Feature Article - January 2021
by Do-While Jones

Perseverance on Mars

Will Perseverance find how life began in a Martian crater?

On 18 February, 2021, NASA hopes to land a rover named Perseverance on Mars in Jezero Crater, which might once have held a lake of liquid water.

Mars has attracted the most attention, because there is clear evidence it once had liquid water on its surface. The landing site for NASA’s Perseverance rover, the Jezero Crater, was chosen in part because it seems to have once been a lake — and could have hosted the chemistry [John] Sutherland [a biochemist at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK] has studied. 1

Sutherland has been studying chemistry he thinks might have spawned life.

The choice of landing site reflects a shift in thinking about the chemical steps that transformed a few molecules into the first biological cells. Although many scientists have long speculated that those pioneering cells arose in the ocean, recent research suggests that the key molecules of life, and its core processes, can form only in places such as Jezero — a relatively shallow body of water fed by streams. 2

They didn’t choose that landing spot because there might be gold or precious minerals there. They didn’t choose it because it might be a good place to colonize. They chose the landing spot because they think it will help them prove the ridiculous idea that life can arise from non-life spontaneously there. They must look for such a place on Mars because they have run out of places on Earth to look.

It will be two months before Perseverance reaches Mars — and years before the samples it collects are returned to Earth by an as-yet-unnamed future mission. So, there is still a long wait before we find out whether Mars harbours life, or if it did so billions of years ago. But even if it did not, it might reveal traces of prebiotic chemistry.

The best case, says Catling, is that Perseverance finds complicated carbon-based molecules in the layers of Martian sediment, such as lipids or proteins, or their degraded remains. He also hopes for evidence of wet–dry cycles. This might come in the form of carbonate layers that formed when a lake dried and refilled many times. He suspects that “life didn’t get particularly far on Mars”, because we haven’t seen any obvious signs of it, such as clear fossils or carbon-rich black shales. “What we’re looking for is pretty simple, maybe even to the point of being prebiotic rather than the actual cells themselves.” 3

There are no signs of life on Mars now, nor are there signs that there was life on Mars in the past, so it is obviously the best place to look for life.

Funding—Not Life

The truth is that they aren’t looking for life—they are looking for funding. In Darwin’s day, science was a rich man’s hobby. Rich men spent their own money trying to learn something so they could give a lecture at a royal society meeting to show how smart they were.

Science has gotten so expensive that scientists can’t afford to fund their own research. They need a corporate sponsor who will pay them to discover something that they can use to make a profit, or they need a government grant to discover something that will advance a political agenda.

We hate to rain on their parade because we are pro-science and don’t want to discourage scientific exploration by pointing out that it is a fool’s errand to look for lipids or proteins on Mars. Even if they find lipids or proteins on Mars it won’t prove life arose spontaneously on Mars because the existence of lipids and proteins on Earth don’t prove life arose spontaneously on Earth.

We will certainly learn something valuable from Perseverance’s mission to Mars—but we don’t know what we will learn. If we knew what we will learn, we would not need the mission. We just know we won’t learn how life arose spontaneously there because we already know life can’t arise spontaneously anywhere.

The choice of landing site reflects a shift in thinking about the chemical steps that transformed a few molecules into the first biological cells. Although many scientists have long speculated that those pioneering cells arose in the ocean, recent research suggests that the key molecules of life, and its core processes, can form only in places such as Jezero — a relatively shallow body of water fed by streams.

That’s because several studies suggest that the basic chemicals of life require ultraviolet radiation from sunlight to form, and that the watery environment had to become highly concentrated or even dry out completely at times. In laboratory experiments, Sutherland and other scientists have produced DNA, proteins and other core components of cells by gently heating simple carbon-based chemicals, subjecting them to UV radiation and intermittently drying them out. Chemists have not yet been able to synthesize such a wide range of biological molecules in conditions that mimic seawater.

The emerging evidence has caused many researchers to abandon the idea that life emerged in the oceans and instead focus on land environments, in places that were alternately wet and dry. The shift is hardly unanimous, but scientists who support the idea of a terrestrial beginning say it offers a solution to a long-recognized paradox: that although water is essential for life, it is also destructive to life’s core components. 4

Dead in the Water

Scientists have known life can’t arise through natural processes for decades. That’s why evolutionists cry, “Foul!” whenever a creationist tries to include abiogenesis (the natural origin of life) in the theory of evolution. They try to limit the discussion to how living cells evolved because they know there is overwhelming scientific evidence against abiogenesis. But, without a living cell, the theory of evolution as an explanation for the origin and diversity of life is dead on arrival. For decades, scientists have looked for a way that chemicals could form the building blocks of life. All they have found are reasons why it can’t happen.

