Origin-of-Life Speculation Goes Off the Rails
Astrobiologists and their accomplices in the media are finding life everywhere where it isn’t or couldn’t be. Time to call in the science rangers.
Panspermia is back: According to PhysOrg, noted Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb is seriously considering panspermia again. Problem is: life has to evolve somewhere else before it can “spread around the universe” as his fictional scenario proposes:
“It is possible for life to be carried by rocks which are ejected from one planet, after an impact by an asteroid, and land on another planet. This can happen by chance if the two planets are in the same planetary system or, with smaller likelihood, if they are in different systems. Although this process is possible, we have no evidence for it,” said Abraham Loeb, chair of the Department of Astronomy at the Harvard University, in an interview with Phys.org.
Lots of things are possible but lacking in evidence. If a pig had wings, it could fly. “Intelligent life can spread intentionally with a higher probability,” he adds. “We have no evidence for that, either.” But he thinks if aliens showed up it would solve Fermi’s Paradox. So if it got here intentionally, would Loeb acknowledge the validity of intelligent design?
Instant life: Just add carbon: Secular science reporters have gone nuts with the suggestion that life began 300 million years earlier than previously thought (this from a PNAS paper finding “potentially biogenic carbon” in Aussie zircons claimed to be 4.1 billion years old). Can isotopes of graphite in a zircon really say that? Isn’t graphite like pencil lead? It doesn’t matter. If life appeared so early on Earth, it must not be hard for sterile rocks and liquids to cook it up. Ergo: life must be plentiful throughout the universe. So the unguided pencil wrote.
Soup kitchen for researchers down on their logic: Nature’s new open-access journal Scientific Reports teases with this paper’s headline: “Primordial soup was edible: abiotically produced Miller-Urey mixture supports bacterial growth.” Uh, so what? Bacteria are alive. “Sixty years after the seminal Miller-Urey experiment that abiotically produced a mixture of racemized amino acids, we provide a definite proof that this primordial soup, when properly cooked, was edible for primitive organisms,” the scientists say. Of course, they had to take out the cyanide first. The papers Materials and Methods section shows a lot of frenetic activity in the kitchen. After “dried and reconstituted MU soup” was served, the bacteria liked the glycine and alanine (two abundant amino acids the bacteria already ingest). But how did the alleged “primitive organisms” get by without the cooks to take out the poison first? “The dominant material in the water trap” of the Miller-Urey experiment, they admit, “is a complex mixture of organic molecules, including aldehydes and cyanides, as well as ‘tar’, mostly insoluble in water.” Generally, bacteria don’t like that stuff. They commit cyanide and die. Before making too much of this paper, be sure to read the fine print:
It would be too simplistic to suggest that, because of the availability and even abundance on early Earth of accumulated prebiotically synthesized organic molecules, life must have originated on our planet from these compounds. Almost inevitably, early life would need to include rather unstable molecules that could not have accumulated in large quantities because of their short life time, such as RNAs….
In interpreting the results of our study, it is important to remember that, on the one hand, modern organisms, such as E. coli, have arguably much more sophisticated metabolic machinery than primitive life forms.
But then, maybe alien life from outer space came and found all these molecules delicious. “If early life has come from other planets or star systems in a more or less developed form, as the panspermia hypothesis suggests, the abundance of primitive but edible food Earth provided for this early life might have been a decisive factor that determined its survival on our planet.” But Dr. Scientist, where did those life forms come from?
