Scientist may have found how life began

On May 14th this year (2009) Reasons to Believe responded to two articles in the popular press. The first from the New York Times; “Chemist finds hidden gateway to RNA” and the second from Fox News; “Scientist may have found how life began.” The following is a transcript of their pod-cast Science News Flash with Joe Aguirre (JA) and Dr. Fuzale Rana (FR or “Fuzz”). Bracketed numbers are mine. Accurate transcript apart from a few omitted dead words.

JA: That’s a provocative title, and this is a headline grabbing discovery that you want to talk to us about.

FR: It is. This discovery was prompted by a paper published in today’s [May 14th] issue of Nature. A team of scientists in the Manchester University of England who discovered a novel prebiotic chemical route to generating building block materials that people think were critical for establishing the origin of life in an evolutionary perspective. This is very interesting, very exciting work, because not only have they discovered what they think to be a novel prebiotic route (to these building block materials) but their way of approaching the whole origin of life problem is radically different than anything that’s been done before. This is considered to be a ground-breaking study in that it is really going to overturn the paradigm – or at least they way people approach the paradigm (again from an evolutionary stand-point). So a real exciting discovery – excellent work experimentally speaking – and of pretty broad ranging significance, not only to the origin of life question, but also to the creation/evolution controversy. So hopefully we can un-package that.

JA: Yes I know a lot of questions arise, and you’re probably going to get to the questions that I would have but some might want to start with; what is the origin of life problem problem?

FR: Sure, that’s a good place to start. Before I do that I just want to warn people that this is going to be a little bit of a longer pod-cast than we typically do. And is going to be a little tecnical. I apologise ahead of time for that, but its just the nature of the research.

JA: And you’re educating people, so they can listen again.

FR: Right. We wanna make sure people can understand the background information so they can appreciate the significance of the study and the importance of the work as well, so I ask people to bear with us.

JA: Sit in your favourite chair for a while.

FR: It won’t be an explicit pod-cast in terms of the warning but – its probably not suitable for young children. But really to go back to the beginning, central to the evolutionary paradigm (that is the idea that life has evolved here on earth through undirected natural processes) is the idea that life originated from non-living matter: that inanimate matter (the in-animate world) through the outworkings of physics and chemistry was able to create life, and once that life was created here on earth that life continued to evolve to generate the diversity of life that we see throughout earths history and that we see today. This idea traces back to Darwin and his idea of life orginating in a warm little pond, and what we’re looking at here is what scientist call chemical evolution, where the end product is a living entity with respect to a very simple life form (a single cellular entity). So this whole process is really a chemical process that scientist are interested in trying to understand. How early did bio-chemical systems come into being? How did those systems begin to interact with eachother to form a corporation that would be recognised as a living entity? So what we’re talking about here is going from a chemical mixture to the very first cell, and the idea is this is happening through a chemical evolutionary process.

JA: Fuzz, for those not familiar with this type of discussion how far back are we talking about.

FR: Well people would argue that this process happened on earth between roughly 4.5 billion years ago. . . and maybe roughly 4-3.8 billion years ago when we have the earliest evidence that life appeared on earth. So this is a process that would have happened at the time the earth had formed, very early in its history. So ee’re looking at primordial events here on the planet.

Now in contemporary bio-chemistry (that is the biochemistry that we see in living organisims today and for the last 3.8 biollion years) its dominated by two classes of molecules; protiens and nucleic acids (nucleic acids would be things like DNA and RNA). These are very critical molecules that lie at the very heart of the bio-chemical systems.

Proteins are these large, complex molecules built from amino acids. . . [which] carry out virtually every activity in the cell, working in colaboration with other protiens. They form virtually every structure, not only inside the cell but in the extra cellular environment: they are the work-horse molucules of life, I like to refer to them as. Protiens are necessary for life. The simplest bacterium has to have over a 1000 different types of protiens, many which occur in multiple copies of the cell in order for that life-form to even exist. The other class of molecules; nucleic acids, are the harbinger of information: they’re the storehouse of information. DNA is a particular form of nucleaic acid and it contains the information that the cells machinery needs to build protiens. And then theres another group of molecules called RNA (that are structurally very similar to DNA) that kind of mediate the interaction between DNA and protiens. So when the instructions in DNA are needed by the cells machinary to make a particular protien, that machiary will read the DNA, will form another molecule called ‘messenger RNA’ that is a copy of that information, that messenger RNA will migrate to a large structure called a ribosome (that is a huge comlex made up of protiens and RNA molecules themselves) and then there are RNA molecules called ‘transfer RNA molecules’ that bring in amino acids to the ribosomes so that the protiens can be assembled. In a sence this is the crux of biochemistry. And DNA, harbouring the information that is needed to make protiens, also can undergo replication to create two daughter molecules that are identical in stucture and in information content to the mother DNA molecule, and as a result of that, this, thorugh the prcess of cell division, allows that information to be passed on to the next generation. So you have the ability, not only to store that information but to propergate that information from generation to generation though DNA molecules.

What’s interesting is DNA replication cannot proceed apart from protiens, because the protiens are actually the molecules that replicate the DNA. So DNA contains the intructions to make the protiens that in turn will replicate the DNA molecule. And DNA also contains the instructions to make protiens that carry out all other different activities in the cell. And there’s really a mutual dependance that DNA and protien have on each other.

JA: SO you can’t have one without the other.

FR: Exactly. Now where this plays an inportant role in how origin of life researchers think is that mutual dependance creates what researches call the chicken and egg paradox. That is from an origin of life stand-point you can’t have DNA emerging first and then proteins second, or protiens emerging first and then DNA second, because DNA contains the information necessary to make protiens, and protiens are the molecules that make DNA, and that mutual interdependance is a chicken and egg system. Scientists pretty much think that the very first life on earth could not have a biochemistry built around DNA and protiens, which they refer to as the DNA-proien world. Rather they argue that there had to be another biochemisrty that preceeded the biochemistry that can be found in contemporary life forms, and this is where the RNA world model comes into play. The argument here is that maybe RNA was the first biochemical system, and that the RNA world consisted of RNA molecules that could carry out function, but also built into the structure of those molecules was the information needed as well. So RNA not only stored that information, but also functionally expressed that information.

JA: Ok, so youhave both those components in one, whereas you needed two before.

FR: Exactly. And what gives scientist reason to believe the RNA world as how the orgin of life took place is that RNA plays this intermediary role in biochemistry – its messenger RNA that contains the information copied from the ribosome that then goes to make protiens – the ribosome has RNA molecules. In fact, the molecule that catalyzes the joining together of amino acids is an RNA molecule. The transfer molecules are bringing the amino acids to the ribosome to assemble proteins. So RNA plays this intermediary role that allows the cells machinary to take the information in DNA and expless it in the form of protiens. Couple that with the fact that in the eighties scientists discovered for the first time in biological systems RNA molecules that behaved as functioning molecules – they’re called ribozymes. In fact, the ribosome is a ribozyme. And so those two observations is what lead people to believe there had to be an RNA world, and the fact that the RNA world rescues the origin of life from the chichken and egg paradox further supports the idea that there had to be an RNA world. Origin of life researcheres are adamantly convinced that thats the case.

JA: Well I can see that sounds plausible to me!

FR: Its very plausible. Its reasonable. But the problem is this scenario has met with problem after problem after problem in terms of trying to explain where those RNA molecules would come from to constitute the RNA world.

JA: And they’ve been at it for some twenty years or so?

FR: Oh, easily 20 to 25 years. For example RNA is a very long molecule. Its a chain like molecule and the the links of the chain (the sub-units) are called nucleotides – specifically ribonucleotides, and those ribonucleotides (there are four different ones used to join together to form the RNA molecule) consist of; a sugar called ribose, a phosphate group, and whats called a nucleobase (and there are four different nucleobases that are used; urocil, cytosine, guanine and adnine). But this structural unit of the RNA molecule was this nucleotide consisting of a sugur, a ribose that has a phosphate bound to it, and this nucleobase bound to it. And in fact the back-bone is an alternating sugar-phosphate backbone. So the nucleotide will have a phosphate ground bound to it, and that phosphate group in turn would bind to another sugar of another nucleotide and on and on and on to build this chain which has an alternating sugar/phosphate backbone, and the side groups are these nucleobases (uracil, cytosine, guanine, and adenine). In fact its the sequence of those A’s, G’s, C’s and U’s that actually contain the information in the RNA molecule.