In 1953, a young researcher named Stanley Miller at the University of Chicago in Illinois described a now-famous experiment that was seen as confirming these ideas. He used a glass flask holding water to mimic the ocean, and another flask containing methane, ammonia and hydrogen to simulate the early atmosphere. Tubes connected the flasks, and an electrode simulated lightning. A few days of heating and electric shocks were enough to make glycine, the simplest amino acid and an essential component of proteins. This suggested to many researchers that life arose near the surface of the ocean.

But many scientists today say there’s a fundamental problem with that idea: life’s cornerstone molecules break down in water. This is because proteins, and nucleic acids such as DNA and RNA, are vulnerable at their joints. Proteins are made of chains of amino acids, and nucleic acids are chains of nucleotides. If the chains are placed in water, it attacks the links and eventually breaks them. In carbon chemistry, “water is an enemy to be excluded as rigorously as possible”, wrote the late biochemist Robert Shapiro in his totemic 1986 book Origins, which critiqued the primordial ocean hypothesis.

This is the water paradox. Today, cells solve it by limiting the free movement of water in their interiors, says synthetic biologist Kate Adamala at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. For this reason, popular images of the cytoplasm — the substance inside the cell — are often wrong. “We are taught that cytoplasm is just a bag that holds everything, and everything is swimming around,” she adds. “That’s not true, everything is incredibly scaffolded in cells, and it’s scaffolded in a gel, not a water bag.” 5

Children in public schools are still taught this lie about cytoplasm because, if they knew the truth, they would know that life could not have originated all by itself.

More Than Bricks

You can build a house out of bricks. Egyptians did it 4,000 years ago. They made bricks by baking mud and straw in the sun. Straw might naturally fall on some wet mud, then get trampled accidentally by an animal, dried by the sun, and the mud with the straw in it might crack into a roughly rectangular block. That doesn’t prove that brick houses formed naturally. The bricks had to be assembled into a specific order. When archeologists discover the remnants of old brick buildings, they must restore them because natural processes are the enemy of order. Natural forces break brick buildings. Even a poet realized, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” 6 A house is more than bricks. A house is bricks in a specific order.

Perseverance is looking for the building blocks of life; but finding them won’t prove there was life on Mars any more than finding a piece of dried mud with straw in it proves there was a civilization on Mars.

More Than DNA

The DNA molecule is a very long molecule made up of two strands of chains of four short molecules (abbreviated C, G, A, and T) twisted together in a double helix shape.

The two DNA strands are known as polynucleotides as they are composed of simpler monomeric units called nucleotides. Each nucleotide is composed of one of four nitrogen-containing nucleobases (cytosine [C], guanine [G], adenine [A] or thymine [T]), a sugar called deoxyribose, and a phosphate group. The nucleotides are joined to one another in a chain by covalent bonds (known as the phospho-diester linkage) between the sugar of one nucleotide and the phosphate of the next, resulting in an alternating sugar-phosphate backbone. The nitrogenous bases of the two separate polynucleotide strands are bound together, according to base pairing rules (A with T and C with G), with hydrogen bonds to make double-stranded DNA. The complementary nitrogenous bases are divided into two groups, pyrimidines and purines. In DNA, the pyrimidines are thymine and cytosine; the purines are adenine and guanine.

The structure of the DNA double helix. The atoms in the structure are colour-coded by element and the detailed structures of two base pairs are shown in the bottom right. 7

You can think of the DNA molecule as a string of letters C, G, A, and T, which form a sentence containing the instructions which a cell uses to build more cells.

Perseverance is just looking for evidence that C, G, A, and T molecules (or even fragments of them) formed naturally on Mars. It will take a lot of perseverance for Perseverance to find them! Even if Perseverance does, it will only be like finding a chunk of dried mud with some straw in it.

The problem for evolutionists is that, not only do they have to figure out natural ways for C, G, A, and T to form naturally, they also must figure out how they all formed in close enough proximity to join to make a DNA molecule, and they also must figure out how C, G, A, and T formed naturally in a useful way. They aren’t going to find that on Earth or Mars.

Random Letters

Perseverance is looking for evidence of DNA letters, or even fragments of DNA letters, on Mars. Evolutionists are hoping against all reason that many thousands of random letters just happened to form a functional DNA molecule. They are ignoring more than just probability; but let’s start with the probability problem.

Suppose I take five tiles from my ScrabbleTM game, and number them 1 through 5.

  1. ь
  2. Н
  3. И
  4. З
  5. Ж

Perhaps I should have mentioned, it’s a Russian ScrabbleTM game. But, letters are letters, right?

