Atheism Origin Of Life

Interpreting the Origin of Life & Intelligent Design

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Imagine for a moment that someone claims to you that the Origin of Life was an incredibly unlikely event. So unlikely, in fact, that the fact that it happened even once in the entire universe is itself quite a feat. What position would you expect that person to be taking?

Sounds like Intelligent Design proponent talk, doesn’t it? So let’s take a look at the brief thoughts by and statement of Jacques Monod…

From the Wikipedia entry for him:

He was also a proponent of the view that life on earth arose by freak chemical accident and was unlikely to be duplicated even in the vast universe. “Man at last knows he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe, out of which he has emerged only by chance,” he wrote in 1971. He used this bleak assessment as a springboard to argue for atheism and the absurdity and pointlessness of existence.

Of course, nowadays some scientists claim to be more optimistic about the origin of life. Rather than an unfathomably rare freak chemical accident, it may be an expected, more common result of time, fine-tuning, nature and law. Why, life – microbial life, at least – may even be common throughout the universe. And intelligent life? Possibly common enough to worry Stephen Hawking about an invasion.

Now, I won’t get into the greater debate of whether and to what degree this modern optimism is unfounded and forced. Instead, I’ll just note that once upon a time a prominent atheist considered the (then-considered) dramatically unlikely origin of life to be a support for atheism – that we’re a freak accident, singular… and thus this is evidence there is no God overseeing things. And now that the popular speculation is that the origin of life is more likely, and that intelligent life may be vastly more common than Monod ever thought, this change of science is taken as… well. A support for atheism. Now we’re nothing special, all too common, a dull outcome. Even, according to some (Hawking again, I believe), a bit of chemical scum on an otherwise uninteresting planet.

I bring all this up to make a pretty mundane point. Despite the assumptions changing drastically, the conclusions remained the same between Monod and many modern design critics. Yet a number of ID proponents set out to show how dramatically unlikely any origin of life event (sans a designer’s influence and intervention, of course) is, seemingly with the hope that if they establish this unlikelihood they’ll go a long way towards convincing people that the Origin of Life was designed. But, if the reports are accurate, Monod believed the Origin of Life was dramatically unlikely – and opted for a non-design response anyway. Francis Crick, having a similar belief about the Origin of Life at one point, opted for a kind of quasi-intelligent design in the form of Directed Panspermia (with, presumably, the origin of the life of directors being unexplained).

This serves to illustrate one limitation of the greater ID project. If the apparent radical unlikelihood of an origin of life event not actively orchestrated by an intelligence can be swallowed the way it was in the past – if the response was simply to shrug and say, ‘That just shows atheism is correct. What a completely freak accident.’ – then really, what can’t be? Note that I’m not at all saying Monod or Crick’s replies were intellectually reasonable or very defensible. Assume that they weren’t for the sake of argument, and it just goes to show how quickly reasonableness can be dispensed with. Even if it’s granted that neo-darwinian processes are tremendously unlikely to have produced what we see in the natural world, even if it’s granted that our universe exhibits some kind of tremendous fine-tuning, even if you grant arguably the whole suite of ID claims with regards to the probablistic resources of this or that coming into being without an intelligent agent’s direct intervention, you still can have – and I suspect, would often get – the Monod response. Arms crossed over chest and a stern, “Freak accidents. Chance did it.” I’d also note that an individual atheist claiming ‘well, Monod may say that – but I wouldn’t!’ doesn’t do much to affect my point here, since that would be a statement of individual psychology. I’m speaking to possibility here.

This isn’t at all to suggest that the ID project can’t be or isn’t successful – far from it. But it helps to appreciate the live possibilities when it comes to how people reason. If nothing else, Monod and (to a degree) Crick provide historical case studies in how people committed to a belief that the universe or life or what-have-you were not designed react when they even concede that the odds of such a thing taking place without design are vanishingly small.

37 Replies to “Interpreting the Origin of Life & Intelligent Design

  1. 1
    Jello says:

    It’s human nature, doesn’t make any difference on which side of the divide you happen to inhabit.

    William Lane Craig has said something to the effect that even if he could be shown that the claims of the bible are entirely false he would still continue to believe.

  2. 2
    nullasalus says:

    If I recall, Craig’s statement wasn’t quite that strong. He said that he believes one can rationally continue to believe even in the face of arguments a person has no answer for, and he bases that on something like the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit.