Now the way in which origin of life researches have approached the problem of how to assemble RNA molecules in a prebiotic earth is to try to figure out chemical routs to build the nucleobases, chemical routes to build the sugars – the ribose, and then to try to find the source of the phosphate, and then once those are all present, trying to find a way in which all those three components can interact with eachother to form a nucleotide, and then furthermore once those nucleotides are formed it has to become activated (this a term that chemists use to indicate that the molecule has a structual feature that makes it poised to undergo a very rapid and easy chemical reaction). Those are two fundamental requirements. How do you explain the components? How do those components come together? – actually three; once those components come together how is that nucleotide activated so that it can reacts to other nucleotides to build RNA chains.

JA: Now does this have to occur in the conditions of the early earth?

FR: Exactly. So we’re talking about trying to concienve of chemistry like that that can happen on the early earth.

Now the good news for proponents of the RNA world is that we know how to build the nucleobases – they can be built from very small molecules that are derivitives of hydrogen cyanide, amonia and things like that that would form presumabley on a prebiotic earth. For example, cytosine can be formed by reacting a compound called cyanoacetylene with a compond called cyanate – these are very simple molecules consiting of carbon and nitrogen basically, or it can also form by reacting urea and a compound called cyanoacetaldehyde. Again, these are very small molecules that are primarily carbon and nitorgen (some of them have a little oxygen in them as well), but these molecules will readily react to form uricil, cytosine. You can get other reactions to for adine and guanine. So there are routs that we know of that can get these molecules. There are routs to build ribos – this is called the Formos Reaction of the Butlero reaction, where formaldehyde (a simple compound likely to be present on the early earth) can be react with itself to form glyceraldehyde (which is a two carbon compound) that can react with another fermaldahide, that can react to another compound to form glyceraldehyde, and then glycolaldehyde (which are the two carbon compounds) can react to form a four carbon coumpounds, and a three carbon compound can react to a two carbon compound to form a five carbon compound, which some of the products would be ribose – that would be some of the products. So there are reactions that we know of that could conceivable do this.

The problem is its not likely that these reactions would have happened on the early earth. For example with regard to cytosine, even though we know of two possible reactions that can generate cytosine, the problem is the levels that you need: the concentrations are too high for them to be relavtant for the early earth. So in the laboratory you have to have high concentrations in a reaction vessel in order for those reactions to work – and again, on the early earth you never would be able to achieve those concentrations.

JA: That is known?

FR: RIght, that is a published, well known problem. There are side-reactions. These compunds would react with water, ammonia, and amines, things called philes, things to generate side-products that would essentially frustrate the chemistry that you need to generate cytosine. Same problem with the foremost reaction. When the reaction runs long enough you end up getting a bewildering array of sugar molecules – ribose being just one of hundreds of defferent molecules – so you have a selectivity problem. Also the pH has to be carefully controlled – you have to have a catalyst and the very conditions that will actually produce the sugars will wind up destroying them after they form. So the problem is we know that there are fundamental difficulties trying to account for where the nucleotides would come from. In fact, the problem is so severe that I’ve actually heard – in person – the late Leslie Orgel (who is actually the person who came up with the RNA world model) say that it would be a miricle if a strand of RNA would ever appear on the primitive earth.  What he was saying is that, we know what the chemistry is that could do this – that chemistry just simply could never operate on the early earth. So there is this disconnect between what goes on in the lab and what really could be possible on the early earth.

JA: This is a prominant origin of life researcher we’re talking about so…

FR: Exactly. So this is why this research now becomes so important, thats being published, because these researchers have figured a really interesting way around this problem.

JA: Thinking outside the box, so to speak.

FR: Exacty – thinking outside the box. And what they’ve come up with, in terms of chemistry, is incredibly elegant.

Now what they did is, instead of thinking about how did we get the ribose? how did we get the phosphate? how did we get the nucleobase? and then once we got them how did get put them all together? (and by the way nobody can get those reactions to work in a laboratory – those reactions just simply don’t work). Their thinking was why don’t we think about mixing the chemistry? Instead of trying to make a sugar, trying to make a neuclobase, lets try to make everything combine together. Lets instead of seperating the chemistry, lets try to make the chemistry meld together. And so what they ended up discovering is that if you took cyanamid (which would be a compound used typically to build a nucleobase) and you took formaldehyde (which is a compound which would be used to build sugar) and you let those react, they form a compund which is called 2-aminooxazoles. And that turns out to be a really interesting molecule that can react to glyceraldehyde (which again is a molecule that would be used to generate sugars) to form a sugar complex called a pentocymento oxazoline. . .

JA: don’t ask me to spell those later!

FR: . . . and that can react to cyomasedolene (which is a compound that can be used to build neucleo-bases) to form a larger complex, which then could react with phosphate, and then that reaction with phosphate generates a ribonucleotide thats in an activated form ready to react with other nucleotides to generate RNA chains. And the point is that they’ve identified a three or four step reaction, that is very elegant, that melds the two different chemistries together to produce a ribonucleotide – not from the individual components, if you will, but by a completely different strategy.

JA: They’re just kind of letting the chemicals… I geuss I don’t really quite see that, how are they’re guiding this research in some way.

FR: Right, well what they’re doing is they’re doing the reactions in a laboratory setting, where they’re adding components to the mixture sequentially. So they’re doing a reaction, getting a compound, and then taking that compound and adding another compound, and on and on and on, and they’re able to monitor the reaction and look at the products which are formed thorughout the course of the reaction. But the idea is that these are all materials that likely would have all been present on the early earth. Its just that they’re conceptually thinking about the chemistry is a very different way. Now obviously on early earth, when the molecules are all present they’re all there together and they should be intermixing, so that these reactions call all take place. But anyway, they’ve got this way to make an activated neuclotide.

Now, there are some problems that they’ve discovered within the course of doing this. For example, they dicovered that when you react the cyanamid with the glycolaldehyde to produce this . . . 2-aminooxazole, they discovered that in an unbuffered reaction vessel they get a whole range of products: a huge mess of products that they wind up getting. And so the compound that they desire is actually one of just a large number. So that compound that they get is actally just a large number of compounds. What they need to do is try to find a way to control the pH, and they dicovered that if they use phosphate as a buffer they wound up getting basically alost a pure product.

So that was a really exciting discovery: that they could clean up the chemistry by adding phosphate. Now what’s intruiging about this is that phosphate is also a compound that they are going to need to be using at the very end of the reaction scheme, as the final step to make the activated ribonucleotide. So one of the materials that needs to react at the end of the reaction can actually influence the early stages of the reaction, making the chemistry very clean. They also discovered that some of the other steps of the reaction are too cleaned up by the presence of phosphate as well. It has a buffereing effect that tends to avoid the generation of a large number of compounds. So apart from the phosphate being present each stage of the reaction generates a very messy ensemble molecule simply fustrating the chemistry. With phosphate present – voila – you suddenly have a very clean, preistene pathway because of the influence of phosphate. And then they dicovered to that if they blasted the final step of the reaction with UV radiation it actually destroyed other compounds that would be produced as side-products. For whatever reason the activated ribonucleotides turn out to be more resistant to UV radiation then the other components that are produced in the reaction. So they’ve got a clean up step from the UV radiation, which they would be arguing would be impinging on the early earth from the sun without an ozone layer to shield the surface of the planet. So they’ve come up with, what they think to be reasonable chemistry, that is three of four steps, that produces a complex building block material from compounds likely to be present on the early earth, and they were able to discover this by thinking about the problem completely differently.

So this is really, in a sense, a very revolutionary paper for a number of reasons. Because not only have they figured out what appears to be an intractable problem for the RNA world, but they have now given people a completely different way to think about modern chemistry that I think is going to influence researchers from this point on. We’re going to see more and more of this type of strategy in trying to understand prebiotic chemistry and maybe ways around what appear to be difficult problems. Really, its very exciting work, that from a chemicial stand-point. As a chemistst I look at this and I’m very impressed with what they’ve accomplished here.

JA: All right. Well, how do you assess it at this point then?

FR: Well, even though this is really incredible work, there are a number of problems that still remain that I think are, as elegant as this work is, still raise questions about whether of not the RNA world model is free of problems, and in fact whether it is the best way to explain the origin of life.

The first problem is they were only able to make two of the four ribonucleotides that they needed to make. They could make ribonucleotides with cytosine and uracil as nucleobases, but they couldn’t make ribonucleotides that had adenine and guanine. Now they may be able to figure out how to do this, or somebody else might be able to, but at this point of time we still don’t know how to make those particlar ribonucleotides. So in a sence they’ve got only half the solution to the problem if you will.

