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Error Catastrophe: Manfred Eigen’s Show-Stopper Is Still Stopping the Origin-of-Life Show

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error catastrophe

NASA recently put out another over-hyped announcement that makes it sound like they have actually solved the riddle of life’s origin by unguided natural processes. Actually, Manfred Eigen (1927-2019) pointed out a hurdle that shouts, like Gandalf, “You shall not pass!”

A leading physical chemist and Nobel laureate, Manfred Eigen died last month. He often had evolution on his mind. An obituary in Nature honored him as “a creator of the new field of evolutionary biotechnology.”

From the early 1980s, he developed these concepts into evolutionary biotechnology at the MPI. His colleagues built ‘evolution reactors’ that drove the evolution of viruses and other replicating molecules under controlled conditions to investigate how pathogens evade the immune system, or to search for new drugs. Eigen helped to found two companies to exploit this technology…. [Emphasis added.]

What Molecules Wish For

Controlled conditions, needless to say, were not available to molecules on the early Earth before life. Molecules are incapable of wishing to evolve into living organisms, and nothing will “drive” their chemical evolution toward that lofty goal. It appears that Eigen was a staunch believer in chemical evolution anyway, having written popular books about how it might have happened. The summary of his book Steps Toward Life (1992) on Amazon says:

This fascinating work, co-authored by a Nobel Prize winning scientist, extends Darwin’s ideas on natural selection back into evolutionary time and applies them to the molecular “fossil record” that preceded the origin of life. Using the techniques of molecular biology, the book demonstrates that life on Earth is the inevitable result of certain chance events that took place in the unique history of our planet. Furthermore, researchers can not only precisely formulate the laws governing the emergence of life, but also test them under controlled laboratory conditions. In fact, the authors show how it is perfectly possible to construct evolutionary accelerators that optimize the conditions for certain events and which can be used to demonstrate their theoretical conclusions in laboratory experiments.

There’s just one little problem. Georgina Ferry writes in Nature:

His success made it possible for scientists to study reactions catalysed by enzymes that drive all processes of life. Eigen developed concepts to explain how replicating macromolecules on the prebiotic Earth might have evolved into replicating organisms. In 1971, for example, he posed the paradox that without error-correction enzymes, the length of a nucleic acid would be limited because, in larger molecules, mutations would destroy the information content of subsequent generations. But this maximum size (or error threshold) was too small to encode an error-correcting enzyme. Eigen’s paradox still challenges theoretical biologists.

The Problem of “Error Catastrophe”

We are nearing a half-century since Eigen wrote about that paradox, and it “still challenges theoretical biologists.” Often called the problem of “error catastrophe,” it’s the show-stopper that stops the Evolution Show before it starts. Stated succinctly above, molecules cannot gain enough information by chance until accurate replication starts. The reason is that errors inevitably creep in, destroying whatever genetic information an emerging replicator stores. You can grant a chemical evolutionist all the RNA molecules he or she wants, but error catastrophe will stop the show. Darwin’s house of cards collapses before it’s built

Natural selection is no help, because natural selection presupposes accurate replication. Before you have error-correcting enzymes, there is no natural selection. It’s all chance. Illustra Media’s film Origin, co-narrated by Discovery Institute biologist Ann Gauger, shows what chance is like.

Stephen Meyer discussed this problem on pages 279-280 of Signature in the Cell (2009). Eigen was certainly aware of the “paradox” but concocted theoretical schemes, like “hypercycles,” to dodge it. He claimed that feedback loops between interacting RNA molecules might accelerate the production of information by chance. Meyer holds his feet to the fire of his own paradox, though, showing that without “an error-free mechanism of self-replication,” all such models are doomed. “As a result, his proposed mechanism would succumb to various ‘error catastrophes’ that would diminish, rather than increase, the specified information content of the system over time.” 

Meyer Wasn’t the First

Meyer was not the first to point this out. He shows that notable scientists like Freeman Dyson, John Maynard Smith, and Robert Shapiro have also criticized Eigen’s model, pointing out that his theoretical cycles “are more likely to lose or degrade information over time” (p. 280). William Dembski also dealt with this paradox at length in No Free Lunch (2002), as had A.E. Wilder-Smith in The Natural Sciences Know Nothing of Evolution (1981, ten years after Eigen proposed the paradox). Now Eigen has passed on, never seeing a resolution to the show-stopping chasm he found. His “paradox still challenges theoretical biologists,” Nature admitted after his death. (Note: Leslie Orgel, Stanley Miller’s colleague, had also thought about the problem; sometimes it is called “Orgel’s Paradox.”)

You wouldn’t know this by reading the effervescent announcements bubbling over in NASA press releases and popular media. Reporters leap over the Error Catastrophe Chasm with flights of fancy, like magicians in The Origin of Life Circus (Susan Mazur’s book title). How do they leap over it? Well, actually, they don’t. They ignore it. They imagine ways across, because “After all, we’re here, aren’t we?” Somehow, life must have found a way. Case in point is NASA/JPL’s press release, “NASA Study Reproduces Origins of Life on Ocean Floor.” A casual reader might think, “It’s not only possible; it’s been done in the lab!” Not only that, “It must be happening all over the universe!”

Scientists have reproduced in the lab how the ingredients for life could have formed deep in the ocean 4 billion years ago. The results of the new study offer clues to how life started on Earth and where else in the cosmos we might find it.

Cooking Up “Green Rust”

Basically, they created an artificial hydrothermal vent, and cooked up “green rust” that contained some alanine and lactate. That’s it. Alanine is one of the simplest of the amino acids. But researcher Laura Barge boasted, “We’ve shown that in geological conditions similar to early Earth, and maybe to other planets, we can form amino acids and alpha hydroxy acids from a simple reaction under mild conditions that would have existed on the seafloor.” The show resembles Stanley Miller’s spark-discharge play. Maybe even red-rusty Mars has some green rust!

Readers will look in vain for the important concepts that collapse all their hopes: complex specified information, accurate replication, and error catastrophe. Nor will they find these concepts in the PNAS paper on which the hype is based: “Redox and pH gradients drive amino acid synthesis in iron oxyhydroxide mineral systems.” Lead author Laura Barge is a follower of Michael Russell, one of the leading proponents of chemical evolution in hydrothermal vents. He doesn’t talk about error correction, either. But does ignoring the problem make it go away? Only in one’s imagination.

Barge, Russell and the other chemical-evolution magicians who fly over the chasm of error catastrophe get rewarded by funds from NASA’s Astrobiology Institute. Affirming the impossible is a ticket to stardom at JPL. Michael Russell occasionally speaks to the employees at the famous NASA lab, making life look easy. All you need is energy flow, he says, and life happens. But if promoting the show is a ticket to stardom, critiquing the show is a ticket to expulsion. Anyone pointing out the show-stopper is likely to get frowned on. And anyone arguing that complex specified information and error correction provide evidence of intelligent design is at risk of a career-ending move, as indicated by the fate of David Coppedge. 

The show must go on! And it does — in the Theater of the Imagination.

Photo: Manfred Eigen (second from the right) met with Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands in 1983, by Rob Croes / Anefo [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.