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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics


Saturday, March 19, 2016

They Keep Knocking Their Heads on the Same “Origin of Life” Wall

In my earlier post They Keep Feeding Us “Explanation Is Near” Baloney, I discussed how science writers have the extremely bad habit of writing stories that suggest that scientists are on the brink of understanding some long-standing riddle, even when the evidence suggests they are light-years away from understanding such a problem. We had an example of such a piece of science writing in a recent Quanta article entitled “In Warm, Greasy Puddles, the Spark of Life?” The article discusses the work of a biochemist named David Deamer. The article states, “Over the past few years, Deamer has expanded his membrane-first approach into a comprehensive vision for how life emerged.”

But that is baloney. The word “comprehensive” means “complete.” So if we had a complete vision for how life originated, we would understand how a self-replicating molecule was able to originate against all odds. We would understand how the complicated genetic code originated. We would understand how the first cells originated. But none of our scientists understand such things. All of our scientists are light-years away from having any such thing as a “comprehensive vision for how life emerged.”

That Deamer does not have any such thing as a “comprehensive vision for how life emerged” is suggested by the following initial question asked by the interviewer (and the answer given):

QUANTA MAGAZINE: What have been the biggest accomplishments of researchers seeking to understand life’s origins? What questions remain to be solved?

DAVID DEAMER: We have really made progress since the 1950s. We have figured out that the first life originated at least 3.5 billion years ago, and my guess is that primitive life probably emerged as early as 4 billion years ago. We also know that certain meteorites contain the basic components of life. But we still don’t know how the first polymers were put together.

Asked to list “the biggest accomplishments of researchers seeking to understand life’s origins,” Deamer fails to list anything very substantive. He talks about some finding about when life first emerged. The important question is not when it emerged, but how it emerged. As for the claim that meteorites contain “the basic components of life,” that isn't correct if we use the term “basic components of life” in the most common way. What we generally think of as “the basic components of life” are self-reproducing molecules and cells, and meteorites have no such thing. Of course, you can shrink your scale further and talk about something much simpler, some little chemical fragment, and call that a “basic component of life,” but that's no more meaningful than claiming that the basic components of glass windows (silicon atoms) are found in sand on the seashore, which doesn't explain how the windows came into existence.

By admitting that “we still don’t know how the first polymers were put together,” Deamer shows that he does not have any such thing as a “comprehensive vision for how life emerged.”

The traditional concept of life's earthly origin is that of a primordial soup, a warm concentration of ingredients in which life might have originated. This idea has always been extremely inadequate, because it doesn't explain how those chemicals combined into a self-reproducing molecule. What does Deamer add to this? Based on the diagram he supplies, his main addition seems to be a kind of sandwich underneath the soup, a sandwich made up of greasy semi-permeable layers. Below is a diagram similar to the one in the Quanta article, but a little easier to understand. 

 

Does adding this little “sandwich” underneath the “primordial soup” help things out a great deal? Not really. The problem of the origin of life is a problem of explaining what we can call a functionality explosion. According to the common thinking, suddenly a disorganized sea of chemicals transformed into the machinery of a self-reproducing molecule, which was followed by the machinery of a cell, which somehow used the highly organized system of symbolic representations known as the genetic code. How do you explain that? Adding a sandwich underneath the soup doesn't get you to that explanation. That's because it is not merely a problem of concentration (which this “sandwich under the soup” might help you to explain) but a problem of organization, a vastly improbable coordination in which complicated machinery somehow arises. It's a rather like a chemist mixing some chemicals in a beaker and somehow ending up with some cool self-reproducing nanobots at the bottom of his beaker.

Deamer's approach to trying to illuminate the origin of life question is an example of a particular approach that we may call the “special environment” approach. If you try this approach, you concentrate on trying to describe some unusual local environment that might explain the origin of life. Scientists have been taking this approach for 50 years, and it seems to be a futile exercise, a case of knocking their heads against the wall. Given the enormous difficulties of explaining the origin of life, there is no reason to suspect that they can be overcome by any approach centered on just imagining some favorable environment. If I'm trying to explain an event that is like typing monkeys producing a Shakespeare sonnet, there's no way to do that by imagining some special monkey room in which such a thing might have been likely.

Here is a totally unorthodox approach that might have a better chance of success. Imagine you are some ambitious young scientiest hell-bent on explaining the origin of life sometime in your career. You might do worse than to follow the approach described below.

First, spend a few years researching anomalous effects involving water. Pay no attention to the “don't look into that, because it's impossible” skeptics. Thoroughly and impartially investigate any and all claims involving inexplicable effects involving water.

Then spend a few years researching anomalous effects involving atoms or molecules. Pay no attention to the “don't look into that, because it's impossible” skeptics. Thoroughly and impartially investigate any and all claims involving inexplicable effects involving atoms or molecules.

Then spend a few years researching anomalous effects involving energy. Pay no attention to the “don't look into that, because it's impossible” skeptics. Thoroughly and impartially investigate any and all claims involving inexplicable effects involving energy.

Then spend a few years researching anomalous effects involving communication, coordination, or coincidence. Pay no attention to the “don't look into that, because it's impossible” skeptics. Thoroughly and impartially investigate any and all claims involving inexplicable examples of communication, coordination, or coincidence.

Then finally, come back to consider the question of the origin of life. See whether some of the things that you have learned from these investigations may help to shed light upon the origin of life. It could be that these “mini-miracles” you have investigated may help to explain the “major miracle” of the origin of life.

Because of the enormous difficulties of explaining the origin of life, such an approach probably would not work. But I suspect that it would have a greater chance of success than the futile “special environment” approach our scientists have been pursuing for decades with very little success.