Normally when I comment on a new article, I simply have some doubts and questions and a different way of looking at things, but sometimes I see articles that seem so funny to me I’m afraid my response will offend some people… but please excuse me if I can’t help it in a case like this:
“Life Started On Earth 300 Million Years Earlier Than We Thought”
This is the title of an article from the Huffington Post ( http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/earth-age-carbon-study_562688dfe4b02f6a900e2320?ncid=txtlnkusaolp00000592 )
It’s based on a scientific report that isn’t so funny itself, but this presentation for public consumption has this side-splitting subtitle or lead-in quote: “Life on Earth may have started almost instantaneously. With the right ingredients, life seems to form very quickly.” Yup, just throw a bunch of cosmic dust around a baby star until it balls up into a planet, maybe has some of those basic amino acids, the “building blocks of life” mixed in, and POOF! there’s your life for you! Just like magic! Practically a miracle… whoops, I mean, perfectly natural, of course. Must be happening all the time… well, somewhere, out there with all those other planetary systems forming. Of course, in this context, “almost instantaneously” and “very quickly” refers to several hundred million years. Then again, the processes taking place in most of that time could be said to have little direct relevance to the formation of life. If you’re going to believe that raw chemicals came together and became a living thing all on their own, you may as well believe it happened quickly. But what’s behind this bold pontification? That’s the really funny part — this statement that sounds like a fact is based on … a microscopic bit of simple carbon in a tiny crystal of zircon! Yes, a bit of carbon you couldn’t see with just your eyes, carbon like the charcoal you cook your BBQ over or the graphite in your pencil. Teeny-tiny, itty-bitty, itsy-bitsy bit of it. In a crystal with just the right ratio of radioactive decay products to radioactive element(s) to be assigned a very old date. And from that we get this headline that life started billions of years ago, as if a reporter was standing there at the time and snapped a picture of it, too. From that, we are told that “life seems to form very quickly” as if it happens all the time, and we’ve just missed seeing the event itself. Oh my.
Oh, I should say the question of age is rather amusing, too. Of course, both as a Young-Earth Creationist and as an advocate for paring science down a little, I don’t buy the idea that the ratios of isotopes trapped in rocks or crystals can provide the age. We can’t really know our techniques have eliminated all the other possibilities. At any rate, this case really stretches things, even in ancient-Earth terms. The oldest fossils of multi-cellular life, according to what I’ve read and remember, are less than a billion years old. The original, scientific report in this case notes that the “microfossil record only extends to ∼3.5 billion years (Ga), the chemofossil record arguably to ∼3.8 Ga, and the rock record to 4.0 Ga. Detrital zircons from Jack Hills, Western Australia range in age up to nearly 4.4 Ga.” The one zircon crystal this report was based on was dated to 4.1 Ga. Over 4 billion years. One hundred million years older than the oldest rocks — it must have come from earlier rocks that broke up and the bits later formed somewhat newer rocks. Well, I’ll leave it to the brainy physicist types to try to figure out what all could happen with that, but excuse me if I just don’t buy it.
As usual, the real story regarding the claim that the carbon shows life was around before the rock was formed is quite technical and dull, and a report on it in Science is properly skeptical. The reason the researchers believe the carbon came from living things is that when living things use carbon, they can remove neutrons from the carbon atoms, producing Carbon 12. This tiny bit of carbon had a high ration of C12 to C13. The article in Science cites geologist John Eiler as pointing out the zircons could have been altered after they formed, and wondering about the idea of organic matter being “in magma chambers long enough to form graphite.” It also points out that even the authors of the research report “agree that the data do not yet exclude nonbiological explanations.”
Oh, that brings up something else I found amusing in the Huffington Post article:
We figure such a dataset could be obtained for $15 million,” Mark Harrison, a co-author of the study and a professor of geochemistry at UCLA, told The Huffington Post
Millions of dollars? To find more specks of carbon? And would confirming the C13/C12 isotope ratio really establish the carbon came from living things? Harrison goes on to point out that the cost is only “about 3% of the cost of a typical NASA planetary mission,” but it seems like an apples-to-oranges comparison. Then, too, I’m not so thrilled with a lot of NASA’s exploratory missions as I was with the ones they launched when I was a kid. At least you can see the potential for spin-offs from that sort of experimental technology.
Harrison not only thinks the carbon came from something living, he says it was “likely a photosynthetic bacteria.” Photosynthesis, too? Well, if you can believe life formed from non-living materials and processes without intelligent planning, guidance or anything, I guess you can believe it quickly evolved the amazing processes of photosynthesis, too!
References in addition to the Huffington Post article:
“Scientists may have found the earliest evidence of life on Earth”
By Julia Rosen, 19 October 2015, Science| DOI: 10.1126/science.aad4732
Potentially biogenic carbon preserved in a 4.1 billion-year-old zircon
Elizabeth A. Bella,1, Patrick Boehnkea, T. Mark Harrisona,1, and Wendy L. Mao
PNAS October 19, 2015