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With Enceladus the Toast of the Solar System, Here’s a Wrap-Up of the Origin-of-Life Problem

Denyse O'Leary


In news last week related to the origins of life, the toast of the solar system was Saturn’s moon Enceladus which may conceal a liquid water ocean under its frozen surface. This offers “New hope for extraterrestrial life,” says Scientific American. Headlines like that carry with them assumptions about how easy it would be for life to arise unaided, by natural means alone.
Science-Fictions-square.gifI began this series by asking, “Is there a good reason to believe that life’s origin must be a fully natural event?” We considered whether nature might just “naturally” produce life or whether all the numbers could just happen to fall into place.
Some think yes, if RNA once fulfilled DNA’s functions. As software engineer Arminius Mignea puts it (p. 216), that means that a fabrication function like RNA can exist apart from the fabrication plan catalog, DNA. It becomes apparent that the “simpler” RNA world that theorists imagine is free of real-world constraints. We do observe complex devices like the space telescopes coming into existence — but never without accounting correctly for each sequential step in a procedure. In other words, never without a high input of correct information.
Accepting the need for information, we then asked whether we can wring it from matter — shake the bit out of the it? Or whether a specific location, substance, or process enables us to get by with only a little additional information?
We saw that dogged pursuit of such ideas over decades has mired origin-of-life studies somewhere between homunculus studies (studies of the little man that the sperm at one time allegedly animated, to produce a baby) and “Why hasn’t ET called back?”, that is, studies of disconfirmed or unconfirmed events.
So we turned to life from the lab. If we succeed at that, we will observe something never before seen: an instance of life arising directly from non-living matter. But the knowledge comes at a price: Our only observed instance would require massive intervention by intelligent design. To assume, as a result, that the same sort of event could just happen that way in nature is like assuming that the success of an intense worldwide campaign to eradicate polio shows that the disease would have just died out naturally anyway. Alas, no. The price of true knowledge is legendarily steep, and that might be how we ended up choosing to study our own beliefs about an intelligence-free origin of life. We study our beliefs and they remain articles of faith.
Choosing instead to approach life’s origin as a question in science, we note that, from an information perspective, it shows a much higher level of information than non-living matter does. That said, it also offers a huge advantage, as a subject of study, over the origin of our universe or of distinctly human characteristics: Origin of life can be studied in a laboratory setting.
Assuming we can satisfy ethical, prudential, and safety concerns, why shouldn’t we proceed by seeing whether we can make life from scratch by any means that human intelligence can devise? Some say it is impossible, but when sorting possibilities, we must distinguish between principle and practice: Squaring the circle is impossible in principle because it assumes mathematical facts that cannot exist. Creating life might be possible in principle but impossible in practice, if the technical difficulties are permanently out of our reach. We would have to try it to see. Even if we fail in our ultimate goal, we will learn a great deal more than we are learning from present approaches.
In Engineering and the Ultimate (2014), Mignea tackles this very question by providing engineering specifications for the necessary components, functions, processes, and information of a simplest self-replicator (SSR):

The SSR is defined as having an enclosure with input and output gateways and having the ability to create an exact replica of itself by ingesting and processing materials from its environment. (p. 169)

He adds that

… the three closure rules which must be satisfied by a true self-replicator — energy closure, material closure, and the information closure — place an extraordinary burden onto the design and implementation of self-replicating objects. (p. 209)

Closure involves providing a complete account, no step left out, of the exact way each requirement is met. It sounds somewhat like this:

An input gateway, assisted by the raw materials and parts identification function, determines that a piece of raw material is one of the good materials recorded in the good raw materials and parts catalog. This piece is going to be admitted into the SSR and transported to a particular place for processing or possibly to a temporary storage location followed by processing. In order to do this successfully, the SSR needs to tag or label this piece so that its nature, once determined at the input gateway, is available for subsequent processing stations or storage stations in the SSR. Therefore, any raw material or part that is allowed to enter the SSR, once its nature is identified, is immediately tagged or labeled using a system similar to the bar codes or RFIDs (radio-frequency identification) where the code used is one of the codes in the catalog of raw materials and parts. This systematic labeling and tagging of all accepted materials and parts will be considered another responsibility of the materials and parts identification function. (p. 173)

And this goes on for some time because “The SSR growth and replication processes cannot be achieved with only one or a subset of the required functions. All must be in place from the beginning.” (p. 216)
Mignea thinks that human technology does not yet have the level of sophistication, autonomy, self-sufficiency, and complexity of the simplest single-celled organisms (p. 217). But strikingly absent from his discussion are those staples of current OOL research, “would have,” “could have,” “may have,” and “might have,” which are, essentially, naturalistic woo. And not at all missed.
In short, in order to discuss origins of life in a science-based way, we must begin by acknowledging the fact that intelligence is an inextricable part of the account. Then we will at least have a chance at making progress.
Editor’s note: Here are links to the whole “Science Fictions Origin of Life” series.
Image: Artist’s envisioning of Enceladus with liquid ocean/NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she has published two books on the topic: Faith@Science and By Design or by Chance? She has written for publications such as The Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail, and Canadian Living. She is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist'€™s Case for the Existence of the Soul. She received her degree in honors English language and literature.