Review of Verbrugge’s Alive: An Enquiry into The Origin and Meaning of Life

by John M. Frame

[Originally published in the Westminster Theological Journal 47:2 (Fall, 1985), 373-79. Used by permission.]

Magnus Verbrugge, M. D., Alive: An Enquiry into The Origin and Meaning of Life. Vallecito, California: Ross House Books, l984. 159. No price listed.

The author of this volume is a urologist by profession, well-read in the sciences and in philosophy. He is also a son-in-law of the Christian philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd and is interested in applying Dooyeweerd’s insights to biology. In this book he deals with the problem of the origin of life.

Verbrugge represents a somewhat different strain of cosmonomic philosophy from that to which we in North America have been accustomed. In conversations with me, he has distanced himself from the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto. In Alive that distance (at least from the early ICS) is evident: here there is no attack on the doctrines and practices of Reformed orthodoxy, no confused theologizing about the Word of God or the scope of Scripture’s message, no quasi-situation ethics, no socialism. Verbrugge, further, unlike Dooyeweerd himself, and unlike most of Dooyeweerd’s disciples, makes a genuine effort to translate Dooyeweerd’s technical jargon into something that makes sense to those not indoctrinated to cosmonomy. (“Cosmonomy”= an abbreviation for Dooyeweerd’s ”philosophy of the cosmonomic idea.”) I don’t think Verbrugge is totally successful at this task, but that may be less his fault than Dooyeweerd’s. Verbrugge, in other words, is my kind of Dooyeweerdian. And if I still (as in my pamphlet, The Amsterdam Philosophy (Phillipsburg, N. J., Harmony Press, 1972)) have reservations about the cosmonomic system, I find in Verbrugge a man I can talk with, standing with him on a broad common ground of biblical doctrine and of respect for the English language.

The book is a pleasure to read. Though manifesting considerable scholarship and insight, it is written in a conversational tone, with short paragraphs and chapters. There are fascinating illustrations from the world of nature, and Verbrugge keeps our attention with occasional dashes of humor, slang, picturesque writing. The book is not an impersonal discussion of ideas; it treats the philosophers and scientists as real people, underscoring stylistically the Dooyeweerdian thesis that theoretical ideas grow out of pre-theoretical commitments. The tone is ad hominem to a great extent, but the force of the argument is stronger than a mere ad hominem argument would be.

That argument is a refutation of abiogenesis, the theory that the first living things were produced by natural physical and chemical causes out of non-living matter. This refutation includes several kinds of considerations:

1. Verbrugge is at his best when he is setting forth empirically the radical differences between living and non-living things. Living cells contain unique apparatus (pp. 35-37) and undergo unique processes (birth, growth, maturation, illness, death, pp. 98-100). The chemical constituents of the cell “do not function like (sic) they would as independent chemicals outside in a test tube” (p. 34). In the test tube, enzymes speed up reactions between substrates “in a random fashion;” but in the cell these enzymes “follow the strict directions of the cell” (pp. 34-5; cf. pp. 91, 95f, 98). Thus we cannot learn the nature of living things by killing them and examining their behavior as dead chemicals. When we do that, we miss what is most important, the distinctive qualities of livingthings (cf. pp. 37-8).

Therefore, says Verbrugge, life may not be understood reductionistically, by physical and chemical laws alone. Rather, as Dooyeweerd maintained, there is a “biotic aspect” which is irreducible to the physical. The use of chemicals by an organism ought to be understood as a Dooyeweerdian encapsis: the chemical molecules obey physical and chemical laws, but now under the direction of (“in captivity to”) a living thing, which uses those chemicals according to the laws of its own, biotic, nature (pp. 82, 89-93). This encaptic model, Verbrugge thinks, may be the route to a “scientific revolution” (in Thomas Kuhn’s sense) in the biological sciences (pp. 104-105).

2. Because the biotic aspect is irreducible, all experimental study of abiogenesis “proves it to be false. We know that chemical interaction of atoms and molecules always leads to old or new atoms and molecules and nothing else… Abiogenesis therefore must be believed against all the scientific evidence at our disposal” (p. 97).

Some organic chemicals, “ingredients of life,” have been synthesized in laboratories, to be sure. However (a) as noted above, there is a major gap between these chemicals and actual living cells, a gap which has never been bridged. (b) Such syntheses have been accomplished by means of human intelligence seeking to produce them. These experiments, therefore, do not prove that such syntheses could have arisen through natural causes alone. (c) These experiments also produced many types of molecules which would have been detrimental to the formation of living things (p. 61).

