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Origin of Life, Public Education, and Religious Neutrality

origin of life

In a series of lectures and articles, organic chemist James Tour has exposed how research related to the origin of life (OOL) has been scandalously misrepresented to the public. The problem starts with OOL researchers greatly exaggerating the significance of their results. Then, the popular press amplifies the claims to ridiculous extremes. Finally, science textbook publishers canonize the misinformation by embedding it in official curricula.

This way, the public receives a quasi-religious education in what has been called exclusive humanism, an understanding of reality that denies the existence of any transcendent agent directly acting in the world. Among other consequences, many people are thus robbed of the freedom even to consider belief in a traditional religion. 

Journal Articles as Sacred Literature 

In one recent lecture, Dr. Tour described how no scientific research to date has demonstrated that any natural process ever drives molecules toward life. OOL scientists often claim to have identified how some steps in the synthesis of life’s complex building blocks could have occurred on the early Earth, but their experiments have consistently shown the exact opposite. The investigators invariably have to implement exceedingly elaborate, multistep chemical procedures to force molecules to form with the desired structures. Comparable chemical conditions could never have occurred in the distant past unless a fully equipped chemistry laboratory had been transported back in time complete with a team of highly trained organic chemists. 

Dr. Tour specifically addressed an article by Nobel laureate Jack Szostak. The article, published in the journal Nature, claimed that energy sources on the early Earth could have driven the formation of RNA, while natural processes eventually encapsulated it in lipid vesicles to form a primitive self-replicating protocell. Tour also addressed the research of OOL leader John Sutherland who developed an intricate protocol for synthesizing precursors to some of life’s building blocks. Sutherland claims that “all the cellular subsystems could have arisen through common chemistry.” Yet Tour explained why Sutherland’s procedures were so complex that only highly skilled organic chemists could have pulled them off. 

Dr. Tour generated some controversy by stating that the researchers were “lying” to their readers. Tour’s comments were made largely in jest, and he has apologized for his choice of a verb, yet assertions in the articles were indeed demonstrably false (here, here, here). 

The origin of life is not a normal scientific theory, for the belief that life formed purely through natural processes represents a sacrosanct secular creation myth. I do not use the term “myth” pejoratively but in the anthropological sense of a story that helps provide a unifying framework for thinking about life. With that in mind, one could argue that Szostak and Sutherland were not speaking as dispassionate scientists, but were instead functioning in their roles as secular faith leaders who were entrusted to propagate cherished creation narratives. Their articles functioned less as scientific works than as sacred literature, so the authors could not be expected to concern themselves too greatly with scientific plausibility.

Sensationalism in the Media

The popular media have further contributed to the general misunderstanding of the true state of OOL studies by publishing hyperbolic claims, such as the following:

Such pollyannaish lauding of experimental results, and their potential for solving the mystery of how life originated, rarely has any basis in fact. Nevertheless, journalists reporting on OOL research usually bear no ill intent. The steep competition among news outlets makes the temptation to sensationalize irresistible. Moreover, the writers are mirroring the role of religious scribes passing down sacred tradition to faithful believers, so their exaggerations in that context are understandable.  

Unfortunately, the authors often forget that their readers have not all embraced as dogma the claim that life must have originated through purely natural processes. As a consequence, the constant dissemination of inaccurate information can at times be perceived as echoing the disinformation campaigns described in the dystopian novel 1984. For instance, the use of certain language can resemble the technique of “doublespeak” where words are applied in ways that are the opposite of their true meaning.

For example, the common statement that an experiment mimics “plausible” conditions on the early Earth actually means that the experiment employs conditions completely unlike anything that could have ever occurred outside an advanced laboratory setting. Meanwhile, people are often referred to as “antiscientific” if they judge the viability of OOL scenarios based upon hard evidence and well established physical processes. In contrast, people are applauded as “scientific” if they uncritically accept OOL theories based on little more than wild speculation. 

OOL in Science Curricula — A Secular Catechism

The teaching of OOL in science classrooms often functions less to provide an accurate scientific picture of the state of the research than to serve as a catechism on the origins mythology of exclusive humanism. For instance, a laboratory experiment designed for advanced biology students purports to model how simple cell membranes could have emerged. The instructions direct students to use hardened tree sap and gelatin to create coacervates, droplets of organic polymers. The laboratory is inspired by experiments performed by Alexander Oparin, Sydney Fox, and others in early OOL studies. 

Unfortunately, the coacervate model has been largely rejected due to the debilitating limitations organic polymers would place on a developing cell. Moreover, a functional cell membrane requires fantastically complex molecular assemblies which could not be manufactured even by the greatest scientific minds using the most advanced technologies, let alone in any realistic OOL experiment. Suggesting that this laboratory exercise provides insight into the origin of cell membranes is like assigning students to study iron pyrite (fool’s gold) in order to demonstrate the potential of alchemy to turn lead into a precious metal.

As another example, a teachers’ guide for OOL lessons encourages educators to present to students its list of “scientific evidence for the origin of life.” Top of the list is the claim that the famed Miller-Urey experiment demonstrated that gases on the early Earth would have generated amino acids and fatty acids. The problem is that the gases employed did not accurately represent the early atmosphere. Studies using more realistic combinations generated little more than a few amino acids in trace amounts. In addition, all experiments yielded building blocks engulfed in an “intractable mixture” with many other organic molecules. These experimental byproducts drive destructive cross-reactions which would completely block any additional progress toward life. 

The guide then narrates an OOL scenario with many similarities to that of Jack Szostak. The authors begin by describing how meteorites could have delivered to Earth amino acids, lipids, and the precursors to nucleotides. The narration continues with phospholipids forming and then self-organizing into vesicles. Around the same time, nucleotides emerged and then linked together into long RNA chains. Some of those chains stumbled upon the correct nucleotide sequences to fold into RNA-enzymes called ribozymes which directed RNA replication. At some point, RNA entered a vesicle to form a protocell which eventually began to reproduce. 

This epic journey from simple chemicals to life certainly captures the imagination, but it is completely detached from reality. Meteorites only contain biological molecules in trace quantities, often just a few parts per million, amidst countless other molecules. The formation of stable vesicles is only possible in highly controlled laboratory conditions, and the prebiotic synthesis of long strands of RNA or even the base nucleotides in significant quantities is completely implausible. Presenting such grossly inaccurate information to students only serves to erode the public trust in our educational and scientific institutions. 

Public Education and Religious Neutrality

Perhaps the greatest violation of trust is how such content infringes on the principle of religious neutrality. Public education is expected to neither advance one religious or philosophical faith nor inhibit another. Yet the belief that life arose through undirected natural processes is the number one hindrance among atheists and agnostics to considering the existence of a Creator (see “Darwin’s Corrosive Idea”). 

That belief is based almost entirely on misrepresentations of the scientific literature. In reality, OOL research over the past 65 years has uniformly demonstrated that the transformations of simple molecules into just the most basic components of a cell require dramatic investigator (intelligent) intervention. Teaching students the truth would not inspire such enchanting prebiotic stories, but it would protect the integrity of science education in the public eye.

Photo credit: Tulane Public Relations [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons