Every once in awhile, someone “suggests” that life began on Mars, not Earth. Here it comes again from someone who knows better.
The hard facts of chemistry are driving Dr. Steven Benner to desperation. He knows that ribose (an essential part of RNA) cannot and will not form in the scenarios most favored by origin-of-life researchers:
All living things are made from organic matter, but simply adding energy to organic molecules will not create life. Instead, left to themselves, organic molecules become something more like tar or asphalt, said Prof Benner.
In a dry environment, however, the element boron can help. Since he cannot imagine ribose forming on Earth, where boron is scarce, he recently proposed that conditions on Mars might have been more favorable in the past. The BBC News explains:
“What’s quite clear is that boron, as an element, is quite scarce in Earth’s crust,” Prof Benner told BBC News, “but Mars has been drier than Earth and more oxidising, so if Earth is not suitable for the chemistry, Mars might be.
“The evidence seems to be building that we are actually all Martians; that life started on Mars and came to Earth on a rock,” he commented.
“It’s lucky that we ended up here, nevertheless — as certainly Earth has been the better of the two planets for sustaining life. If our hypothetical Martian ancestors had remained on Mars, there may not have been a story to tell.”
Space.com repeated the myth with less hesitation. “We may all be Martians,” it begins. “Evidence is building that Earth life originated on Mars and was brought to this planet aboard a meteorite, said biochemist Steven Benner of The Westheimer Institute for Science and Technology in Florida.” Benner presented his new idea at the Goldschmidt Conference in Florence, Italy this week.
NBC News, hurrying to say that Benner “is not a kook,” was hesitant enough to say that Benner’s idea “stirs debate” and posed it as a question, “Are we all Martians?” (the “not a kook” comment was repeated on NASA Watch). The Huffington Post, however, told the story with confidence: “Life on Earth may have started on Mars, growing evidence suggests.” Another variation of the extraterrestrial scenario, seen again on NASA Astrobiology Magazine, proposes life (or its “building blocks”) came via comets.
Benner sometimes plays the wet blanket for other nutty ideas, like arsenic-based life (7/10/12). Apparently Benner’s colleague and fan David Grinspoon thinks his “plausible story” proves something else. From the NBC article,
This time, the wet-blanket role is filled by David Grinspoon, an astrobiologist from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Grinspoon, who’s spending a year doing research at the Library of Congress, says that he’s a “huge fan” of Benner’s, but that his extraordinary claim isn’t sufficiently supported by the evidence.
“This isn’t really evidence that life came from Mars, but it is evidence that Steven Benner is very clever,” Grinspoon told NBC News.
NBC’s Alan Boyle left it as a question: “What do you think? Is it more likely that life came to Earth from Mars, or that earthly life is entirely home-grown?”
Susan Mazur, the author of a book about skeptics of traditional neo-Darwinism, The Altenberg 16: An Expose of the Evolution Industry, interviewed Benner for The Scoop last February. Benner is aware of her book. In the discussion, he repeated the problems with forming ribose naturally: it decomposes, and it is unstable; that’s why one of his colleagues calls the RNA World scenario a “baseless fantasy.”
The discussion wavered into peer review and philosophy of science. Regarding origin-of-life research, Benner admitted at one point, “none of us are experts and we don’t really know what we’re doing with this.” He describes himself as “a crackpot synthetic biologist to some extent” whom Mazur found “entertaining.” But like Alan Boyle said, Benner is not a kook.
Update 8/29/13: New Scientist entered the discussion with this groaner: “Primordial broth of life was a dry Martian cup-a-soup.” Science Now discussed Benner’s ideas about boron and oxidized molybdenum acting as safeguards for ribose, but was not overly eager to accept his Mars hypothesis, quoting other origin-of-life researchers offering criticisms. Memorable paragraph:
However and wherever life began, one thing is sure: Its first organic building blocks, called hydrocarbons, had a number of hurdles to clear before evolving into living cells. Fed with heat or light and left to themselves, hydrocarbons tend to turn into useless tarlike substances. And even when complex molecules like RNA (most biologists’ best guess for the first genetic molecule) arise, water quickly breaks them down again.
That’s why Benner looked to dry Mars instead of watery Earth. As for how to know where life originated, Benner said, “Building a time machine will help.” NASA’s Astrobiology Magazine showed Benner’s smiling face in its coverage, offering no criticism at all.
Apparently Benner is trying to upstage his earlier high-PCMI kooky fantasy that there could be fish in Titan’s methane seas (1/31/05). Why does he repeat his old bore on boron? (11/05/04). That’s an old joke from 2004, and here he is now, almost 10 years later, with no new answers except to displace the problem to Mars and let the Martians cook up their own ribose.
He knows better, because I confronted him at JPL after his talk where he joked that the problems are so severe getting life, that it almost made him want “to become a creationist” (11/05/04, which see). I politely confronted him about the genetic code, homochirality, probability and other serious obstacles to a naturalistic origin of life. He stood there grinning and nodding, acknowledging these were problems, till his handler led him off to catch a plane.
He knows better, because he knows and believes that science needs to challenge consensus. From the Mazur interview:
Science, to the public, is at one level the memorization of facts based on an authority — your teacher, who has the cosmic authority of the expert. You’ll see this all over — “four out of five dentists agree”. The appeal to authority and consensus of opinion.
But science is also the opposite. I’m a great fan of Richard Feynman who comments that science begins with a denial of the opinion of experts Science begins when you say NO. The perceived wisdom is wrong. Feynman’s opinion is exactly the opposite of what many people think science is, the memorization of facts taught to you by an authority.… Feynman goes on to point out that there’s an enormous amount of what goes on in the public sphere in term of science that is mostly not scientific at all. He also says there’s an enormous amount of intellectual tyranny in the name of science.
Benner describes himself as someone who thinks outside the box, but the problem is that his box is nested inside another box called Naturalism. He also knows that venturing outside that box is death to a career. That’s why he is so very clever. Because he stays inside the Naturalism box, he gets to keep his job in Florida, gets to vacation in Italy, and gets invited to share his kooky ideas at JPL. For challenging that box, I lost my job there.
The consensus of kooks won, but it’s their asphalt.