    I’m not suggesting that there are no theist equivalents. But this prompts practical considerations for an Intelligent Design proponent (particularly anyone who views ID as having apologetic value), and repercussions for greater pseudo-scientific claims (like Weinberg style statements that he sees no design in nature the more he studies physics, or claims that evolution itself is clearly not a product or tool of design, etc.)

  3. 3
    tjguy says:

    I think it shows that we all have a bias, even scientists.

  4. 4
    Neil Rickert says:

    Imagine for a moment that someone claims to you that the Origin of Life was an incredibly unlikely event. So unlikely, in fact, that the fact that it happened even once in the entire universe is itself quite a feat. What position would you expect that person to be taking?

    That actually seems to be a fairly common view, so I’m not sure you could reach any conclusions about the person’s position.

    Well, maybe you could. It is probably not an ID proponent or creationist, for they would not concede that it could have happened even once, except by some kind of intervention.

  5. 5
    ScottAndrews2 says:

    Imagine for a moment that someone claims to you that the Origin of Life was an incredibly unlikely event. So unlikely, in fact, that the fact that it happened even once in the entire universe is itself quite a feat. What position would you expect that person to be taking?

    Given the available data, namely that we are aware of a single “instance” of life and cannot demonstrate either abiogenesis or design, I’d say the person is making a wild guess. There’s no information to lead to such a conclusion.

  6. 6
    nullasalus says:

    It is probably not an ID proponent or creationist, for they would not concede that it could have happened even once, except by some kind of intervention.

    That seems flat out incorrect. The typical ID position isn’t that a non-directly-orchestrated OoL is dead impossible. It’s that it’s incredibly, phenomenally unlikely to occur. Even if the odds make it radically unlikely to take place given the entire probablistic resources of the universe, that doesn’t bar someone from saying, like Monod did, ‘Well, it happened once anyway. Freak accident.’

  7. 7
    nullasalus says:

    Monod and Crick both thought that the available data was such that they could start making reasonable, if rough, guesses about the odds of the Origin of Life taking place given such and such conditions and processes along with their then-knowledge of what would be required of an origin of life. I’m not sure that’s properly called a wild guess. Maybe a view based on incomplete data.

  8. 8
    David W. Gibson says:

    I would have to say a single known instance is almost, but not quite, as incomplete as it’s possible for data to get.

    I have read numerous other speculations to the effect that life sort of as we know it is a chemical inevitability given the right conditions. So more data would definitely be helpful. I’m hoping we will eventually learn something from analysis of other potential water-worlds as our observational technology improves.

    And it’s always possible that something worth calling “alive” may exist on Europa, Titan, Enceladus, etc.

    What argues against our single known instance being no more than a wild guess is the probable time required for life to appear after conditions permitted. Given our nearly-opaque window into those early times, life seems to have arisen just about as soon as was possible. What took time was eukaryotic cells. THAT may have been the extraordinarly unlikely event.

  9. 9
    nullasalus says:

    The point I’m highlighting is that, if you take Monod’s words at face value, he A) was personally convinced that the Origin of Life was ridiculously unlikely, and B) this fact is what he relied on as a support for atheism. Now, you have people who A) personally think there’s good reason to believe (ignore whether they are right to believe that for now) that the Origin of Life is actually quite reasonable to expect, and B) this fact is relied on as a support for atheism. Despite these both going off in different directions on the basic underlying assumption.

  10. 10
    simplyscottish says:

    I think the conclusion to this post hits it on the nail. No amount of evidence can change someone’s worldview if they are unwilling to change it. When it comes to origins of life, every theory requires faith. It boils down to directed or undirected. If you are not open to both, then there’s only one answer, regardless of the evidence. It’s just that one possibility is accurate and one is not. You have to be sure before you commit your life to it.

  11. 11
    David W. Gibson says:

    Which might lead to the reasonable conclusion that we’re not dealing with any sort of religious issue here at all, but rather with a matter of chemistry, available energy sources, and natural feedback processes.

    I just don’t see how any sort of religious conclusion can be derived from any of this. I would suppose an atheist would regard the sunrise as an indication that no gods are required, while his neighbor might regard the sunrise as a direct illustration of the glory of God. And you can substitute any conceivable phenomenon for “sunrise” without changing the convictions of either one!

