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Reading ‘origin of life’ research

How to read the secular literature on chemical evolution (i.e. ‘abiogenesis’) critically

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Published: 12 September 2017 (GMT+10)
creating-life-from-nothing

Learning how to read secular research literature with a careful eye is not easy to do. Discerning fact and interpretation can be tricky, since they are often weaved together so tightly that it can be hard to know where fact ends and interpretation begins. Indeed, this is one reason why we often receive requests to explain or interpret a piece of secular literature. One of the more common examples we receive are requests to respond to the secular ‘origin of life’ research literature.

Unfortunately, though, our ability to coach people in properly handling the secular literature is very limited. We do not have the resources to personally train people how to do it. Rather, we are an information production ministry. We aim to provide information that people can use for such endeavours.

Part of the difficulty is that people often get so caught up in the particulars of a paper that they can get ‘swept along’ with the argument, producing doubt. Regarding the origin of life literature, they often address details of the chemistry of amino acids, or nucleotides, or the way they polymerize, that when read from the perspective of the researchers sound like they provide significant progress towards solving the problem of chemical evolution (‘abiogenesis’). Because they have gotten caught up in the flow of their argument, they end up asking questions that presuppose the framework of thought the papers adopt.

Why does ‘origin of life’ research matter?

Instead, we need to take a step back and ask: why are they so interested in the details of chemistry? Consider this opening statement from the abstract of an ‘origin of life’ research paper:

The origin of life is a historical event that has left no relevant fossils; therefore, it is unrealistic to reconstruct the chronology of its occurrence. Instead, by performing laboratory experiments under conditions that resemble the prebiotic world, one might validate feasible reaction pathways and reconstruct model systems of artificial life. Creating such life in a test tube should go a long way toward removing the shroud of mystery over how it began naturally.1

The first sentence is a glaring admission; “it is unrealistic to reconstruct the chronology of its occurrence.” They can’t realistically establish a cause-effect narrative on how life supposedly arose from non-life naturalistically.

So what do they do instead? “Instead, by performing laboratory experiments under conditions that resemble the prebiotic world, one might validate feasible reaction pathways and reconstruct model systems of artificial life.” There are several methodological problems with this.

First, do they even know what the prebiotic conditions were? More and more it appears that e.g. free oxygen goes back right to the initial conditions on Earth, which presents a huge problem for any OOL scenario. See Did the early Earth’s atmosphere contain oxygen?

Second, note the ‘divide and conquer’ approach. Since they can’t attack the problem holistically, they must discretize the ‘non-life to life’ process, and assume that all the parts of the process they are investigating can be solved. But think of all the ‘discrete’ problems OOL researchers feel they must ‘overcome’:

  • the homochirality problem (how did optically pure biochemistry arise from the spontaneous tendency towards racemic mixtures?)
  • the polymerization problem (how did nucleotides and amino acids join together to biologically significant lengths and stay together without spontaneously falling apart?)
  • the sequence specificity problem (how did a non-repetitive nucleotide/amino acid sequence order come to be associated with specific functions?)
  • the ‘protein-RNA-DNA connection’ problem (how did protein, RNA, and DNA come to be mutually dependent on each other for their continued high-fidelity existence?)
  • the coding problem (how did syntactical and semantic conventions arise in a non-repetitive nucleotide sequence order?)
  • the secondary protein structure problem (how do 3D structures like alpha-helices and beta-sheets arise in localized areas of a protein from a non-repetitive amino acid sequence?)
  • the tertiary protein structure problem (how does the general 3D topology of a protein form from the primary amino acid sequence and ad hoc secondary structures?)
  • the quaternary protein structure problem (how did proteins with an established 3D topology correctly join together in a multi-subunit protein complex?)
  • the protein-protein interaction problem (how did proteins (or protein complexes) come to interact in a co-ordinated manner?)
  • the timing problem (i.e. controlling the timing of molecular interactions)
  • the location problem (i.e. controlling the location of molecular interactions)
  • the information protection problem (DNA degrades quickly, and RNA even quicker, and even their building blocks are unstable, so how did these information storage molecules come to be separated from the environment to preserve the integrity of the instructions they preserve?)
  • the energy acquisition problem (how did molecules capable of self-replication acquire the needed energy and parts to sustain, maintain, and replicate themselves?)
  • the energy storage problem (how did the molecular interactions that lead to the storage of energy for appropriate usage in time and space arise?)
  • the energy transfer problem (how did the mechanisms for spatiotemporally ordered energy transfer needed to sustain, maintain, and replicate arise?)
  • the replication problem (how did a high-fidelity self-replication process arise for radically non-repetitive polymers like DNA and RNA?)

