May 16, 2016 | David F. Coppedge

OOL Without Bluffing Is Nothing

Count the hopeful “could” words in a speculative NASA Astrobiology myth.

Origin-of-life (OOL) research is no nearer to its dreams of accounting for life’s emergence than it was in 1953, when Stanley Miller sparked the wrong gases. Back then, evolutionists, journalists and teachers became entranced with how life “could” happen. The only progress in the past six decades has been the growing sophistication of their ignorance. The field has divided into two major camps (genetics-first and metabolism-first) who routinely falsify each other’s latest claims (e.g., compare 1/06/08 with 2/15/07).

It’s essential for the funders at NASA and NSF to keep hope alive. They do this with clever rhetorical tricks, including personification fallacies, sidestepping, visualization, the power of suggestion, half-truths and red herrings. All these are evident in a NASA Astrobiology puff piece about so-called “molecular midwives that gave birth to RNA” (pardon; your personification fallacy is showing). Elizabeth Powell, chief cheerleader, introduces the quarterback before the game:

“The origin of RNA is something I’ve been working on for two decades,” said Nicholas Hud, head of the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Center for Chemical Evolution, where researchers are attempting to figure out how life began. “It is easy to speculate that some other molecule came before RNA, but determining the structure of molecules that might actually have come before RNA is a major challenge for chemists.”

But can he tackle the challenge after two decades of trying? Hud knows that RNA is unstable, so he works on “pre-RNA” or “proto-RNA” instead (5/10/16). The referees should call foul on each one of his plays:

  1. Proflavine can make RNA more stable, he says, but then admits that “proflavine is not a potentially prebiotic molecule“.
  2. The “RNA World” hypothesis gets a quick mention, but then we learn that “After decades of unsuccessful attempts to create RNA in model prebiotic (non-biological) reactions, many chemists that study the origin of life believe that there must have been some other RNA-like polymer before RNA.”
  3. RNA is “the product of evolution,” Howell suggests, but there can be no natural selection before accurate replication.
  4. Howell mentions a simpler molecule crafted by Krishnamurthy called “iso-GNA”, but it doesn’t form stable complexes without intercalators like proflavine (which, Hud said, is “not a potentially prebiotic molecule”). But no other “possible prebiotic polymers” are mentioned.
  5. Becoming broadminded can be a good thing, but Hud and Krishnamurthy find themselves needing to “broaden their view of which molecules might have come before RNA.

In short, they have nothing but hope that someday in the future somebody might find empirical evidence for things that are so far only “tempting to speculate” about.

These two researchers and their co-workers are currently trying to find a possible ancestor of RNA that is able to spontaneously form from molecules that were present on the early Earth. They remain more open than ever to the idea that some molecules not seen in life today may have been necessary to get life started, perhaps molecules that we could view as the “midwives” that helped give “birth” to RNA.

It’s impossible for a molecule to be a midwife, or for anything not alive to give birth. But even if RNA is “born,” it is not alive. What characterizes life is the genetic programming and molecular machinery that achieve homeostasis against the natural tendencies of chemistry. Membranes, for instance, oppose natural osmosis with cellular machines that perform active transport against concentration gradients. Genetic codes employ molecular machines to proofread and repair the natural tendencies of chemistry and thermodynamics to degrade information.

The perhapsimaybecouldness index (PCI) in the article is off the charts.

  • Could: 5x, as in “the first of these polymers could be called a ‘proto-RNA‘ and each evolutionary step between proto-RNA and current RNA is a ‘pre-RNA.’
  • Might: 6x, as in “small molecules might have helped the synthesis of RNA, or the original ancestor of RNA, if RNA came later.”
  • Possible: 5x, as in “These two researchers and their co-workers are currently trying to find a possible ancestor of RNA”.
  • Potential: 4x, as in “RNA looks potentially older and more versatile than DNA, so many scientists believe that RNA came before DNA.”
  • May: 3x, as in “Hud notes that proflavine is not a potentially prebiotic molecule, but was used in their study as a model for the type of intercalator molecules that may have been available on early Earth.”
  • Perhaps: 1x, as in ‘perhaps molecules that we could view as the “midwives” that helped give “birth” to RNA.’
  • Speculate: 1x, as in “It is easy to speculate that some other molecule came before RNA.”

That’s 24 bet-hedging words out of 1,144 words in the short article, a whopping 2% PCI. Is it balanced by any observable, empirical, repeatable scientific work that directly bears on the question of OOL, or at least on the origin of RNA? We find that the words “lab” or “experiment” are completely absent. “Test” is used once in reference to a hypothetical situation that doesn’t matter in any plausible prebiotic conditions: “testing the ability of an intercalator to facilitate the pairing of Krishnamurthy’s molecule (iso-GNA) with RNA.” And the stem for “observe” appears only 3 times, all in connection with the same iso-GNA molecule, which is not implicated in the origin of life, but only looks “simpler” than RNA.

Howell ends, “Funding for the research was provided by the National Science Foundation (which funds CCE more generally) and a grant from the NASA Astrobiology Institute element of the Astrobiology Program at NASA.”

Yes, it is easy to speculate. Hud is speculating on taxpayer dollars. He speculates he can keep his job by looking busy accomplishing nothing at government expense (see 6/25/14 commentary). He gets away with it because non-naturalistic explanations for life have been ruled out from the start. What’s left is a playpen for childish notions of buildings without builders, machines without designers, and libraries without writers. Let your imagination go with those criteria, and the possibilities are endless.

Good time to read what Steve Benner told Susan Mazur (see 12/31/13). Compare his honesty and call for transparency with the speculative mythmaking in Howell’s article.


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