August 6, 2022 | David F. Coppedge

Archive Classic: Astrobiology, 0 Steps Forward, 3 Steps Back

From 2005: Report of a JPL lecture on the origin of life
offers nothing but unscientific speculation


Editor’s Intro: This month we celebrate 22 years of Creation-Evolution Headlines. Occasionally I like to re-post old entries that are still instructive. This entry from 1/28/2005 is an exclusive report from a lecture on “Life Detection” that I attended at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Notice the complete absence of scientific evidence for a naturalistic origin of life. Are the astrobiologists any closer to learning how life arose without design today? No! They are even farther from it now. Notice also that I was the only one in the audience asking a pertinent question.

Note: Some embedded links may no longer work after 17 years since this was first posted.

Stanley Miller at spark-discharge apparatus, 1953

First-hand report by David F. Coppedge, 28 Jan 2005

ASTROBIOLOGY, the science in search of a subject, has major hurdles to overcome in its quest to explain everything from hydrogen to high technology. Despite being one of the most active interdisciplinary research projects around the world (see 01/07/2005 entry), a leading researcher this week conceded that several promising leads of the past are now considered unlikely. Because the biochemicals we know (proteins and nucleic acids) are so advanced and improbable under prebiotic conditions, attempts to generate them or build living systems based on them have proved fruitless. Astrobiologists are having to imagine simpler, hypothetical precursor molecules as stepping stones. If square one was the Miller experiment in the 1950s, this puts them behind square one.

Dr. Pascale Ehrenfreund leads a team of astrobiologists at Leiden University in the Netherlands. In the third presentation in a “Life Detection” seminar series at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (see 12/03/2004 and 11/05/2004 entries for first two), Dr. Ehrenfreund, a specialist in complex molecules in space, who described herself as an experimentalist rather than a theorist, first put astrobiology into the larger context cosmology and astrophysics. Prebiotic molecules either had to be formed in situ on the early earth, or had to be delivered via comets, asteroids, or interstellar dust. She listed 137 molecules that have been identified in space (see, including a number of complex carbon compounds such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH). Also of interest are some 80 varieties of amino acids identified in meteorites (living things only use 22 of them). So far, this is all chemistry, not biochemistry; but if such molecules could arrive on earth by extraterrestrial special delivery, presumably they could contribute to the “prebiotic soup,” she speculated.

Chirality showing the right- and left-handed isomers of amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. Human hands are perhaps the most universally recognized example of chirality. From Wikimedia Commons.

Most of the talk consisted of typical astrobiology scenarios and the details of carbon chemistry and interstellar clouds. What really got interesting were the results of her team’s own specific laboratory experiments. They put thin films of amino acids (glycine and D-alanine) into a chamber made to simulate a Martian environment, complete with the UV radiation expected at the surface. The goal was to determine, even if such molecules could form in early Martian lakes, whether they could survive long enough to contribute to prebiotic chemistry. The answer was depressing: the amino acids had a half-life of only eight hours under those conditions. They repeated the experiment ten times with the same results. “We have to implement that knowledge into models of regolith mixing,” she said, “to understand what kind of results that would give, and how long amino acids can survive….” She quickly changed the subject to future Mars missions, but other problematical facts came to light during the presentation and the Q&A session following:

