In origin-of-life (OOL) research, any partial solution seems good enough, even if the big questions go unanswered.
Stack of Plates Sans Code
Science Now got real excited about a new kind of RNA that, with a sufficient kind of design, can organize into a stack that reporter Robert Service (not the Alaskan storyteller) believes mimics DNA. In “Self-Assembling Molecules Offer New Clues on Life’s Possible Origin,” he spoke of problems with certain RNAs called CA and TAP that stubbornly refuse to self-assemble in water. A little tweaking got them to cooperate the way scientists wanted:
Unfortunately, in water CA and TAP clump together in large ribbons and sheets and quickly fall out of solution, making it hard to conceive of how these proto-RNAs could have stored genetic information in the earliest stages of life.
Now, however, Hud and his colleagues at Georgia Tech and the Institute for Research in Biomedicine in Barcelona, Spain, have solved this solvent problem. The researchers gave TAP a short chemical tail, transforming it into a chemical they call TAPAS, as they reported on Friday in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. And that one change encourages it to assemble with CA to form rosettes in water. What is more, the rosettes stack atop one another, forming long genelike chains made up of as many as 18,000 individual TAPAS and CA components—quite a stack of small plates.
Unfortunately for Service, this serves no purpose without a code to organize the sequence of the plates (which don’t even resemble DNA’s double helix and paired bases – the foundation of the genetic code). He was content to call this “a step in the right direction.”
Assault on Battery
Tia Ghose in a story on NBC News said, “Theorists are pumped up about their new origin of life proposal.” This one has nothing to do with RNAs, but rather theoretical natural “batteries” in hydrothermal vents where “life may have gotten started.” The gaps in one quote are astonishing:
Somehow, the precursors of life harnessed carbon dioxide and hydrogen available in those primitive conditions to create the building blocks of life, such as amino acids and nucleotides (building blocks of DNA). But those chemical reactions require a power source, said study co-author Nick Lane, a researcher at the University College London.
Ghose seemed close to a solution merely by having the battery, without the need to explain the computer and software. Live Science asked, “Origin of Life: Did a Simple Pump Drive Process?” but did not offer a critique of Lane’s suggestion. In its coverage, Nature News didn’t address DNA or codes at all, but exposed Nick Lane to SEQOTW by stating a conundrum:
It is assumed that the rocky proto-cells would initially be lined with leaky organic membranes. If the cells were to escape the vents and become free-living in the ocean, these membranes would have to be sealed. But sealing the membrane would cut off natural proton gradients, because although an ATP synthase would let protons into the cell, there would be nothing to pump them out, and the concentration of protons on each side of the membrane would rapidly equalize. Without an ion gradient “they would lose power,” says Lane.
Proteins that pump protons out of the cell would solve the problem, but there would have been no pressure for such proteins to evolve until after the membranes were closed. In which case, “They would have had to evolve a proton pumping system in no time, which is impossible,” says Lane.
Lane implies that given some time, the impossible becomes possible, the possible probable, and the probable virtually certain, as George Wald claimed decades ago in a widely-criticized article on the origin of life. On PhysOrg, Nick Lane swept aside the problem of the genetic code with a hand wave: “Life is, in effect, a side-reaction of an energy-harnessing reaction.”
It Rocketed from Space
Intoxicated by the phrase “building blocks of life,” Tia Ghose looked to the wisdom of NASA scientists who think they found hydroxylamine. What? Well, given access to acetic acid, this “white, unstable crystalline, hygroscopic compound” (Wikipedia) whose nitrate form can be used for rocket fuel, can form amino acids, Ghose claimed in Live Science. And once you have amino acids, can’t you envision proteins? Again, nothing was said about the genetic code, or even how those amino acids could be filtered into a one-handed population. Instead, Ghose imagined worlds in collision: “In turn, hydroxylamine could react with other compounds, such as acetic acid, to form amino acids that could be dumped onto other worlds during space-rock collisions.”
Get your local OOL researcher to take the following pledge: “I will not publish anything that contains the words may, might, could, perhaps, or possibly.” They won’t do it because they would be out of a job. For the rest of us, their storytelling under the banner of “science” is unbearable.
For an explanation of why partial steps in their story are of no value, we turn to a quotation from the 5/22/2002 commentary:
They took a giant leap of faith. “But at least they were in the lab experimenting; isn’t that better than just giving up and claiming ‘God did it’?” (This is a favorite criticism of Eugenie Scott and the NCSE.) It depends.
To illustrate this, picture a large canyon, representing the origin of life, that the evolutionists must cross by building a bridge over it. They think they are making progress when they hire a helicopter to hold a steel girder out in mid-air and say, “We have demonstrated that this girder would work as part of our bridge, if all the other parts were in place.” But what happens the moment they let go of the girder, and the pilot flies away? It crashes to the bottom of the canyon, accomplishing nothing. In their write-up of their results, they might refer to other helicopters that have held up other girders and cables at other points, none of which could have ever hung out there in mid-air waiting for the next piece to join up, yet they boast about the progress they’re making.
An evolutionist may retort that they are not holding their girders in mid-air, but building from the sides to meet in the middle. No they are not; every one of their experiments independently cheats by invoking intelligent design (the helicopter or the prefabricated girders), which is unlike what nature would do. To imitate nature, they would have to take their intelligently guiding hands off the apparatus, and wait for millions of years in despair while nothing happens. Besides, nature would only be able to build from one side of the canyon, and would have no directionality or will to aim for the other side, or to build on any previous “successes”. (How do you define success, by the way, without a mind?) Invoking natural selection prior to replication is also cheating; but without it, there is no building on prior successes.
Our bridge analogy is actually generous toward evolution; we gave them helicopters and steel girders, which are all designed objects built or manipulated by intelligent minds. The evolutionists’ task is to tell us how mindless nature, using raw materials like iron ore, built the bridge itself, without help, and tell us why nature would even want to do such a marvelous thing. And why even grant them the iron ore? Go back far enough, and they have to explain the origin of all the raw materials from nothing.