January 16, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

Astrobiologists Can’t Figure Out What They Are Looking For

To look for life in space, it’s obvious one must first understand what life is.  Science Daily promised “New Answers to an Age-Old Question in Astrobiology” i.e., but delivered only suggestions, four contradictory opinions, and more questions.
    According to the article, most of the latest issue of the journal Astrobiology1 is devoted to trying to answer the question “What is Life?”  The articles are open-access and thus available to the public.

  1. Introducing the problem:  In his introductory article,1 David Deamer (UC Santa Cruz) asked whether a definition of life is even possible.  He listed eight requirements and asked if they could be used as a definition.  Putting the list to two real world tests, it was clear that his cumbersome list did not deliver a watertight definition that provides all the necessary and sufficient conditions to distinguish life from nonlife.
  2. Appreciating the problem:  In their historical survey, Tirard, Morange and Lazcano detailed some of the failed attempts over the centuries in the “elusive endeavor” to define life.2  They concluded, “Research in the origin and nature of life is doomed to remain, at best, as a work in progress.”  Indeed, their abstract doubted progress can be made in an evolutionary context: “The many attempts made to reduce the nature of living systems to a single living compound imply that life can be so well defined that the exact point at which it started can be established with the sudden appearance of the first replicating molecule,” they said; “On the other hand, if the emergence of life is seen as the stepwise (but not necessarily slow) evolutionary transition between the non-living and the living, then it may be meaningless to draw a strict line between them.”
        In the conclusion, they admitted, “We remain lamentably ignorant about major portions of the processes that preceded life,” but remained confident an “evolutionary continuum” could describe “emergence of self-sustaining, replicative chemical systems capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution.”  In this view life would be the “evolutionary outcome of a process and not of a single, fortuitous event.”  But this belief seems to contradict what they had said in the previous paragraph that “there is a major distinction between purely physical-chemical evolution and natural selection, which is one of the hallmarks of biology.  In other words, unless a system reached a point where it had the ability to replicate its genetic information, natural selection could not be invoked.  “In spite of many published speculations, the basic nature of life cannot be understood in the absence of genetic material and Darwinian evolution,” they had said.  How could prebiotic chemicals overcome that hurdle?  Apparently, they believe it just appeared: “it is reasonable to assume that this was one of the defining properties of the first biological systems to appear.”  Perhaps it was a miracle of chance or a “fortuitous event” after all.
  3. Aristotle vs Descartes:  If you thought Aristotle was long gone from science, Mark Bedau (Reed College, Oregon) brought him back in his paper, “An Aristotelian Account of Minimal Chemical Life.”3  Rather than try to define necessary and sufficient conditions for life, as Descartes would have, he came up with a model he called PMC (program-metabolism-container) that he said “illustrates the Aristotelian approach to life, because it explains eight of life’s hallmarks, one of life’s borderline cases (the virus), and two of life’s puzzles.”
        Bedau had a lot to say about information, using the word 13 times (even in “information processing”), and about programs, using that word 37 times, but precious little to say about how these words normally associated with intelligent design could have arisen without intelligent design.  All he had was questions: “How does life or biology arise from nonlife or pure chemistry?  How does a system undergoing merely chemical evolution, in which chemical reactions are continually changing the concentrations of chemical species, differ from one that is alive?”  One question he did not ask is whether the concept of an information processing program is even comprehensible without the assumption of intelligent causality.
  4. Another contender:  Steve Benner (U of Florida), the one whose exasperation with his own experiments led him to joke about almost wanting to become a creationist (11/05/2004), took up the question in his entry, “Defining Life.”4  In short, he embedded Darwinism in the definition, making it a case of circular reasoning: if it’s alive, it evolves (by definition); if it evolves, it’s alive (by definition).  But he reasoned that “a definition embodies a theory.”  He was just defending the definition of a NASA committee that, inspired by the late Carl Sagan, came up with the concept that life is a “self-sustaining chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution.”  From then on he called this a “definition-theory.”
        This definition led him into weird questions about aliens and robots and beings that evolve immortality, such that reproduction (and thus evolution), become obsolete.  He even asked whether humankind qualifies as life!  Strangely, he agreed that Darwinism could produce intelligent design: “Our definition-theory of life, however, excludes the possibility that computers, their viruses, or androids could have arisen without a creator that had already emerged by Darwinian process.”  So rather than robots and computers supporting intelligent design for their creators, to Benner, it supports Darwinism.  This counterintuitive assertion is a direct consequence of embedding Darwinism in to the definition of life.  Illustrating his point with nanites [molecular robots] or androids, he encompassed a kind of creationism inside of Darwinism:

    Following similar reasoning under our definition-theory, the computer in which nanites reside is not life but is evidence of a life-form that created it.  In this view, the computer is a biosignature and the nanites are an “artificial” life-form.  Any intelligence that either displays would be “artificial.”  They both are derived from a self-sustaining chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution, which must have created them.