Secular garden of Eden: Science Daily‘s coverage of the above PNAS paper contains a curious note. If life appeared early, then “we need to think differently about the early Earth.” (See also Science Magazine‘s concurrence.) It couldn’t have been the hot, dry, steamy world the artists have all been drawing for a century or more. Life must have survived that Late Heavy Bombardment without much trouble. “The early Earth certainly wasn’t a hellish, dry, boiling planet; we see absolutely no evidence for that,” Harrison said. “The planet was probably much more like it is today than previously thought.” Maybe it was a kind of paradise after the dry land emerged from the waters on the 3rd eon. And chance saw that it was good. Don’t tell the overlords, though, what happened on the 5th eon:
“Life on Earth may have started almost instantaneously,” added Harrison, a member of the National Academy of Sciences. “With the right ingredients, life seems to form very quickly.“
Shattered dreams: “Moon’s Shattered Crust Could Shed Light on Earth Life’s Origins,” a Space.com headline screams. So what does a debris field in outer space have to do with red roses on your daughter’s wedding day? It’s a stretch, for sure. “The moon’s battered surface could help scientists understand how life first took root on Earth.” The reasoning is simple. If the moon got blasted, so did Earth. Presto! Life. Some “scientists” have “suggested” that “these collisions may have provided the energy to jump-start the chemistry of life,” (Note: jumper cables not included.) This theory should be testable. Shoot sterile bullets into sterile rock and see what happens. Aside from that gigantic leap of faith, this speculation by an MIT astrobiologist depends on the theoretical Late Heavy Bombardment, which was recently called into question (10/19/15).
Martian civilizations: Bouncing off the new Hollywood movie The Martian, PhysOrg asks a scientist what kind of life there might be on the red planet, given that water was recently claimed to be seen flowing down gullies in a crater wall. Astrobiologist Kenneth Nealson from USC is only cautiously pessimistic. “We’ve discovered water so many times on Mars that when someone else says they’ve discovered water—my impulse is to get a copy of the paper and see if there’s anything new.” From the recent paper, the only thing new is that water appears to exist now, not just in the past. He discounts, however, the hydrobioscopic leap from water to life. Nealson does dream of the day when life is found beyond the Earth. “It would completely redefine the issue of, ‘what is life?’ And despite my skepticism, that is what we, as scientists, live for.” Better be sure the redefinition includes humans, or he will be dead. Matthew Francis asks the question “What is Life?” on PhysOrg, but then shrugs. “Wise souls such as Charles Darwin skipped over such philosophical shenanigans,” he says. Ah, but to call philosophy a shenanigan is to take a philosophical position nonetheless. Maybe he and Charles are zombies.
The whole Enceladus with chilly: A teasing article on PhysOrg about Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus uses the L-word life no less than 10 times. The author Matt Williams, deep under the influence of sci-fi, could use a little livelier grammar checker. “n [sic] the ongoing drive to unlock the secrets of Saturn and its system of moons, some truly fascinating and awe-inspiring things have been discovered. In addition to things like methane lakes and propane-rich atmospheres (Titan) to moon’s [sic] that resemble the Death Star (Mimas), it is also becoming abundantly clear that planet’s [sic] beyond Earth may harbor interior oceans and even the [sic] extra-terrestrial organisms.” Thinking about the geysers, he exclaims, “These, in turn, raise the possibility of liquid water beneath the surface, and possibly even life!” Note to Matt: water and life are two different things.
Clash of the Titans and Krakens: “What kind of life would we find on Titan?” PhysOrg asks, leaping over the obvious prior question, Is there life on Titan? There is absolutely no evidence for it, and it seems highly unlikely, given that Titan is 290 degrees below zero Fahrenheit and has no liquid water. Sitting in as Speculator of the Day is Paul Patton, who fantasizes about ‘sea monsters’ in Titan’s large Kraken lake filled with oil. For an appearance of scientific validity, he relies on some notions Cornell scientists have speculated about. Without lab work, they have imagined membranes without phospholipids used by all life we know, using mythical azotosomes. What’s most notable about their speculations is the number of things they have ruled out of the realm of possibility. Patton still can’t get his mind off sea monsters, though. If not on Titan, maybe they’re out there somewhere. “Perhaps, on some worlds, methane life evolves into complex forms that we can scarcely imagine,” he ends. “Maybe some of them are even a bit like sea monsters.”
