August 13, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

Origin of Life Made Easy

As anyone knows who has been given directions and told “you can’t miss it,” sounding easy and being easy can be entirely different things.  Reporters sometimes make the most difficult step in evolution – the origin of life – look like a cinch through the use of suggestive metaphors, like the commonly-invoked phrase, “building blocks of life.”  The directions in their articles usually lead to dead ends at worst, or, at best, baby steps on a long march, most of the route TBD, a TLA (three letter acronym) meaning “to be determined.”

Tool kit:  This metaphor was presented by PhysOrg in an article entitled, “Meteorites: Tool kits for creating life on Earth.”  The main idea was that nucleobases could have been formed in meteorites and come to earth special delivery.  (Science Daily and New Scientist identified these nucleobases as adenine and guanine.)  “The earliest forms of life on Earth may have been assembled from materials delivered to Earth by meteorites,” PhysOrg said.  Jim Cleaves (Carnegie Geophysical Laboratory) added, “This shows us that meteorites may have been molecular tool kits, which provided the essential building blocks for life on Earth.”

Plausible precursor:  This metaphor was offered by Science Daily, “Study Builds On Plausible Scenario for Origin of Life On Earth.”  The study, conducted at Scripps, attempted to find precursors to RNA.  The article repeatedly spoke of RNA precursors, not RNA itself, which depends on the difficult-to-synthesize sugar ribose (“Did borax evolve into 20-mule teams?”, 01/09/2004).  What these precursors are was not identified, but the very word precursor uses the power of suggestion to invoke images of progress.

Evolutionary force driving simple to complex:  “Is this how simple life got complicated?” an article PhysOrg teased.  Within the article, Andrew Murray invoked the image of an “evolutionary force” that led single cells to leap to multicellular life forms.  But what he studied was how living yeast cells seem to do better in clumps than individually.  Yeast cells already have the cellular machinery that challenges theories of the origin of life. 

These analogies vastly oversimplify what goes on in living cells.  For instance, this article on Science Daily used the word machine and machinery 16 times, describing how DNA is acted on by protein machines that provide quality control during cell division.  Without cell division, evolution cannot act, because it needs to naturally select copies, or offspring.

Dr. Robert Shapiro knows that a living cell is anything but simple.  He has said that the leap from simple molecules to a cell is greater than the distance between a bacterium and an elephant (cited on  In Nature last week (August 4),1 he reviewed David Deamer’s new book First Life: Discovering the Connections between Stars, Cells, and How Life Began (University of California Press, 2011).  Shapiro criticized Deamer’s hypothesis that life began in droplets surrounded by fatty acids.  In fact, all simplistic scenarios overlook the complexity of life as we know it:

Today, the simplest living cells depend on molecules that are far more intricate than those that have been isolated from sources unrelated to life (abiotic), such as meteorites. The most noteworthy chemical substances in life are functioning polymers — large molecules made of smaller units called monomers, connected in a specific order. The nucleic acids RNA and DNA, carriers of genetic information and heredity, are made of connected nucleotide monomers. Similarly, proteins are vital polymer catalysts that are made by combining monomer amino acids. Such modern biological constructions were unlikely to have been present on the early Earth.

As an example, Shapiro noted that the RNA World hypothesis, while elegantly simple, is “staggeringly improbable.”  It is doubtful he would be impressed by the presence of nucleobases in a meteorite:

Nucleotides, for example, are not encountered in nature beyond organisms or laboratory synthesis. To construct RNA, high concentrations of four select nucleotides would be needed in the same location, with others being excluded. If this is the prerequisite for life, then it is an unusual phenomenon, rare in the Universe.

Deamer’s dream of a fatty vesicle as a container for the RNA world, Shapiro continued, fails for the same reason: “Unfortunately, his theory retains the improbable generation of self-replicating polymers such as RNA.”  In fact, Shapiro added, “Deamer’s insight deflates the synthetic proofs put forward in numerous papers supporting the RNA world.”  Using that unfortunate word Unfortunately once again, though, he undermined Deamer’s “insight” into spontaneous vesicle formation as essentially useless:

Unfortunately, the chemicals that he suggests for inclusion are drawn from modern biology, not from ancient geochemistry. We should let nature inform us, rather than pasting our ideas onto her.

Incidentally, Nature News said that the scientific community has largely dismissed last year’s claim that arsenic-based life was possible (see “Arsenic and Old Lake,” 12/02/2010).  Rosie Redfield (U of British Columbia) is trying to replicate the experiment by Felisa Wolfe-Simon, even though it is almost “guaranteed to fail,” according to Erika Check Hayden.  Her article, though, focused more on how blog reporting of attempts to replicate controversial experiments is changing the face of peer review.  Said Jonathan Eisen (U of California), “This is a great case study for open science, because it raises issues about peer review, it raises issues about sharing data and materials, and it raises issues about engaging the public and press more actively in science.”  The Facebook-Twitter age is opening doors of science labs, where both good and bad can be seen in near real time.

1. Robert Shapiro, “Astrobiology: Life’s beginnings,” Nature 476 (04 August 2011), pages 30–31, doi:10.1038/476030a.

David Klinghoffer has a better metaphor for these origin-of-life stories.  Saying that molecular “building blocks of life” can form naturally is like explaining Bach’s music by saying natural sources for the ink are readily available (see Evolution News). 

One of the best recent collections of quotes on how “staggeringly improbable” the origin of life is, as understood by workers in the field, can be found in Rabbi Moshe Averick’s book Nonsense of a High Order: The Confused and Illusory World of the Atheist (Tradition and Reason Press, 2010).  In Part II, Averick quotes Shapiro and many other leaders in origin-of-life studies, making it abundantly clear from their own writings that evolutionists are completely clueless about how life started.  For instance, on pages 94-95, he quotes five leading astrobiologists admitting that the origin of life seems like a miracle.

Those quotes should be kept at hand when reading science news articles with their glittering generalities making it sound like the origin of life is easy as apple pie.  Evolutionists need to make apple pie without first assuming apples.  In fact, as Carl Sagan said in Cosmos, to really make an apple pie from scratch, you must begin by inventing the universe.  Good luck—when all you have to start with is nothing (08/09/2011).

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  • Rkyway says:

    Jim Cleaves (Carnegie Geophysical Laboratory) added, “This shows us that meteorites may have been molecular tool kits, which provided the essential building blocks for life on Earth.”
    – If a theory (or model) relies upon, and depends upon metaphors is it really science at all?

    – Only intelligent, personal agents manufacture tool kits and tools. To speak of molecular tool kits is to write as an ID proponent. We’re presented with the odd phenomenon of people who profess to be materialists speaking as if they were creationists.

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