The Andes mountains opened up on both sides of us as we drove on one July afternoon along a highway that links Quito, the capital of Ecuador, with the smaller town of Ambato almost three hours further south. The setting sun shone head-on upon two volcanic giants- Tungurahua and Cotopaxi with its snow covered peak just visible through the cordillera. I had traveled along this road many times in previous years and had been repeatedly awe-struck by the sheer beauty of the surrounding land. Today fields extend as far as the eye can see, with the lights of small communities and villages illuminating the mountain slopes.
Volcanoes that periodically eject dangerous lava flows are a rich source of soil nutrients for Ecuadorian farmers. Still, in the eyes of organic chemists such as Claudia Huber and Guenter Wachtershauser there exists a more pressing reason for studying the world’s ‘lava spewers’- one that has everything to do with the unguided manufacture of prebiotic compounds (1). Huber and Wachtershauser’s 2006 Science write-up on the synthesis of amino acids using potassium cyanide and carbon monoxide mixtures was heralded as groundbreaking primarily because of the ‘multiplicity of pathways’ through which biotic components could be made using these simple volcanic compounds (1).
Others have similarly weighed in with their own thoughts on volcanic origins (2-6). In the words of one notable Russian research team “the opportunity to define the pressure and temperature limits of [volcanic] microbiological activity as well as constrain its rate of evolution in a primordial environment is an exciting one, with implications for the origin of life on earth and existence of life elsewhere in the solar system” (3).
Whether it be Darwin’s warm little pond or contemporary speculations over life-seeding environments we see in both a search for continuity from the non-living to the living- a search that was exemplified in Walt Disney’s color and sound extravaganza Fantasia almost seventy years ago. Disney popularized origin of life theories by artistically proclaiming that volcanoes exploding and comets colliding were all that were needed to get life under way. According to such a portrayal the evolution of more complex multi-cellular forms would then naturally follow (7). Disney enthusiasts will no doubt find comfort in the decade-old New York Times prescription for a life-yielding brew:
“Drop a handful of fool’s gold (the mineral iron pyrites) and a sprinkle of nickel into water, stir in a strong whiff of rotten eggs (caused by the gas hydrogen sulfide) and carbon monoxide, heat mixture near the crackle and hiss of a volcano and let simmer for an eon.” (8)
Along a similar thread, journalist Tony Fitzpatrick cavalierly asserted that “conditions favorable for hydrocarbon synthesis also could be favorable for other life ingredients and complex organic polymers, leading…eventually to all sorts of cells and diverse organisms” (9). Of course skeptics of such depictions have their own armory of scientifically-valid reasons for denying that naturalistic earth models could have given us anything more than a geothermal sludge.
Perhaps the most persuasive of these comes from philosopher Stephen Meyer who in his most recent book Signature In The Cell supplied a mathematical treatise on the synthesis of bio-molecules (10). Following in the footsteps of fellow ID advocate William Dembski, Meyer has done us all a great service by showing how the chance assembly of a 150 amino-acid protein (1 in 10exp164) pales in front of the available probabilistic resources of our universe (10exp139 is the maximum number of events that could have occurred since the big bang) (10). In other words, we are stopped dead in our tracks by a probabilistic impasse of the highest order before we have even begun assessing the geological plausibility of competing origin of life scenarios.
The scientific method commits us to finding the best explanation for the phenomena we observe. Drawing from the opinions of NIH biologist Peter Mora, Meyer shows us how the chance hypothesis- that purports to explain how life arose without recourse to design or necessity- has been found wanting particularly in light of the ever-growing picture of the complexity of the cell (10). But the debate-clincher in Meyer’s expose comes from his comprehensive summarization of the bellyaches associated with chemist Stanley Miller’s controversial spark discharge apparatus (10).