Something else that they also neglected to do is they still were ignoring side-reactions. They figured out how to use phosphate to dampen unwanted chemical reations but there still were other other side-reactions that would have taken place that they didn’t take into account because they were using chemically pristene conditions. They were very cereful as to what components they were adding to the reaction sequence, but if they would have also added compounds that were also would have been present on the early earth that would have interferred with the reaction, they would not have gotten the success that they did. For example cyanoacetylene and cyanoacetaldehyde (which are two componds that they were using in their reaction scheme) will react with amines and with ammonia and philes as I have already mentioned, to generate side-products and side-reactions. In fact, this is a criticism that Robert Shapiro, a chemist and an origin of life researcher at the City University of New York commented on in, not only in the popular articles, but also in a commentary in Nature – in an article commenting on the paper that was published also in Nature as well. So this is not my criticism, but this is something else that another origin of life researcher has pointed out. And so what they’ve done is they have stacked the deck by having pristene reaction conditions that do not realistically mimic the conditions of the early earth.

Another problem is the end product of this reaction sequence is an activated ribonucleotides, and on one hand thats good because nucleotides, if they are not activated, it won’t react with other neucleotides to form RNA chains. If the neucleotide is activated thats good news, but on the other hand that’s bad news because it means that that ribonucleotides will react with everything in its sight – not only other rival neuclotides that are activated but other compounds as well.

JA: And what does that result in?

FR: It results in essentially consuming your product with side-reactions so that it can never react in the next step in the way that you need it to react to build an RNA molecule. In other words its cyphens off the end product towards unproductive chemical routs. And so its almost as if you are damned if your do, damned if your don’t – so to speak – where if you don’t have activated nucleotides you can’t get RNA molecules, if you do have acitvated nucleotides you can get RNA molecules but your also going to have so many side reactions that you may never get RNA molecules, because these other reactions are going to compete to such an extent that its going to frustrate the chemistry.

But perhaps the Achilles’ heel of the whole thing is the dependance on all this chemistry on phosphate. Now, again its a really elegant trick that they played to use phosphate, which again is part of the reaction at the very end of the process to. . . stabilize the chemisry and to clean up the chemistry throughout the course of the reaction sequence. The problem is they had to use a higher concentration of phosphate in their experiments to get this to work, and that concentration almost certainly would not have existed on the early earth – its way too concentrated. So that makes you wonder whether or not this is relevant for the conditions of the early earth. In fact, phosphate (and things like pyro-phosphate and poly-phosphates that are related to phosphate) are insoluble in the presence of calcium and magnesium, and they’ll form these salts that will precipitate out a solution, and so you’re never going to have very high levels of phosphate or pyro-phostate or poly-phosphate on the early earth because of their insolubility. And so nobody really knows where to identify a source of phosphates on the early earth – this is called the phosphate problem by origin of life researchers

JA: When you say ‘insolubility’ are you saying some sort of water mixture?

FR: Well when something is insoluble it means it won’t disolve. So, in other words, you have phosphate and that will disolve, but as soon as it encounters calcuim and magnesium in solution they’ll form a complex that then won’t disolve in the water – it’ll come crashing out. Its a crystallisation if you will, or a precipitation – and so thats a problem! The only way you can generate phosphates in a useful form for prebiotic chemistry is to take something like apatite, (which is a…

JA: A. P. A. T. I. T. E. right?

FR: Yeah, not like being hungry! Origin of life researchers are hungry for a source of phosphtate, but apatite wont satisfy their appatite, so to speak.

Well, you can heat it it in the absence of any water and generate phosphates, but the problem is the temperature you have to heat the apatite to are so high it wouldn’t be realisitic on the early earth – and you have to do this in the absence of any water. And so theres just not a realistic source of phosphate on the early earth, and if there was a realistic source you’re never going to be able to get the levels in solution that you need for that phosphate to exert its beneficial influence on those reactions and without that you end up having reactions that end up generating an gimish of molecules that are non-productive – many of them are non-productive in terms of this reaction scheme. The bottom line is that its a very important piece of works in terms of how origin of life researchers will think about this problem from this point on, but it still, in and of itself is riddled with problems as well. . .

. . . again, the big problem is that they havn’t been able to show what we would call geo-chemical relevance. In other words, (1) they have identified that in principle this chemistry is possible, (2) they’ve identified that in principle that this chemistry can actually be very simple in terms of generating these activated ribonucleotides, (3) they understand mechanistically whats going on with these reactions and (4) they’re able to even use that understanding to manipulate things in such a way to make successes in the laboratory, but what they’ve also failed to do in the process is show how these reactions can be geo-chemically reasonable. And the big problem really is the source of phosphate, and also ignoring other materials [from] side-reactions taking place.

And so interestingly enough what they really have done, if you think about it in a little bit of a different way, is that they really have shown apart from the involvement of an intelligent agent, in this case a chemist, the chemistry that you need to happen on the early earth simply  can’t happen, because it requires such pristine conditions, and the careful manipulation of those conditions by an intelligent agent – by chemists – in order for the chemistry to happen. And so what they really are showing is you need an intelligent agent for life to originate. It can’t happen all on its own. Theres nothing in the chemistry that makes that impossible, but rather its fact that chemistry is so persnickety, and requires (in a sense) a certain amount of strategy and cleverness to execute it in a way that it would work.

What’s interesting is a quote made by Robert Shapiro, who we mentioned earlier, who raised the criticism about this particular study, and he said in an article published here in an article published in Nature News; the title of the article is “RNA world easier to make” and the author is Richard Van Norden, and he interviewed Robert Shapiro for the piece as the critic reacting to the work and he says here, “The flaw with this kind of research is not in the chemistry, (and I would agree with that), the flaw is in the logic. That is this experimental control of the research in a modern laboratory could not have been available on the early earth.” So in a sense, he’s reached the same conclusion that we have…

JA: And Shapiro is not associated with Reasons to Believe.

FR: Not in any way. He is in fact an agnostic or an atheist. I’ve met him and interacted with him on a couple of occasions – very nice man, incredible scientist, and a non-theist – has no religious leanings whatsoever. So he’s not a friend, necessarily to our perspective whatsoever, but he would share our viewpoint in terms of being critical or sceptical about some aspects of the origin of life paradigm. But even he recognises, that really what they are doing is, whether they realise it or not, in an unwarranted fashion introducing intelligent agency into the experimental design, and that’s how the chemistry works. And of course, from an evolutionary perspective, that intelligent agency would never be present on the early earth. From a creation perspective, we would argue that intelligent agency would have been present. It would have been the creator who could have essential brought living systems into existence, by exerting the existence of intelligence in such a way that the chemistry needed for life’s origin was possible on the early earth.

JA: Fuzz, at the risk of making a long pod-cast even longer, a couple of quick questions. Excellent report! I really appreciate that, and if anybody’s like me you’ll have to listen a second and third time and you’ll pick up a lot more. Its worth hearing again.

Fuzz, if I were to put on two hats; average-Joe Christian and average-Joe sceptic, I might have this kind of question of reaction. That is as a Christian I might be a little intimidated that from a naturalistic perspective it should like we’re getting a little closer to solving this problem – so I might be a little intimidated. On the other hand, if I’m average-Joe sceptic, I’m saying; Dr Rana, what do you expect we have to try to duplicate conditions – certainly we have to have intervention by agents, that’s what we’re doing, we’re scientists after all. We’re geting a little closer, we acknowledge there are still problems, but we’re working on these problems, and our model is directing and guiding our research.

FR: Right. Well, you know the thing is, the way I think about this is, and this is something that has taken me several years to develop, it may seem like a very simple paradigm but its taken me a number of years to reach this point where I’ve got this tool-kit that I think is valuable in thinking about the origin of life question, and that is when it comes to origin of life experiments there are really three categories; there’s  proof of principle experiments where you simple are trying to figure out what the chemistry is, and in some respect this study represents a proof of principle study; there are studies that mechanistic in nature where you’re trying to understand what are the variable that are controling the chemistry. Those two types of experiments, I think its fair for researchers to involve themself, as much as necessary, to make those experiments sucessful. That is a legitimate place where researcher intervention and intelligent agency is ok, because you’re simply trying to discover in a proof of principle experiemtnt if the chemistry works. So you’ve gotta, kinda jimmy-rig things around a little bit to see how it can work, if it can work. When you’re doing mechanistic studies you’ve got to control the system to ferret out one by one what the different variables are and how they influence the reaction – that to me is legitimate. What’s illegitimate is then to say that those experiments somehow validate the chemical evolutionary scenario – and this is really Robert Shapiro’s point. What you really need to do is set up then experiments that are geo-chemical simulations that take into account everything that you need to take into account to mimic what was going on on the early earth.

