June 13, 2017 | David F. Coppedge

Origin-of-Life Theories Cheat

If accountants cooked the books like this, they’d serve jail time.

Suppose your financial planner tells you, “I have good news and bad news. The good news is that in five years, you’ll be a billionaire! The bad news is that you need to come up with 750 million dollars that I can invest for you.” That’s what evolutionary origin-of-life theorizing is like. As long as they can cheat, they can accomplish anything.

Cheating in the Ingredients

Matthew Powner and Jack Szostak are “circus toymakers” in what reporter Susan Mazur calls The Origin of Life Circus (Caswell Books, 2016). Their most recent toys are the four nucleotides that make up RNA: two purines and two pyrimidines. Because getting these to form under simulated early-earth conditions has been a challenge for 50 years, NASA’s Astrobiology Magazine throws a party for them, called “How RNA formed at the origins of life“:

In a study, published today [5/24/17] in Nature Communications and funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the Simons Foundation and the Origins of Life Challenge, researchers from UCL, Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital suggest a single chemical mechanism by which both classes of nucleotides – purines and pyrimidines – could have formed together….

Purine and pyrimidine nucleotides are used to create the DNA and RNA. The purine and pyrimidine nucleotides bind to one another through specific molecular interactions that provide a mechanism to copy and transfer information at the molecular level, which is essential for genetics, replication and evolution. Therefore understanding the origins of nucleotides is thought to be key to understanding the origins of life itself.

Sounds impressive till you uncover the cheating. In their paper in Nature Communications, you have to look deep in the Supplementary Information PDF file. But there it is: they bought their ribose from a supplier! That’s like the 750 million dollars you have to cough up before you get your billion. Ribose, the sugar on which these bases depends, has been devilishly hard for the circus toymakers to make, because it falls apart in water and is extremely delicate to work with (see the Illustra Film Origin). So yeah, if you buy it at the supply house and treat it very carefully under intelligently-designed conditions, you might get something you want. But from what supply house did mindless chance buy its ribose? Did NASA tell you about that?

The probability of getting a meaningful sequence is nil.

The cheating is actually much, much worse. Cheating often depends on distraction. Powner and NASA lead the audience to think that some great breakthrough has been made in the origin of life, but actually, getting the building blocks is the easy part. Some building blocks, like amino acids, form naturally under various conditions (although they do NOT link up in water). Nucleotides are tougher to make, but they are still nothing more than building blocks. So while the audience is distracted looking at nucleotides, the cheaters fail to mention that the big challenge for the origin of life is sequencing the building blocks into information-rich polymers (proteins, nucleic acids and sugars) that have biological function. That has to come about by chance—totally out of the question (again, see the film Origin). On top of that, the building blocks have to be one-handed, or they won’t work, and that, too, has to happen by chance—again, totally out of the question (read this). The paper says nothing about these little ‘details’. So what does this have to do about the emergence of life on earth? Precious little. This circus act is all clown and no money.

Cheating in the Recipe

Another team recognizes the sequencing problem, but cheats to get a workable sequence to ’emerge’ (one of the origin-of-life cheaters’ favorite magic words). How do they accomplish this? Through “chaotic flows,” Phys.org says — “Chaotic flows and the origin of life.” The setup teases the audience with suspense:

Scientists have long known that the building blocks of life – amino acids, nucleobases and sugars – were present in the early ocean, but they were very low in concentration. In order for life to emerge, these building blocks needed to be combined and enriched into long-chain macromolecules. Identifying the process and mechanism driving this synthesis has been one of the largest questions concerning the origin of life.

Believe it or not, these wizards from Texas A&M address the problem by conjuring up “complex and chaotic” flow patterns in models of hydrothermal vents. And then, they compare this ‘mechanism’ to Lava Lamps and patterns you get when you stir cream into your coffee. Has anyone had a meaningful message appear in a Lava Lamp or coffee cup lately? Any life emerge?

