June 12, 2006 | David F. Coppedge

Can the Origin of Life Be Simplified?

Evolutionists looking for a materialistic explanation for the origin of life know that there is a huge gap between a sea of chemicals and a self-replicating cell.  Over the years since the Miller experiment (see 05/02/2003 entry), there have been several approaches trying to bridge this gap.  One has been the RNA World hypothesis, that RNA molecules fulfilled the functions of genetic storage and enzymatic activity (but see problems in 07/11/2002 entry).  A different approach rising in popularity these days is the “metabolism first” hypothesis.
    This approach, championed by Harold Morowitz, Robert Hazen and others, looks for self-sustaining chemical cycles that could grow in complexity till co-opted later by nucleic acids and proteins.  Most researchers in the field are diffident about progress they’re making, but Michael Schirber on LiveScience shucked aside all modesty in the title of his article broadcast throughout the news media (see Fox News, for example), by announcing: “How Life Began: New Research Suggests a Simple Approach.”  Schirber reduced an enormous problem to the simplicity of flipping a switch, making it seem as if metabolism-first was a known fact of history:

Somewhere on Earth, close to 4 billion years ago [sic], a set of molecular reactions flipped a switch and became life.  Scientists try to imagine this animating event [sic] by simplifying the processes that characterize living things.

Not only that, he said, “New research suggests the simplification needs to go further.”  But then, after the title had done its comforting work, Schirber spent a whole section debunking the RNA World and Miller Experiment scenarios.  He focused instead on the ideas of Robert Shapiro (New York U) who favors the metabolism-first approach, and quoted him explaining why other approaches fail:

Shapiro, however, thinks this so-called “RNA world” is still too complex to be the origin of life.  Information-carrying molecules like RNA are sequences of molecular “bits.”  The primordial soup [sic] would be full of things that would terminate these sequences before they grew long enough to be useful, Shapiro says.
    “In the very beginning, you couldn’t have genetic material that could copy itself unless you had chemists back then doing it for you,” Shapiro told LiveScience.

Shapiro is usually a good realist for spoiling the optimism of researchers envisioning RNA Worlds and primordial soups.  But he has his own hopeful world in an imaginary landscape, where garbage bags turn into powerhouses:

Instead of complex molecules, life started with small molecules interacting through a closed cycle of reactions, Shapiro argues in the June issue of the Quarterly Review of Biology.  These reactions would produce compounds that would feed back into the cycle, creating an ever-growing reaction network
    All the interrelated chemistry might be contained in simple membranes, or what physicist Freeman Dyson calls “garbage bags.”  These might divide just like cells do [sic], with each new bag carrying the chemicals to restart—or replicate—the original cycle.  In this way, “genetic” information could be passed down

The word “genetic” is in quotes because that’s a pretty loose application of a word so closely tied to information storage and retrieval.
    The article jumps to discussing work by other researchers who found a microbe that runs a simple reaction cycle via two proteins.  One of them leaped to the conclusion that “This cycle is where all evolution emanated from.”  James Ferry (Penn State) continued triumphantly, “It is the father of all life.”  Shapiro, wearing his realism hat again, countered skeptically that something had to create the two proteins.  Probability studies show this to be astronomically unlikely (see online book).  He ended with a proverb, “We have to let nature instruct us.”

Michael Schirber easily wins Stupid Evolution Quote of the Week with his dazzling, death-defying leap, “Somewhere on Earth, close to 4 billion years ago, a set of molecular reactions flipped a switch and became life.”  What could be more simple than flipping a switch?  He flipped a switch, all right, but in the OFF direction, turning the light of honest science into darkness.  Ferry wins a close second for his zinger about a reaction cycle (in a living microbe) being the “father of all life.”
    Robert Hazen (George Mason U) made a great pitch for Metabolism-First in his 2006 lecture series for The Teaching Company, “Origins of Life.”  It’s interesting to hear him waffle between grandiose optimism and the hard realities of the lab.  In the end he has nothing more than visions and hope to keep him going in the face of repeated honest admissions of serious and fundamental challenges no matter what approach is used.  (In addition, he describes in some detail the partisanship and bickering between competing groups.)  Never do any of the workers in origin-of-life research entertain the slightest possibility that materialism might be the wrong answer.  They cannot, because they have already convinced themselves philosophically that science and materialistic philosophy are one and the same.
    Unfortunately for them, Metabolism First is another dead end.  Why wait for the capitulation speech?  We already know that genetics is essential to life.  Metabolic reactions cannot code for function; they can only run in circles.  Planets run in circles, too, but they are not alive.  For a metabolic cycle to grow, adapt, “learn” (note Shapiro’s illegal anthropomorphism), and respond to stimuli, it must store information and reproduce itself accurately; and (because all life is built on DNA and proteins), it has to find a way to form these thermodynamically-unfavorable molecules de novo and get them to co-opt the cycle in some kind of genetic takeover.  But Shapiro already knows that proteins and nucleic acids capable of storing information and functioning as cellular machines are astronomically improbable.  Adding improbabilities to improbabilities does not produce probabilities, or even possibilities.  It produces impossibilities, unless one cheats by attributing wants, needs and purposes to the inanimate (see personification fallacy).
    Materialistic origin-of-life research has been stumbling backward into the darkness.  Researchers keep themselves entertained not with success in the lab, but with ego, bravado and hype, which is only whistling in the dark.  Claiming the problem is simple (a big lie) is like shutting one’s eyes in a dark cave.  The only way out of the cave is to flip the switch to the ON position.  The switches are everywhere, readily felt on the walls.  Yes, Robert, we must let nature teach us.  Only determination to walk in darkness obscures the clear, well-lit view of the vital necessity of information, and its source: intelligence.

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