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The origin of life is the deepest mystery in the whole of science. Many books and learned papers have been written about it, but it remains a mystery. There is an enormous gap between the simplest living cell and the most complicated naturally occurring mixture of nonliving chemicals. We have no idea when and how and where this gap was crossed. We only know that it was crossed somehow, either on Earth or on Mars or in some other place from which the ancestors of life on Earth might have come. – physicist and mathematician Freeman J. Dyson, A Many-Colored Glass: Reflections on the Place of Life in the Universe, p. 104.
No one knows how life began.
If you ask scientists, they may have theories, but not one scientist has ever proven anything conclusive about the actual origins of life. That’s a bitter truth to swallow for many in the scientific community, especially since the historical quest to comprehend how life arose from non-living materials has gone on so long.
Aristotle believed that life began by “spontaneous generation.” The British philosopher William Paley, whose 1802 book Natural Theology; or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity heavily influenced Charles Darwin, tried to explain the beginnings of life by using his famous “watchmaker analogy.” That analogy compared the universe and its regularity of movement to a fine watch, saying that the beautiful design of creation implies a Designer. As he studied the natural world, though, Darwin slowly moved away from his initial belief in Paley’s “intelligent design” theories:
The old argument of design in nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered. We can no longer argue that, for instance, the beautiful hinge of a bivalve shell must have been made by an intelligent being, like the hinge of a door by man. …Everything in nature is the result of fixed laws. – Charles Darwin
You might think, if this was all you knew about Darwin’s findings, that they rule out the existence of a Creator. Millions of people have come to that conclusion. But actually, Darwin’s theory of evolution doesn’t do that at all:
…all living things have much in common, in their chemical composition, their germinal vesicles, their cellular structure, and their laws of growth and reproduction… Therefore I should infer from analogy that probably all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed by the Creator. – Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, p. 484.
We know now that the scientific understanding of life itself has advanced enormously over time—but we also know the fundamental event that started it all four billion years ago remains a mystery.
You can find the biggest clue to that ancient mystery, the Baha’i teachings suggest, in Darwin’s conclusion that “Everything in nature is the result of fixed laws:”
The phenomenal world is entirely subject to the rule and control of natural law. These myriad suns, satellites and heavenly bodies throughout endless space are all captives of nature. They cannot transgress in a single point or particular the fixed laws which govern the physical universe. The sun in its immensity, the ocean in its vastness are incapable of violating these universal laws. All phenomenal beings — the plants in their kingdom, even the animals with their intelligence — are nature’s subjects and captives. All live within the bounds of natural law, and nature is the ruler of all except man. Man is not the captive of nature, for although according to natural law he is a being of the earth, yet he guides ships over the ocean, flies through the air in airplanes, descends in submarines; therefore, he has overcome natural law and made it subservient to his wishes. For instance, he imprisons in an incandescent lamp the illimitable natural energy called electricity — a material force which can cleave mountains — and bids it give him light. He takes the human voice and confines it in the phonograph for his benefit and amusement. According to his natural power man should be able to communicate a limited distance, but by overcoming the restrictions of nature he can annihilate space and send telephone messages thousands of miles. All the sciences, arts and discoveries were mysteries of nature, and according to natural law these mysteries should remain latent, hidden; but man has proceeded to break this law, free himself from this rule and bring them forth into the realm of the visible. Therefore, he is the ruler and commander of nature. Man has intelligence; nature has not. Man has volition; nature has none. Man has memory; nature is without it. Man has the reasoning faculty; nature is deprived. Man has the perceptive faculty; nature cannot perceive. It is therefore proved and evident that man is nobler than nature. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, pp. 16-17.
As human beings, the Baha’i teachings clearly point out, we can transcend the natural world:
If we accept the supposition that man is but a part of nature, we are confronted by an illogical statement, for this is equivalent to claiming that a part may be endowed with qualities which are absent in the whole. For man who is a part of nature has perception, intelligence, memory, conscious reflection and susceptibility, while nature itself is quite bereft of them. How is it possible for the part to be possessed of qualities or faculties which are absent in the whole? The truth is that God has given to man certain powers which are supernatural. How then can man be considered a captive of nature? Is he not dominating and controlling nature to his own uses more and more? Is he not the very divinity of nature? Shall we say nature is blind, nature is not perceptive, nature is without volition and not alive, and then relegate man to nature and its limitations? How can we answer this question? How will the materialists and scholastic atheists prove and support such a supposition? As a matter of fact, they themselves make natural laws subservient to their own wish and purpose. The proof is complete that in man there is a power beyond the limitations of nature, and that power is the bestowal of God. – Ibid., pp. 17-18.
Next: How Humans Go Beyond the Natural World