  1. Mars:  Dr. Ehrenfreund agreed that the Martian Meteorite that sparked the modern astrobiology movement did not contain signs of life. It was useful in retrospect for arousing interest in astrobiology, she said, but the consensus of scientists is that the alleged biogenic markers were produced by purely physical processes.
  2. Water:  The primary source of water in our oceans was probably not comets, she agreed, but outgassing or water-rich planetesimals from 2-3 AU (see 03/02/2002 entry).
  3. Chirality:  She agreed that polypeptides have to be 100% one-handed to function, and suggested that maybe adsorption on minerals provided the sorting of otherwise mixed-handed molecules; she conceded, however, that minerals are often heterogeneous.
  4. Dilution:  The concentration of amino acids in meteorites is exceedingly low; they would have been hopelessly diluted if a meteorite landed in the oceans.
  5. Fellowship:  She admitted that molecules delivered from space would have to collect somehow in small areas where they could “meet” one another. She suggested small basins or rock layers, but failed to explain how a rapidly-moving meteorite could protect its precious cargo, or how the molecules, once delivered, could be protected from the same UV radiation that her experiments showed were rapidly destructive.
  6. Real vs. Virtual:  She agreed with Benner (see 11/05/2004 entry) that ribose is very unstable in all conditions, and so are phosphates, the essential backbones of nucleic acids. This forced her to suggest that the biomolecules with which we are familiar were not involved in the origin of life, and that astrobiologists must seek simpler, more stable, more abundant, more primitive building blocks to get life started. Even PNA, a popular alternative to RNA, is already fairly “evolved” and therefore unlikely to be the first, she said. What these more primitive, more abundant molecules must have been to produce something that could be considered alive, she did not specify.
  7. Takeover:  When confronted with Benner’s argument that you cannot invoke so many ad hoc “genetic takeovers” in an origin-of-life scenario, she dismissed it by claiming Benner is a theorist, not an experimentalist. (Yet Benner’s team had tried hundreds of alternatives to ribose, and all the popular alternatives to RNA, and said they don’t work.)

JPL’s Van Karman Auditorium, where the lecture was held, contains a full size model of Voyager, with the golden record facing the audience. The record contains sounds and photos of earth to tell aliens about human civilization tens of thousands of years in the future if they ever encounter the spacecraft. Photo by David Coppedge.

During the Q&A, this reporter mentioned that Benner (11/05/2004) had suggested a desert environment was necessary to stabilize ribose, yet Russell (12/03/2004) countered that was the worst environment because of the radiation, which her experiments seemed to confirm. What was her take on these mutually exclusive scenarios? All she could offer were vague suggestions that comets or meteorites might deliver simpler materials to concentrated areas somehow, perhaps in environments alternating hot and cold between impacts. Most of her answer discussed problems #4, 5 and 6, above.

The audience was polite and receptive to Dr. Ehrenfreud, who, given the challenge of the subject matter, was knowledgeable and personable. If they were expecting encouraging laboratory evidence, however, to support astrobiology’s contention that life can originate spontaneously on a planet, most of what they got was, “more work needs to be done.”

The entire presentation can be viewed in streaming video from JPL Multimedia. As a footnote, Huygens scientists announced this week that the methane found on Titan was not produced by life, in case anyone was hoping. See the story on

Astrobiology is a totally bogus science built on the assumptions of Darwinism and naturalistic philosophy. Its only bright side is to motivate more experimental work in chemistry, physics, geology and astronomy – which is good, but assumes no other motive would do so. And its track record is abysmal. Of the biomolecules we know, Dr. Ehrenfreund said, “I wouldn’t really fix on this modern biochemistry thing, and on one component [like ribose or RNA]; we have done that for 50 years, and we didn’t succeed to go any step further with that; so I think you have to think a little bit in a new way.” So 50 years after Stanley Miller proudly announced the formation of amino acids in a laboratory flask, we now know all that was irrelevant hype. Today, the wizards of chemistry are into visualization. They ask us to envision hypothetical simpler entities, yet to be discovered, that might self-organize into self-reproducing machines.

So what do you think? Is the “useful lie” tactic the only way to get funding for science? (see 05/02/2003 entry). The Miller experiment used it. The Mars Meteorite used it. Both are now defunct. Is astrobiology a welfare program for scientists who ought to be studying the real world, not hypothetical sci-fi landscapes where primitive molecules “get together” and start living? What if Wall Street acted this way? Would you continue patronizing a financial adviser who, after 50 years, admits that you have lost money on every investment he tried, and said that now you need to think of new, unspecified, unknown, untested investments?

For all the good it does in spacecraft and technology, JPL is a hotbed of materialistic philosophy.

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