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At Evolution News: Origin of the First Self-Replicating Molecules


Walter Bradley and Casey Luskin write:

In an undergraduate seminar taught by Stanley Miller that I (Casey Luskin) took as a student at the University of California, San Diego, Dr. Miller taught us that “making compounds and making life are two different things.”1 Many variants of Stanley Miller’s experimental setup have been used in attempting to demonstrate the conversion of energy-rich, gaseous-phase chemicals into amino acids and other biomolecular monomers. But this is not nearly sufficient to generate life. Any origin-of-life explanation must include plausible biochemical paths from individual bio-building blocks like amino acids or nucleic acids to functional polymers such as proteins and DNA. The origin-of-life explanation must also include ways to speed up chemical reactions that are naturally slow. In living cells, long chains of amino acids fold up into 3-D structures that allow them to function as enzymes that greatly accelerate chemical reactions.

Image: RNA, via Illustra Media’s documentary Origin.

More importantly, any origin-of-life model must account for the very particular sequencing of the molecules — i.e., the ordering of amino acids in proteins and nucleotide bases in RNA and DNA that allows them to function properly. This means explaining a crucial aspect of life: the origin of its information, or what proponents of intelligent design (ID) call the “information sequence problem.” 

The Most Popular Proposal 

For some theorists, the origin of life is defined as the natural origin of a self-replicating system capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution.2 The most popular proposal for the first self-replicating molecule is RNA — where life was first based upon RNA carrying both genetic information (akin to modern DNA) and performing catalytic functions (akin to modern enyzmes), in what is termed the RNA world. Before we delve deeply into that, it is instructive to use the proceedings of a conference organized by the International Society for the Study of the Origin of Life (ISSOL) at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1986 to measure the progress that has been made in origin-of-life research from 1952-1986. 

I (Walter Bradley) attended this conference and watched one of the plenary sessions devoted to a spirited debate between scientists who believed that the first life was made of DNA (“DNA-first”) and those who believed that the first biomolecules were proteins (“protein-first”). Neither group had yet been able to synthesize under plausible conditions either protein or DNA. Proteins can act as a chemical catalyst. DNA is the repository of information that is used to make functional protein. One of the outcomes from the conference was the sense that neither protein-first nor DNA-first were promising pathways to explaining the origin of life.

At the concluding plenary session, leading origin-of-life researcher Robert Shapiro addressed the RNA world and traced citations in the biochemical literature of the synthesis of RNA molecules under conditions thought to represent the early Earth conditions. The results were shocking. He cited a 1986 paper indicating RNA synthesis under prebiotic conditions had been demonstrated repeatedly, citing a 1985 paper and alluding to others. But that 1985 paper did not present original work — rather, it cited a 1984 paper and went all the way back to 1968 without any original work cited. A close reading of the 1968 paper indicated that the authors thought that they might have synthesized RNA molecules under prebiotic conditions but had not actually found any. 

Five Huge Barriers

Shapiro’s talk subsequently presented five huge barriers to this biochemical pathway from prebiotic chemistry to the first living systems. At the end of his dramatic presentation, the room of most of the world’s most active origin-of-life researchers fell silent. The chair of the session, who was also the editor of the premiere journal Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres, repeatedly invited questions from the stunned audience. It was the only time in my (Walter Bradley) professional lifetime that I attended a plenary session of scientists and engineers where there were no questions. The chair closed the session without any questions offered, and he closed with the comment, “Robert, do you have to be so pessimistic?” Robert did not reply, but might have said he was letting the data do the talking, and the data told a very pessimistic story. 

History has confirmed Shapiro’s pessimism. Despite these difficulties, to this day, the RNA world remains the most popular model for the origin of life. But there are major problems with the RNA world hypothesis and claims that a self-replicating RNA molecule appeared by pure chance. 

First, RNA has not been shown to assemble in a laboratory without the help of a skilled chemist intelligently guiding the process. Origin-of-life theorist Steven Benner explained that a major obstacle to the natural production of RNA is that “RNA requires water to function, but RNA cannot emerge in water, and does not persist in water without repair” due to water’s “rapid and irreversible” corrosive effects upon RNA.3 In this “water paradox,” Benner explains that “life seems to need a substance (water) that is inherently toxic to polymers (e.g., RNA) necessary for life.”4

A Second Problem

Today, RNA is capable of carrying genetic information, but RNA world advocates claim that in the past, it also fulfilled the kinds of catalytic roles that enzymes perform today. A second problem with the RNA world is that RNA molecules do not exhibit many of the properties that allow proteins to serve as worker molecules in the cell. While RNA has been shown to perform a few roles, there is no evidence that it could perform all necessary cellular functions.8 As one paper put it, proteins are “one million times fitter than RNA as catalysts” and “[t]he catalytic repertoire of RNA is too limited.”9

The Origin of Information

The most fundamental problem with the RNA world hypothesis is its inability to explain the origin of information in the first self-replicating RNA molecule — which experts suggest would have had to be at least 100 nucleotides long, if not between 200 and 300 nucleotides in length.10 How did the nucleotide bases in RNA become properly ordered to produce life? There are no known chemical or physical laws that can do this. To explain the ordering of nucleotides in the first self-replicating RNA molecule, origin-of-life theorists have no explanation other than blind chance. As noted, ID theorists call this obstacle the information sequence problem, but multiple mainstream theorists have also observed the great unlikelihood of naturally producing a precise RNA sequence required for replication.

