Miller-Frankenstein Ghost Rises from the Dead
51; Stanley Miller died last year, but his friendly ghost lives on. Famous for his Halloweenish spark-discharge apparatus that brought naturalism to life, Miller subsequently began to doubt the simplistic “primordial soup” vision that took on a life of its own, making apparitions in many a textbook. He realized that improbably atmospheric conditions—a reducing atmosphere of methane and hydrogen without oxygen—were required. Nevertheless, the sparks in the flask made an indelible mark on the public consciousness even if Miller himself and his colleagues struggled with the harsh realities of organic chemistry.
Miller’s ghost appeared this month in Science.1 Jeffrey Bada (Scripps Institute) and team are awarding him posthumous honors for finding more amino acids than previously thought. In addition, they say, volcanoes may have provided the reducing conditions for amino acid formation:
Geoscientists today doubt that the primitive atmosphere had the highly reducing composition Miller used. However, the volcanic apparatus experiment suggests that, even if the overall atmosphere was not reducing, localized prebiotic synthesis could have been effective. Reduced gases and lightning associated with volcanic eruptions in hot spots or island arc-type systems could have been prevalent on the early Earth before extensive continents formed. In these volcanic plumes, HCN, aldehydes, and ketones may have been produced, which, after washing out of the atmosphere, could have become involved in the synthesis of organic molecules. Amino acids formed in volcanic island systems could have accumulated in tidal areas, where they could be polymerized by carbonyl sulfide, a simple volcanic gas that has been shown to form peptides under mild conditions.
“Could” or “may” appears five times in series in this hypothetical scenario, meaning each “could” depends on the previous “could.” Nevertheless, Clara Moskowitz got so excited over this news, she titled her report on Live Science, “Volcanoes May Be Original Womb of Life.” This, of course, begs the question of how the volcano got its life as a mother, but that’s beside the point: around a volcano, the team sees all the ingredients: hydrogen, methane, and lightning. It seems only a matter of time before Nature would cry, “It’s ali-i-i-i-ve!”
1. Johnson, Cleaves, Dworkin, Glavin, Lascano and Bada, “The Miller Volcanic Spark Discharge Experiment,” Science, 17 October 2008: Vol. 322. no. 5900, p. 404, DOI: 10.1126/science.1161527.
The tenacity with which naturalists cling to their icons would put a Buddhist monk to shame. There are SO many problems with the Miller scenario, we weary ourselves to keep repeating them (search “Stanley Miller” in the search bar). We”ll give them a whole earth made up of amino acids, combining and recombining at fantastically rapid rates (see online book): no life is going to happen. Amino acids are nothing. They are common little molecules, many of which are thermodynamically probable under certain natural conditions. Some are found in meteorites. It’s not the building blocks that characterize life. It’s the way they are organized. It’s the way they perform functions. Organic chemists have to go to great lengths to get some of the building blocks under carefully controlled conditions. Surely Bada et al are not suggesting that amino acids formed on land, perhaps on lava flows far from the oceans Miller required. They can always dream up a scenario that keeps the molecules hopeful, but by the time they try to get the building blocks to join up in one-handed configuration and actually do something without a genetic code to direct them, they have to tweak the scenario to the point of absurdity. Matter is fecund only in the imaginations of naturalists who will not permit information and direction into their world view.
Their fascination with that phrase “building blocks of life” becomes more absurd with each announcement. We have been told that water is a building block of life, and tailpipe soot is a building block of life. Why stop there? Why not call protons building blocks of life? or quarks? or superstrings? The laws of chemistry militate against the formation of a functional biological apparatus. In the lab, most of the organic ingredients for life have to be carefully shielded from oxygen. Miller’s amino acids, even around Mother Volcano, would be subject to hydrolyzing radiation, oxidation, thermal destruction and dilution. Astrobiologists have to imagine protected enclaves that could somehow concentrate and protect the exceedingly low yields. Since amino acids do not polymerize in water, they have to imagine alternate waves of wetting and drying that somehow avoid washing the precious gems into the vast diluting sea (11/19/2004, 04/08/2008). Then there need to be the right clay minerals to act as templates (but this won’t work; see 02/13/2006). What if the next lava flow covers it up? Sorry. What if harmful cross-reactions dominate, as they would? Sorry. What if one wrong-handed amino acid joins the chain, as is immensely more probable (online book)? Sorry. It’s a sorry tale at every turn: improbabilities piled on improbabilities far beyond the limits of credibility.
Don’t mistake commotion for progress. You can listen to Robert Hazen’s cheerful Teaching Company series “Origins of Life” in which he describes in detail all the commotion in origin-of-life studies, with nothing at the end to show for it than naturalistic bluffing, hope and hype. The characters doing OOL research look like the bad guys in Home Alone trying to burglarize life’s secrets, only to come back with bumps and bruises and burned hands. There’s even an international organization of the burglars, ISSOL (newly renamed the International Astrobiology Society), that gathers every 3 years to pool their ignorance and share tales of woe about their latest bruises in the lab. Its members comprise a Who’s Who (or Who Cares) of all the big names in the field. Go ahead. Browse the dozens of abstracts from their Summer 2008 gathering at Florence, that began with the obligatory sacrifice to Stanley Miller, and you will find everything from confident claims to frustration and dead ends, each hopeful sign falsified a few pages later. Is this science? What if any other group of zealots suffered this many losing confrontations with nature?
Miller was usually more honest about the difficulties of finding how life originated than many of his disciples. His greatest success was not in solving any of the problems, but in producing a visual propaganda tool that facilitated the dissemination of a useful lie (05/02/2003). That’s not a legacy any self-respecting scientist should wish to have.