Science, God, and the ultimate evolutionary question

Until science proves the origin of the very first cells, many will wheel out God as the default expl

Until science proves the origin of the very first cells, many will wheel out God as the default explanation.

No-one who has visited Richard Dawkins' website recently would have failed to notice the prominence given to an award being offered of up to 2 million dollars. Unfortunately for most of us, nobody will be granted the funding unless they put together a proposal for scientific research into the origin of life on our planet.

It's hardly a surprise that the site should draw attention to the award. After all, however much we think that we know about evolution, science is far from providing a confident explanation of the origin of the very first cells from which all life evolved. Until this gap in scientific knowledge is filled, many believers will continue to resort to God as the default explanation. For some, it must have been God who planted the first living cells on the planet, before leaving the stage and letting evolution take over. For others, the fact that no-one can prove how life originated sounds the death knell for evolution itself but is music to the ears of those who believe in Adam and Eve.

But are they right? Is science incapable of explaining the emergence of the first cells from which all life originated without the need for God?

In 1953 biologist Stanley Miller set up an experiment in the lab, intended to recreate what scientists call the earth's "primordial soup" when life first appeared 3.5 billion years ago. He created a sealed environment comprising boiling water and electric probes to simulate the effect of lightening on some of the young planet's hot waters. Thrown into the mix were methane, ammonia and hydrogen, the gases believed to be present on the early earth. The aim was to see whether anything related to life would form. Within a week, five amino acids had appeared in the water. This was a stunning result. After all, amino acids are the molecules which join up to form proteins inside living cells.

But to create proteins - and therefore life - amino acids must be strung together in a very specific order. And cells require DNA to do this. But how could something as complex as DNA have come into existence? Miller's experiment didn't answer that.

A possible explanation was found after a meteorite, slightly older than earth, crashed down in Australia in 1969. Amazingly one of the DNA bases was found inside the rock. Since the early earth was bombarded by meteorites for millions of years, this raises the tantalising possibility that DNA and RNA could have arrived here on meteorites around the time that life first appeared on the planet. This provides a partial explanation of how the amino acids could have developed into life.

But there are problems with the idea that life began in a Miller-like primordial soup. Analysis of ancient rocks has made it plain that at the time that life appeared, the earth was no longer rich in methane, ammonia and hydrogen. Besides, any soup would have been thermodynamically flat. This means that there was probably nothing to force the various molecules to react with each other, whether or not extraterrestrial DNA and RNA molecules were also present. And so far, scientists haven't been able to explain how the necessary molecules would have come together without a cell membrane.

But there is a different theory which addresses all these concerns.

It is well-known that the continents have been drifting apart throughout the lifetime of the planet. This is due to the movement of tectonic plates below the oceans. As these plates strike each other, new rocks are exposed to the sea water. This creates alkaline hydrothermal vents. The water physically reacts with the rocks and this releases heat along with gases reminiscent of Miller's experiments. As a result, warm alkaline hydrothermal fluids percolate into the cold oceans and, near the vents, structures are created which look rather like stalagmites and which are riddled with tiny compartments. These compartments could have been ideal places for chemical compounds from the gases to concentrate and combine to form early life in a fairly enclosed environment.

Although the existence of these vents had been predicted decades ago, it wasn't until 2000 that one was discovered in a part of the Atlantic Ocean which has been named Lost City. Scientists have analysed the cell-sized pores in the structures which were found there and concluded that they were almost ideal reaction vessels for producing the first life. What's more, the chemical imbalance between the sea water and the gases could have created an electrical charge which in turn possibly caused the chemical reactions needed to kick-start the creation of life.

But as I mentioned earlier, it's not sufficient to work out how the first amino acids may have appeared. It's also necessary to explain how DNA could have come onto the scene. Unfortunately DNA can't evolve without proteins. And proteins can't evolve without DNA.

Many scientists believe that the answer lies in the RNA World Theory. In 2007 it was discovered that nucleotides (and so RNA) could grow in simulated vents. At around the same time a scientific paper was published which concluded that RNA may have developed by living inside mineral cells in the vents. Biochemist Nick Lane believes once that had happened, RNA may have changed to DNA virtually spontaneously.

And so the hydrothermal vents theory provides a plausible account of how the first life could have formed on earth along with the DNA which was necessary to replicate it. But the theory certainly has difficulties. In fact, a similar theory based on a different type of vents, black smokers, is now generally given short shrift by the scientific community. Perhaps the hydrothermal vents theory will likewise come unstuck.

