July 9, 2021 | David F. Coppedge

Astrobiologists Ignore Life Complexity

To astrobiologists, cells are just emergent collections of matter.
The difficulty of getting them to emerge escapes their notice.


Planetary scientists revealed their bad habit of hydrobioscopy again this week. They reasoned, Saturn’s little moon Enceladus has water; it has methane; it could have life! Why is that their focus? Why are they ignoring the implications of youth for this little moon? Why do they picture life as something that just happens where water is found?

Methane in the Plumes of Saturn’s Moon Enceladus: Possible Signs of Life? (University of Arizona). Writer Dan Stolte in the press office titillates readers with the L-word life in his suggestive headline. “A study published in Nature Astronomy concludes that known geochemical processes can’t explain the levels of methane measured by the Cassini spacecraft on Saturn’s icy moon.” If it can’t be explained abiotically, then there’s only one other conclusion. Maybe it’s alive! (hope, hope, hope).

“Obviously, we are not concluding that life exists in Enceladus’ ocean,” Ferrière said. “Rather, we wanted to understand how likely it would be that Enceladus’ hydrothermal vents could be habitable to Earthlike microorganisms. Very likely, the Cassini data tell us, according to our models.

“And biological methanogenesis appears to be compatible with the data. In other words, we can’t discard the ‘life hypothesis’ as highly improbable. To reject the life hypothesis, we need more data from future missions,” he added.

In order to avoid charges of unscientific thinking, the scientists at U of Arizona clarify their wording. They say that life under Enceladus is “consistent” with the observations:

The authors applied new mathematical models that combine geochemistry and microbial ecology to analyze Cassini plume data and model the possible processes that would best explain the observations. They conclude that Cassini’s data are consistent either with microbial hydrothermal vent activity, or with processes that don’t involve life forms but are different from the ones known to occur on Earth.

Two models are consistent with the observed methane output: life, or non-life. The conclusion hinges on that word “likely.”

“It partly boils down to how probable we believe different hypotheses are to begin with,” he said. “For example, if we deem the probability of life in Enceladus to be extremely low, then such alternative abiotic mechanisms become much more likely, even if they are very alien compared to what we know here on Earth.”

While the epistemic modesty in that statement is commendable, Régis Ferrière (associate professor in the University of Arizona Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology) must surely be wishing for some evidence of “evolutionary biology” to show up. Astrobiology (better described as bio-astrology) remains a science without a subject. Ferrière ran some tests on biotic vs abiotic models (not using actual organisms), and concluded that the vents at Enceladus are “very likely” to be habitable to Earthlike organisms.

But wait. It’s one thing to say that Earthlike microorganisms could live out there, if they were transported from Earth to Enceladus on spaceships and dropped off. It’s something vastly different to think life emerged from nonliving substances under the miles-deep ice crust over the presumed ocean inside Enceladus. That, by all calculations done since the famous Wistar Institute symposium in 1966, is fantastically, outrageously, unthinkably improbable. It is so ridiculously improbable, the option should not even enter into any serious discussions (see video clip “The Amoeba’s Journey” from Origin by Illustra Media). So why even mention “life” at Enceladus when the only sane possibility is that it was created?

It’s clear that they don’t believe life was created, because their paper in Nature Astronomy uses the phrase “life emerging” eight times: for example, “Such insights suggest that habitable conditions on Enceladus may have existed around deep-sea vents long enough for life to emerge and methanogenesis to evolve.” They believe an utter impossibility. The guy said, “we can’t discard the ‘life hypothesis’ as highly improbable.” Oh yes they can! They should. On top of that, they believe that after the miracle of emergence, the cells learned how to generate methane. Was there ever in the history of science a crazier consensus?

Meanwhile, the same group continues to ignore the implications for youth at Enceladus. This team referred back to a 2017 paper in Science that measured the molecular hydrogen (H2) output of the Enceladus geysers. That team had found that none of the expected mechanisms could last long enough for the assumed age of the solar system (4.5 billion years). To rescue their essential moyboy belief, they proposed “other options” that might produce H2 long enough, but they completely ignored mass loss of the leading ingredient in the plumes: water ice! Enceladus is pumping out enough water to create an entire ring around Saturn. Has that gone on for 4.5 billion years? They strain at an H2 gnat and swallow an H2O camel.

Diagram of Saturn's E-ring created by Enceladus

Diagram of Saturn’s E-ring created by Enceladus. The source is that tiny dot shown in the thickest part of the ring. The ring must be replenished constantly. Has Enceladus been pumping water into this ring for billions of years?


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