The article never resolves the suspense. The authors point to the fact that chaotic flows might cause rocks (like carbonates) to form at the vents. What does that have to do with life? Zero. Zilch. Nada. But they got their ideas published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, claiming that they discovered “a mechanism that may have played a major role in combining these dilute chemical building blocks into the long-chain macromolecules necessary for life.”

Making chains does nothing to solve the sequencing problem. If random building blocks are meaningless on the floor, they are going to be equally meaningless arranged by chance into chains. Throwing kids’ alphabet blocks into a tornado would be just as promising.

Here’s the mentality that drives these clowns. They say, ‘We’re here, and since creation is illegal, it must have happened somehow. We’ll just work on individual pieces of the big picture.” We have used two analogies to show how asinine this is.

In one analogy, we said that scientists have scattered pieces of a puzzle but no box top (5/01/08). They sketch out what they think the picture should be, and start trying to fit pieces into their model. But if their imagined picture is false, what’s going to happen? All their busy work will be in vain. They will never arrive at the true picture.

In the second analogy, we pictured a canyon representing the gulf between non-life and life (5/22/02). The origin-of-life clowns believe that material processes built a bridge across the canyon, so they imagine parts of a bridge that might fit. One team hires a helicopter to hold a piece of steel out in mid-air, then publishes a scientific paper claiming that this piece fits their model of a possible bridge. But it hangs on nothing! When the helicopter lets go, the steel falls to the floor of the canyon. Another team imagines a protrusion on the non-life side of the canyon providing a scaffold on which a bridge might ’emerge.’ Each team works on various pieces of an imaginary bridge that chance built, feeling rewarded that they are solving one of the great mysteries of science. But a bridge will never emerge by chance. For one thing, the teams have different models for bridges and how to build them, and each team likes to falsify the other team’s model, saying it won’t work. For another, the pieces of models do not fit each other. A more important objection is that chance does not want to build a bridge, and chance cannot build a bridge. Again, these are all exercises in futility.

Don’t we see natural bridges? Yes, occasionally, but they are already present before the stream carves out the channel underneath. The same is true for natural arches. Chance never constructs a bridge of multiple parts for the purpose of allowing entities to get across. And if you have a sufficiently wide canyon, no natural process will ever build a bridge. For the origin of life, it would be like building a bridge across the universe. And that’s being generous to the materialists (again, see the film Origin).

One thing we know from uniform experience: complex bridges that permit orderly travel across canyons are built by intelligent design. That’s a positive argument for design, not a god-of-the-gaps argument. Who has a gap argument but the person who has ruled out design from the get-go, and must resort to chaotic flows or magical ’emergence’ to maintain a materialistic worldview? If we’ve learned anything from the last 66 years since the Miller experiment, it’s that the canyon has been growing wider and wider than anyone ever thought. Chance-of-the-gaps was impossible then; it is unthinkable now.

Cheaters will not prosper. Let’s shut down the clown act and get back to scientific causes that we know from our uniform experience are necessary and sufficient to explain the phenomenon in question: life.



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  • Baritone says:

    Do materialists really believe that knowing how something did not happen really gets us closer to knowing how it happened? If one is limited to a certain number of ways a thing may come about and then by process of elimination one may finally arrive at the correct answer, this might work. But, when there may be infinite numbers of ways to explore, one could have a never ending job.
    Maybe that is the scheme. Not the gaining of knowledge, but the gaining of money.

  • NewEarth says:

    You can throw in Gerald Joyce with his intelligently designed Lab protected ecosystem and intelligent designer Enzymes for his mythical RNA World right along with Matthew Powner and Jack Szostak.

  • Buho says:

    “For another, the pieces of models do not fit each other.”

    The bridge analogy is really good, David! It captures the subtleties of the debate.

    Baritone, here’s a simple process of elimination: chance, law, or design? This captures the universe of possibilities. There is no 4th option.

    What’s funny is experts in chance know that chance is insufficient, so (ignoring design) they conclude it must be law. Experts in natural law know that law is insufficient, so (ignoring design) they conclude it must be chance. Heaven forbid they talk to each other!

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