This is a difficult area of science. No doubt whoever receives that award, will have to work hard to earn every cent.

Andrew Zak Williams has written for the Independent and the Humanist and is a contributor to Skeptic Magazine. His email address is:

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Artemis Monthly Distribution Fund: opportunities in volatile markets...

The Artemis Monthly Distribution Fund is a straightforward portfolio that combines bonds and global equities with the aim to deliver a regular income. It is run by James Foster and Jacob de Tusch-Lec. James also manages the Artemis Strategic Bond Fund whilst Jacob also manages the Artemis Global Income Fund. Whilst past performance is not a guide to the future, the Monthly Distribution Fund has returned 76.7%* since launch in 2012. Its current yield is 3.9%. It is also the top performing fund in its sector.*

Political uncertainty and the actions of central banks continue to create market volatility. In this article, James Foster talks about the opportunities this has provided and which areas of the market he considers most attractive.


The approach of the European Central Bank (ECB) has been both broad and radical. The increase to its quantitative easing (QE) programme has helped to push the yields on an even wider range of government bonds into negative territory. The cheap financing it offered to banks was less expected. To date, however, it has done little to ease fears that European banks are in trouble. The performance of bank shares across Europe (including the UK) has been abominable. Returns from their bonds, however, have been more mixed.

Bonds issued by banks and insurers are an important part of the portfolio. We increased our positions here in February but reduced them subsequently, particularly after the UK’s referendum on the EU in June. Our insurance positions have increased in importance. New Europe-wide solvency rules were introduced at the beginning of the year. They make comparisons easier and give us more comfort about the creditworthiness of these companies.

As part of its QE programme, the ECB announced that it would start buying corporate bonds with the aim of reducing borrowing costs for investment-grade companies. After months of preparation, the purchases began in June. The mere prospect of the ECB buying corporate bonds proved as significant as the reality. The implications, however, could be even more profound than they initially appear. Bonds of any investment-grade issuer with a European subsidiary are eligible.

Moreover, the ECB has changed the entire investment background for bonds. Companies are more likely to do their utmost to retain their investment-grade ratings. The financial benefits are so great that they will cut their dividends, issue equity and sell assets to reduce their borrowings. We have already seen RWE in Germany and Centrica in the UK undertaking precisely these policies.

High-yield companies, meanwhile, will do their utmost to obtain investment-grade ratings and could also lower their dividends or raise equity to do so. This creates a very supportive backdrop to the fund’s bonds in the BBB to BB range, which comprise around 28% of the portfolio.

The backdrop for higher-yielding bonds – those with a credit rating of BB and below – has also been volatile. Sentiment in the first quarter of 2016 was weak and deteriorated as the risk of recession in Europe increased. These types of bonds react very poorly to any threat of rising default rates. With sentiment weak in February and March, they struggled. However, the generosity of the ECB and stronger economic growth readings helped to improve sentiment. Default rates are higher than they were, but only in the energy sector and areas related to it.

We felt the doom was overdone and used the opportunity to increase our energy related bonds. Admittedly, our focus was on better quality companies such as Total, the French oil company. But we also increased positions in electricity producers such as EDF, RWE and Centrica. In a related move, we further increased the fund’s exposure to commodity companies. All of these moves proved beneficial.

One important area for the fund is the hybrid market. These bonds are perpetual but come with call options, dates at which the issuer has the option to repay at par. They have technical quirks so they do not become a default instrument. In other words, if they don’t pay a coupon it rolls over to the following year without triggering a default. In practice, if the situation is that dire, we have made a serious mistake in buying them. These hybrids have been good investments for us. Their technical idiosyncrasies mean some investors remain wary of these bonds. We believe this concern is misplaced. For as long as the underlying company is generating solid cashflows then its bonds will perform and, most importantly, provide a healthy income, which is our priority.


In equities, our response to the volatility – and to the political and economic uncertainties facing the markets– has been measured. We have been appraising our holdings and the wider market as rationally as possible. And in some cases, the sell off prompted by the Brexit vote appeared to be more about sentiment than fundamentals. We will not run away from assets that are too cheap and whose prospects remain good. We retain, for example, our Italian TV and telecoms ‘tower’ companies – EI Towers and Rai Way. Their revenues are predictable and their dividends attractive. And we have been adding to some of our European holdings, albeit selectively. We have, for example, been adding to infrastructure group Ferrovial. Its shares have been treated harshly; investors seem to be ignoring the significant proportion of its revenues derived from toll roads in Canada. It also owns a stake in Heathrow Airport, which will remain a premium asset whose revenues will be derived from fees set by the regulator whether the UK is part of the EU or not.