  12. 12
    nullasalus says:

    Which might lead to the reasonable conclusion that we’re not dealing with any sort of religious issue here at all, but rather with a matter of chemistry, available energy sources, and natural feedback processes.

    What religious issue are you referring to? All I’ve done here is point out the similarity in conclusions Monod and some contemporary atheists reached, working off of opposite starting points. I’ve also noted how this impacts Intelligent Design proponents insofar as convincing people of design goes in a practical sense, since a common theme is to establish something that both Crick and Monod apparently accepted.

  13. 13
    David W. Gibson says:

    I don’t understand why atheism has anything to do with the origin of life, which seems to be a matter of chemistry. I don’t understand why “odds” is a concern at all – it sounds much more like a process. This process sounds inevitable given the nature of chemistry under the most reasonable reconstruction of the circumstances. Whether or not that process would always generate life-as-we-know-it given enough time, who can say?

    We know that extraordinarily unlikely events not only happen, but are much more the rule than the exception. The probability of each our births, every one of us, is infinitesimal. The number of independent variables conspiring to produce every individual event, out of the infinity of equally possible events that did NOT happen in each and every case, makes life (and indeed all of reality) hopelessly contingent – to the point where it’s almost unavoidable to start attributing everything to fate, kismet, divine guidance, or whatnot.

    Selecting ONE event seems almost silly. How could I compare, for example, the series of astoundingly unlikely coincidences that led up to me meeting my wife, with the series of undoubtedly equally astoundingly unlikely coincidences that resulted in life originating? Why bother to try? If we find life wherever it’s possible for life to exist, someday if we explore the greater universe, that doesn’t make any particular instance of life less unlikely, it’s more similar to someone sooner or later winning every lottery jackpot. Amazingly unlikely considered as individuals, pretty much unavoidable considered as a process.

  14. 14
    David W. Gibson says:

    I don’t think any amount of evidence is particularly relevant here. Let’s say I flip a coin. No matter which way it comes up, I could claim the result is “natural” or I could claim the result is “intelligently guided”. No number of coin flips, no matter how closely examined the process, really addresses this issue. What WOULD count as evidence, to determine whether or not the coin flip was guided by means that are by definition indetectable? Doesn’t that mean that relevant evidence is by definition unavailable?

    Maybe one answer is correct and the other is wrong, but if we presume as a matter of policy that this determination cannot be made, being certain one way or the other cannot be based on evidence. It can only be based on preference, emotional comfort level, against a background of life experiences. Ultimately, what “feels right” to us.

  15. 15
    Clive Hayden says:

    David W. Gibson,

    We know that extraordinarily unlikely events not only happen, but are much more the rule than the exception.

    Then what is the exception to your rule, that ordinary events are likely or unlikely? But then, if ordinary events are then unlikely, given that they are not the rule, and unlikely events are the rule at the same time, then unlikely and ordinary events are the rule, and I don’t see a possibility of any exception, which leaves your estimation of likeliness and what constitutes the rule and its exception as being totally vacuous.

  16. 16
    nullasalus says:

    I actually sympathize with where I think you’re coming from here, at least in part. I don’t think it’s anywhere close to being as cut and dry as you put it. For instance, you say…

    Maybe one answer is correct and the other is wrong, but if we presume as a matter of policy that this determination cannot be made, being certain one way or the other cannot be based on evidence.

    Well, there’s a few replies to that, and here’s just two. The first reply is the Intelligent Design reply, where you have guys – some very smart – who make strong arguments that there are certain standards you can have to at least positively infer, if not negatively infer, the presence of design in a given artifact (regardless of what we know about its immediate history). You may not be 100% certain, but you can have a very reasonable guess given the data.

    The second reply is the atheist reply, where you have guys – again, some very smart – who make (I won’t say strong, I disagree with ’em) arguments that you can infer the lack of design in those same artifacts. And in some ways the stipulation applies there too.

    Here’s the problem. Those second guys? They happen to be mainstream. I can name quite a number of scientists who will out and out say “There’s no design at all”, hands down. They equate “natural explanation” for “explanation which eliminates design”. Not “is silent on design”, but “eliminates”, for all practical purposes.