Former colleagues of Miller concede that the highly reducing conditions he used in his experiments could not have been the mainstay of prebiotic earth (4). Nevertheless they further posit that localized atmospheric conditions around volcanic plums may have been reducing after all and that these could have given rise to life-seeding compounds (4). In their assessment:
“Even if the overall atmosphere was not reducing, localized prebiotic synthesis could have been effective. Reduced gases and lightning associated with volcanic eruptions in hot spots or island arc-type systems could have been prevalent on the early Earth before extensive continents formed. In these volcanic plumes, HCN, aldehydes, and ketones may have been produced, which, after washing out of the atmosphere, could have become involved in the synthesis of organic molecules. Amino acids formed in volcanic island systems could have accumulated in tidal areas, where they could be polymerized by carbonyl sulfide, a simple volcanic gas that has been shown to form peptides under mild conditions.” (4)
Of course with so many ‘could-haves’ and ‘may-haves’ such a picture leaves us sitting on a vacuous flow of speculation rather than on a substantive bedrock of firm evidence. For seasoned biologist David Deamer the realization of implausibility, at least for a direct volcanic origin, comes from his own direct observations:
“Deamer carried with him a version of the “primordial soup”- a mixture of compounds like those a meteorite could have delivered to the early Earth, including a fatty acid, amino acids, phosphate, glycerol, and the building blocks of nucleic acids. Finding a promising-looking boiling pool on the flanks of an active volcano, he poured the mixture in and then took samples from the pool at various intervals for analysis back in the lab at UCSC. The results were strikingly negative: life did not emerge, no membranes assembled themselves, and no amino acids combined into proteins. Instead, the added chemicals quickly vanished, mostly absorbed by clay particles in the pool. Instead of supporting life, the bubbling pool had snuffed it out before it began.” (6)
Not only has Meyer’s probabilistic analysis supplied us with the odds that end the discussion for ‘chance-philes’, but contemporary extravagations over prebiotic earth have done nothing to bolster their credibility. We are left with little choice but to discard chance as a serious contender in the ‘life origins’ debate.
1. Claudia Huber and Guenter Wachtersheuser (2006) a-Hydroxy and a-Amino Acids Under Possible Hadean, Volcanic Origin-of-Life Conditions, Science, Vol 314, pp. 630-632
2. A.J Teague, T.M Seward, A.P Gize, T. Hall (2005) The Organic Chemistry of Volcanoes: Case Studies at Cerro Negro, Nicaragua and Oldoinyo Lengai, Tanzania, American Geophysical Union, Fall Meeting 2005, abstract #B23D-04
3.John Eichelberger, Alexey Kiryukhin, and Adam Simon (2009) The Magma-Hydrothermal System at Mutnovsky Volcano, Kamchatka Peninsula, Russia, Scientific Drilling, No. 7, March , 2009, pp. 54-59
4. Adam Johnson, H. James Cleaves, Jason Dworkin, Daniel Glavin, Antonio Lazcano, Jeffrey L. Bada (2008) The Miller Volcanic Spark Discharge Experiment. Science 17 October 2008: Vol. 322, p. 404
5. David Grinspoon (2009) This Volcano Loves You, Denver Museum Of Nature & Science, COMMunity Blogs, See http://community.dmns.org/blogs/planetwaves/archive/2009/03/19/this-volcano-loves-you.aspx
6.Chandra Shekhar (2006) Chemist explores the membranous origins of the first living cell, UC Santa Cruz, Currents Online, See http://currents.ucsc.edu/05-06/04-03/deamer.asp
7.Fantasia, Walt Disney Home Video, Copyright by the Walt Disney Company, 1940
8. Nicholas Wade (1999) Evidence Backs Theory Linking Origins of Life to Volcanoes, New York Times, Friday, April 11, 1997
9.Tony Fitzpatrick (2000) Life’s origins: Researchers find intriguing possibility in volcanic gases, http://record.wustl.edu/archive/2000/04-20-00/articles/origins.html
10. Stephen Meyer (2009) Signature In The Cell: DNA And The Evidence For Intelligent Design, Harper Collins Publishers, New York, pp. 215-228