In equities, some European financials may now be almost un-investable and we have lowered our risk profile in this area. Yet there are a handful of exceptions. Moneta Money Bank, for example, which we bought at the initial public offering (IPO). This used to be GE’s Czech consumer lending business. The Czech Republic is a beneficiary of the ongoing economic success of Germany, its neighbour, and unemployment is low. The yield is likely to be around 8%. And beyond financials, prospects for many other European stocks look fine. Interest rates that are ‘lower for longer’ should be seen as an opportunity for many of our holdings – notably real estate companies such as TLG Immobilien  and infrastructure stocks such as Ferrovial – rather than a threat.


For high-yield bonds the outlook is positive. For as long as the ECB continues to print money under the guise of QE it will compel investors to buy high-yield bonds in search for income. The US economy is also performing reasonably well, keeping defaults low. Despite the uncertainty created by Brexit, that oil prices have risen means we can expect default rates to fall.

At the same time, there are a number of legitimate concerns. The greatest, perhaps, is in the Italian banking system. A solution to the problem of non-performing loans needs to be found without wiping out the savings of Italian households (many of whom are direct holders of Italian bank bonds). Finding a solution to this problem that is acceptable both to the EU and to Italian voters will be hard. Other risks are familiar: levels of debt across Europe are too high and growth is still too slow.

* Data from 21 May 2012. Source: Lipper Limited, class I distribution units, bid to bid in sterling to 30 September 2016. All figures show total returns with dividends reinvested. Sector is IA Mixed Investment 20-60% Shares NR, universe of funds is those reporting net of UK taxes.

† Source: Artemis. Yield quoted is the historic class I distribution yield as at 30 September 2016.



Source: Lipper Limited, class I distribution units, bid to bid in sterling. All figures show total returns with net interest reinvested. As the fund was launched on 21 May 2012, complete five year performance data is not yet available.


To ensure you understand whether this fund is suitable for you, please read the Key Investor Information Document, which is available, along with the fund’s Prospectus, from

The value of any investment, and any income from it, can rise and fall with movements in stockmarkets, currencies and interest rates. These can move irrationally and can be affected unpredictably by diverse factors, including political and economic events. This could mean that you won’t get back the amount you originally invested.

The fund’s past performance should not be considered a guide to future returns.

The payment of income is not guaranteed.

Because one of the key objectives of the fund is to provide income, the annual management charge is taken from capital rather than income. This can reduce the potential for capital growth.

The fund may use derivatives (financial instruments whose value is linked to the expected price movements of an underlying asset) for investment purposes, including taking long and short positions, and may use borrowing from time to time. It may also invest in derivatives to protect the value of the fund, reduce costs and/or generate additional income. Investing in derivatives also carries risks, however. In the case of a ‘short’ position, for example, if the price of the underlying asset rises in value, the fund will lose money.

The fund may invest in emerging markets, which can involve greater risk than investing in developed markets. In particular, more volatility (sharper rises and falls in unit prices) can be expected.

The fund may invest in fixed-interest securities. These are issued by governments, companies and other entities and pay a fixed level of income or interest. These payments (including repayment of capital) are subject to credit risks. Meanwhile, the market value of these assets will be particularly influenced by movements in interest rates and by changes in interest-rate expectations.

The fund may invest in higher yielding bonds, which may increase the risk to your capital. Investing in these types of assets (which are also known as sub-investment grade bonds) can produce a higher yield but also brings an increased risk of default, which would affect the capital value of your investment.

The fund holds bonds which could prove difficult to sell. As a result, the fund may have to lower the selling price, sell other investments or forego more appealing investment opportunities.

The historic yield reflects distribution payments declared by the fund over the previous year as a percentage of its mid-market unit price. It does not include any preliminary charge. Investors may be subject to tax on the distribution payments that they receive.

The additional expenses of the fund are currently capped at 0.14%. This has the effect of capping the ongoing charge for the class I units issued by the fund at 0.89% and for class R units at 1.64%. Artemis reserves the right to remove the cap without notice.

Any research and analysis in this communication has been obtained by Artemis for its own use. Although this communication is based on sources of information that Artemis believes to be reliable, no guarantee is given as to its accuracy or completeness.

Any forward-looking statements are based on Artemis’ current expectations and projections and are subject to change without notice.

Issued by Artemis Fund Managers Ltd which is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority.