Evolutionists have been stewing over primordial soup for over a century, but origin-of-life research is still in the kitchen with empty kettles. Some new recipes are downright nutty.
Origin of life theories span the spectrum from genetics-first to metabolism-first, from dry land to deep sea vents, and homegrown to seeded from outer space. After a century since Oparin, and half a century since Miller, no theory has gained traction. Even the popular “RNA World” scenario has recently come under fire as vanishingly improbable (Evolution News & Views). With no clear path for research, some researchers are sending weird flags up the pole to see if anyone salutes.
Living pinwheels: An example of the desperation can be seen at Astrobiology Magazine, a NASA website devoted to the community of experts trying to explain the origin of life on Earth and other planets. Titled “Pinwheel ‘living’ crystals and the origin of life,” the article presents experiments at University of Michigan that found nanoparticles can self-organize into rotating crystals “that could serve as a nanopump,” they believe. If any idea were less nutty, they surely would have used it instead:
.…researchers like [Sharon] Glotzer are exploring ways to make order develop naturally from disorder, much like what may have occurred at the very beginnings of life.
“If we can understand that, not only can we begin to imagine new ways to make materials and devices, but also we may begin to understand how the first living structures emerged from a soup of chemicals,” said Glotzer, who is also a professor of materials science and engineering, macromolecular science and engineering, physics, and applied physics.
“Begin to imagine” is the operative phrase, because there are numerous problems with the idea. The nanoscopic particles they experimented on are liquid crystals that have nothing to do with the biochemistry used by living cells. Further, the team supplied them with constant energy; this is known as investigator interference (i.e., cheating). There is no genetic code; there is no metabolism; there is no membrane. While it may display pretty moving patterns, they are analogous to soap bubbles arranging themselves when air is blown on them. As such, they are irrelevant to the origin of life, and fail to “shed light” as promised.
Soup to nuts: In another Astrobiology Magazine post, “From Soup to Cells: Measuring the Emergence of Life,” astrobiologist Sarah Walker from the University of Arizona is up to her eyeballs in questions. The opening disclaimer shows that no progress has been made since Alexander Oparin first speculated with coacervates (essentially fat bubbles surrounding nonliving organic molecules):
The story of life’s origin is one of the great unsolved mysteries of science. The puzzle boils down to bridging the gap between two worlds–chemistry and biology. We know how molecules behave, and we know how cells work. But we still don’t know how a soup of lifeless molecules could have given rise to the first living cells.
Here, the operative word is “story,” because no theory or even hypothesis is even capable of showing progress. All Walker had to share with her colleagues at a recent conference is a “conceptual framework” for approaching the problem. How can she “jumpstart chemical evolution”? Nobody knows. How can she ” get a pool of lifeless molecules to form a basic chemical network”? Nobody knows. She’s toying with the idea that day-night cycles have “driven the process.” Well, they drive the tides and the winds, but genetic codes and networks do not normally “jumpstart” that way. Her scenario is little more than a sequence of begged questions:
The model starts out with monomers–or loose building blocks–and turns them into polymers. Bonds form during the day (during the dry phase) and break at night (during the wet phase). So the system goes over a constant process of building and destroying new chains of molecules.
Over time, some of the chains may have a useful function. And because they benefit the system, they stay and are replicated by that cycling, serving as template for the formation of other polymers. Eventually, clusters of polymers begin to grow and interact with each other, until they give rise to a very basic chemical network. Eventually, that network evolves to a state Walker calls “almost life.”
Like Glotzer, Walker is filling in huge gaps with leaps of imagination. There is no such thing as “almost life,” because without the kind of accurate replication of functional genetic information and metabolism that living cells provide, any “system” would collapse in an “error catastrophe.” The almost-thingee would fall apart with the next tide. (Note: living cells proofread their text by machine.)
Interestingly, Walker recognizes the need for “information transfer” in the definition of life. She knows that in living cells, information flows both ways, top down as well as bottom up. But she fails to define information, fails to store it, and fails to preserve it. She speaks of blueprints, but has no draftsman. She speaks of function, but has only blind molecules that couldn’t care less what happens. Perhaps the most telling part of the article is this quote during her presentation:
She began her talk with a quote from the Harvard chemist George Whitesides, which captured nicely the gap she is trying to bridge: “How remarkable is life?” he asked. “The answer is: very. Those of us who deal in networks of chemical reactions know nothing like it.”
The geological bridge: “What we are trying to do is to bridge the gap between the geological processes of the early Earth and the emergence of biological life on this planet,” says chemist Terry Kee from the University of Leeds in an article on Science Daily. His preferred place to look for leads is hydrothermal vents. To make the gap appear tractable, he merely redefines life to include geology:
“Before biological life, one could say the early Earth had ‘geological life’. It may seem unusual to consider geology, involving inanimate rocks and minerals, as being alive. But what is life?” said Dr Kee.
“Many people have failed to come up with a satisfactory answer to this question. So what we have done instead is to look at what life does, and all life forms use the same chemical processes that occur in a fuel cell to generate their energy.”
But are mere cycles of oxidation-reduction (redox) reactions anything like the dynamic, regulated choreography in a living cell? One might as well consider the tides as alive, or the winds. Talking about photosynthesis or man-made fuel cells (as the article does) cannot support a nutty idea, because the origin of plants is the question to be explained, not the explanation, and fuel cells had their “emergence” in intelligent design by human minds. PhysOrg reported that NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is lending their experimental support to the Kee concept of how geology “kickstarted life.” But wouldn’t geology be more likely to kick it down to a dead stop?
“In the new study, the researchers have demonstrated a proof of concept for their fuel cell model of the emergence of cell metabolism on Earth,” the article says, but this is nothing new. The metabolism-first hypothesis has been kicked around for a decade or more now (see Russell, 2008, 2004); it was roundly criticized, if not falsified, by the late Leslie Orgel (1/26/08, “Pigs Don’t Fly, and Life Doesn’t Just Happen”). Orgel was a close co-worker with Stanley Miller of spark-discharge fame (5/02/03). Unfortunately for him, his genetics-first model had already been falsified the year before by metabolism-first proponent Robert Shapiro (2/15/07). Readers can judge for themselves the chutzpah of Science Daily’s endorsement of Kee’s “geological life” concept:
For now, the chemistry of how geological reactions driven by inanimate rocks and minerals evolved into biological metabolisms is still a black box. But with a laboratory-based model for simulating these processes, scientists have taken an important step forward to understanding the origin of life on this planet and whether a similar process could occur on other worlds.
In other words, Kee has a bridge to sell you. For the top news by the leading lights of origin-of-life research, browse CEH’s origin of life category.
Have you ever encountered any subject as silly as naturalistic origin of life that gets so much respect in the media? Besides socialism, that is. These articles are not by quacks in far left field; they come out of leading universities, and are supported with NASA funding, some of them. With primordial soup this nutty, the intelligent design community can relax. All they have to do is laugh. Given this backdrop of insanity from the institutions of human intellect, the case for creation is stronger than it has ever been. Biblical creationists have all the reason in the world to preach the Truth of their foundation for all truth, “In the beginning, God created.”