The Miller-Urey Experiment
Biologist Jonathan Wells holds Ph.D.s from both Yale and the University of California at Berkeley. In his book, Icons of Evolution, he writes:
“Accompanied by music from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, the primordial Earth seethes with volcanic activity. Red-hot lava flows over the land and tumbles into the sea, generating clouds of steam while lightening flashes in the sky above. Slowly, the camera pans down until it reaches the calm depths of the ocean, where mysterious specks glow in the dark. Suddenly, a single-celled animal darts across the screen. Life is born. The scene is from Walt Disney’s 1940 classic, Fantasia, and the narrator calls it “a coldly accurate reproduction of what science thinks went on during the first few billion years of this planet’s existence.”
Wow! Starting life is easy. The primordial seas were ripe with the building blocks of life. Previously in this paper, I documented that water, the universal solvent, continually opposes the assembly of proteins, DNA, RNA, and other biomolecules and attacks those that have successfully formed. Starting life in water is chemically impossible – one can read one hundred biochemistry books and they all say the same thing.
Disney’s movie captured the imagination of many unsuspecting children and adults; but it remained an untested hypothesis until the early 1950s, when Stanley Miller and his Ph.D. advisor, Harold Urey, simulated the Earth’s primitive atmosphere in the famous Miller-Urey experiment.
We need oxygen because our cells produce energy through aerobic respiration. Respiration, which breaks down organic molecules, is the opposite of synthesis, which build them up – so compartments of living cells exclude oxygen from the process of organic synthesis. Miller concluded that the early atmosphere consisted primarily of the simple molecules of hydrogen, methane, ammonia and water vapor – with no oxygen.
The equipment used by Miller was a flask of boiling water and a mixture of methane, ammonia, and hydrogen gases. As the vapor of water rose and passed out of the flask, they entered a compartment that contained two electrodes. Sufficient voltage was maintained between the two electrodes to cause a spark discharge to jump across the gap that separated them. The droplets then flowed back into the flask.
The original experiment was run for a week, yet in his very first attempt, no amino acids at all were detected by Miller. I should note that amino acids are the only major building blocks of life that can form in the presence of water vapor. In his second attempt, he obtained some interesting results.
The experiment performed by Miller yielded tar as its most abundant product. There are fifty organic compounds that are called “building blocks”, as they are used to construct the larger types of molecules important to life (such as proteins, DNA, RNA, and polysaccharides). Only two of these occurred in the Miller-Urey experiment – the two smallest amino acids in a rather weak percentage. The other eighteen larger amino acids needed to synthesize a protein that gradually increase in size (up to 27 atoms) were beyond the probabilistic limits of the experiment.
As we have seen, the reaction product bears no resemblance to the actual content of a one-celled bacterium, which is an intricate, organized structure built using 100 billion atoms, all arranged in the right place.
To further muddy the waters, Princeton University geochemist Heinrich Holland and Carnegie geophysicist Philip Adelson concluded in the 1960s that the Earth’s primitive atmosphere consisted of water vapor, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and hydrogen. Adelson concluded: “What is the evidence for the primitive methane-ammonia atmosphere on Earth? The answer is that there is no evidence for it, but much against it.”
Since 1977, this view has become a near-consensus among geochemists. As Jon Cohen wrote in Science in 1995, many origin-of-life researchers now dismiss the 1953 experiment because the early atmosphere looked nothing like the Miller-Urey simulation.
The atmospheric assumptions made by Miller were probably false; but even if the assumptions were true, all that he produced were the two smallest amino acids in very weak amounts. “Hoping a living cell would form from the two smallest amino acids, is equivalent to having one thread of one bolt of a Boeing 747 and hoping that chance would form the rest of the airplane”, proclaimed a chemist friend of mine.
So if the Miller-Urey experiment fails by a very wide margin to show “life in a test tube”, why does it appear prominently in all high school and college textbooks? It seems that neo-Darwinists are holding on to this one for dear life because some of the other canons of evolution have been removed or receive far less coverage in the latest biology text books.