Recently we have been discussing Dr. Sewell’s thermodynamics-related paper/video on this thread. In addition to some excellent discussion on the Second Law, the question of abiogenesis has naturally arisen. Though related to the Second Law issue (by way of the compensation argument), I would like to move discussion of the abiogenesis question to this new thread, both so we can keep the other thread more focused on the Second Law, and also so we can have a more in-depth discussion here on this most fascinating topic of abiogenesis.
I find posts that go on for dozens of pages to be rather tedious. Notwithstanding my original intent, this post grew in length as I laid out the various points. In the spirit of the great statesmen of old: I apologize for the length. If I had had more time I would have made it shorter.
I. Asking the Right Questions
This topic of abiogenesis came up again on a different thread when AVS asserted that, given the Earth is an open system and receives energy from the Sun, “the generation of life was inevitable.” Several commenters picked up on this, and I underscored that receipt of energy from the Sun doesn’t get us anywhere near the origin of life:
The compensation argument in regards to OOL and evolution is nonsensical because (i) OOL and evolution are not primarily thermal problems, (ii) even to the extent that energy is needed for OOL and evolution, simply pouring energy into the system isn’t helpful; there needs to be a directing process to channel the energy in useful ways, and (iii) no-one doubts that there is plenty of energy available, whether it be lightning strikes, volcanic vents, the Sun, deep sea vents, or otherwise; energy (at least in terms of raw quantity) has never been the issue.
I have also offered this challenge on more than one occasion, including in the recent discussions:
I’m willing to grant you all the amino acids you want. I’ll even give them all to you in a non-racemic mixture. You want them all left-handed? No problem. I’ll also grant you the exact relative mixture of the specific amino acids you want (what percentage do you want of glycine, alanine, arganine, etc.?). I’ll further give you just the right concentration to encourage optimum reaction. I’m also willing to give you the most benign and hospitable environment you can possibly imagine for your fledgling structures to form (take your pick of the popular ideas: volcanic vents, hydrothermal pools, mud globules, tide pools, deep sea hydrothermal vents, cometary clouds in space . . . whichever environment you want). I’ll even throw in whatever type of energy source you want in true Goldilocks fashion: just the right amount to facilitate the chemical reactions; not too much to destroy the nascent formations. I’ll further spot you that all these critical conditions occur in the same location spatially. And at the same time temporally. Shoot, as a massive bonus I’ll even step in to prevent contaminating cross reactions. I’ll also miraculously make your fledgling chemical structures immune from their natural rate of breakdown so you can keep them around as long as you want.
Every single one of the foregoing items represents a huge challenge and a significant open question to the formation of life, but I’m willing to grant them all.
Now, with all these concessions, what do you think the next step is?
Go ahead, what is your theory about how life forms?
In fairness, AVS has since backed down and said that his comment was just a “thought experiment”. Later, when queried on the details, he further acknowledged that OOL is “not a simple feat” and “no simple task”. Eventually, when Upright BiPed pressed on the informational and organizational aspects, AVS accused him of “moving the goalposts” and complained that even if he provided a mechanism for OOL we would “just sneer” and dismiss it.
I don’t mean to pick on AVS in particular. We have seen this play out with more than one commenter over the years, and AVS’s frustration is understandable. The abiogenesis story resides at the level of vague generalizations, questionable assumptions, and wild speculations. It would be frustrating for any of us to have to provide a plausible naturalistic scenario. Furthermore (and note, I am not saying this is the case with AVS necessarily), when someone thinks that life arose by purely natural processes – convinced even to the point of it forming an important part of their personal belief system – a challenge to that story becomes an attack on that person’s belief system, to their creation story, to their “Where did we come from?” and “Why are we here?” questions.
