A Hundred Pounds of Clay

A few of us can remember the Gene McDaniels’ song of 1961, “A Hundred Pounds of Clay,” but did you know that this extrapolation from the creation story of Genesis might be more scientifically accurate than might guess?    I am referring to a 1985 “Clay hypothesis” in the field of “albiogenesis” or the “origin of life.”  In the first billion years or so of our planet’s existence, conditions on the surface were more like hell than the earth we know today.  There was no oxygen in the atmosphere.  Volcanoes belched toxic gases of sulfur, cyanide and nitric acid.  The planet was constantly bombarded by large meteors and comets bringing much of the water that fills our oceans.  There were no plants or any life whatsoever.  The landscape was a dull grey-black.  The red color of red clay would not appear for millions of years with the great oxidation event after plants appeared and started producing oxygen.  It turns out that very common silicate clays will catalyze the formation of RNA, a more ancient form of genetic material similar to DNA and still used in our cells today.  The chemical building blocks for creating nucleic acids and RNA were abundant in the atmosphere and the primordial oceans.  Until recently, the clay hypothesis had been discounted because the details explaining the synthesis of the two major forms of RNA could not be developed.  Until recently.    Chemists in Germany and England have shown how the four building blocks of RNA could have been synthesized from the primordial soup of the early earth.  Clay enters the picture because a clay substrate catalyzes the reactions linking these building blocks into a longer chain molecule.  From there, it is straightforward to synthesize proteins and membranes, the next most important components of living organisms.   I think the staggering beauty of these simple components self-organizing into more complex systems does not eliminate or compete with the idea of a Creator who brooded over it all.  For me, this kind of beauty is simply divine.