    If the mainstream position was that science yields zero input on the question of design – if it was “science has nothing to say about the presence or lack of teleology in nature”, or “science is incapable of saying if man was or was not created intentionally, even if through an evolutionary process”, and if there was evenhanded treatment on violations of that question, there wouldn’t be much for me to talk about. Not in this thread, anyway.

    And what I hoped to do with this post was expose a problem with the reasoning. I’m not the one who inferred atheism from a radically unlikely origin of life or a very likely origin of life. That would be Monod and various contemporaries. And if you think that’s poor reasoning, then your problem is – first and foremost – with Monod and those contemporaries. Me? I did little more than draw attention to ’em.

  17. 17
    Eocene says:

    David W. Gibson

    ‘We know that extraordinarily unlikely events not only happen, but are much more the rule than the exception.’


    Clive Haydon:

    “Then what is the exception to your rule, that ordinary events are likely or unlikely? But then, if ordinary events are then unlikely, given that they are not the rule, and unlikely events are the rule at the same time, then unlikely and ordinary events are the rule, and I don’t see a possibility of any exception, which leaves your estimation of likeliness and what constitutes the rule and its exception as being totally vacuous.”

    Of course then we have the example of Dr Gerald Joyce, who rigs up an experiment that rather than illustrate to us all just how ‘extraordinarily unlikely events not only happen, but are much more the rule than the exception’ , proceeds to use his own manipulative intelligent designing fingerprints along with multiple other Lab Coats and smoke screens a cheating experiment which proves only that it takes I.D. as opposed to those magical blind undirected forces having unlikely sex with chemcials to accomplish the wonders of nature. But yet he then proceeds to insist he’s proved evolution to be a fact!

  18. 18

    I agree with you about one thing, nullasalus: I don’t think atheism has anything to do with theories about the origin of life. Nor does theism. Both views are compatible with just about any scientific theory you care to name.

    But I think your initial premise is fallacious. There is no way of knowing whether a one-off event was “improbable” or not.

    There are two ways of thinking of probability. Once is as a frequency distribution (“frequentist”). You cannot compute a frequency distribution for a unique event, so you cannot compute its (frequentist) probability.

    The other is as a measure of uncertainty, given what you know (“Bayesian”). As this measure depends on what you know, it is always provisional. In Monod’s day, “given” what he knew, spontaneous generation of life from non-life seemed to be “low probability”. Given what we know now, the probability seems much higher, and some even think we will achieve it in the lab within the next few decades. Given what we may know in the future, this probability may again be revised downwards.

    This is the problem at the heart of all “CSI” based arguments. The Universal Probability Bound is irrelevant unless you have some way of computing the probability of the event you postulate may exceed it.

  19. 19
    nullasalus says:

    That’s nice, but I’ll be frank: I have a low opinion of your intellectual honesty, and for that and a number of other reasons, I have zero interest in any back and forth with you on these subjects. In passing, no, that was not my “initial premise”, because at no point did I engage in any evaluation or endorsement of any probability arguments – it wasn’t necessary. Your argument is with, among others, Monod. Likewise, I did not say that “atheism or theism has nothing do with theories about the origin of life”. That’s yet another instance of you pulling ‘agreement’ out of la-la land.

    Waste others’ time. Mine’s more limited lately.

  20. 20
  21. 21
    Eocene says:


    ‘Waste others’ time. Mine’s more limited lately.’

    Liz Liddle:


    Okay everyone, Let’s Take A Break Time Out!

    My wife and I saw this last weekend on TMC. I miss some things about those days. Guess it illustrates how old I am!



  22. 22


    Yes I need a break, but I’ve never been good at goodbyes 🙂

    Bless you.

  23. 23
    Eocene says:

    Liz Liddle:


    Yes I need a break, but I’ve never been good at goodbyes 🙂

    Bless you.”

    Well if you thought that was kool, try this for racking your brain.


  24. 24
    Eugene S says:

    “I don’t understand why atheism has anything to do with the origin of life, which seems to be a matter of chemistry.”

    Niels Bohr, “Light and Life”:

    “Life, or more precisely, the functions peculiar to life, cannot be explained by means of physics and chemistry alone”.

    Details, see here.

  25. 25

    Well, I think Neils Bohr was probably wrong (key discoveries have been made since), but even if he was wrong, it wouldn’t make atheism true, and if he was (fortuitously) right, it wouldn’t make theism true.