    Are humans alive, in his definition?  The emergence of tool use in our ancestors set the stage for a non-Darwinian species, he argued.  In this connection, he agreed that Darwinian processes are cruel, wasteful and uncaring:

    For all their power to create life in the world that we know, Darwinian processes have some well-understood disadvantages.  For example, they condemn some of our children to die of genetic diseases in order to “allow” others among our children to adapt.  For every mutation that allows some children to be bigger, better, and smarter, Darwinian processes require dozens of other mutations that make some children sick.  Death from genetic maladaptation inherently goes with adaptation.

    Don’t tell a madman like Hitler this, or he might consider it his duty to help evolution along (see Richard Weikart’s new book, Hitler’s Ethic, reviewed by Evolution News, in which Weikart demonstrates that Hitler felt he was being very ethical by exterminating the unfit).  Benner quickly left the above paragraph to emphasize the benefits of intelligently-designed medicine:

    For example, technology may soon be available to identify DNA sequences that prospectively help our children survive better, marry better, and have better children.  We may soon gain the technology that allows our pediatrician to place those DNA sequences into our eggs and sperm, creating mutant children that are fitter by design.  If this happens, then our species will escape Darwinian mechanisms for improving our genes.  Our species will have become supra-Darwinian.

    Don’t tell this to eugenicists, though, who could easily try to create a super-race through genetic engineering, or decide which individuals are not worth the effort.
        Benner seems to have recognized the circle he trapped himself into with his definition: “To save our definition-theory, we might notice that even as we are happily becoming cerebral beings by prospectively altering our personal DNA by design, we still are capable of Darwinian evolution,” he reassured his readers.  “Last, we might argue that, like an intelligent android, we could not have come into being had our ancestors not first had access to Darwinian evolution.”  Another theory-rescue device he employed was to argue that the emergence of supra-Darwinian entities appears to be rare.
        Benner seemed content to stay happily inside the circle of his own making, worrying only briefly that, “We are crossing into uncharted philosophical territory here.”  Due to limitations of space, we shall leave his subsequent philosophical excursions as entertainment for curious readers.  Most of the rest of the paper was concerned with utilitarian implications of his Darwinian definition-theory, except for this gem in the conclusion: “We do what we generally do when a reality is too complex to meet our constructive needs: we ignore it and continue with a simpler, if arguably false, view” (see Thumb’s Second Postulate).

  5. The last stand:  The final paper by Sergey Tsokolov was published posthumously from a book he was working on.5  This was another approach heavily dosed with information and programming concepts.  “The main point is that the metabolism of contemporary life evolved from primitive homeostatic networks regulated by negative feedback.  Because life could not exist in their absence, feedback loops should be included in definitions of life.”
        Tsokolov believes that such negative feedback loops could emerge spontaneously from chemical processes.  While he later recognized the need for genetic control of these loops, and maintenance of the coded library, he believes the metabolism came first.  He argues that this wriggles astrobiologists out of the inevitable chicken-and-egg problem:

    It should be stressed that neither chemical nor prebiotic evolution, at least in its early stages, requires any “informational molecules,” matrix synthesis, or molecular replicationNo matter how important those properties become for further life, they are still later inventions.  Matrix synthesis is so deeply rooted in all extant forms of life, underlying the mechanism of (Darwinian) evolution, that it makes some investigators state a question: “Which was first to appear on Earth—replicating molecules or metabolic processes?” (Shapiro, 2007, p 142)…. It is true that complex replicating processes require a whole network of enzymatic activity.  However, enzymatic activity does not require a replicating process.  The origin of matrix synthesis is a separate problem, and there is no direct connection to circular NFB [negative feedback] processes or their role in the origin of life.  Otherwise we face the familiar epistemological problem of deciding the precise boundary between life and pre-life.