JA: Can you do that?

FR: Well, its very difficult to do that – and you may not ever be able to do that completely. For example, what they really need to do is now run this reaction with phosphate levels, for example, that would be reasonable for what would have existed on the early earth, in terms of the solusions of the ocean. I’m willing to bet they would not have the same level of success. They need to include things that would compete with the cyanoacetylene, and the cyanamid, and things like that, that are key components to the reaction. So they need to take into account these competeing reactions and competeing processes. What happens when you generate an activated ridonucleotide? Well, lets throw in materials that are likely going to be present on the early earth – how long will these materials last before they get broken down and have a chance to even react with another ribonucleotide to build an RNA chain? So. . . you can’t tke the first two categories of experiments (proof of principle and mechanistic studies) as evidence for what happens on the early earth. You’ve got to design an experiments specifically structured in such a way to address that question. So they’ve done two thirds of the work – they havn’t done the final third of the work which is the most critical.

And thats where you’ve got to be extremely careful not to have unwarranted involvment on the part of researchers. Clearly, somebody’s got to assemble the aparatus, sombody’s got to introduce the chemicals, sombody’s got to setup the initial conditions, but there’s a line over which the researcher cannot cross – otherwise he’s unduly influencing the results of the experiment, and is again providing evidence for intelligent agency as opposed to undirected chemical evolution. So in a sense researchers have shown that in principle theres nothing in the chemistry that prevents life’s building blocks from forming or those building blocks from assembling into larger complex molecules. There’s nothing in the chemistry that makes that impossible, but what we’ve discovered to is that that chemistry is so persnickety, it has to be so carefully controlled, and there has to be a very deliberate strategy in terms of how that chemistry is sequenced in order for it to be productive towards the origin of life, and thats also the product of these proof of principle experiments and these mechanistic studies. And so, whether or not you’re ever going to have geo-chemical relevance, for anything done in a laboratory with prebiotic studies in terms of the prebiotic chemistry, I am sceptical of that fact. So the more that these scientists are working on this problem the more we’re learning about potential prebiotic chemistry, but also the more we’re realising how important the intervention of an intelligent agent is to create the chemistry needed for the origin of life.

JA: So you are answering that first part with that same answer as well? The Christian who is perhaps a little concerned at this point – you’re saying that it still requires the…

FR: Yeah, I would answer the first part of the question the same way. In other words, you know chemistry happens. . . that shouldn’t concern us.

JA: You’re plotting this work.

FR: Exactly . . . Chemistry happens and we shouldn’t be afraid of that fact. It’s really what is needed for that chemistry to work in a coherent, productive manner to generate life, and thats where you can’t have it happen apart from an intelligent agent.

JA: Given that you said this should spark further research, would you expect then experiments along the lines of appropriate phosphate levels that you were talking about?

FR: Well, that may be the next thing – to try to think about how can we generate phosphates, and maybe somebody will come up with an out-of-the-box thinking that would identify a way to produce a source of phosphates. But still, even if you have a source of phosphates, what its going to frustrate having high enough levels in the earth’s oceans for that to be meaningful – for reactions like the one we’ve discussed today, is the fact that again the presence of calcium and magnesium – which surely would have been present at high levels on the early earth – those phosphates are going to form insolubale salts. So you’ve got to find a way to keep those phosphates from precipitating out of the earth’s oceans – and that may not be an easy thing to come with. But again, we need to realise that there are people working aggressively on these problems and somebody may come up with the breakthrough way of approaching the problem, that suddenly makes what appears to be an intractable problem suddenly facile.

JA: Ok. Well we’ll look forward to hearing about this in the coming months or years, right?

FR: Yeah.

JA: Ok. Well thank you for your report Fuzz. Its a long one but certainly worth it and people can listen to it . . . By the way we can point to a resource that you offered a few years ago with Hugh Ross; Origins of life, and thats still a relevant book Fuzz?

FR: It is! I actually consulted it as I was preparing for this program and was pleasantly surprised to find that, even though the book now is about five years old, its still fairly up to date. Many of the ideas that we wrote about in that book still are relevant and pertinent to the discussions that are taking place today in the origin of life community.

JA: All right. Available here at Reasons.org. Thank you for your comments Fuzz. THis has been reasons to believe science news flash, with Dr. Fuzz Rana. For more information and resources visit reasons.org

14 replies
  1. Mike
    Mike says:

    Hi Stuart,

    Interesting article, I don’t quite agree with the gist of it though. Arguing that there is some ‘intelligent agency’ to the setting up of possible early earth situations is a bit of a cheap shot, I think – firstly, scientists studying abiogenesis are really just trying to create life first and then they’ll deal with how it could have naturally occurred later. Secondly, nature had over 3 billion years head start on scientists and the lab the size of the planet, so to expect scientists to create life without ‘intelligent agency’ is basically saying that if they do anything more than look in a test tube to see if life has formed yet then they are playing god.

    Not being allowed to recreate the conditions in which life most likely formed would be a huge handicap for scientists, especially considering the earth is now covered with a life destroying chemical – oxygen, so however improbable it may have been for life to form originally, it is now even less likely and practically impossible in oxygen filled conditions. So this means that scientists need to create a setting with zero/decreased oxygen levels but as soon as they do this creationists yell “Intelligent agency, therefore god!”.

    FR: It is. This discovery was prompted by a paper published in today’s [May 14th] issue of Nature. A team of scientists in the Manchester University of England who discovered a novel prebiotic chemical route to generating building block materials that people think were critical for establishing the origin of life in an evolutionary perspective. This is very interesting, very exciting work, because not only have they discovered what they think to be a novel prebiotic route (to these building block materials) but their way of approaching the whole origin of life problem is radically different than anything that’s been done before. This is considered to be a ground-breaking study in that it is really going to overturn the paradigm – or at least they way people approach the paradigm (again from an evolutionary stand-point). So a real exciting discovery – excellent work experimentally speaking – and of pretty broad ranging significance, not only to the origin of life question, but also to the creation/evolution controversy. So hopefully we can un-package that.

    I can never figure out why creationists are unable to separate evolution and abiogenesis – can anybody help me out with this?

    Even if we accept that god started life, we still have all the evidence that supports evolution. Even if we accept that aliens seeded the planet, or that life “willed” itself into existence because it was bored not existing, or whatever, this in no way affects the truth value of evolution. In other words, “evolutionists” have no position on abiogenesis as it doesn’t affect them at all. All evolution needs is the knowledge that “life started somehow” – then evolution begins.

    -Mike.

  2. Ben
    Ben says:

    Stuart, hope it’s OK if I chip in here.

    Mike, I’m not quite sure where you’re coming from, though I agree with you on some points. Certainly, if by “intelligent agency” Fuz meant “educated guesses as to what the early Earth would be like”, it would be wrong to say that the act of intelligent agency rules out abiogenesis for that reason alone.

    But it seems like Fuz’s chief complaint – which matches Robert Shapiro’s observation based on this post – is that the conditions used are unlikely to have been operative on the early Earth, and in fact require an intelligent agent to create an artificial environment. In sum, “this could happen, but not by itself”.

    You say that if we accept Fuz’s view, scientists should “not be allowed to recreate the conditions in which life most likely formed”. In fact, he says the exact opposite – that in his judgment, the conditions used were definitely not those in which life most likely formed; and that’s where the problem of intelligent agency comes in.

    Now, one could work backwards and say, “these conditions are conducive to the emergence of terrestrial life, therefore at some time they must have prevailed somewhere on Earth”. But that’s assuming a naturalistic origin of terrestrial life, which to my mind has yet to be proved. I should have thought the onus is on the origin-of-life researcher to show that at some time the conditions were right (or had a good chance of being so).

    (As a side note, it’s also worth pointing out that preparation of individual nucleosides is a very far cry from an RNA molecule with one or more biochemical functions, such as would be necessary to get proto-life off the ground.)

    Regarding your closing point about separating evolution and abiogenesis – if you’ll pardon me, I think it’s you doing the conflating here, or at least not fully understanding how the term is being used. (I’m trying to give you the benefit of the doubt here, and hoping you’re not just launching a nitpicking attack on “ignorant or dishonest creationists”.) What Fuz is talking about is “naturalistic evolution”, a paradigm which requires, as well as the evolution of all extant life from one or a few common ancestors who lived back in the day, the undirected emergence of life to begin with – otherwise it wouldn’t be naturalistic any more! But to use the full term gets clumsy, so people commonly reduce it to “evolution”. No particular claims were made about biological evolution, and creationists are smart enough not to claim that to refute abiogenesis is to also refute Darwinian evolution. At least, I’ve never heard it done.