Finally, as is so often the case, when someone holds a strong belief in abiogenesis, they tend to assume the answers are out there somewhere – certainly at least the broad outlines, with the details soon to be filled in by noble scientists diligently dedicated to the task. When that individual is forced to actually look into the details, however, it is understandably frustrating for them to discover that the answers aren’t out there and to be confronted by the fact that the abiogenesis story is riddled with holes . . . a dozen haunting questions springing up in the face of each minor issue addressed. This is not only frustrating, but completely disconcerting – the original confidence giving way to quiet whispers of doubt, and the quiet whispers of doubt slowly building into a cacophony of cognitive dissonance.
billmaz offered a more realistic assessment of origin of life research:
Nobody has figured out abiogenesis. Let’s start with that. But it is also unscientific to immediately turn to deus ex machina to explain it. It is still a work in progress. The issue, as I see it, is not that certain molecules can spontaneously combine to form proteins, or RNA, but how did they “evolve” to actually correspond to information exchange? Which came first, the RNA or the proteins? And how did a code in the RNA come to correspond to a specific protein? And how the heck did all the other proteins evolve that are needed to translate the code from RNA (or later DNA) into proteins without there being an evolutionary advantage in any of the intervening steps? Damn difficult questions, but that doesn’t drive me to design yet. It’s just a challenge to exhaust all the known forces to explain it before I go hunting for an other-wordly one.
billmaz is at least highlighting some of the right questions. And his comment raises two important issues:
1. What is the inference? billmaz characterized the inference, essentially as, “We don’t know how life arose. Therefore God did it.” This is incorrect. As I stated:
And the inference is not: “Abiogenesis is hard, so deus ex machina.”
The inference is: (i) naturalistic abiogenesis fails on multiple accounts, based on the current state of knowledge, (ii) there are good scientific reasons to conclude it isn’t possible given the resources of the known universe, furthermore (iii) we do know of a cause that can produce the kinds of effects at issue (the kinds of things you note in your #121). Even then, we can’t conclude that “God dunnit”; but, yes, we can draw a reasonable inference that some intelligent cause was responsible.
2. Can we draw the inference yet? As to the question of whether we should hold off drawing an inference to design or wait until we have “exhausted” all other avenues of research, I think there can be a fruitful discussion. I happen to think that there is plenty of evidence to draw a reasonable inference. Others, I grant, may disagree. But I fear perhaps some disagree precisely to avoid drawing an inference.
In other words, the following scenario quite often plays out:
If I acknowledge OOL is a hard problem, then I am at least being realistic and looking some of the facts squarely in the face. Furthermore, if I say that design is a possible explanation, then I manifest my reasonableness in being open to alternative explanations. But if I then couple my apparent reasonableness with a claim that design can only be seriously considered if and when – at some unspecified distant future, one that, conveniently, is far enough off to not present any present-day implications – all naturalistic possibilities (again, typically vague and unspecified) have been exhausted, then I have essentially foreclosed the realistic possibility of ever inferring design. Design becomes some distant hypothetical, one that I can acknowledge in the spirit of appearing reasonable, while still keeping myself firmly planted in the “there is likely a natural explanation” camp.
I do not know if billmaz is using the “exhaust” all natural possibilities as a way to avoid drawing an uncomfortable conclusion about OOL. Surely some are, but let’s assume for a moment that billmaz is truly willing, here and now, to consider design as a reasonable explanation, but just doesn’t think the science supports it. Only billmaz can answer that question by looking hard in the mirror. But fine. I can live with that approach from an integrity standpoint. I happen to disagree with billmaz and think that the science is quite clear on this issue, and that a reasonable inference can be drawn, but I remain open to the theoretical possibility of some new discovery that would change my mind.
On this issue of whether we know enough now to draw a reasonable inference or need to await future discoveries, Joe sarcastically responded to billmaz:
I’m with billmaz on this. Science gave up way to[o] soon on Stonehenge. Heck it’s only rocks and mother nature makes rocks in abundance. So there isn’t any reason why mother nature, give[n] billions of years, couldn’t have produced many Stonehenge-type formations.
. . . We are just rushing to judgment with our meager “knowledge”. Obviously the we of today don’t know anything but the we of tomorrow will figure it all out.
The science of today is meaningless and should just stay out of the way of the science of tomorrow.
Joe raises a good point, though. Why are so many people willing to consider the possibility of design – nay, going so far as to conclude the fact of design – in the case of something like Stonehenge, but refuse to even consider the possibility of design in the origin of life? It certainly cannot be because natural processes are more likely to have produced a living organism than Stonehenge. Quite the contrary.
Is it because things like stones are more (no pun intended) concrete and easier to grasp for most people than harder-to-understand concepts like amino acids, homochiralty, interfering chemical reactions, etc.?
Is it because the origin of life resides in such a murky and distant past that the imagination can take over our rational faculties and produce fantasies of the “Who knows? It might have happened.” variety?
