Oozing Life Up Against All Odds

Posted on January 20, 2012 in Cell Biology, Darwin and Evolution, Geology, Intelligent Design, Microbiology, Origin of Life, Origins, Philosophy of Science, Physical Science

The origin of life clearly requires a major leap in complexity, but not just any complexity.  A conglomerate rock is complex, but not alive.  Life has functional complexity – the ability to selectively take in materials to grow, move and reproduce.  Life also requires growth, but not just any growth.  Fire grows and reproduces, but is not alive, whereas a living cell grows and reproduces according to internal programmed instructions.  Evolutionists think the origin of life by natural causes is a tractable problem that will eventually be solved.  Let’s see a couple of examples of how their work is coming along.

Metabolism-first domino effect:  In the long-standing debate between genetics-first and metabolism-first scenarios for how life began (see 1/26/2008), Günter Wächtershäuser has been a strong advocate for the latter.  Working his ideas into experimental form has been the project of Claudia Huber and Wolfgang Eisenreich at the Munich Technical University.  PhysOrg reported that they believe a single, fortuitous reaction can lead to an avalanche of fruitful chemical products, like the first falling domino can trigger cannons firing, pinwheels turning and all kinds of downstream effects.

Like JPL’s Michael Russell, Wächtershäuser and colleagues envision deep sea hot-water vents as ideal settings for where life began: “it is precisely this extreme environment, where the two mechanisms could have emerged, which are at the root of all life: The multiplication of biomolecules (reproduction) and the emergence of new biomolecules on the basis of previously formed biomolecules (evolution). ”  This glittering generality ignores serious problems like destructive cross-reactions, the conundrum of homochirality, and error catastrophe from inaccurate reproduction.

Nevertheless, Huber’s experiments seem to show that a self-stimulating mechanism is possible: some transition metals like nickel aided the production of new molecules starting with some simple amino acids.  Wächtershäuser’s imagination went spinning: “Life arises, if subsequently a whole cascade of further couplings takes place, and this primordial life leads eventually to the formation of genetic material and of the first cells” (gaps to be filled in later, since his metabolism-first theory doesn’t concern itself with genetics).  The article ended with a grand scenario of chemical predestination, making this all sound so natural, so inevitable, so simple:

The most important property of the system is its autonomy: As opposed to the notion of a cool prebiotic both [sic, broth], the first metabolism was not dependent on accidental events or an accumulation of essential components over thousands of years. As soon as the first domino stone is toppled, the others will follow automatically. The origin of life proceeds along definite trajectories, pre-established by the rules of chemistry – a chemically determined process giving rise to the tree of all forms of life.

Certainly he cannot take his determinism too far, though, or he would be saying that a giraffe or peacock necessarily follows from the first chemical catalytic cycle.  The falling-domino analogy is an unfortunate choice, too; the wondrous displays of complexity we see on gym floors like this world breaker on YouTube, this parallel example, and this climbing example, do not arise from rules of chemistry or unguided natural processes, but by intelligent design.  A more accurate analogy would be to dump dominoes on a trampoline and subject them to random forces of wind, earthquakes and tidal waves.

Want salt in your soup?  Salt is a blessing and a curse for origin-of-life research.  Without the ions salts produce, it’s hard to get many biological processes going.  The ions interfere, though, with the formation of genetic material and lipids (9/17/2002, 11/23/2007).  Soap scum is an example, an article on PhysOrg illustrates; the ions in hard water cling to the soap molecules, forming solids instead of lather.

David Deamer puzzled over salt in his new book, First Life (June 2011).  For a long time, evolutionists have assumed that the salt in our blood is a consequence of salt in the oceans where life arose – a kind of recapitulation of the primordial oceans they envision.  He knows, though, that salts mean trouble: “Seawater, in his estimation, is too reactive with certain biomolecules to have served as the ‘broth’ for the primordial soup.

The salt conundrum divides origin-of-life researchers two more ways: those who favor the deep sea, like Michael Russell, and those who favor fresh-water ponds subjected to wetting and drying cycles.  “A freshwater origin seems to have been what Charles Darwin was proposing when he imagined the spontaneous formation of biomolecules in ‘some warm little pond,’” the article mentioned.  In that imaginary picture, Deamer is turning up the heat.

Others feel the salt conundrum will be solved some other way.  Shiladitya DasSarma of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute, for instance, said, “I wouldn’t think ions could play such an important role unless they were around in the beginning.”  Deamer responds that seawater contains dissolved calcium and magnesium.  With their doubly-charged ions, they tend to precipate with phosphates and fatty acids, taking them out of the mix.  Jack Szostak of Harvard agrees.  He votes for the freshwater scenario.

But magnesium and calcium ions are needed for life, DasSarma contends.  You can’t get them in fresh water, Russell adds, and “It is the inorganic elements that bring organic chemistry to life.”  What to do?