    Scientific methodology can falsify specific theistic claims, and it can also supply natural explanations for phenomena hitherto ascribed to supernatural intervention. But it cannot verify or falsify theism.

  26. 26
    kairosfocus says:

    Dr Liddle,

    you — as per usual — leave off two key approaches, those of thermodynamics and sampling theory, both of which happen to be highly relevant. A good first read is Abel on the universal plausibility bound. (This from my always linked, may also help.)

    I strongly suggest this as good reading for your proposed break, then come back to us with a considered response, and things can be taken from there.

    GEM of TKI

  27. 27
    kairosfocus says:

    F/N: My 101 level thoughts on why as we move into the 2nd decade of C21, OOL research on the evolutionary materialistic paradigm — whistle by the graveyard quips notwithstanding — becomes ever more deeply challenged by the facts on the ground. KF

  28. 28
    kairosfocus says:

    F/N 2: The recent exchange between Orgel and Shapiro [cf here on] on why that increasing conundrum of OOL research on evo mat is so . . .:


    >> [[Shapiro:] RNA’s building blocks, nucleotides contain a sugar, a phosphate and one of four nitrogen-containing bases as sub-subunits. Thus, each RNA nucleotide contains 9 or 10 carbon atoms, numerous nitrogen and oxygen atoms and the phosphate group, all connected in a precise three-dimensional pattern . . . . [[S]ome writers have presumed that all of life’s building could be formed with ease in Miller-type experiments and were present in meteorites and other extraterrestrial bodies. This is not the case.

    A careful examination of the results of the analysis of several meteorites led the scientists who conducted the work to a different conclusion: inanimate nature has a bias toward the formation of molecules made of fewer rather than greater numbers of carbon atoms, and thus shows no partiality in favor of creating the building blocks of our kind of life . . . .

    To rescue the RNA-first concept from this otherwise lethal defect, its advocates have created a discipline called prebiotic synthesis. They have attempted to show that RNA and its components can be prepared in their laboratories in a sequence of carefully controlled reactions, normally carried out in water at temperatures observed on Earth . . . .

    Unfortunately, neither chemists nor laboratories were present on the early Earth to produce RNA . . .

    [[Orgel:] If complex cycles analogous to metabolic cycles could have operated on the primitive Earth, before the appearance of enzymes or other informational polymers, many of the obstacles to the construction of a plausible scenario for the origin of life would disappear . . . .

    It must be recognized that assessment of the feasibility of any particular proposed prebiotic cycle must depend on arguments about chemical plausibility, rather than on a decision about logical possibility . . . few would believe that any assembly of minerals on the primitive Earth is likely to have promoted these syntheses in significant yield . . . . Why should one believe that an ensemble of minerals that are capable of catalyzing each of the many steps of [[for instance] the reverse citric acid cycle was present anywhere on the primitive Earth [[8], or that the cycle mysteriously organized itself topographically on a metal sulfide surface [[6]? . . . Theories of the origin of life based on metabolic cycles cannot be justified by the inadequacy of competing theories: they must stand on their own . . . .

    The prebiotic syntheses that have been investigated experimentally almost always lead to the formation of complex mixtures. Proposed polymer replication schemes are unlikely to succeed except with reasonably pure input monomers. No solution of the origin-of-life problem will be possible until the gap between the two kinds of chemistry is closed. Simplification of product mixtures through the self-organization of organic reaction sequences, whether cyclic or not, would help enormously, as would the discovery of very simple replicating polymers. However, solutions offered by supporters of geneticist or metabolist scenarios that are dependent on “if pigs could fly” hypothetical chemistry are unlikely to help. [[Emphases added.] >>


    Of course, as can be surmised from absence of scare headlines and triumphant Nobel Prizes, this mutal ruin of the metabolism and genes first schools of thought has got no better in the past three or so years.

    GEM of TKI

  29. 29

    Thank you kf, but I have read that before. It says plenty about probability bounds, but nothing about how you estimate the probability of the thing you want to check against those bounds.

    So I’ll take my break when I log off now, and maybe drop by in a couple of months 🙂

    All the best


  30. 30
    Eugene S says:

    Bohr’s statement looks even more convincing now than it did when he made it. Claims like the one that the earth is flat originate from ignorance, not from theism. Science is not independent of philosophical frameworks. Those who believe that there is such a thing as “pure science” are in a delusion.

