Primordial Soup as a Wizard's Potion
Certain concepts in materialistic origin of life seem to have more to do with witchcraft than reputable science.
If “space aliens” were replaced by “gods”, “primordial soup” were replaced by “witches’ brew,” and “building blocks of life” were replaced by “magic potion” in modern origin-of-life lingo, would it be less scientific? If spells could be cast by computer, would they be less occultic? All such terms provide similar functions: conjuring up mental pictures that lure one into a gratifying sense of numinous awe, deep understanding and control over the forces of nature. It might be different if the origin-of-life (OOL) field had something to show for itself after decades of work. But as the following headlines show, there’s more mythology to report than science—maybe witchcraft, even. One might say that the wishful incantations over Stanley Miller’s fiery spark-discharge bubbling cauldrons have only brought double double toil and trouble.
Wizard’s book of spells: Like Lucy at the incantation book in Coriakin’s palace, David Deamer pores over the magical spells of OOL published by Franklin M. Harold in his new book, In Search of Cell History: The Evolution of Life’s Building Blocks. In this Nature book review, Deamer “welcomes a synthesis of what we know about the origins of life, as told by a master in the field.” This “wonderful book,” Deamer says, is by a magician for magicians: “This is, after all, a story to conjure with — that of how life began and evolved into eukaryotic cells, a hundred trillion of which compose the human body.” Surprisingly, though, Deamer does have “a quibble” with the master sorcerer:
I do have a quibble. Harold argues that, notwithstanding the vast literature, progress has gone little beyond the findings of Soviet biochemist Alexander Oparin and British polymath J. B. S. Haldane more than 80 years ago, when they independently argued that Louis Pasteur‘s dictum ‘All life from life’ was wrong. Oparin and Haldane theorized that life may have emerged on a sterile prebiotic Earth through a series of chemical and physical processes.
I confess to being more optimistic than Harold. There has been extraordinary progress in understanding the principles by which life works at the molecular level, and that can be applied to the question of how life begins. Over the past eight decades, it has become clear that the basic molecules of life can be synthesized through well-understood chemical reactions. The Strecker synthesis, for instance, produced amino acids from methane, ammonia, hydrogen and water vapour in Stanley Miller’s famous 1950s experiment testing the Oparin–Haldane hypothesis. Furthermore, amino acids, nucleobases and lipid-like molecules — the building blocks of life — are present in carbon-containing meteorites. That makes it entirely plausible that similar organic compounds were available on the prebiotic Earth, waiting to be caught up in whatever process led to life’s beginning.
Forgot the sulfate: The bat wings and spider eyes were fine, but the OOL witches forgot the sulfate, Astrobiology Magazine suggests: “Life in Earth’s Primordial Sea Was Starved for Sulfate.” Would the experiments had turned out differently without it? “At these trace amounts, sulfate would have been poorly mixed and short-lived in the oceans,” Sean Crowe says of new estimates that are thousands of times lower than previous estimates. “—and this sulfate scarcity would have shaped the nature, activity and evolution of early life on Earth.”
Alien soda: On Space.com, Charles Q. Choi speculates that “Alien Life Could Thrive on ‘Supercritical’ CO2 Instead of Water.” Anything is possible when observations are hard to come by. Maybe alien life could drink lava, or even enjoy cyanide in its coffee. One astrobiologist enjoys this armchair activity: “I always have been interested in possibly exotic life and creative adaptations of organisms to extreme environments,” says Dirk Schulze-Makuch from Washington State.
Brew recipe: For Live Science, Chidinma Okparanta of the National Institutes of Health provided a shopping list for primordial soup. In “Cells By the Number: Facts About the Building Blocks of Life,” Okparanta tossed out what look like random numbers – 0.003, 1665, 200, 3 to 5, 120, 24, and and 50-70 billion. To these numbers he assigned values from the biology of living things, such as 120 days for the lifetime of a red blood cell, and 3.8 billion: “That’s how many years ago scientists believe the first known cells originated on Earth.” There are 200 cell types in the human body, the article says.
