- From the naturalists’ camp: chemist Lee Cronin (University of Glasgow, UK).
- From the skeptics’ camp: chemist James Tour (Rice University, USA).
Okay, origin of life research. Like in any other research, there should be no magic: garbage in — garbage out. Between 25:00 and 26:00 Lee said something like this: We found in a laboratory how chemicals can be steered towards decision making. (emphasis mine). This is already telling.
I am fine with experiments in a test tube. But as soon as naturalists need to explain something non-trivial like the alleged naturalistic emergence of decision making or information translation, they use imagination. Closer to the end of the debate, Cronin gives way to it: in 5 years’ time, he says, we will have the chemical basis of life in the lab and Jim Tour will be impressed.
In 5 years’ time, 10 years, one generation, 50 years. I have heard all this somewhere before… OOL researchers like AI folks, tend to overhype their abilities. Towards the end of the talk Tour sounded to me as if he had lost confidence in his own critique. He should not have. His skepticism is well justified.
Information translation, which is at the heart of what life is, is inexplicable just as a mere consequence of the motion of matter in the system without apriori organization. It is not a single physical process but an orchestrated sequence of processes where the orchestration is achieved by means of establishing symbolic boundary conditions to pursue formal function (pragmatic utility, computational halting). Nature even if you call it “a molybdate catalytic set” is incapable of achieving that. It could not care less what Cronin or any other researcher wants it to achieve. It does not pursue anything apart from minima of total potential energy. Nature does not choose. Formal function, in contrast, involves choice between degenerate states using formal criteria to maximize utility. Nature cannot do that. Agency can.
Let’s have a look at what Cronin spontaneously promised to achieve (he sort of corrected his claim later on regarding the deadlines). Okay, in 5 years’ time, Cronin claims to be able to demonstrate how inorganic substrate is turned into an organic whole (not necessarily a cell) that metabolizes and persists, i.e. organizes the reading and writing of a passive description of itself as well as a description of an interpreter for it. In other words, he promised to present a complete cycle of reproduction of a functional whole albeit not necessarily in cellular form.
Cronin: Random objects can create other random objects and be information-giving to those random objects they create.
This is nonsense if “information” is expected to mean more than Shannon information. A random process cannot generate information in any sense of this word relevant to biology. Biological evolution cannot select for a future function. And nobody is even sure if pre-biotic evolution exists. To expect evolution to create complex functions via random variation and selection is an illusion. What is incorrectly termed as ‘directed evolution’ (which is an oxymoron) is another matter. It is an artificially guided process which has nothing to do with evolution. In the context of biogical evolution, selection is always selection from among existing functions, not selection for a potential functional outcome. That is the trap Cronin and so many others are falling into.
The string 2ir47l2hed2jchdg%%vgde894894859—–^^^ has no meaning. To become meaningful this string needs a context. For example, in the context of an authentication system, it may be used as a password. The context comes first. The organization of an informational context cannot be observed anywhere in the universe apart from certain types of human artifacts and life, which is the explanandum. This strongly suggests that it requires planning and foresight, i.e. capacities of an agent.
Cronin is making the same mistake as everyone else does who fails to distinguish between rate-independent formal organization (symbolic boundary conditions), and the laws of nature that describe the dynamics of mass/energy gradients subject to those conditions. This flaw shows up when Cronin draws the wrong analogy between information generation in the cell and the law of gravity. These two are fundamentally different: one is a consequence of organization of a functioning system using the laws of nature, the other is just one of those laws of nature.
am not a chemist. I have only had a very quick look through one of his
papers about the properties of special synthetic supramolecular
complexes (polyoxometalates, POMs). Being a layman in chemistry, what I
could spot was the usage of the words “engineering” right up in the
title and “design” and its derivatives in the actual paper (34 times ;).
He claims that at a certain point in their complexity, these POMs
acquire the properties of self-templating and self-assembly. But even
so, it does not explain away the need for a designer behind all this
sophisticated chemical synthesis. Fine control is required throughout
the process. At key points, choices undoubtedly will have to be made steering the system state toward a prescribed goal
state. In the already existing living organisms such prescription is
available in the contents of DNA molecules. The trick is therefore to
demonstrate how a non-homogeneous inorganic system develops:
- From ‘no prescription/ no replication/ no metabolism’ to ‘prescription/ replication/ metabolism’ without intelligent guidance.
I doubt if it is possible in principle.
I have to say that in the debate Cronin does make a distinction between a “prescribing environment” and a “forgiving” one. He makes it clear that we have no right to expect from the environment to have the ability to prescribe anything. That is correct.
Tour made an interesting comment near the end of the debate. He said that a naturalistic explanation of how life arose, if there is one, will not affect his faith in God in the least. God is the Creator of everything and consequently of matter. Cronin agreed that it could be possible that science and religion were two non-overlapping areas of inquiry (see NOMA).
Let’s wait for 5 years.
What I wrote is by no means a criticism of all Cronin’s work. Of course not. I just have doubts as to whether he, — at any point, not just in 5 years’ time, — will be able to account for life as chemistry that organizes itself without prior foresight, planning and decision making. I like his enthusiasm. But, for some reason, I am not holding my breath. >>
Food for thought. where, if after about 100 years since Oparin, this is where we are, it’s not looking good for blind watchmaker thesis OoL theorising and experimentation. END