  31. 31
    Eugene S says:

    By fluke or not by fluke, that is the question. Necessitarian claims are essentially fluke claims because necessity can also be understood in probabilistic terms.

  32. 32
    kairosfocus says:

    Dr Liddle:

    Pardon, but you have not read with due attention if you read Abel as speaking about probability. He is speaking about plausibility, in the context of the challenge of sampling a space of possibilities.

    Surely, you are familiar with the result, often highlighted here at UD, that a small but significant blind sample of a large population will reflect on the whole the BULK of the distribution, so that unusual and deeply isolated states will be maximally implausible to show up?

    Is this not the heart of a lot of hypothesis testing of the null vs alternative variety? [As in if E could be from the BULK of B or the tiny skirt from A, pick B.]

    In that context, no great effort to characterise details of population or probabilites is required. All that is needed is a good reason to see that we are dealing with the sort of narrow scope zone that is sufficiently isolated to be implausible on a solar system or observed cosmos scale blind search.

    In that context to insist on a probability distribution, is to play at the red herring led out to a strawman game, pardon directness.

    And, in the context we are dealing with, functionally specific complex organisation of elements, with a high functionally specific information content, is something that defines just such a narrow zone on very objective and easy to see grounds. Such patterns are known, and ONLY known in light of direct observation to come from purposeful choice of intelligent agents. For instance, the text of this post, as a post of significant length using ASCII code in English.

    Say, the post is equivalent to 100,000 bits, or about 14,000 characters or 2,000 words.

    What would be the best explanation, why, of coming upon a string of 100,000 coins in no particular order? Then, seeing a second one with the ASCII code for this post?

    Every time you see a fairly lengthy coded string, that is the challenge you are facing. And of course 100,000 bits is about the observed lower limit for life forms with self-reproducing capacity. And that capacity, being a von neumann self-replicator, is based on symbolic coding, algorithms and implementing machinery co-oerdinated with these.

    That brings us right back to Paley’s discussion of the watch found int eh field that tells time AND replicates itself. His comment — anticipating Darwin et al — is that this should INCREASE our admiration of the evident art involved. (I therfore find it highly interesting that this part of Paley’s argument is so often missing when people trot out talking points on the wonderful powers conferred by self-replicating capacity. Just update this to include the vNSR, and see where this points.)

    GEM of TKI

  33. 33
    David W. Gibson says:

    I think we are thinking at different levels of abstraction. The probability of being dealt SOME bridge hand is unity. The probability of being dealt THIS bridge hand is very very small. Being dealt bridge hands is ordinary. Each particular hand is a rare event.

    Given how quickly life as we know it appeared after conditions made it feasible on earth, we might(and many do) consider the chance of SOME life arising as quite high. But the chance of our particular form of life might be like a specific bridge hand nonetheless.

    So we can often predict patterns but not details, much as insurance companies can calculate very accurately the number of policy holders who might die within the next year, while being completely unable to identify the doomed individuals.

    So we can predict that, for example, the human population will grow over the next decades. But we have no hope of identifying WHO will be born.

    I think this “level of abstraction” problem arises in ID fairly regularly. We can look at some organism and marvel at how astoundingly unlikely it is, without ever reflecting on the likelihood of SOME organism, the overwhelming majority of which never evolved. And if we ignore all the organisms that DID NOT happen, those that did look so unlikely that design seems unduly probable.

  34. 34
    kairosfocus says:

    The issue is clusters of outcomes, comparable to the microstate-macrostate distinction in thermodynamics. Certain clusters are far less tightly grouped than others, and the latter tend to be far more specific and informational. With card hands, there are a lot of ordinary hands, but very few hot hands. Next, look at a case where you have a cluster of hands that on the gamut of the observed cosmos is not likely to come up by chance once, but can be intelligently composed. Do you see now why FSCI is going to be a strong pointer to deliberate arrangement?

  35. 35
    Timaeus says:

    Elizabeth Liddle wrote:

    “Given what we know now, the probability seems much higher,”

    I presume that by “we” Elizabeth means molecular biologists and others who specialize in origin of life questions, since her area is neurological imaging or something of the sort, not origin of life research.