I rolled a die five times to produce a random sequence of five numbers, to determine a sequence of five letters. I rolled 1,6,6,3,6. Since there is no letter 6, I had to roll the die again. The second time I rolled 3,5,6,3,5. That sequence also has a 6 in it, so I tried again. On my third attempt I got 3,1,1,5,5 corresponding to the word, “ИььЖЖ”.

What are the odds that I could do that? The odds are 1 in 6 that the first letter would be И. The odds are (1x6) x (1x6) = 1 in 36 that the first two letters would be “Иь”. The odds of me rolling 3,1,1,5,5 to produce the word “ИььЖЖ” are 1 in 6x6x6x6x6, which is 1 in 7,776. I had a 50-50 chance of rolling that sequence in less than 7,776 tries; but I did it in just 3 tries! How lucky I am!

The first point is that probability predicts the future, not the past. The fact that it was very unlikely for me to roll 3,1,1,5,5 doesn’t prove I didn’t do it. I really did, as unlikely as it seems.

The second point is that I have only a 1 in 7,776 chance of rolling the sequence 5,3,4,2,1 to produce the word, “ЖИЗНь”. I would probably give up before I succeeded.

The third, and by far the most important point, is that even if I did produce ЖИЗНь, it would not mean anything to you (unless you read Russian). A random process might produce a sequence of letters which form an actual gene but, unless the cell knows how to read the DNA, it won’t be able to produce a functional protein from a useful sequence of letters. The only way a cell can read the information in the DNA is if it has the biological machinery in place to read and interpret the DNA. The only way the cell can have that biological machinery is by reading the DNA molecule to know how to build it. But it can’t read the DNA until it has read the DNA to find out how to read DNA.

All the speculation about DNA molecules randomly containing the information necessary for a cell to function misses the point that, even if a random process could produce information in the DNA molecule (which it can’t), the information would not be of any use because the cell would not know how to interpret the information from the DNA and use that information to build the specified proteins.

Back to Mars

With that in mind, let’s return to the subject of Perseverance looking for confirmation of how life could have originated from non-life on Mars. The best they can hope for is to find evidence that a lucky combination of ultraviolet light and wet-and-dry cycles could have formed some organic molecules (C, G, A, and T) which could have formed DNA. That would not prove that those molecules did form a single strand of DNA. Nor would it prove that the random sequence of C’s, G’s, A’s, and T’s would contain any meaningful information about how to acquire energy, grow, and reproduce. Nor would it prove that even if the DNA did contain such information, a cell could actually use the information to acquire energy, grow, and reproduce. Nor would it prove that the DNA would exist long enough for the cell to use it before it degraded. Nor would it prove that even if the first living cell (which we affectionately call, Frankencell) lived long enough to reproduce, it could reproduce accurately enough to make faithful copies of itself, but imperfectly enough for differences to arise which natural selection could use to evolve different forms of life.

It isn’t just us who recognize this difficulty.

Although there is no standardized definition of life, most researchers agree that it needs several components. One is information-carrying molecules — DNA, RNA or something else. There must have been a way to copy these molecular instructions, although the process would have been imperfect to allow for mistakes, the seeds of evolutionary change. Furthermore, the first organisms must have had a way to feed and maintain themselves, perhaps using protein-based enzymes. Finally, something held these disparate parts together, keeping them separate from their environment. 8

Evolutionary Optimism

Optimism (or perhaps just wishful thinking) trumps common sense. For example, one evolutionist suggests that destruction can be constructive.

A self-sustaining, dynamic system has to form. [Biochemist Moran] Frenkel-Pinter [at the NSF–NASA Center for Chemical Evolution in Atlanta, Georgia] suggests that water’s destructiveness could have helped to drive that. Just as prey animals evolved to run faster or secrete toxins to survive predators, the first biological molecules might have evolved to cope with water’s chemical attacks — and even to harness its reactivity for good. 9

By that logic, we should do all that we can to cause global warming, which would force all life on Earth to evolve to better survive a harsher climate. Think of how much we could evolve if we polluted our air and water as much as possible!

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Footnotes:

1 Michael Marshall, Nature, 10 December 2020, “The Water Paradox and the Origins of Life”, pp. 210-213, published on-line as “How the first life on Earth survived its biggest threat — water”, https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-03461-4
2 ibid.
3 ibid.
4 ibid.
5 ibid.
6 Robert Frost, “Mending Wall”, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44266/mending-wall
7 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DNA
8 Michael Marshall, Nature, 10 December 2020, “The Water Paradox and the Origins of Life”, pp. 210-213, published on-line as “How the first life on Earth survived its biggest threat — water”, https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-03461-4
9 ibid.