    HTH,
    Ben

  3. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    Hi there MIke,

    RTB takes a sceptical position on undirected macro-evolution, so for them the ‘evolutionary perspective’ includes an origin of life scenario where there is no intelligent agency involved. So there’s your answer. You want to separate out abiogenesis from the whole evolutionary schema and RTB understands one to be married to the other insofar as both are seen as undirected event – without the intervention of an intelligent agent.

    By the way – no one here is yelling.

    Re the “cheap shot” – as to the first point, I really don’t think that is the case, but what you suggest could happen I suppose. Second point – no one is suggesting you need a lab the size of a planet or that there is unavoidably intelligent agency involved in all these experiments. Fuzz said said obviously, you need someone to set up the initial conditions, introduce the chemicals, etc. but there is line you cannot cross if your experiment is going to legitimately support undirected abiogenesis.

  4. Simon
    Simon says:

    “chemistry is so persnickety”

    Lol. :) I guess it will always be possible to nay-say abiogenesis, in the same way it is the fossil record: “it makes great leaps from one form to the next”.
    We’re always joining the dots aren’t we – it just comes down to what we consider to be sensible.

  5. Mike
    Mike says:

    Hi Ben,

    But it seems like Fuz’s chief complaint – which matches Robert Shapiro’s observation based on this post – is that the conditions used are unlikely to have been operative on the early Earth, and in fact require an intelligent agent to create an artificial environment. In sum, “this could happen, but not by itself”.

    You say that if we accept Fuz’s view, scientists should “not be allowed to recreate the conditions in which life most likely formed”. In fact, he says the exact opposite – that in his judgment, the conditions used were definitely not those in which life most likely formed; and that’s where the problem of intelligent agency comes in.

    The problem is that it’s very difficult to actually discover the conditions of earth 3 billion years ago at every possible location, because the conditions of a deep underwater thermal would obviously possess different conditions than on top of a mountain. The point of speculating what the possible early earth conditions were like is not to demonstrate that life could develop without god, but as a useful starting point for what ingredients are necessary for life. So if they can put some chemicals together and form life then that would be enough to suggest abiogenesis is the most viable explanation for life on earth. Once that is done, scientists will then debate the levels at which each chemical would have been present and then try to conclude where abouts on earth this life probably developed.

    Now, one could work backwards and say, “these conditions are conducive to the emergence of terrestrial life, therefore at some time they must have prevailed somewhere on Earth”. But that’s assuming a naturalistic origin of terrestrial life, which to my mind has yet to be proved. I should have thought the onus is on the origin-of-life researcher to show that at some time the conditions were right (or had a good chance of being so).

    The naturalistic origin of life does not have to be proved as this isn’t how science works – a natural origin is the default position as it doesn’t require any unnecessary assumptions and then science attempts to disprove this position. This is what the field of abiogenesis is – if natural origins were true then we should be able to form life by collecting the right chemicals and putting them together, if this is not possible then the natural origins position is falsified and science will look for another answer.

    Regarding your closing point about separating evolution and abiogenesis – if you’ll pardon me, I think it’s you doing the conflating here, or at least not fully understanding how the term is being used. (I’m trying to give you the benefit of the doubt here, and hoping you’re not just launching a nitpicking attack on “ignorant or dishonest creationists”.) What Fuz is talking about is “naturalistic evolution”, a paradigm which requires, as well as the evolution of all extant life from one or a few common ancestors who lived back in the day, the undirected emergence of life to begin with – otherwise it wouldn’t be naturalistic any more! But to use the full term gets clumsy, so people commonly reduce it to “evolution”. No particular claims were made about biological evolution, and creationists are smart enough not to claim that to refute abiogenesis is to also refute Darwinian evolution. At least, I’ve never heard it done.

    It was an honest question and not a secret attempt to demonstrate the ignorance of creationists or whatever, so thanks for attempting to clarify. So basically he was referring to the informal use of the word ‘evolution’ like when we say the evolution of ideas, or businesses and not actual biological evolution? This seems to conflict with his use of the “evolution/creation controversy” statement though, doesn’t it?

    To me it just seems like he thinks that scientists use evolution as the process by which abiogenesis would occur, which would be nonsensical of course.

    (I just had a quick read about naturalistic evolution because I’ve never heard of it before and it looks like it tries to link evolution to cosmology and the big bang as well as abiogenesis… I can see why some people would mistakenly think that evolution is related to abiogenesis for some reason, but I can’t fathom how evolution would be related to the big bang – life wasn’t even around then, how could it evolve as space and time is expanding all around it? I’m even more confused now…)

    Hi Stuart,

    RTB takes a sceptical position on undirected macro-evolution, so for them the ‘evolutionary perspective’ includes an origin of life scenario where there is no intelligent agency involved. So there’s your answer. You want to separate out abiogenesis from the whole evolutionary schema and RTB understands one to be married to the other insofar as both are seen as undirected event – without the intervention of an intelligent agent.

    Okay, so they’re both undirected but that’s about where the comparison ends. The validity of one has no impact on the other as they’re both completely independent events. It just seems to be an elementary confusion where people seem to think that to accept evolution means that you have to accept that life started naturally when that’s not the case at all.

    By the way – no one here is yelling.

    it was just a figure of speech.

    Re the “cheap shot” – as to the first point, I really don’t think that is the case, but what you suggest could happen I suppose. Second point – no one is suggesting you need a lab the size of a planet or that there is unavoidably intelligent agency involved in all these experiments. Fuzz said said obviously, you need someone to set up the initial conditions, introduce the chemicals, etc. but there is line you cannot cross if your experiment is going to legitimately support undirected abiogenesis.

    My point about the planet sized lab was that scientists have to choose which conditions on earth they want to try to recreate – that is, the conditions are not equal on all points of the earth. So whereas scientists have been working on it for 50 odd years or so, using a small selection of possible early earth condition, the earth itself had 3.5 billion years and a whole planet with a million different combinations of conditions and chemicals.

    “The line you cannot cross” is just a scapegoat I think. If scientists were to set up the perfectly replicated conditions of early earth and created life, the first thing creationists will say is that intelligent agency was involved by putting the situation together. So “the line you cannot cross” is effectively demonstrating that life can come about naturally. It’s like when engineers create technology using a completely undirected evolutionary algorithm – creationists see this and claim that it shows that intelligent agency is needed to do it all which is just an unfortunate misunderstanding of the science behind it.

    -Mike.

  6. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    Hi there Mike,

    I think you underestimate the amount of knowledge that is known about the conditions of the early earth. First off there is not “3.5 billion years and a whole planet with a million different combinations of conditions and chemicals.” There is a very limited time window for life to arise, with one boundary being the cooling of the planet itself that would allow life to occur, and the other boundary being the time given for the earliest evidence for life. That window is measured in tens of thousands of years – not billions or millions – a mere breath in terms of evolutionary history. As far as the million different varieties of conditions goes (I know you are being hyperbolic), it seems unlikely that a large number of different conditions could present themselves in an ocean or pond or other fluid solution somewhere else.

    Where I think your understanding goes wrong is in the scientific method employed by origin of life researchers. First a model is proposed, and that will include things like ‘undirected abiogenesis’ and the conditions of the early earth in which that abiogenesis occurred. Then they look to find evidence to support that model. The model can be adjusted when new discovery’s and work is done.

    You say calling the experiments done thus far as giving evidence for intelligent agency as a necessary part of the process a “cheap shot,” but you never actually say if the shot hits or fails to hit the mark. Do you think it doesn’t?

    If scientists were to set up the perfectly replicated conditions of early earth and created life, the first thing creationists will say is that intelligent agency was involved by putting the situation together.

    I see you’re conflating two separate issues: the fine-tuning of the initial conditions for life to occur and abiogenesis (which is life itself occurring from non-living matter). If Christians do what you think they’ll do or not, that does not speak to the question of whether undirected abiogenesis can or can’t happen.

    Although this was not addressed to me it bears correcting;

    . . .a natural origin is the default position as it doesn’t require any unnecessary assumptions. . .

    This does make an assumption. It assumes science must presuppose a methodological naturalism. It assumes that supernatural intelligent agency was not involved. It assumes a ‘natural origin’ (which I take to mean undirected abiogenesis) is the more plausible explanation, which itself assumes a philosophical world-view not immune to the need for justification by rational argument.

