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Origin-of-Life Theorists Fail to Explain Chemical Signatures in the Cell

Casey Luskin

There’s supposedly no debate over whether life began via blind chemical processes, but a Nature news story, titled “Debate bubbles over the origin of life,” opens with the candid admission that “How life began is one of nature’s enduring mysteries.” Origin-of-life theorists love to regale us with accounts of ancient fossil evidence of early life, but the Nature article acknowledges that these fossils don’t explain how life arose:

Fossil and biological clues have led scientists to estimate that cells originated on this planet about four billion years ago, but exactly what catalyzed their emergence has remained elusive.

The article goes on to discuss a new study that suggests “inland pools of condensed and cooled geothermal vapor have the ideal characteristics for the origin of life” since the chemistry of modern cells is rich in certain elements also found in these pools. Conveniently, the article reports that this environment would destroy any evidence of life’s origins, since “the primordial ponds would have been extremely acidic and therefore not preserved signs of the first life.”

Responding critically, origin-of-life theorist Nick Lane points out that observing chemical similarities between cells and certain environments is irrelevant to explaining the origin of life, since living cells are, by definition, not in chemical equilibrium with their surroundings:

Lane also notes that the study has a significant conceptual flaw. “To suggest that the ionic composition of primordial cells should reflect the composition of the oceans is to suggest that cells are in equilibrium with their medium, which is close to saying that they are not alive,” Lane says. “Cells require dynamic disequilibrium — that is what being alive is all about.”

Likewise, the news article quotes Harvard origin-of-life theorist Jack Szostak’s criticism that “we can’t be sure that the chemistry of modern cells reflects the chemical conditions in which the first cells emerged.” According to the story, Szostak “disputes Mulkidjanian’s claim that the high potassium-to-sodium ratio in modern cells is a sign of deep history, saying that instead, ‘it could still be that cells evolved the ability to generate and maintain a high potassium-to-sodium ratio in their cytoplasm for functional reasons, independent of the nature of their initial or early environment.'”

In addition to the chemical implausibility acknowledged by Lane and Szostak, there is no discussion of how unguided processes could arrange the chemicals into information-rich biomolecules. Stephen Meyer addresses this fundamental obstacle to accounts of the chemical origin of life in Signature in the Cell, observing that only intelligence can produce the type of information we observe in DNA:

Our uniform experience affirms that specified information-whether inscribed hieroglyphics, written in a book, encoded in a radio signal, or produced in a simulation experiment-always arises from an intelligent source, from a mind and not a strictly material process. (Signature in the Cell, p. 347)

Meyer’s challenge, that origin-of-life theorists must solve the “information sequence problem,” remains one of the most enduring and potent challenges to materialistic accounts of the origin of life.