These are just some of the problems! And most of these problems are irreducible and irreducibly interconnected, e.g. one can’t solve the quaternary protein structure problem without knowing when and where such a protein is needed, or how one is going to attain the energy to form it. There are so many interconnected and irreducible logistical problems that must be solved to produce a stable self-replicating entity that discretizing them to find a plausible way to explain their origin naturalistically is a pipe dream. See Origin of life: An explanation of what is needed for abiogenesis (or biopoiesis), Life’s irreducible structure—Part 1: autopoiesis and Life’s irreducible structure—Part 2: naturalistic objections for more information.

Scientist-synthesize-life-machine

Third, note their goal: “Creating such life in a test tube should go a long way toward removing the shroud of mystery over how it began naturally.” So, they think that by building a self-replicating entity in the lab they can demystify the origin of life? Wouldn’t that only prove that researchers can design a self-replicating entity? Think about it; if I know how to build a lawnmower from raw materials, does that in any way help me understand how a lawnmower could’ve arisen naturally? Of course not! Rather, it suggests that the lawnmower can’t arise naturally, or at the very least that the only causally adequate explanation we have for the origin of lawnmowers is design. See also Was life really created in a test tube? And does it disprove biblical creation?

In general, many alleged prebiotic simulation experiments feature illegitimate investigator interference. In particular, one can’t explain the first self-replicating entity by a process of natural or artificial selection, which is differential replication by definition.

And that’s the fundamental issue: we already have a causally adequate explanation for the origin of life: design. Naturalists, however, can’t accept it. Their assumption of methodological naturalism rules out design explanations in biology a priori (see The rules of the game and Historical science and miracles). This forces them to discretize the ‘problem’ they have made for themselves to try to find the holy grail: a cause-effect narrative for the origin of life they admit they cannot reconstruct.

The role of axioms or presuppositions

The most important thing to keep in mind when reading the OOL literature is that in dealing with the details of the OOL researchers’ studies, we must realize that they adopt a framework of explanation that rejects the Bible and design a priori. They are primed to read the significance of their studies in ways that we are not (and frankly, their presumptions in any other field would fly in the face of common sense). Fail to keep this in mind, and we will be misled into being troubled by their easy moves from a mildly favourable result for them in an experiment they designed regarding one artificially discretized part of the problem to a claim that ‘they’ve made a major advance in explaining how life could’ve arisen from non-life’.

Details matter, but not at the expense of ignoring the presuppositional abyss that separates us from OOL researchers. This is why we advise people to get off the ‘evidentialist rollercoaster’ and understand the crucial role of presuppositions in the origins debate. For more information, please see Facts and faith.

Those who ask us these sorts of questions also need to be mindful of their level of training. If they know they’re not yet equipped to keep these factors in mind when interacting with the secular literature, it’s not wise spiritual self-care to keep spending time in it. In such cases, they would be better served by walking away from the secular literature, at least for a time, and immersing themselves in the creationist literature first to develop the proper perspective we all need to address this literature. It’s just good management of one’s intellectual resources to be trained by those who can be trusted to care for one’s soul (or at least whose material is aimed at building creationists up, rather than tearing them down) before one engages the debates for oneself. Why? For the same reason that we don’t throw a three-year-old into the deep end of a pool to fend for themselves to train them to swim; they can’t yet handle it.

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Further Reading

References and notes

  1. Weissbuch, I., Illos, R.A., Bolbach, G., and Lahav, M., Racemic β-Sheets as Templates of Relevance to the Origin of Homochirality of Peptides: Lessons from Crystal Chemistry, Acc. Chem. Res. 42(8):1128–1140, 2009 | doi: 10.1021/ar900033k. Return to text.

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Readers’ comments
Lassi P., Finland, 13 September 2017

Indeed! My father was thrown to deep water by his grandmother when he was a kid resulting in him still being in no good terms with water. We should know our limits while we prepare ourselves for the world. Including the origin of life debate.

An insightful article.

C. L., United States, 12 September 2017

Hi Shaun,

I really appreciate this article. I'm taking Organic Chemistry and Biology for my biology major right now, and I've heard my Bio professor make a number of statements regarding life's origin that just don't seem to work, but he says it with such confidence that sometimes, I've wondered if there might be something to what he is saying. This is helpful to me in discerning fact from fiction.

Blessings!

John P., United Kingdom, 12 September 2017

Thank you, Shaun, for this article. As a Chemist who speaks on this subject, I can confirm the validity of your comments. The deeper one digs into the science, the greater the fallacy of their hypothesis. Of course, one thing is often overlooked: they NEVER talk about the origin of LIFE! I wonder why!

Philip M., Australia, 11 September 2017

I guess one of the first things to realise regarding 'abiogenesis' is that it is not a 'process'. There is no process out there in nature called 'abiogenesis'. The term 'abiogenesis' and 'process' should never be brought together in combination with each other.

Shaun Doyle responds

I completely agree with you that abiogenesis is not a 'process' we will actually find in nature. Still, if abiogenesis were true, it would clearly be a natural process. In that sense it's still meaningful to talk of abiogenesis as a process, even though it never happened.

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