Is it, as some argue, because we know humans exist and understand how humans might have created Stonehenge, but it is less definitive who or what could have created life?
Is it because of the constant propagandistic drumbeat of the truth of abiogenesis that pervades our schools and institutions of higher learning?
Is it because of a commitment to naturalistic explanations, no matter how absurd, and an unwillingness to consider intelligent causes, for fear of the implications?
Or a combination of the above?
I agree with billmaz that there is value in continuing the research and trying to find the answers. No quibble there. So perhaps it is more a question of where we are each at on the spectrum (see “Attitudes Toward Abiogenesis” below).
II. The Value of Origin of Live Research?
A fair amount of money is currently spent on origin of life research. Some view a naturalistic origin of life as one of the great remaining questions that will undoubtedly (eventually) be answered by science. Others view it as a fool’s errand, a waste of time and money.
Personally, I think there is value in origin of life research. Certainly in the biochemical bench science aspect. Even in some of the more intangible research questions – those surrounding how information arises, what protocols and hierarchies exist in the cell, and so on. Not because I expect any of these efforts to yield a naturalistic explanation for the origin of life (quite the opposite), but because of the additional insights such efforts will yield to help us better understand exactly what we are up against in the creation of initial life.
I also expect origin of life research can be helpful in increasing our understanding of how simple organisms work (if not quite getting to the answer of how they arose), what parameters need to be taken into account, what engineering solutions can be brought to bear. Finally, origin of life research can also provide insights into specific issues that can have application in biology beyond the strict “where did it come from” question.
Please don’t misunderstand. I’m talking about real, objective, substantive scientific research. I give no countenance to “research” or “studies” that consist of career-padding published papers filled with unfounded assumptions, wild speculations, attacks on design or religion, or philosophical propaganda about how life just surely must have arisen by purely natural means.
III. Attitudes Toward Abiogenesis
What then is the appropriate attitude toward naturalistic abiogenesis?
There are many possible approaches, but I believe the following offers a decent spectrum of possible attitudes:
1. Abiogenesis is true and we have a pretty good idea how it happened, just some details remain to be worked out.
2. Abiogenesis is true, but we don’t have a good idea how it happened. However, with more time and additional study we will no doubt discover the details.
3. Abiogenesis is probably true, but we don’t know how it happened. Nevertheless, science should focus on naturalistic explanations.
4. Abiogenesis may or may not be true. There is much that we don’t know. We should continue to exhaust all possible naturalistic explanations, but if those don’t pan out after a lot more study and research for several more decades, at some future point we may need to consider the possibility of design.
5. Abiogenesis may or may not be true. We should continue to exhaust all possible naturalistic explanations, but in the meantime we should also be open to the possibility of design.
6. Abiogenesis may or may not be true. It is too difficult a problem and too distant in the past for us to really study properly. We’ll never know, and in the absence of specific empirical evidence we shouldn’t draw conclusions one way or another.
7. Abiogenesis is likely false. There is good evidence that it cannot work within the resources of the known universe. While we should continue to exhaust all possible naturalistic explanations, we should consider the possibility of design.
8. Abiogenesis is almost certainly false. There are multiple and compounding problems with the abiogenesis story and strong evidence that it cannot work within the resources of the known universe. Furthermore, there is good evidence for design and we can draw a reasonable inference to design. However, we should continue to exhaust all possible naturalistic explanations.
9. Abiogenesis is false, with essentially the same level of certainty that anything can be said to be false. There are multiple and compounding problems with the abiogenesis story and powerful evidence that it cannot work within the resources of the known universe. Furthermore, the evidence points strongly to design and we can draw a reasonable inference of design. However, we should continue to carry out origin of life research, as such research could change our assessment of the evidence and/or provide answers to other important biological questions in the process.
10. Abiogenesis is false, with essentially the same level of certainty that anything can be said to be false. Furthermore, it is a fool’s errand and we should stop wasting money on origin of life research.
What Do You Think?
A. Which of the above approaches to abiogenesis most closely represents your view, or is there another one you would like to share?
B. In addition to the challenges to a naturalistic abiogenesis that I have outlined in section II above, what other aspects of the abiogenesis story are problematic?
C. If you had a chance to give a 30-second “elevator pitch” to someone, what would you say in those few brief words to help them catch a glimpse of the challenges with the naturalistic abiogenesis story and, potentially, consider the possibility of design in the origin of life?