Verbrugge also points out that although many evolutionists are proponents of abiogenesis, the latter does not follow from the former; so even the alleged evidence for evolution may not be advanced in favor of abiogenesis (p. 56).”

Verbrugge has convinced me that abiogenesis has not been proven. And, granted the great distinctions empirically evident between life and non-life, it is hard to imagine how such a thesis ever could be proved. Verbrugge, however, is not content to conclude that abiogenesis is unproven and unlikely. He argues further that abiogenesis “cannot be proven” (emphasis mine), that it is “false,” indeed that it is “impossible” (p. 126; cf. pp. 97, 115-116). I am sympathetic to these conclusions, but I don’t believe they are entailed by the argumentation summarized above. The differences Verbrugge cites between life and non-life are great; but more must be said in order to show the impossibility of the latter emerging from the former. I can accept Dooyeweerd’s view of the irreducibility of the biotic aspect as an empirical conclusion; but I am not ready to accept it as a criterion of what is or is not possible. The latter, however, seems to be what Verbrugge is asking me to do at this point. (There is some unclarity, for on p. 97 he says he has no quarrel with abiogenesis as a belief, but resents it when it is presented as a scientific theory. But to say that abiogenesis is acceptable as a “belief” is surely to say that it is “possible.” Or is there some ambiguity here in the word “possible?”)

3. Going beyond the experimental questions, Verbrugge also attacks the logic of the abiogeneticist arguments. He finds crucial confusions and fallacies in them:

(a) Often proponents of abiogenesis simply pass over the really crucial questions: they will describe the process leading to the origin of life without even pausing to explain the most important step- how non-living molecules came to replicate themselves (pp. 64, 70-71).

(b) Important terms are used ambiguously: life is defined, e.g., as a “system” or “whole,” but the same terms are used to describe non-living things (even the entire universe) without any clarification of the distinctive kinds of system peculiar to living things (p. 86). This unclarity makes abiogenesis seem more plausible than it is.

(c) These thinkers also use arguments which are “circular,” not in a logical, but in a biological sense. Jacques Monod says that protein enzyme molecules are the producers of allosteric enzyme molecules, but also that the allosteric regulate the production of the proteins. But he does not ask how this circular, reciprocal relationship ever gets started (p. 41; cf. pp. 43, 48, 64, 110, 116, 118f). Neither of these processes serves as an adequate explanation of the whole relationship.

(d) Much of the abiogeneticists’ case rests, Verbrugge says, on metaphorical expressions which are taken too literally. Biochemists talk about molecules that “read” or “translate” a genetic code, “carry messages,” “transfer information,” ”recognize a substrate,” “keep track” of time (p. 18). Verbrugge does not object to these expressions as metaphors, but he suspects that scientists sometimes think of them literally, thus losing track of the major differences between life and non-life. (Cf. pp. 99, 103f). (I cannot help noting at this point that I made (and still maintain) similar criticisms of Dooyeweerd himself in the afore-mentioned pamphlet. I am happy to see here a Dooyeweerdian who recognizes the danger of building one’s case on metaphors.)

(e) In the book, however, the most pervasive critique of abiogeneticist arguments is what Verbrugge calls “animism.” He defines this initially as “the belief that inanimate objects and natural phenomena have a soul or spirit” (p. 151). More specifically, he focuses on the kind of animism wherein abstract concepts like beauty, wisdom and (importantly) life are made independent “substances,” even quasi-persons, with powers to act, create, decide, etc. Following Dooyeweerd, he traces this confusion back to Greek philosophy: Aristotle’s “soul” (anima) is, he thinks, an illegitimate personification of the abstract concept “life.” Technically Verbrugge describes this error as the confusion of “function with functor.” Life, he says, is not a functor, but a function; not a thing, but a property or activity of some things. Therefore life as such cannot “do” anything; only persons, animals and things can “do.”

