroy quickly any life germs floating in space. There the matter stands today.

Now, from the very beginning of thinking on the subject of the origin of life on earth, a group of powerful thinkers have insisted that life is one of the eternal realities of the universe, uncreated, eternal, as eternal as any other of the ultimate elements of the universe. One school of Greek thought held that the universe, the solar system, and the earth itself were living organisms.

The doctrine of the eternity of life implies that things become alive when the life force enters them. Thus came the doctrine of vitalism, or vital force, which has met such fierce opposition from the school of materialism. Under this doctrine all living things are dual in their composition; they are of matter and of life. Those who so believe declare that either life is spontaneously generated, or it is of eternal existence. The majority of them also are believers in God, and inclined to hold that things are made alive by His power, through means not understood by man, or perhaps beyond his understanding.

The corollary of the doctrine that life is eternal is the doctrine of pre-existence. The essential part of any living being is its life. If life is eternal then the living thing is eternal also. Driven by such logic, schools of thought, from the Greeks to our own day, have harbored more or less completely the doctrine of pre-existence.

As far as the data of science or the speculations of philosophers go, no light is shed upon the origin of life on earth.

The teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith leave the conviction that life is eternal, or at least that it had a pre-existent life, not of spontaneous origin on earth. For example:

 

. . . these are the generations of the heaven and of the earth, when they were created, in the day that I, the Lord God, made the heaven and the earth;

And every plant of the field before it was in the earth, and every herb of the field before it grew. For I, the Lord God, created all things of which I have spoken, spiritually, before they were naturally upon the face of the earth. . . . And I, the Lord God, had created all the children of men; and not yet a man to till the ground; for in heaven created I them; and there was not yet flesh upon the earth, neither in the water, neither in the air;

. . . all things were before created; but spiritually were they created and made according to my word. (Pearl of Great Price, Moses 3:4, 5, 7; see also Abr. 5:3-5)

 

One may read into these sayings that individuality itself is eternal. With respect to man, that is a well-settled doctrine. "Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be" (D. & C. 93:29). This doctrine is confirmed in the Book of Abraham:

 

Now the Lord had shown unto me, Abraham, the intelligences that were organized before the world was; and among all these there were many of the noble and great ones;

And God saw these souls that they were good, and he stood in the midst of them and he said: These will I make my rulers; for he stood among those that were spirits, and he saw that they were good; and he said unto me: Abraham, thou art one of them; thou wast chosen before thou wast born.

And there stood one among them that was like unto God, and he said unto those who were with him: We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell;

And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them;

And they who keep their first estate shall be added upon; and they who keep not their first estate shall not have glory in the same kingdom with those who keep their first estate; and they who keep their second estate shall have glory added upon their heads for ever and ever (Pearl of Great Price, Abr. 3:22-26).

 

From the organization of the Church to the present day, the pre-existence of man has been taught as a necessary element in the plan of salvation.

Whether the references in sacred writ concerning the pre-existence of all life, plant and animal, justify the belief that individuality is preserved even in the lower orders of creation, must remain, until further light is obtained, a matter of personal opinion. The wording of the above quotations from the Pearl of Great Price seems to imply the pre-existence of individual life everywhere. Certainly, the earth on which we live is an imperishable, living organism:

 

And again, verily I say unto you, the earth abideth the law of a celestial kingdom, for it filleth the measure of its creation, and transgresseth not the law --

Wherefore, it shall be sanctified; yea, notwithstanding it shall die, it shall be quickened again, and shall abide the power by which it is quickened, and the righteous shall inherit it. (D. & C. 88:25, 26)

 

That man, as perhaps all creation, is a dual being, is an equally certain doctrine. Man is composed of the eternal spirit residing in a mortal body. The gospel centers upon the conversion of a perishable into an imperishable body to be possessed by the everlasting spirit. "The spirit and the body are the soul of man" (D. & C. 88:15).

Science stands at present helpless before the mystery of the origin of life on earth. It offers guesses which have no precedence over theological inferences. Through revelation we know that life existed before the earth was, and that "man was in the beginning with God." Life was placed upon earth by God, through His power. That doctrine satisfies the inmost need of man. In time, that doctrine will be confirmed by the accumulation of human knowledge. The method by which life was brought upon earth is not known by anyone.


(John A. Widtsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations [Salt Lake City: Improvement Era], 153-157.)

 

 
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