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Jim Tour Unmasks Steve Benner’s Double Standard and Inaccurate Commentary on the Origin of Life

Brian Miller
Photo: Steve Benner, via Dr. James Tour/YouTube (screenshot).

In my most recent articles (herehere), I summarized how YouTube personality Dave Farina misrepresented the research of synthetic chemist Bruce Lipshutz and how fellow synthetic chemist Lee Cronin distorted the relevance of his research to the mystery of life’s origin. Now, I will summarize James Tour’s unmasking of the double standard applied by another synthetic chemist, Steve Benner, in assessing other investigators’ origin-of-life research compared with his own. See Tour’s videos below: 

If Benner assessed his experiments by the same standard he applied to others, he would have acknowledged that his attempts to understand life’s origin have yielded nothing of value. His failure is particularly notable given that he is a leading figure in the field. 

Benner’s Inaccurate Critique of Tour

Benner began his interview with Farina by completely misrepresenting the content of Tour’s videos, demonstrating that he did not carefully watch them. He then affirmed Tour’s critique of experiments that start with ultra-pure compounds bought commercially, then let them to interact under very strict control, and finally extract from the mess some molecules that are biologically useful. Such research has no relevance to what could have occurred on the early earth. 

Benner then claimed that prebiotic chemists “work very hard to not make that criticism apply.” Tour demonstrated that Benner’s portrayal of the field is totally inaccurate by listing numerous synthetic chemists that perform the same type of unrealistic experiments. Every experiment that has generated anything useful for life has had to start with unrealistic chemical mixtures and employ extreme investigator control, and every experiment that starts with realistic molecules and conditions generates an intractable mixture of countless organic molecules that could never contribute to life’s origin (hereherehere). 

Synthesizing Nucleotides

Tour then analyzed Benner’s experiment that produced ribose, one portion of nucleotides. The experiment let formaldehyde and glycolaldehyde react in the presence of borate and other minerals, and the products were then identified. The reaction yielded ribose, but only as one of a vast number of other products, and the ribose degraded within a few days. Tour characterized the output of the experiment as “junk.” As with all such experiments, the ribose could never separate from the other compounds and then combine with a nucleobase and phosphate to form nucleotides in non-trace concentrations under any realistic natural conditions. 

Tour then exposed how Benner’s proposed path to generate nucleotides depends on the very intervention that Benner stated he worked hard to avoid. Benner asserted in his 2019 article published in the journal Life that ribose could have reacted with amidotriphosphate (AmTP) to attach a phosphate to the ribose without human intervention. Yet, this reaction will not work with the product of Benner’s ribose synthesis experiment. Instead, ultra-pure ribose must be bought commercially. 

In addition, Benner did not disclose the details of the AmTP reaction but simply cited Krishnamurthy et al. (2000). However, that article details enormous investigator intervention that was required to drive the reaction. Tour also exposed how the AmTP, and other phosphorylating agents such as diamidophosphate, could not have originated on the early earth. All claims that these molecules are prebiotically relevant are founded on trails of citations that lead nowhere. 

As a final problem, Tour identified the use of magnesium chloride (MgCl2) to enable the reaction. The challenge is that this compound would prevent nucleotides from linking into chains. Similarly, the chemical conditions required to produce ribose are different from those required to produce nucleobases. Consequently, the synthesis of nucleotides requires the transport of molecules to different environments with timing and conditions that are far more orchestrated than what could ever occur naturally.   

Forming RNA on Basalt Glass

Later in his interview, Benner claimed that his colleagues demonstrated that nucleotides could have linked into long chains on ancient rocks without “pure starting materials or constant human intervention.” Tour detailed how Benner completely misrepresented the 2022 study he referenced. That is for multiple reasons:

  • The experiment started with ultra-pure nucleoside triphosphates (NTPs) bought commercially.
  • The experiment did not use natural rocks but borax glass powders that were chemically treated and washed multiple times with ultra-pure water. 
  • The experiment used the ideal temperature and pH to foster the extension of nucleotide chains. 

The formation of chains would never have occurred without the carefully controlled experimental conditions. Even with the unrealistic conditions, the experiment generated chains containing many nucleotides linked together with the wrong bonds, so the chains were useless for any scenario for life’s origin. Benner’s description of his and his colleagues’ research was almost entirely hype. The same is true for claims that any of the major challenges in explaining life’s origin through undirected processes have been solved. 

Benner, Cronin, and many other researchers would do well to take to heart a critique of origin-of-life experiments written by Benner’s own Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution:

“Communities studying the origins of life have diverged in recent years,” remarked Steven Benner, a co-author of the study appearing online in the journal Astrobiology.

“One community re-visits classical questions with complex chemical schemes that require difficult chemistry performed by skilled chemists,” Benner explained. “Their beautiful craftwork appears in brand-name journals such as Nature and Science.” However, precisely because of the complexity of this chemistry, it cannot possibly account for how life actually originated on Earth.