‘Constructing Our Outlook on the Origin of Life by Embracing Non-Terracentric Astrobiology’

Michael Egnor

The National Research Council’s reportThe Limits of Organic Life in Planetary Systems — is a must read. Not for the science — what there is of it can be summed up simply: we have no clue how life began. No, the report is a must read for the insight it offers into the current state of origin of life research:

For generations the definition of life has eluded scientists and philosophers. (Many have come to recognize that the concept of “definition” itself is difficult to define)… Indeed, because the chemical structures of terran biomolecular systems all appear to have arisen through Darwinian processes, it is hardly surprising that some of the more thoughtful definitions of life hold that it is a “chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution.” [emphasis mine]

Aside from jargon that would make Derrida squirm– “the concept of definition is itself difficult to define”– the Council claims to see, through post-modern haze, a more thoughtful definition of life: life is defined as “a chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution”! This more thoughtful definition of life is an even grander tautology than ‘survivors survive’: Darwin’s theory must explain life because life is defined as ‘what Darwin’s theory explains.’ You’ve got to admire the audacity.
The Council continues:

The canonical characteristics of life are an inherent capacity to adapt to changing environmental conditions and to interact with other living organisms…it is difficult for us to imagine how life might look in environments very different from what we find on Earth. Recognizing the challenges in mitigating that difficulty, the committee chose instead to embrace it. In constructing its outlook, it exploited a strategy that began by characterizing the terran life that humankind has known well …

Put aside for a moment the lifeless prose. The authors do raise real difficulties faced by origin of life researchers. The difficulties are enormous. Darwin’s theory depends on replication and modest heritable variation — neither too much nor too little — in each generation. A Darwinian process depends on pre-existing specified complexity, and there’s no real evidence that the considerable specified complexity that would be needed to jump-start life can be generated by known physical laws. Even the speculations are outlandish. The Council cautions against “terracentricity,” and appeals to astrobiology:

Thus, truly “weird” life might utilize an element other than carbon for its scaffolding. Less weird, but still alien to human biological experience, would be a life form that does not exploit thermodynamic disequilibria that are largely chemical. Weirder would be a life form that does not exploit water as its liquid milieu. Still weirder would be a life form that exists in the solid or gas phase….
The natural tendency toward terracentricity requires that we make an effort to broaden our ideas of where life is possible and what forms it might take. Furthermore, basic principles of chemistry warn us against terracentricity. It is easy to conceive of chemical reactions that might support life involving noncarbon compounds, occurring in solvents other than water, or involving oxidation-reduction reactions without dioxygen. Furthermore, there are reactions that are not redox. For example, life could get energy from NaOH + HCl; the reaction goes fast abiotically, but an organism could send tendrils into the acid and the base and live off the gradient. An organism could get energy from supersaturated solution. It could get relative humidity from evaporating water. It is easy to conceive of alien life in environments quite different from the surface of a rocky planet. The public has become aware of those ideas through science fiction and nonfiction…

Mostly fiction. The Council’s report is necessarily written in the subjunctive tense. There isn’t a shred of evidence for “non-terracentric” life. The Council is unsure even about explanations for terracentric life. They point out the inadequacy of Darwin’s theory to explain biological complexity. The Council barely stops short of signing on to the Dissent from Darwinism list, which is a list of scientists (over 700 now) who agree with the statement: “We are skeptical of the claims for the ability of random mutation acting on natural selection to account for the complexity of life.” The Council admits, with surprising candor:

Natural selection based solely on mutation is probably not an adequate mechanism for evolving complexity. More important, lateral gene transfer and endosymbiosis are probably the most obvious mechanisms for creating complex genomes that could lead to free-living cells and complex cellular communities in the short geological interval between life’s origin and the establishment of autotrophic CO2 fixation about 3.8 billion years ago…[emphasis mine]

Lateral gene transfer and endosymbiosis pose significant problems for a theory based entirely on competition. For Darwin’s theory, unicellular altruism is even more of a problem than hominid altruism. ‘Kin selection’ is a conundrum for life that reproduces asexually (you’re surrounded by 10^13 copies of yourself — who do you help first?), and Darwinists will no doubt be proposing theories of how bacteria ‘evolve reciprocity’ and ‘detect cheaters.’ Bacterial altruism is a tough sell.
Yet ‘just-so stories’ are unavoidable if we adhere to strict materialistic explanations for the origin of life and for evolution. This materialistic crisis in origin of life research is self-inflicted. Biological complexity can be explained away — however implausibly — as Darwinian, but the origin of life itself is so far beyond the reach of Darwinism that even the teeming imaginations of Darwinists are stymied. If the only explanation that you have for specified complexity in nature is materialistic, then without Darwinism you have no explanation at all. The wild speculation by origin of life researchers and astrobiologists isn’t gratuitous; it’s necessary. It’s the only way to explain the origin of life within the limits of their ideology. Wild speculation is the best they can do. It’s all they can do.
Perhaps we, like the Council, ought to construct our outlook by exploiting a strategy to embrace our ignorance and define life without terracentricity, defining life as Darwinian while at the same time recognizing that the concept of definition itself is difficult to define (I’m getting the hang of it!). Perhaps life arose via silicon chemistry, or via energy fields, or via supersaturated solutions, or via sodium hydroxide and hydrochloric acid gradients or… whatever. Heck, we can’t even define life, but it’s Darwinian!
There’s another explanation that the Council seems not to have considered, let alone ’embraced.’ It’s an old idea, one of the oldest ideas in science. It inspired all of the great scientists of the Enlightenment, and it’s fair to say that the rise of modern science depended on this idea and on its philosophical consequences. It was put aside, unwisely I think, because of the dogmatic materialism–the Darwinian hubris–of the past century and an half. This old idea removes the limits that materialistic dogma has imposed on our science. It’s parsimonious. It would explain both the origin of life and the remarkable complexity of living things, and it relies not at all on stories about random spontaneous silicon biochemistry or natural selection of acid-base gradients or non-terracentric astrobiology.
Perhaps life was designed.

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.