    But what about the origin of that genetic control, that “matrix synthesis” with all its codes, information, replication, error-correction and complexity?  Apparently Tsokolov thinks that is someone else’s problem.
        The comments of Nick Woolf, a reviewer, at the end of the paper, are instructive.  Woolf had problems with many of the claims he made.  He found holes in Tsokolov’s definition that let non-living things in and keep living things out.  One thing he did like: “I am in agreement with the author that a precise definition of life is problematic.”

It is doubtful that these papers made headway above previous inadequate attempts to define life.  When they go looking for life in space, will the astrobiologists know what constitutes success?

1.  David Deamer, “Introduction,” Astrobiology, December 2010, 10(10): 1001-1002. doi:10.1089/ast.2010.0569.
2.  Tirard, Morange and Lazcano, “The Definition of Life: A Brief History of an Elusive Scientific Endeavor,” Astrobiology, December 2010, 10(10): 1003-1009. doi:10.1089/ast.2010.0535.
3.  Mark A. Bedau, “An Aristotelian Account of Minimal Chemical Life,” Astrobiology, December 2010, 10(10): 1011-1020. doi:10.1089/ast.2010.0522.
4.  Steven A. Benner, “Defining Life,” Astrobiology, December 2010, 10(10): 1021-1030. doi:10.1089/ast.2010.0524.
5.  Sergey Tsokolov, “A Theory of Circular Organization and Negative Feedback: Defining Life in a Cybernetic Context,” Astrobiology, December 2010, 10(10): 1031-1042. doi:10.1089/ast.2010.0532.

Imagine taking a paragraph of nonsense and dressing it up in jargon.  Find a proposition that is self-refuting, circular, or guilty of any other transgressions in the Baloney Detector, and expand it into a scholarly paper filled with recondite concepts and glittering verbiage – an extended snow job.  It might be a fun exercise in the art of sophistry.  You could hardly pull off a more convincing performance than Steve Benner did in his entry.  Read it for entertainment if not for enlightenment.  Teachers may want to assign it as an exercise in critical thinking after first explaining why his premises are impossible, fact-free and question begging at every turn.
    Guess what, Steve!  A lot of people do not buy your premise that Darwinism is the be-all and end-all of existence.  Less than 20% in this country accept the line that mankind emerged from a natural process without intelligent design (see 12/19/2010).  If you want to talk nonsense in a circular echo chamber with your friends, go right ahead, but don’t call it science, and don’t think your ramblings are going to convince anyone outside.
    Oh, but we already know why you don’t care.  You’re on the take on this Astrobiology racket (the science without a subject matter – Benner’s own words, 05/01/2008) the charitable taxpayers fund for the philosophically disabled (01/07/2005, 01/08/2003).  You get to tell tall tales on the public dole (01/31/2005, 01/25/2010; remember the good one about twenty-mule-team borax? 01/09/2004), and it appears you are having a jolly good time at it.  Taxpayers who find this out might have some good spending cuts to propose to the new conservative Congress.
    The only valuable thing in your paper was to affirm what creationists complain about Darwinism: that it has nasty social consequences.  Since you have already helped yourself to Judeo-Christian values about what is good, true and beautiful, maybe you really should become a creationist after all (11/05/2004).  We also appreciate your satirical expertise in falsifying your colleagues’ unworkable ideas (05/01/2008, 12/09/2010, 01/09/2003).
    So what is life, if evolution is not the answer?  The problem with all these papers is the assumption of naturalism (materialism).  You can’t arrive at a definition of life from the bottom up.  Nothing comes from nothing; these contradictory papers illustrate that.  One guy puts the dividing line at metabolism, another at program-metabolism-container, another at natural selection, etc. etc.  No definition keeps the nonliving out and the living in.  No definition ever satisfies.  We’ve already seen two of the best origin-of-life theorists refute one another’s ideas: Shapiro with his metabolism first idea (02/15/2007) and Orgel with his genetics first idea (01/26/2008).  Astrobiologists don’t just argue in circles, they form circular firing squads.
    Life can only be understood from the top down.  Pasteur demonstrated this in the 19th century with his Law of Biogenesis: life comes from life.  Our life proceeds from the self-existent, self-eternal “I AM” who granted life to His creatures.  It is only on this foundation that life makes sense.  It is only with that world view that today’s scientists can make progress on the interesting questions at the limits of biology without shooting themselves in the foot.

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