Some origin-of-life researchers are trying to deal with real-world chemistry. Here are a couple of recent examples.
Selective synthesis: Chemists in Spain are experimenting with ways to selectively synthesize organic molecules using a biocatalyst called FSA from E. coli bacteria, according to Science Daily. “This is a significant step forward since it replicates the formation of carbohydrates in conditions resembling those that presumably initiated life on Earth (prebiotic conditions) and because it allows relatively large organic molecules to be obtained very selectively and efficiently,” they say, boasting about potential applications in the real world. But does this really have any relevance to the origin of life? You can’t start with a complex enzyme from a living organism that is already capable of function. Even though they are trying to simplify the synthesis of certain carbohydrates, all they are really showing is the difficulty of getting natural chemicals to combine without intelligent guidance:
The metabolism of carbohydrates in living organisms is a complex process, forged over millions of years of evolution. It is no easy task to carry out these processes in a flask, whether by assembling the enzymes involved in the process or by manipulating the metabolic pathways of living organisms. Nor is it simple to obtain carbohydrates with conventional chemical methods, which require several stages and the use of organic solvents.
They’re trying to prove that complex molecules can be built out of simpler ones, but they are manipulating chemicals against their natural tendencies by using a biological enzyme they are manipulating to reach their own design goals. This is known as investigator interference. They are also assuming that chance did it in the past without a mind or a goal. “Over millions of years, living organisms have forged these metabolic strategies to obtain the carbohydrates they need to survive,” they say. What they are doing has no relation to unguided chance, despite their claim that they are “mimicking the prebiotic formation of carbohydrates from compounds that were probably around in the world before life began.” Do they know that? Does this qualify as serious research when it entails assumptions that beg the question of whether natural processes can create life?
Problem solving: A short article on Astrobiology Magazine tries to deal honestly with the “water problem” and the “asphalt problem” in origin-of-life research. The “water problem” concerns the thermodynamic tendency of prebiotic building blocks to fall apart rather than combine in water. One possible solution is to get them to join in formamide rather than water. The “asphalt problem” is the tendency of carbohydrates to suffer from damaging cross-reactions that form tars rather than useful molecules. A possible solution to that is to add borate to the formamide. Each hypothesis, though, complicates the theory and looks less plausible for prebiotic conditions. Even then, it’s not enough. They have to propose that RNA came in to save the day, because it “can store a part of the genetic information in cells and can also act like enzymes to increase the rates of chemical reactions important for life.” Now, if the NASA-funded scientists can just get the RNA to form….
RNA World, seriously: Current Biology‘s special issue on “The History of Life on Earth” contained an entry about the old RNA World scenario that the Astrobiology Mag guys trust in so much. Pressmen, Blanco and Chen discuss “The RNA World as a Model System to Study the Origin of Life” in the kitchen, wondering “How might life arise from a chemical soup?” They find cause for optimism over this “difficult problem” in the growing number of ribozymes being discovered, the claim that “the prebiotic chemical inventory may not have been as nightmarishly complex as previously thought,” the arrival of new ideas on membranes, and the continuing discovery of other kitchens on exoplanets. Sound hopeful? This next sentence pulls the rug out: “Nevertheless, major issues remain unsolved, such as the origin of a genetic code.” Even if one gets a self-replicating ribozyme, the lack of a code leaves every trial in the dustbin of forgotten ideas. Natural selection depends on an organism able to replicate any gains to posterity, and do so accurately. They know this and try to deal with possible solutions, but the perhapsimaybecouldness index is off the charts for all of them, separately and in combination. In the end, the genetic code must have arisen by a miracle: “Much attention has also been paid to the origins of the genetic code as perhaps the pinnacle of emergent complexity during the RNA World.” Game over.
Which part did you like better, the clown show or the Ask Dr. Scientist show? They’re really one and the same.
Evolutionists love the word “emergence” in all its forms. It’s their synonym for miracle, masquerading as a natural process. We’ll call it the Poof Spoof.