Elsewhere, Shapiro notes, “The sudden appearance of a large self-copying molecule such as RNA was exceedingly improbable” with a probability that “is so vanishingly small that its happening even once anywhere in the visible universe would count as a piece of exceptional good luck.”12 A 2020 paper in Scientific Reports similarly notes, “Abiotic emergence of ordered information stored in the form of RNA is an important unresolved problem concerning the origin of life” because “the formation of such a long polymer having a correct nucleotide sequence by random reactions seems statistically unlikely.”13

This suggest a grave theoretical difficulty where RNA world theorists are faced with a “chemical theory that makes destruction, not biology, the natural outcome.”15

An Intractable Problem

The paper in Scientific Reports proposed a solution to these quandaries that showed just how intractable this problem is: It concluded that because the formation of a single self-replicating RNA molecule is prohibitively unlikely in the observable universe, and therefore the universe must be far larger than we observe — an “inflationary universe” that increases the probabilistic resources until such an unlikely event becomes likely. This is just like the materialist response to the fine-tuning of physics: When the observed specificity of nature appears to indicate design, they invent multiverses to overcome probabilistic difficulties. When RNA world theorists are appealing to the origin-of-life’s version of the multiverse to avoid falsification, it’s clear that their project has fatal problems. 


  1. Statements made by Stanley Miller at a talk given by him for a UCSD Origins of Life seminar class on January 19, 1999 (the talk was attended and notated by the author of this article).
  2. Steven A. Benner, “Paradoxes in the Origin of Life,” Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres 44 (2014), 339-343.
  3. Benner, “Paradoxes in the Origin of Life.”
  4. Benner, “Paradoxes in the Origin of Life.”
  5. Robert Shapiro, quoted in Richard Van Noorden, “RNA world easier to make,” Nature News (May 13, 2009), http://www.nature.com/news/2009/090513/full/news.2009.471.html (accessed November 18, 2020).
  6. James Tour, “Are Present Proposals on Chemical Evolutionary Mechanisms Accurately Pointing Toward First Life?,” Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique, eds. Edited by J.P. Moreland, Stephen C. Meyer, Christopher Shaw, Ann K. Gauger, and Wayne Grudem (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 165-191.
  7. Michael P. Robertson and Gerald F. Joyce, “The Origins of the RNA World,” Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Biology 4 (May 2012), a003608.
  8. See Stephen C. Meyer, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 304.
  9. Harold S Bernhardt, “The RNA world hypothesis: the worst theory of the early evolution of life (except for all the others),” Biology Direct 7 (2012), 23.
  10. Jack W. Szostak, David P. Bartel, and P. Luigi Luisi, “Synthesizing Life,” Nature, 409 (January 18, 2001), 387-390; Tomonori Totani, “Emergence of life in an inflationary universe,” Scientific Reports 10 (2020), 1671.
  11. Robert Shapiro, “A Replicator Was Not Involved in the Origin of Life,” IUBMB Life 49 (2000), 173-176.
  12. Robert Shapiro, “A Simpler Origin for Life,” Scientific American (June 2007), 46-53.
  13. Totani, “Emergence of life in an inflationary universe.”
  14. Benner, “Paradoxes in the Origin of Life.”
  15. Benner, “Paradoxes in the Origin of Life.”

Full article at Evolution News.

Ah, Robert Shapiro! A really nice, self-effacing guy. I never met him but had some email exchanges with him back in 2005 (mainly about his review of Darwin's Black Box being misrepresented as favourable to ID). It's true he was skeptical of RNA world as he makes clear in his last book, Planetary Dreams. I was rereading it recently and it has not dated well in one aspect, space exploration. We could be getting a second data point in the not-too-distant future. Alan Fox
Latemarch at 6, Socklitron? Never heard of it. In any case, I have now acquired an additional, higher capacity multiple sock launcher, with a self-loading feature. relatd
Relatd @5 Ah, a socklitron Latemarch
Seversky at 4, I should warn you that I've acquired a multiple sock launcher. Don't make me use it. relatd
Invented it out of what? Pre-existing physics/chemistry/information? Seversky
Seversky at 2, He invented it. relatd
Where did God get the original recipe from? Seversky
"But there are major problems with the RNA world hypothesis and claims that a self-replicating RNA molecule appeared by pure chance." I just got my box of "RNA World" cake mix. Included in the directions is this line: "Will only work by pure chance." I'm still waiting. I knew I should have gotten the "Simpler Origin of Life Cake Mix." :) relatd

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