Overseas delivery: Glycerol, a “key building block of life,” could have come from space, researchers at the University of Hawaii imagine. They even cooked some up in their ultra high vacuum cauldron. The other wizards must not like the fact that “This work challenges an alternative theory that glycerol and other prebiotic cell components were synthesized on Earth under hydrothermal conditions.”
Through the looking glass: Has the key to the dark secret room of the origin of homochirality been found? Robert F. Service, writing in Science Magazine, offers hope to the dejected. First, the bad news:
Thirty years ago, researchers including Gerald Joyce, then a graduate student at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, California, showed that if a nucleotide with the opposite handedness was incorporated into a growing D- or L-RNA complementary strand, it shut down all further growth. “It acted like poison,” says Joyce, who is now at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego.
This discovery raised a conundrum for origin-of-life researchers that they’ve struggled with ever since. Before life got its start, D- and L-nucleotides would likely have been equally abundant in the primordial soup. If so, how would RNA enzymes ever have managed to get the RNA copying process going without it being poisoned?
Chief OOL wizards Gerald Joyce and Jack Szostak come to Robert’s service by proposing that a particular RNA ribozyme they engineered via “test tube evolution” (a form of intelligent design) was able to assemble RNA strands of one hand out of a mixture. That “could” have been the secret in the primordial soup, but the wizards will never know: “However, Szostak says, it still begs the question of where such D-RNA and L-RNA ribozymes would have come from in the first place. The answer may be forever lost to history, Joyce says.” The article was followed by a shouting match between low-information creationists and evolutionists in the Comments.
Scripps Institute paraded its chief wizard Gerald Joyce before the multitudes, celebrating his “test tube evolution” experiment that he thinks supports his long-championed “RNA World” recipe for OOL brew (2/15/07, 7/11/02), supported by federal grants by NASA and the NIH (what this has to do with national health is anyone’s guess). The press release (but not the origin of life) was replicated on Science Daily.
Soup comin’ right up: NASA’s Astrobiology Magazine is giddy to announce that “Scientists create possible precursor to life.” A precursor to life is obviously not alive, but that’s just a technicality. It’s quite a leap from the “building blocks of life” to a “protocell” (which is also not alive, at least until natural selection kicks in, they think), but Europeans may have struck a flint: OOL researchers at the Center for Fundamental Living Technology (FLINT) at the University of Southern Denmark conjured up a virtual protocell in their computers. In the real world, the article notes, polypeptide strings break up in water, and any lucky protein-like string would not replicate without enzymes. In the computer, though, miracles are possible. “In our computer simulation – our virtual molecular laboratory – information strings began to replicate quickly and efficiently as expected.” That’s because they programmed the computer (their “virtual pot” or cauldron) with that expectation, to generate strings and make them interact. Did they try this in a real-world sterile flask? Nope. “We of course don’t know if life actually was created this way,” they say; “– but it could have been one of the steps” (see perhapsimaybecouldness index).
Do you need any further evidence that OOL research is a modern form of witchcraft? To these sophisticated animists, Nature is animated with the spirit of progress. Dreamer Deamer thought it “entirely plausible that similar organic compounds were available on the prebiotic Earth, waiting to be caught up in whatever process led to life’s beginning.” He himself is caught up in the spell. Too bad real chemicals don’t do what they’re supposed to do. “Whatever process” — there’s science for you. Whatever. Stuff happens; it’s a law of nature. It makes predictions, doesn’t it? If something happens, you know there was stuff around. Just add the building blocks of life to the primordial soup with a little bat wing and spider eye, make the right incantation, and poof! It’s alive!
Scientific realism should take seriously the work James F. Coppedge published back in 1973, 20 years after the Miller Myth took over the world. One of the first modern writers to use the phrase “intelligent design,” Coppedge showed beyond reasonable doubt (far, far beyond reasonable doubt), that the probability of life’s origin by chance was so astronomically low, it was totally and completely unreasonable to imagine life arising without an intelligent cause. Portions of the book are available online, but we hope to make an eBook copy of his classic available within a year.