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It’s the Severity or the Nature of the Mystery of Life’s Origin that Is Unacknowledged

origin of life

Matthew Herron, a biologist at Georgia Tech, chides me for writing in a post here that the “mystery of how life began is…widely unacknowledged by origin-of-life researchers. It is really a matter of professional malpractice, but nobody in the mainstream science media will call them on it.”

Herron tweets, “Tell me more about this unacknowledged mystery!” and offers cases where scientists admitted the mystery of OOL. For example, the Journal of the Royal Society Interface says, “Life is that which replicates and evolves, but there is no consensus on how life emerged,” but then immediately goes on to plead, “We advocate a systems protobiology view, whereby the first replicators were assemblies of spontaneously accreting, heterogeneous and mostly non-canonical amphiphiles.”

Or Nature Communications, which says “We only have one example of life in the Universe thus far, and it is still hotly debated which chemical reactions, and underlying conditions, led to the origin of Earth’s biosphere,” but then immediately advocates “understand[ing] the broad types of planetary conditions that can lead to the emergence of life.” 

Or the Journal of Molecular Biology, which says, “How life can emerge from non-living matter is one of the fundamental mysteries of the universe. A bottom-up approach to this problem focuses on the potential chemical precursors of life,” and goes on to point out a “hypothesis that has recently gained experimental support, focusing on the role of amyloidogenic peptides rather than nucleic acids.”

The Nature of the Mystery

Fine: for clarity, I should have added a few words. It is the nature, the severity of the mystery of how life began, not the mere present lack of certainty, that is unacknowledged. Compare these offerings from Professor Herron with the comments of synthetic organic chemist James Tour who says things along the lines of: OOL researches don’t have a clue, they don’t have the tools needed to get a clue, “Everyone’s clueless on this but no one wants to admit it.” Watch him in this bonus video from the Science Uprising site:

It seems to me that these journal articles all give the impression of having clue. And that is the problem.

A Lost Set of Keys

Let me give you an analogy. This past week a member of my family lost a set of our house and car keys that, even more distressing, included the key to a neighbor’s home. The details aren’t important, but it was a mystery. Some factors in the mystery included: vacationing neighbors, a 12-year old with a dog-walking job, our car, the neighbor’s car, possible unscrupulous passersby who might have seen the keys dangling in the neighbor’s front door and made off with them, and more. Finally, after three days, we found the keys in the neighbor’s car.

The mystery was fully acknowledged by us, and in fact was the subject of extensive debate. But it was a very different affair from a seemingly unsolvable mystery, given the insistence on a “bottom-up approach,” like that posed by the origin of the first living cell. As James Tour bracingly clarifies, the obstacles facing researchers are extremely, indeed impossibly severe, or so it appears. His voice is rare in its candor. As he wrote in the journal Inference:

Those who think scientists understand the issues of prebiotic chemistry are wholly misinformed. Nobody understands them. Maybe one day we will. But that day is far from today. It would be far more helpful (and hopeful) to expose students to the massive gaps in our understanding. They may find a firmer — and possibly a radically different — scientific theory.

It’s admissions like that from scientists or the media that I find lacking. Or would you say that OOL researchers, as a general rule, and their media promoters as well, are as brutally frank as James Tour about their work and how clueless they really are? For more on the “issues” that Tour refers to, see Episode 5 of Science Uprising, “Origin of Life: Intelligence Required.”

Photo at the top: James Tour in his lab at Rice University in a scene from Episode 5 of Science Uprising.