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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Friday, September 4, 2020

“Easy Life” Fantasy Reaches Its Zenith of Silliness

Every realistic and candid consideration of the requirements for life should lead you to be impressed by the stratospheric difficulty of even the simplest living thing arising accidentally. The fundamental units of all living things are cells, and even the simplest cell consists of more than 180 types of proteins. Most of those proteins consists of hundreds of amino acids arranged in just the right way to achieve a particular function. A scientific paper tells us, “The median length of the proteins annotated among Eukaryotes (361 amino acids) is much higher than in Bacteria (267 amino acids) and this in turn is higher than in Archaea (247 amino acids).” An article in Nature is entitled “Smallest genome clocks in at 182 genes.” This smallest genome has 159,662 “letters” or base pairs that have to be just right. This is about the information complexity of a 400-page book or a 400-page carefully-coded computer program, and each of those 182 genes are about as unlikely to appear by chance as two well-written pages in an instruction textbook or two pages of well-functioning computer source code.

But there has been for a long time a group of people totally oblivious to such biological realities, a group that we may call the “easy life” thinkers. Contrary to everything we know about the complexity of life, these “easy life” thinkers have maintained that it is real easy for life to accidentally appear, so easy that it will happen whenever there is an opportunity. Such thinkers have long been guilty of all kinds of silliness and sophistry. One of their tricks is to cite (as evidence that life can easily arrive from chemicals) experiments that have never produced a living thing from chemicals, and have never even produced a protein from chemicals. A close examination of such experiments (such as here and here) will show that they failed miserably to realistically simulate conditions on the early Earth.

The world of the “easy life” theorist is a world of fantasy, not realism. Recently such silliness seemed to have reached a zenith. A scientific paper tried to persuade us that life might have arisen inside the interiors of stars. It would be hard to think of a sillier idea. The paper had the title, “Can Self-Replicating Species Flourish in the Interior of a Star?”

Life is a state involving enormously organized complexity. The temperature at the surface of a star like the sun is about 6000 degrees F (about 3700 degrees C). Anyone familiar with the kinetic theory of matter (one of the best established facts of science) knows that heat is actually just the degree of motion of particles. The hotter that something is, the faster its particles are moving about. At a temperature such as 6000 F, particles move about so fast that they cannot exist in any solid or organized form, but can only exist as a hot gas in which particles are moving about at a furious pace. Life could not possibly exist as such a hot gas. There could be none of the chemical bonds upon which life depends. Nor could there exist any of the liquid water on which life depends, 6000 F being a temperature very many times greater than the boiling point of water.

The paper authors try to back up their fantasy by appealing to speculative physics entities for which there is no evidence, some of a thousand and one imaginary things dreamed up by theoretical physicists, who these days seem more imaginative than J. K. Rowling or Stephen King. The first such entity is something called cosmic strings. The second and third such entities are something called magnetic monopoles and semipoles. Like somebody imagining with speculative abandon a Bigfoot monster riding on a unicorn, the authors imagine such cosmic strings, magnetic monopoles and semipoles (all imaginary things) forming into some kind of necklace. But such a necklace wouldn't be something like DNA, which has the shape of a spiral staircase, not a necklace. There is no reason to think that some necklace-like structure could be a basis for life. The shortfall is shown in Figure 1 of the paper (reproduced below), in which we see a fantasy "semipole necklace" on the left, and a DNA molecule on the right.  There is no reason for thinking that these fantasy "semipole necklaces" would have a winding appearance as in the diagram below, and in another paper they are depicted as straight lines. 

In the paper I just mentioned, we see these imaginary "semipole necklaces" looking like a few strands of spaghetti scattered around inside various places of a 10-gallon pot of water, and the resulting visual looks nothing like the concentrated organization of matter found within living things, where DNA is just one component tightly packed alongside many other components,  with the same tight component packing one sees in the engine of a car. 

The fantasy nature of cosmic strings is suggested by the wikipedia.org article on the topic, where we learn that there are no observations supporting such an idea:

"Note that most of these proposals depend, however, on the appropriate cosmological fundamentals (strings, branes, etc.), and no convincing experimental verification of these has been confirmed to date. Cosmic strings nevertheless provide a window into string theory. If cosmic strings are observed which is a real possibility for a wide range of cosmological string models this would provide the first experimental evidence of a string theory model underlying the structure of spacetime."

The wikikpedia.org article on magnetic monopoles makes clear at its beginning that such a particle is merely a "hypothetical" particle. 

In a press release one of the paper authors is quoted as making this very incorrect statement: “Information stored in the RNA (or DNA) encodes the mechanism of self-replication.” This is not at all true. RNA and DNA specify merely low-level chemical information (for example, DNA specifies which amino acids make up particular proteins). Neither DNA nor RNA encode anything like a high-level mechanism of self-replication for human beings. We do not at all understand how a speck-sized human egg is able to progress to become a large organism such as a human baby.  Nowhere in such an egg (or in its DNA or RNA molecules) is there even a specification of any of the 200 types of cells used by a human, nor is there anything like a specification of the full human body plan or any of the organ systems used by a human.  Scientists don't even understand how a single cell is able to reproduce, and the answer to this question is not found in DNA or RNA. "DNA cannot be seen as the 'blueprint' for life," says Antony Jose, associate professor of cell biology and molecular genetics at the University of Maryland.  He says, "It is at best an overlapping and potentially scrambled list of ingredients that is used differently by different cells at different times."  Sergio Pistoi (a science writer with a PhD in molecular biology) tells us, "DNA is not a blueprint," and tells us, "We do not inherit specific instructions on how to build a cell or an organ."

We currently live in an age of Fantasy Biology, in which many an unproven and unbelievable assertion and many a dubious boast is put forth because they have an appeal to the ideological inclinations of certain members of an erring professorial belief community. A paper such as the “Can Self-Replicating Species Flourish in the Interior of a Star?” paper shows just how far this tendency towards Fantasy Biology has gone. To the people who keep spinning these fantasies (while ignoring the most pertinent facts of biology) we should speak two loud words of advice: get real.

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