    I wonder what her source is for saying “the probability seems much higher.” Stephen Meyer has just published a lengthy book on origin of life theories, in which he reviews all the major theories on the table, and there is nothing that suggests that the researchers are anywhere close to being able to synthesize life from scratch in a lab. In fact, most of the researchers that he discusses have frankly confessed that origin of life research is proceeding at a snail’s pace.

    Regarding the possible production of life in the lab, the key word in Elizabeth’s projection is “spontaneous.” I do not know of many researchers who think that the spontaneous emergence of life from non-life is likely to occur in any lab within the next few decades. Most of the research I have read about involves much less ambitious scenarios, whereby the researchers supply, based on their human, engineering knowledge, part of what is needed, to see if things move toward life with a little help. They might, for example, try to get a limited bit of sub-life self-replication going by inserting complex molecules — molecules which are not thought to have existed in the original terrestrial ocean — which are likely to initiate such self-replication. But the spontaneous generation of life from non-life means that life has to emerge without any such help from an intelligent agent; it means that self-replicators must form from substances which are known or believed to have existed on the primitive earth — simple molecules such as carbon dioxide, water, oxygen, nitrogen, ammonia, methane, etc. I know of no probablistic calculations, “Bayesian” or otherwise, in which such an emergence seems to have a very high probability. Nor do I know of any research program currently going where the researcher just lets simple molecules slosh around in an ocean-mimicking solution, maybe jolting it with ultraviolet or electricity or heat now and then, and passively watches to see if life forms, or even if simple self-replicating molecules form. All the research programs I’ve read about involve some manner of investigator interference. If Elizabeth can describe any research which involves merely throwing together the raw stuff, providing likely energy sources, and then watching and waiting (which is all that is legitimate, if we are trying to duplicate an unintelligent origin of life on earth), she can provide the names of the investigators who are doing this research, and tell us where they are working.

    I do not see why the obvious fact that one does not have a frequency distribution for a unique event prevents a probablistic calculation. We do not have an *empirical* frequency distribution for the origin of life — of course. But just as, given a set of perfect dice, we could calculate the probability of throwing snake eyes even if no one on earth had ever thrown a pair of dice before, by employing the laws of physics, the geometry of the dice, etc., so it should be possible, by employing the laws of physics and chemistry, to calculate the odds of a living cell, or a protein, or a DNA molecule, forming within X years in a volume Y of a solution containing certain percentages of methane, ammonia, oxygen, water, etc., subjected to energies in range Q. The calculation would of course be fearsomely complicated, but hey, it is the origin of life people who are claiming that the event happened; they therefore aren’t in a position to shirk the calculation, but must do all that mathematical muscle work, if they hope to convince the world. If they can show that the probability of such a thing’s happening is 1/2, or even 1/10, they’ve made a pretty good case. But if it’s 1 in 10^100, they’re asking us to believe in the occurrence of an extremely unlikely event.

    Of course, Elizabeth herself cannot perform such a calculation, nor can any origin of life researcher currently living on the planet, even those with much more mathematical training than Elizabeth. But if you make a wildly improbable assertion, you have to expect that people are going to ask you for some numbers. And if you can’t supply the numbers, you have no one to blame but yourself, for making an assertion — that life on earth began spontaneously, with no need for any intelligent guidance — that you cannot support.

    The truly scientific attitude regarding the origin of life, at the moment, would be that we hardly have a clue how life could have begun if there was no intelligence involved. The appropriate way of conveying this in high school science textbooks would be: “Investigators into a hypothetical accidental initiation of life have made very little progress in specifying the stages by which life might have come into being.” (Not, as a textbook written by the NCSE would read: “Science has *not yet* shown how the first life arose from the spontaneous interaction of primitive chemicals.”)


  36. 36
    kairosfocus says:

    T, I think Orgel and Shapiro agree, cf. 12 below. KF

  37. 37
    material.infantacy says:

    IMO, one needn’t be able to calculate a realistic probability in order to show the intractability of an OOL scenario, but rather demonstrate that the probability is likely less than 10^-150. In other words, it doesn’t matter what a given OOL scenario’s probability is; it matters what side of the UPB it falls on.

    The simplest requirements, consisting of a few proteins and their equivalent DNA sequences, suffice to push any conceivable OOL scenario beyond the 10^150 partition, given generous assumptions. Subsequent consideration of additional requirements only serve to shove the event deeper into the probabilistic black hole.

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