Russell tries doing away with the need for a lipid membrane.  Start with metabolic cycles within cracks in hot deep-sea vents, he imagines.  Add the “castle wall” of a membrane after the kingdom gets started, courtesy of proteins and DNA he envisions forming within gradients in the channels that serve the function of membranes.

Deamer is not convinced.  “At some point during its origin, life started using membranes,” he pointed out.  One cannot put the problem off into neverland.  Deamer believes fresh water is more conducive to membrane formation.  Salt is good, he agrees, so he is willing to compromise with a pinch of salt, but still thinks “seawater is too much of a good thing.”  He and Szostak have come up with the ideal crock pot: volcanoes.  “Being near volcanoes could have provided heat for creating wet-dry cycles.

Off to Hawaii he went to test the idea.  “He and his colleagues went so far as to dump lipid molecules into the ponds to see if they might form membranes ‘in the wild,’” the article continued, the hope building.  But alas, “The answer was no. The organic material attached itself to clay minerals at the bottom of the ponds,” the disappointing field test showed.  (The article speculated that this “wouldn’t have likely been a problem on the early Earth,” without explaining why.)

So, back to his intelligently-designed lab setup Deamer has gone, fixing the temperature, the ingredients, and the concentrations:

His team has built a “hot pond” simulator. Little vials with freshwater and the basic ingredients of life are heated to above 60 degrees Celsius and routinely re-wetted with “rain water” from a syringe. Recent results have shown that membrane-forming lipids not only form vesicles, but they may help drive DNA replication – something that modern cells need protein enzymes to do.

It’s not clear who snuck the DNA in the rig.  The qualifier “may help” leaves a lot to be clarified, too.  But when he adds sea salt, what will happen?  “Deamer says they plan to test saltwater to see how the results change.”  Look forward to blobs of phosphate and lipid solids on the bottom of the tank that won’t be evolving anywhere soon.

The OOL follies continue. Here we are, 60 years after Stanley Miller wowed the world with his Frankenstein spark chambers, and there is no progress – only more questions, more problems, more controversies, and no results.  Meanwhile, the complexity of life as we know it continues to astonish biochemists.  How much longer do they get?  What are the criteria for failure?  Do they have a perpetual license to fOOL the public with suggestions that they are getting warmer, when the reality is that they are still clueless how life started?  Deamer writes a book on “How Life Began” when he hasn’t the foggiest idea.

Ask yourself if this is science.  It’s not enough to have a PhD in science, because lay people can make scientific discoveries (Darwin’s only degree was in theology, remember).  It’s not enough to be a scientist; not everything a scientist does is scientific, such as having lunch.  It’s not enough to use lab equipment; the alchemists perfected lab techniques.  Similar arguments can be made for fellowshipping with scientific friends, attending scientific conferences, writing scientific books, publishing peer-reviewed papers with math and graphics, and having science reporters drool over the opportunity to speak with you.  None of that matters if the evidence doesn’t support your hypothesis.  Science demands, “Put up or shut up.”

The kind of science we were all taught to adore is that which is observable, testable, and repeatable.  Philosophers of science like to point to historic examples of frenzied enthusiasm in pursuit of wrong leads, like alchemy, astrology, phrenology, the caloric hypothesis, the phlogiston theory, animal magnetism, psychoanalysis and other projects whose advocates swore they were on the right track and were on the verge of a breakthrough.  It didn’t matter.  The evidence didn’t support it.

Intelligent design advocates have both negative and positive reasons for declaring these origin-of-life experiments unscientific.  On the negative side, they argue that the complexity required for the simplest conceivable living cell exceeds the universal probability bound (one chance in 10150 calculated by Dembski, very generously in favor of chance), and therefore cannot arise by random, unguided processes anywhere in the entire history of the universe; it’s a complete waste of time to think so.  Similarly, natural law cannot produce the kind of specified complexity evident in life.  Natural law produces repetitive patterns, not codes.

As a positive argument, intelligent design theory argues that from our uniform experience, the only cause we know that can produce specified complexity is intelligence.  This is argued cogently by Stephen Meyer in Signature in the Cell.  The signals, codes, and functional specifications so evident in even the simplest life are diagnostic of intelligent causes.  The scientific approach to the origin of life, therefore, is to avoid what we already know is a dead end (chance, natural law or a combination of the two), and to pursue the explanation that we already know has the causal resources to deliver the observations.

It doesn’t matter that Wächtershäuser, Huber, Russell, Szotak, Deamer and the other OOL folks have PhDs, use lab equipment, know a lot about organic chemistry, and write papers and books.  They aren’t doing science.  They are doing anti-science.  They are pursuing leads that are demonstrably false, evidentially, logically, and philosophically.

In one sense they are helping science; they are providing more opportunities for falsification.  But since there are an infinite number of falsifiable hypotheses, they are destined to wander around the island, looking for a treasure that is not there, falsifying this dig and that dig forever.  The treasure is on a different island than the one on which they have chosen to limit their search.  It’s on the island where intelligent causes have been banished.  Fortunately for the ID scientists in exile there, it’s also the island with the treasure map.

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