Primordial Soup Debate

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Was primordial soup a warm pond or a hot salty ocean? Evolutionists debate.

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Though no mechanism exists by which life could randomly emerge from nonliving chemicals, evolutionary scientists have long debated—not “if” it happened, since they’re sure it did—but “where.” Darwin suggested it could have started “in some warm little pond, with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, light, heat, electricity, etcetera present.” Modern evolutionary scientists lean strongly toward a marine origin, however, possibly near hydrothermal vents. A controversial paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences challenges the marine origin, suggesting inland geothermal pools were a more likely location for the leap to life.

Although the composition of animal body fluids like lymph and blood bears some resemblance to seawater, the ionic composition inside cells is quite different. “In all living cells,” lead author Mulkidjanian says, “the cytoplasm is rich in potassium, zinc, manganese, and phosphate ions, which are not widespread in marine environments, and has lower amounts of sodium ions than outside.”1

Only the constant activity of ion-pumping proteins in cell membranes maintains ionic concentrations necessary for cellular function. Protocells, the researchers contend, would not have been able to create this unique intracellular milieu. “If the very first membranes were leaky for small molecules and ions, then the interior of the first cells should have been in equilibrium with their surroundings,”2 Mulkidjanian explains. “By reconstructing the inorganic chemistry of the cytoplasm, it might be possible to reconstruct the habitats where the first cells could dwell.”3

Other evolutionists disagree that today’s cells mirror primordial protocells or ancient evolutionary habitats, saying the acidity of geothermal pools would be deadly to the process of biogenesis.

Other evolutionists maintain ion-pumping proteins evolved first and created a unique intracellular environment as life emerged. Mulkidjanian says the way to determine the right answer is examine the proteins “shared by (nearly) all cellular organisms,”4 which “by inference originate from the so-called last universal cellular (or common) ancestor.”5 Those proteins, it turns out, all incorporate potassium ions and phosphorus as well as magnesium, zinc, and manganese ions, none of which are prominent components of seawater. And these proteins neither incorporate nor tolerate lots of sodium, the dominant ion in seawater.

Geothermal pools, such as Yellowstone’s hot spots, are relatively sodium-free but rich in potassium and the other necessary elements. Biogenesis, the team proposes, took place in inland ponds containing mineral-rich fluid brought up to the surface by geothermal activity. “Conceptually, this scenario of early evolution resembles Darwin’s ‘warm little pond.’”6 There under a blanket of carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide—since evolutionists know organic molecules would deteriorate if exposed to oxygen—Mulkidjanian says, the first cells evolved and “their progeny carried the affinity for such an environment from mother cell to daughter cell through the past three billion years,” eventually invading marine environments.

Evidence? The authors admit the chance of “finding any geological traces of the first life forms is unlikely.”7 Primordial “hatcheries” would have been too acidic to preserve evidence. The only available evidence, they write, is “the biological record which, given the evolutionary continuity, is as old as life itself.”8

Other evolutionists disagree that today’s cells mirror primordial protocells or ancient evolutionary habitats, saying the acidity of geothermal pools would be deadly to the process of biogenesis. Biochemist Nick Lane of University College London considers Mulkidjanian’s proposal untenable saying, “There was almost certainly very little land 4 billion years ago and terrestrial systems would have been unstable, short-lived, and severely limited in distribution.”9 He adds, “To suggest that the ionic composition of primordial cells should reflect the composition of the oceans is to suggest that cells are in equilibrium with their medium, which is close to saying that they are not alive. Cells require dynamic disequilibrium — that is what being alive is all about.”10 Harvard molecular biologist Jack Szostak also thinks ion-pumping proteins evolved first, saying, “It could still be that cells evolved the ability to generate and maintain a high potassium-to-sodium ratio in their cytoplasm for functional reasons, independent of the nature of their initial or early environment.”11 Geochemist Jim Cleaves agrees and says the intracellular composition evolved a variety of compositions. As a result, he says, “Any modern environment which matches this composition would then be purely coincidental” as “there might be no vestigial remains of the intervening stages of biological evolution.”

As another evolutionary scientist recently remarked, “For life to have evolved, you have to have a moment when non-living things become living—everything up to that point is chemistry. We are trying to understand the chemical origins of life.”12 Yet neither group can offer any way nonliving chemicals could transform themselves into functional proteins in functional cells.

The “biological record” exists in the present and cannot prove what happened in the past. “Evolutionary continuity” is nothing more than imaginary connections between observable living things and organisms—both real and imagined—from the past. The biological evidence to which the authors refer is an imaginary extrapolation to deep time, the existence of which is based on the unverifiable assumptions of molecular clocks and radiometric dating methods.

Biologically, life can only come from life. The living God created all biological life 6,000 years ago over the course of a few days. In the Bible He gave us His eyewitness account. He created plants, animals, and humans fully functional and able to reproduce in a world prepared to receive them. No evolution from inanimate chemicals was involved. Christians cannot compromise and accept the idea of molecules-to-man evolution without denying the truth of God’s Word.

Read more about the dust from which God made man in “From Dust to Dust.”

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  1. Brian Switek, “Debate Bubbles over the Origin of Life,” Nature, February 13, 2012,
  2. David Biello, “Did Life’s First Cells Evolve in Geothermal Pools?,” Scientific American, February 15, 2012,
  3. Ibid.
  4. Armen Y. Mulkidjanian, Andrew Yu. Bychkov, Daria V. Dibrova, Michael Y. Galperine, and Eugene V. Koonin, “Origin of First Cells at Terrestrial, Anoxic Geothermal Fields,” PNAS, February 13, 2012,
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Switek, “Debate Bubbles over the Origin of Life.”
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Paul Clarke as quoted in University of York, “Scientists Discover New Clue to Chemical Origins of Life,” ScienceDaily, January 24, 2012,


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