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A Brief History of Creation

by Bill Mesler and H James Cleaves II, published by W W Norton, 2016

To quote from this book, most ancient stories of creation "are remarkably similar:"

In the beginning, there is nothing, or at least something close to nothing. For the Hindus, it was an unknowable chaos, for the Chinese, a formless Dao, The Egyptians [believing that life came from the Nile] believed... that the universe began with only a mass a water, called Nu, which was surrounded by darkness. These formless beginnings are typically followed by a divine process of creation, culminating in the appearance of human beings.

The Norse believed humans were forged from ice. The Mayans saw humans as having emerged from wet clay. The Book of Genesis, says "the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground." The presocratic philosopher Anaximander (610--546 BCE) saw humans emerging from the mouth of a fish like a beast that had crawled onto a beach. Anaximander found plants such as mosses that could propagate without seeds and also animals and insects that did the same. He called the process "spontaneous generation."

Aristotle (384-382 BCE) shared Anaximander's view that life could naturally arise from non-life. Christianity's influential Bishop Augustine (334-430 AD) also believed in the spontaneous generation of animals, and he saw it as a part of God's plan.

By the 16th and 17th centuries, science was used as a tool for examining creation. Van Helmont (1580-1644), a Flemish chemist, studied how plant and living organisms worked chemically. Francesco Redi (1626 -97), with a doctoral degree in both medicine and philosophy, debunked various myths and tried to test the theory of spontaneous generation. His experiment with the common fly indicated that fly maggots didn't rise on their own in garbage or what have you. He concluded that maggots were produced by mature flies.

Soon scientists were aware of microbiology. A human being plays host to ten times as many microbial cells as human cells. A debate about biological spontaneity extended into the mid-1800s. And in the mid-1800s Charles Darwin, not yet aware of genetics, wrote of the creation of creatures from previous generations – a tree of life.

In 1973 Francis Crick, a British molecular biologist, became interested in the possibility that life might have originated elsewhere in the universe, shifting the location of life's origins but not describing it. The astrophysicist Carl Sagan (1934-96) later told us "we are made of star-stuff."

Biologists were becoming genetics sophisticated. They came to understand that genes develop in an interaction with bacteria and that genetic information is everywhere in the environment and that the Earth is a giant library from which microbes borrow. The creation of life, in other words, involves inanimate chemistry. Eating, digesting, moving, the ability to sense are functions of proteins, which make life possible.

This gives us a more detailed picture of how life began, but it is without a description of the absolute beginning. An article in the New York Times by Carl Zimmer states,

The transition from our single-celled ancestors to the first multicellular animals occurred about 800 million years ago, but scientists aren't sure how it happened.

Scientists know the world of microscopic and genetic minutia unknown to the ancients. We can put together timelines from planetology and genetics, but not completely, and there is still the mystery which some will use to justify their faith. The authors Mesler and Cleaves finish as follows:

When or if an explanation to the problem of life's origin is found, a solution capable of withstanding all rigors of scientific scrutiny, we might find the real answer we have been looking for continues to remain elusive.

I'm remined that the philosopher Wittgenstein advised people to describe rather than attempt to explain.

Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.