Recently, someone asked whether, in a recent article at Mind Matters News, Fazale Rana means to say that “there are instructions baked into the laws of chemistry that would lead to the inevitable rise of life”:
The article concerned the use of AI to sift through masses of data:
Origin of life studies have been hampered by the fact that, most often, the researcher is identifying a single, comparatively simple idea, whether it is RNA world or hydrothermal vents, that is supposed to make all the difference. But nothing ties the researcher’s favored idea into the thousands of other factors is any systematic way.
Could Big Data, which can factor in millions of pieces of information, help? Rana tells us that the Polish Academy of Sciences has developed a computer algorithm called Alchemy that came up with some “rather intriguing results.News, “Has a computer algorithm discovered the secret of life?” at Mind Matters News
The results Rana is referring to: “In other words, there appear to be constraints on prebiotic chemistry that inevitably lead to the production of key biotic molecules with the just-right properties that make them unusually stable and ideally suited for life.”
AI detects patterns and the main question is, are they actual patterns or artifacts? In this case, they are probably actual patterns because they correspond to outcomes.
In principle, that doesn’t make the rise of life inevitable. But as with events in history, we may see patterns that help us understand. The don’t do any work, as such:
The Wotos et al. paper on the ALCHEMY algorithm was certainly written with a strong bias to encourage adoption of abiogenesis.
They completely brushed aside the reality of how “messy” origin-of-life chemistry rapidly becomes.
Starting with only 6 very simple molecules (arguably pre-biotic), their simulation produced, after only 7 generations of chemical reactions, 36603 different molecules that are not related to life and only 82 different molecules that are found in living organisms.
This ratio is far from encouraging. Origin-of-life chemists have the nasty habit of including only a few pure reagents in their solutions, then claiming victory when they produce something biotic. I’d like to see them place 36603 types of interfering molecules in their flask along with 82 desired biotic molecules, and then hope that the reaction produces something closer to life!
A similar result was found in the Murchison meteorite: it contained “tens of thousands of different molecular compositions, and likely millions of diverse structures,” which “suggests that the extraterrestrial chemodiversity is high compared to terrestrial relevant biological- and biogeochemical-driven chemical space” [Schmitt-Kopplin, P., et al., High molecular diversity of extraterrestrial organic matter in Murchison meteorite revealed forty years after its fall. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 2010. 107(7): 2763–2768.]
AI will probably provide evidence for design in nature but before it does, it will doubtless spike the origin of life hype market for a while.
See also: The Science Fictions series at your fingertips – origin of life What we do and don’t know about the origin of life.