  7. Mike
    Mike says:

    Hi Stuart,

    I think you underestimate the amount of knowledge that is known about the conditions of the early earth. First off there is not “3.5 billion years and a whole planet with a million different combinations of conditions and chemicals.” There is a very limited time window for life to arise, with one boundary being the cooling of the planet itself that would allow life to occur, and the other boundary being the time given for the earliest evidence for life. That window is measured in tens of thousands of years – not billions or millions – a mere breath in terms of evolutionary history. As far as the million different varieties of conditions goes (I know you are being hyperbolic), it seems unlikely that a large number of different conditions could present themselves in an ocean or pond or other fluid solution somewhere else.

    That’s a good point, I hadn’t considered that. I think your estimate is a bit narrow though with the earliest known life appearing around 3.5BYA whereas conditions were suitable for life to develop from around 4.2BYA onwards which would give a 700,000,000 year timeframe – but, quite rightly, this is much narrower than the one I suggested originally.

    I’d imagine that there are many, many different possible locations with differing levels of chemicals present on the earth. Obviously underground thermal vents contain different gases and differing temperatures which would produce different reactions, and then there’s chemical interactions on land with differing conditions at sea level compared to high altitudes. There are a vast quantity of different combinations.

    Where I think your understanding goes wrong is in the scientific method employed by origin of life researchers. First a model is proposed, and that will include things like ‘undirected abiogenesis’ and the conditions of the early earth in which that abiogenesis occurred. Then they look to find evidence to support that model. The model can be adjusted when new discovery’s and work is done.

    Not any abiogenesis research that I know of would follow that method… that would be very, very poor practice. Surely any scientist following that method would have their research thrown out by peer review.

    Firstly they’d look at the facts and the data – simply these are that life must have developed at some point (since we have life now) and this must have occurred within that time frame. Then they consider what chemicals might be present at that time. Then a model is proposed to try to incorporate all the facts whilst being developed in such a way that it is as falsifiable, testable and parsimonious as possible and then they test the predictions made by their model to try to disprove it. If a finding does disprove their current model then that model either has to be thrown out or any working part can be salvaged to form part of a new model.

    You say calling the experiments done thus far as giving evidence for intelligent agency as a necessary part of the process a “cheap shot,” but you never actually say if the shot hits or fails to hit the mark. Do you think it doesn’t?

    Well whether it does or doesn’t is irrelevant, which is why the comments are a cheap shot. That is, the current research into abiogenesis is just trying to create life from non-life. They aren’t trying to disprove god and they’re not trying to show that life can form without an intelligent agency. If they can show that a collection of chemicals put together in the same place can react with each other and form life or a precursor to life then that puts abiogenesis firmly at the top of the list as the most viable explanation for life on earth.

    That said though, claiming that observing the reactions of a number of chemicals is an example of an intelligent agent manipulating the results makes about as much sense as the suggestion that setting up an evolutionary algorithm is an example of an intelligent agent manipulating the results.

    If scientists were to set up the perfectly replicated conditions of early earth and created life, the first thing creationists will say is that intelligent agency was involved by putting the situation together.

    I see you’re conflating two separate issues: the fine-tuning of the initial conditions for life to occur and abiogenesis (which is life itself occurring from non-living matter). If Christians do what you think they’ll do or not, that does not speak to the question of whether undirected abiogenesis can or can’t happen.

    Of course, I was simply expanding on my criticism of the “intelligent agency” comment. We can agree that collecting the necessary chemicals and putting them all together in a confined space then adding an adequate catalyst can never be considered an example of intelligent agency affecting the results as this is a recreation of the natural events, however, I think the “intelligent agency” claim will become a fallback for creationists. If life from non-life is demonstrated in a lab then the reply will be that it’s not an example of ‘undirected abiogenesis’ and that the scientists were playing the role of god. Which, in other words, means that creationists have set themselves up in a slippery situation where they can’t lose really – either abiogenesis is shown to be impossible and they’re happy, or abiogenesis is demonstrated and they claim foul-play, essentially.

    Although this was not addressed to me it bears correcting;

    . . .a natural origin is the default position as it doesn’t require any unnecessary assumptions. . .

    This does make an assumption. It assumes science must presuppose a methodological naturalism. It assumes that supernatural intelligent agency was not involved. It assumes a ‘natural origin’ (which I take to mean undirected abiogenesis) is the more plausible explanation, which itself assumes a philosophical world-view not immune to the need for justification by rational argument.

    It makes assumptions, obviously, but it makes no unnecessary assumptions. Let’s suppose that the only two possibilities were that 1) a bunch of naturally occurring chemicals, when found in the same location with the correct catalyst, will form a self-replicating chemical, or 2) a god-like being created all of life.

    For 1) to be true we require chemicals, a catalyst such as heat, and that a possible combination of the two can produce a self-replicating entity. Obviously the assumptions of the presence of chemicals and a catalyst are a given (I don’t think anyone would argue against that?) so the only assumption made is that a combination of them can produce a self-replicating entity. And that assumption isn’t a far stretch since the field of chemistry has seen a number of interesting reactions in chemicals.

    For 2) to be true we require chemicals, a catalyst, a possible combination resulting in a self-replicating entity, and an all powerful, all knowing god that interacts with the observable universe. It makes the same assumptions as 1) but with the addition of the god part.

    Until 1) is disproved (that is, showing life from non-life is not possible by itself) then the assumption of god is unnecessary and extraneous. And if 1 is disproved then science would need to create a falsifiable definition of god then find evidence for his existence and the mechanism he would use to create life. So that’s why 1) is the default position – it doesn’t require proving the existence of a supernatural entity first.

    -Mike.

  8. Ben
    Ben says:

    Mike,

    I apologise for the delay in responding. Time zones are annoying on occasion.

    In some ways I agree with you – it’s obviously a valid starting point for OOL researchers to see whether they can come up with life (or some form of proto-life) at all. And I agree that an ability to produce life in a test-tube would be a strong supporting argument for the same having happened “naturally” in the remote past.

    Provided the conditions are those that we could reasonably expect to prevail on the early Earth. For example, if the only way we could bring life about was to fill an Olympic swimming pool with 1 molar gadolinium as catalyst (yes, that is a real element), I think there would be valid questions about the applicability of that experiment to any “accidental” scenario (though I could also envisage immediate speculation about asteroid impacts and so forth).

    Where I must differ with you is in the assumption that life must have arisen naturally. This is, indeed, the starting point for OOL research, for it would be a contradiction to be an OOL researcher who doesn’t believe in a natural origin of life. But as a general assumption, it puts the burden of proof in the wrong place; it is always possible to postulate an as-yet-unknown chemical reaction to get from non-life to life, much as it’s possible to postulate a Deity who played the same role. It’s irresponsible to expect the wider scientific community, let alone the general public, to accept abiogenesis on the basis of a combination of questionable philosophy and hopeful statements by OOL researchers (who, after all, have to say they’re on the verge of an important discovery if they’re to keep the grant money flowing in *wry grin*).

    A related point here is the role of assuming natural causes within science. I agree that, for the general rules of the world (e.g., the sun rising in the East), it’s appropriate to assume a natural cause, and this applies in the biological sciences (e.g., the reproduction of bacteria or the regular migration of birds). It’s harder to justify that assumption philosophically when you start looking at one-off historical events, such as (as far as we know) the origin of life. The point I’m making is that if science is to require the assumption of a natural cause for every event, there are some things which science is incapable of fairly investigating, and the question of natural or Divine origin of life is one of them.

    I accept what you were saying about the conflation of abiogenesis and evolution. I think it’s a case of an unfortunately imprecise use of language which is done by some players on both sides. I’ll express a hope that we can avoid that here, and leave it at that. *smiles*

  9. Mike
    Mike says:

    Hi Ben,

    I apologise for the delay in responding. Time zones are annoying on occasion.

    That’s no problem, I post at odd hours anyway so even if we were in the same time zone I’d probably mess it up by increasing the delay times..

    Provided the conditions are those that we could reasonably expect to prevail on the early Earth. For example, if the only way we could bring life about was to fill an Olympic swimming pool with 1 molar gadolinium as catalyst (yes, that is a real element), I think there would be valid questions about the applicability of that experiment to any “accidental” scenario (though I could also envisage immediate speculation about asteroid impacts and so forth).