Abiogenesis, says Verbrugge, is based upon animistic thinking in this sense. The misuse of metaphors noted in (d) above is based on this more fundamental mistake. Animism lies behind vitalism (the idea that some mysterious life force is inherent in matter) but also behind all materialistic or naturalistic views of the origin of life. This is not only a linguistic or metaphysical confusion, he thinks, but a religious one: it is idolatry- seeking divine beings in abstract human concepts. (He presents some interesting examples here, including a Pythagorean hymn to the number ten, p. 138!) For this argument, see pp. 9-10, 15-17, 27-30, 53-54, 62, 64, 68, 71, 77, 85, 91, 105, 118, 121, 131-138, 146-150.

What Verbrugge is saying here (and it could have been said more clearly) is that those processes which characterize life cannot occur by themselves: growth, maturation, etc. do not occur unless there is a living thing (“functor”) to which they happen.Scientists go astray when they seek to consider the nature of these processes without considering the subject, the plant, animal or human being who performs or experiences these events. Failure to consider the distinctive nature of the subject, the functor, has led scientists to ignore the distinctive nature of the biotic aspect; for that distinctiveness is chiefly evident in the nature of biotic subjects. Confusions in philosophy and language between functors and functions execerbate this problem.

I sympathize with this argument, but I do think that here Verbrugge has bitten off more than he can chew. He is here wrestling with the philosophical problem of universals and particulars: is “life” a real thing? is it a subject? can it “do” anything? or is it just a “name?” He seems to drift, here, into a kind of nominalism, objecting strongly whenever an abstract concept is said to “do” anything or to have a “capacity” (e.g., p. 118). However, the book contains no serious discussion of the pros and cons of nominalism, realism or other positions on the philosophical question. Dooyeweerd himself offered objections to the sort of nominalism that Verbrugge presents here as common sense.

These issues are worth following up. All in all, however, I wish that Verbrugge had avoided the anti-realist polemic, central though it appears to be in his own thinking. He could have made all his basic points without it (including those which I haveparaphrased in the third paragraph of this section (e)), and it only seems to introduce unnecessary complication and confusion.

4. Verbrugge also cites some interesting admissions by proponents of abiogenesis, showing their awareness of the weakness of their position. See pp. 54, 121-127.

5. He concludes, therefore, that abiogenesis is not based upon scientific evidence but upon (religious!) faith in materialism (pp. 6-8, 51-57, 113-119). I agree enthusiastically with this assessment of the matter. However, I am not entirely clear on Verbrugge’s general concept of the faith/science relation. He recognizes that faith has an impact upon scientific theorizing: materialistic faith has this impact, and he also insists that Christian belief in creation is relevant for science (p. 6). On the other hand, he warns us against “tying church doctrine” to scientific theories and dismisses all Christian ”theories of creation” as “speculative” (pp. 23, 25; cf. rest of this chapter). Further, he advises us in talking to scientists to ”talk to them as scientists” (p. 7; cf. p. 126) rather than (I presume from the context) presenting them with our faith-presuppositions. Here there seems to be a very sharp distinction between faith and science, but I don’t understand precisely what that distinction is, or how it relates to Verbrugge’s pleas for anintegration between faith and science. This problem is related, I think, to Dooyeweerd’s own unclarity about how our heart-commitment transcends, and yet is relevant to, our scientific labors.

Miscellaneous comments: (a) There are several rather unclear passages in the book, such as the treatment of Augustine’s views (p. 24: “rational causes” needs definition), the discussion of the relation of space to number (pp. 76-78: is it true that I can think about numbers without taking any time to think about them?), the account of teleonomy (pp. 134-136). (b) On pp. 73, 74, Verbrugge’s response to quoted material indicates possible misunderstanding of it: the quotation says that the evolutionary sequence is the basis of biology; Verbrugge’s reply deals with abiogenesis, not with the evolutionary sequence as such. (On p. 56, he had earlier shown that these two issues were distinct.) (c) I noticed thirteen editorial problems in the book (misspellings, etc.) without particularly looking for them. That suggests some sloppiness in the editing process.

The publisher, Ross House Books, is associated with Rousas J. Rushdoony (who provided a Foreword for the volume) and his Chalcedon ministries. It is interesting and gratifying to me to see in our time such cooperative ventures between ReformedChristians of different backgrounds, interests and (to some extent) views. Dooyeweerdians and Rushdoonians have not always gotten along well together. But this book marks a genuine cooperation. We may note also evidences of cooperation between theChalcedon people and the L’Abri group. Perhaps God is working to bring about consensus and mutual encouragement in the Reformed movement on a number of issues. I devoutly hope that such is the case.