    Well, not quite. I think if it required that scenario to occur and it worked, then that would be excellent evidence in favour of abiogenesis. All they need to show is that life can form by itself, whether it requires a hugely improbable scenario or not is irrelevant as long as they can show it can happen. And if you look at the time frame for which life could occur – imagine how many improbable events must have occurred within that time.

    Where I must differ with you is in the assumption that life must have arisen naturally. This is, indeed, the starting point for OOL research, for it would be a contradiction to be an OOL researcher who doesn’t believe in a natural origin of life. But as a general assumption, it puts the burden of proof in the wrong place; it is always possible to postulate an as-yet-unknown chemical reaction to get from non-life to life, much as it’s possible to postulate a Deity who played the same role. It’s irresponsible to expect the wider scientific community, let alone the general public, to accept abiogenesis on the basis of a combination of questionable philosophy and hopeful statements by OOL researchers (who, after all, have to say they’re on the verge of an important discovery if they’re to keep the grant money flowing in *wry grin*).

    This is the wrong way of looking at things. Abiogenesis researchers (and scientists in general) don’t believe in a natural origin, or assume that it must be the case – it is unarguably the default position. The aim of their science is to disprove the natural origin scenario so abiogenesis research would actually be a perfect avenue for people who don’t believe in a natural origin – as long as they knew their chemistry of course. The reason why assuming an unknown chemical reaction is not the same as assuming an all powerful deity is because we know that chemical reactions happen, whereas we don’t currently have evidence for the existence of a deity.

    As for the claims of abiogenesis ‘breakthroughs’, I understand that they always seem somewhat anticlimactic as a member of the public when they say things like “We’ve now discovered that we need 2mgs of this solution instead of 1mg to form the precursor to a possible base form of the thing that eventually could give rise to life!” – but findings in science usually have more impact than just on the specific instance they are applied to. Most of the time, like the research mentioned above, it’s like a shockwave that travels through the scientific community and it changes how they view the problem. So instead of being a solution in itself, most of the time scientific advances are simply a shift in the paradigmatic view.

    A related point here is the role of assuming natural causes within science. I agree that, for the general rules of the world (e.g., the sun rising in the East), it’s appropriate to assume a natural cause, and this applies in the biological sciences (e.g., the reproduction of bacteria or the regular migration of birds). It’s harder to justify that assumption philosophically when you start looking at one-off historical events, such as (as far as we know) the origin of life. The point I’m making is that if science is to require the assumption of a natural cause for every event, there are some things which science is incapable of fairly investigating, and the question of natural or Divine origin of life is one of them.

    I’ve outlined why a natural origin has to be the default assumption above but you’re right about the one time event comment. But that’s not what science does – it doesn’t prove anything, that’s not what it is designed to do. It simply provides us with enough evidence to be able to understand reality. This, of course, means that even if we can create life from non-life, creationists will still be able to sit back and say “Well sure, but you don’t know that’s how it happened originally”. Which, whilst being somewhat valid, is a bit foolish as it would require denying gravity, aerodynamics etc as well, as they are all formed on the same principles.

    (Also, it’s possible that life formed a number of times on early earth but a number of meteorites would have sterilised any growth before the timeframe I presented in my earlier post).

    I accept what you were saying about the conflation of abiogenesis and evolution. I think it’s a case of an unfortunately imprecise use of language which is done by some players on both sides. I’ll express a hope that we can avoid that here, and leave it at that. *smiles*

    That would be great if we could avoid that confusion : )

  10. Ben
    Ben says:

    Mike,

    Well, not quite. I think if it required that scenario to occur and it worked, then that would be excellent evidence in favour of abiogenesis. All they need to show is that life can form by itself, whether it requires a hugely improbable scenario or not is irrelevant as long as they can show it can happen. And if you look at the time frame for which life could occur – imagine how many improbable events must have occurred within that time.

    To an extent, I agree with you. Given that all our experiments are no more than harnessing physical laws, anything which we can do could in principle be done without us. Certainly a successful creation of life in the lab would be seen as the final proof by anyone who already believes in abiogenesis, and even among those who are unsure it would count as more or less persuasive evidence. However, as I mentioned, there’s the historical question of getting from “could happen in principle” to “did happen way back when”; thus the creation of life in the lab would not be the death knell of creationism (whether of the Young-Earth or Old-Earth flavour). But it would completely neuter the origin-of-life problem as an apologetic argument.

    This is the wrong way of looking at things. Abiogenesis researchers (and scientists in general) don’t believe in a natural origin, or assume that it must be the case – it is unarguably the default position. The aim of their science is to disprove the natural origin scenario so abiogenesis research would actually be a perfect avenue for people who don’t believe in a natural origin – as long as they knew their chemistry of course. The reason why assuming an unknown chemical reaction is not the same as assuming an all powerful deity is because we know that chemical reactions happen, whereas we don’t currently have evidence for the existence of a deity.

    If it’s the default position, I don’t think that’s the case for any reason related to legitimate philosophy of science; I think it more reflects the wide assent given to the naturalistic paradigm. I also think I missed where you explained why it must be the default. Perhaps you’re appealing to Occam’s Razor (“entities must not be multiplied beyond what is necessary”), but in practice that’s balanced against relative probabilities – the basis, so I understand, of forensics. I maintain, too, that disproving abiogenesis as a historical matter is impossible, philosophically speaking – you can’t prove a negative.

    Another way you might be looking at this is through the criterion of falsifiability (cf. Karl Popper). But on that criterion, abiogenesis as a hypothesis is not readily falsifiable. As I understand falsifiability, its hallmark is that we could do an experiment which positively says “this is not true”, or the more subtle “this has exceptions”. I can’t think of a single experiment which would pop up, as it were, a sign saying “Abiogenesis is not realistic”, and I’d be interested to hear if you can. As far as I can see, at best (measured against the falsifiability criterion), an experiment can say “This particular route to life is not viable”.

    Having said that, I value methodological naturalism as an operating principle. (It reminds me of the old cartoon – Far Side, maybe – which has a couple of scientists, one who writes a lot of maths on the chalkboard, and one step is conveniently marked “Then a miracle occurs”. The other scientist remarks, “I think you need to be more explicit here in Step Two.”) I agree that invoking miraculous causation is not scientific. But you start heading away from science and towards philosophy about this point.

    Actually, I wouldn’t want creationist scientists of any stripe doing OOL research, for the simple reason that we (I’m an OEC, I suppose, but not dogmatic about it) would have varying amounts of emotional and philosophical investment in seeing our attempts to create life fail. And I just don’t trust human beings far enough to think that investment could be kept completely out of such scientists’ approach to their work. I’d say the same thing about a believer in abiogenesis who set about trying to scientifically prove a Divine origin of life (or disprove a natural one, which I think essentially amounts to the same thing) – and for precisely the same sorts of reasons.

    From the point of view of apologetics, I actually question the value of basing one’s case for God on things like the unexplained appearance of biological life. I would argue we do have evidence for God, though not of the “scientific” sort. But I won’t threadjack that way; I suspect we’ll have other opportunities if we feel like discussing that question.

  11. Mike
    Mike says:

    Hi Ben,

    However, as I mentioned, there’s the historical question of getting from “could happen in principle” to “did happen way back when”; thus the creation of life in the lab would not be the death knell of creationism (whether of the Young-Earth or Old-Earth flavour). But it would completely neuter the origin-of-life problem as an apologetic argument.

    Of course. This is science, not “Absolute Truth”(TM). It gives us the viable interpretations of reality, it can’t give us certainty because of its very nature. It can, however, give us the most reasonable and probable scenarios that occur in reality. The advantage of trusting belief and faith over evidence is that no matter how certain science is of an answer, it can always be overridden by searching within the degrees of error for an alternative answer that suits your prior convictions. (This of course occurs in all people who trust their gut instead of evidence, and sometimes scientists succumb to this too – but they are most often hit by the brick wall of peer review).

    If it’s the default position, I don’t think that’s the case for any reason related to legitimate philosophy of science; I think it more reflects the wide assent given to the naturalistic paradigm. I also think I missed where you explained why it must be the default. Perhaps you’re appealing to Occam’s Razor (”entities must not be multiplied beyond what is necessary”), but in practice that’s balanced against relative probabilities – the basis, so I understand, of forensics. I maintain, too, that disproving abiogenesis as a historical matter is impossible, philosophically speaking – you can’t prove a negative.

    I think you have it the wrong way around. Science doesn’t assume a naturalistic perspective and then try to find answers that fit it, science looks at the data and so far can only draw naturalistic conclusions. Science is limited only by the observable or measurable – if something can be seen or its effects can be measured in some way then science can study it. This means that any philosophical paradigm can be incorporated by science except for the ones that reject reality such as solipsism (but even that could be argued to be consistent with science, assuming the reality you create is still logical).

    It’s true that Occam’s Razor is a relative process in that it needs two alternative positions to compare with each other to be invoked. Even though it is only a guideline in science (meaning that just because something violates it doesn’t mean it is automatically wrong) it is an invaluable principle for forming scientific theories. To disregard it on the basis of personal preference for a particular theory would be a grave mistake on the part of scientists. (Most people interpret it as “the simplest answer is always best” so it was refreshing to see you had a better grasp of it than the general public).

    Another way you might be looking at this is through the criterion of falsifiability (cf. Karl Popper). But on that criterion, abiogenesis as a hypothesis is not readily falsifiable. As I understand falsifiability, its hallmark is that we could do an experiment which positively says “this is not true”, or the more subtle “this has exceptions”. I can’t think of a single experiment which would pop up, as it were, a sign saying “Abiogenesis is not realistic”, and I’d be interested to hear if you can. As far as I can see, at best (measured against the falsifiability criterion), an experiment can say “This particular route to life is not viable”.

    You’re right in that abiogenesis is a field of study so is not applicable to falsifiability in the same way that “evolutionary biology” or “psychology” isn’t applicable to falsifiability, but all the theories contained within the field have to be falsifiable, otherwise they are useless. A theory that looks at life coming from non-life has to be devised in a way that it can be disproved or falsified – that’s why it has to be very rigorous and strictly defined. For instance, they can’t say “perhaps some chemicals combined together will make life” because when they put some chemicals together and don’t make life they always have an escape clause; “Oh, I didn’t mean those SPECIFIC chemicals..”.

    …“Then a miracle occurs”. The other scientist remarks, “I think you need to be more explicit here in Step Two.”) I agree that invoking miraculous causation is not scientific. But you start heading away from science and towards philosophy about this point.

    Indeed, it’s a very clever cartoon given its simplicity. That, in a nutshell, is the falsifiability rule. By not defining what the miracle is exactly, the scientist can never be wrong. Whenever his results don’t match his theory then he can always make a story up to explain away the discrepancies.

    Actually, I wouldn’t want creationist scientists of any stripe doing OOL research, for the simple reason that we (I’m an OEC, I suppose, but not dogmatic about it) would have varying amounts of emotional and philosophical investment in seeing our attempts to create life fail. And I just don’t trust human beings far enough to think that investment could be kept completely out of such scientists’ approach to their work. I’d say the same thing about a believer in abiogenesis who set about trying to scientifically prove a Divine origin of life (or disprove a natural one, which I think essentially amounts to the same thing) – and for precisely the same sorts of reasons.

    Yes, any dogmatic thinking is always a problem in science – whether it comes from creationists or a fringe scientist – but that’s the beauty of the peer review process. I know a lot of non-scientists hear the term “peer review” and assume it’s just a fancy way of saying that scientists pat each other on the back and engage in group think but anyone who has actually gone through the process can testify that that conception is far from the truth. The best analogy I can think of is that its like wrapping all your work up in meat, sticking it in shark infested waters and watching it get ripped to pieces. Then when you lift it out of the water you can use whatever is left to try to create a new theory only to feed it to the sharks over and over again. Even if the peer reviewers agree with your conclusions, any statement that is not backed up by a number of independent lines of evidence will immediately be thrown out with no questions asked.

    From the point of view of apologetics, I actually question the value of basing one’s case for God on things like the unexplained appearance of biological life. I would argue we do have evidence for God, though not of the “scientific” sort. But I won’t threadjack that way; I suspect we’ll have other opportunities if we feel like discussing that question.

    Yes, the “you don’t know how it happened, therefore god” never seemed like the best position to take, in my opinion.

    -Mike.

  12. Ben
    Ben says:

    Mike,

    Science doesn’t assume a naturalistic perspective and then try to find answers that fit it, science looks at the data and so far can only draw naturalistic conclusions. Science is limited only by the observable or measurable…

    OK, now I think we’re on the same page! Doncha love talking at cross purposes…

    For what it’s worth, I think that you’re absolutely right, and where historical questions about God or miracles are concerned, that’s a limitation of science that should be honestly acknowledged. Science is at its best when observing regular, measurable, “natural” causes and effects. These are, if all goes well, explainable in terms of “theories”, parts of which can sometimes be stated mathematically as “laws” – and it’s this framework that, among a great many other things, allows me to put a molecule into a computer program and get a vaguely sensible answer back – unless I’ve screwed up. (I’m a computational chemist by trade, and that’s not trying to make this blog comment an authoritative pronouncement; I’m young and still have lots to learn.) I don’t think that looking “scientifically” for a natural origin of life is wrong. There are possible questions about whether it’s the best use of resources, but that’s quite a separate issue. What I object to is when people say, “Science has proven that life must have arisen naturally!” No, in fact, science has (so far) proven no such thing, though we can evidently make amino acids and nucleotides; but if there is a natural way for life to arise, science may one day discover it (or them, as the case may be); and if there is no natural way, science will forever remain ignorant. Here, it seems that we agreed all along.

  13. Mike
    Mike says:

    Hi Ben,

    OK, now I think we’re on the same page! Doncha love talking at cross purposes…

    Yeah, to be honest I never got a sense that we were disagreeing at all really, just sort of writing out very detailed clarifications of our position.

    For what it’s worth, I think that you’re absolutely right, and where historical questions about God or miracles are concerned, that’s a limitation of science that should be honestly acknowledged.

    Any scientist that tries to claim that science can disprove god is either deluded or a liar. Science, however, can disprove specific claims when they are defined well enough to be tested. Whilst in some cases this can be a bit of a blow for religion, most of the vital dogmas of religion are faith based so no amount of evidence could ever sway the believer.

    Science is at its best when observing regular, measurable, “natural” causes and effects. These are, if all goes well, explainable in terms of “theories”, parts of which can sometimes be stated mathematically as “laws” – and it’s this framework that, among a great many other things, allows me to put a molecule into a computer program and get a vaguely sensible answer back – unless I’ve screwed up. (I’m a computational chemist by trade, and that’s not trying to make this blog comment an authoritative pronouncement; I’m young and still have lots to learn.) I don’t think that looking “scientifically” for a natural origin of life is wrong. There are possible questions about whether it’s the best use of resources, but that’s quite a separate issue. What I object to is when people say, “Science has proven that life must have arisen naturally!” No, in fact, science has (so far) proven no such thing, though we can evidently make amino acids and nucleotides; but if there is a natural way for life to arise, science may one day discover it (or them, as the case may be); and if there is no natural way, science will forever remain ignorant. Here, it seems that we agreed all along.

    Yeah, it sort of annoys me too whenever someone claims that science has “proven” this or that. Sometimes they mean it in a very general, informal sense that is essentially correct such as science has ‘proven’ that the earth orbits the sun – even though the terminology is incorrect, as science can’t ever prove anything, the meaning behind it is correct enough as there is so much evidence in favour of the earth orbiting the sun it is as good as proven.

    As to the question of resources; firstly, a ‘naturalistic’ approach is the only viable approach at this point in time, so it would be silly to investigate any other avenue (I mean, even if god did do it we’d have no way of figuring this out so it’s basically a dead end). But if you meant it’s a waste as in we probably won’t find the answers so we should just stop then I’d disagree. Science isn’t always about finding positive answers, or reaching a solution – the negative results are just as important to science. As stated, in numerous forms, by Edison: “I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Every time we try to create life and fail, that is not wasted time and money, that is knowledge. You will very, very rarely find a failed result in science that is worthless – except maybe the in alternative health efficacy studies…

    I think it’s possible that the day will come when there will be a fair bit of evidence in favour of abiogenesis and believers will be put in a position where they have to choose whether the possible gap available for the intervention of god is large enough to keep faith in, or whether in fact a literal interpretation of creation is mistaken given the opposing evidence. I’m pretty sure that most believers will accept that the grounds for trusting in a literal interpretation of the bible is shaky in this instance and will adapt to fit the science. That’s just my opinion though.

    (I’m a computational chemist by trade, and that’s not trying to make this blog comment an authoritative pronouncement; I’m young and still have lots to learn.)

    You seem like a decent guy so I didn’t assume you were using it as an appeal to authority, I was beginning to suspect you had a science background though so it’s good to know. Sorry if I was explaining anything above that you’ve already sat through a million lectures on already..

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