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Hello, Professor Dave: James Tour’s Criticisms of OOL Research Echo Those of Other Experts

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Photo: James Tour in a scene from Science Uprising, via Discovery Institute.

In several articles we have already deconstructed the debate between Professor James Tour and “Professor” Dave Farina on the state of research about the origin of life (OOL). For example, see my latest, on Farina’s habit of citation bluffing, here. Today, I will address one of the few honest questions Farina and other critics have asked: If Tour’s critique of the field is accurate, why has he not published his arguments in peer-reviewed literature? The answer is simple: Tour’s criticisms and concerns have already been recognized by experts in origins research and published in technical journals. Tour has simply compiled and explained the challenges to the public to expose the disconnect between what the public has been told and the true state of the field. 

Steven Benner

One of the most comprehensive and insightful critiques of origins research is by Steven Benner (2014), a synthetic chemist praised by Farina. Benner’s article “Paradoxes in the Origin of Life” lists five seemingly insurmountable hurdles facing origin-of-life scenarios. I will explain only two. 

The first is termed the Asphalt Paradox. It refers to the tendency of systems of organic molecules to degrade into mixtures of molecules that are useless for life. Benner states:

An enormous amount of empirical data have established, as a rule, that organic systems, given energy and left to themselves, devolve to give uselessly complex mixtures, “asphalts”… Further, chemical theories, including the second law of thermodynamics, bonding theory that describes the “space” accessible to sets of atoms, and structure theory requiring that replication systems occupy only tiny fractions of that space, suggest that it is impossible for any non-living chemical system to escape devolution to enter into the Darwinian world of the “living.”

Benner goes on to explain why this tendency undermines all potentially viable approaches to explaining even the simplest and earliest steps toward life’s origin:

Such statements of impossibility apply even to macromolecules not assumed to be necessary for RIRI [replication involving replicable imperfections] evolution. Again richly supported by empirical observation, material escapes from known metabolic cycles that might be viewed as models for a “metabolism first” origin of life, making such cycles short-lived. Lipids that provide tidy compartments under the close supervision of a graduate student (supporting a protocell-first model for origins) are quite non-robust with respect to small environmental perturbations, such as a change in the salt concentration, the introduction of organic solvents, or a change in temperature….

Benner labels a second challenge the Information-Need Paradox. It refers to the implausibility of an RNA molecule forming with the information required for it to self-replicate. The central problem is that the probability is miniscule for a random sequence of nucleotides (the building blocks of RNA) to contain the required information for an RNA molecule to perform self-replication or any other complex function required for a minimally complex cell. Benner states:

If a biopolymer is assumed to be necessary for RIRI evolution, we must resolve the paradox arising because implausibly high concentrations of building blocks generate biopolymers having inadequate amounts of information. These propositions from theory and observation also force the conclusion that the emergence of (in this case, biopolymer-based) life is impossible.

At the end of the article, Benner exchanges the hat of an objective scientist for that of a high priest of the secular faith. He encourages his readers not to lose hope that the paradoxes will one day be solved. Yet no discovery since the article’s publication has suggested that the barriers to life’s genesis identified by Benner could ever be overcome.     

Tour’s critique appears far more charitable than Benner’s assessment. Tour simply stated that researchers do not yet have any understanding of how life could have originated. In contrast, Benner stated that the most fundamental theories of science and all experimental evidence point to the origin of life through natural processes being “impossible.”

Elbert Branscomb and Michael Russell

A second key paper is “Frankenstein or a Submarine Alkaline Vent: Who Is Responsible for Abiogenesis?” This two-part article (Part 1Part 2) was authored by Elbert Branscomb and Michael Russell (2018), who are leaders in the alkaline-vent hypothesis for the origin of life.  The article explains why all theories on life’s origin relying solely on natural processes must fail. The authors detail how nearly every reaction in cells requires molecular machines to drive it at the correct rate:

But even those of life’s molecular transformations that do run downhill have to be taken out of chemistry’s hands and “managed” by a dedicated macromolecular machine — in order to impose conditionally manipulable control over reaction rates and to exclude undesirable reactions, both as to reactants and products. On its own, chemistry is far too indiscriminate and uncontrollable.

The authors also state that the operations of a cell must conform to “an elaborate organizational design.” 

Life does not represent an emergent property of matter, but a system of processes directed by advanced nanotechnology to operate in conformity with a blueprint or design architecture. One could no more explain the organization of a cell through the chemistry and physics of its constituent molecules than one could explain the organization of a car through the chemistry and physics of metal, glass, rubber, and gasoline. 

Remarkably, the authors even recognize that the need for molecular machines eliminates any possibility of life emerging through natural processes:

We claim in particular that it is untenable to hold that life-relevant biochemistry could have emerged in the chemical chaos produced by mass-action chemistry and chemically nonspecific “energy” inputs, and only later have evolved its dauntingly specific mechanisms (as a part of evolving all the rest of life’s features).

They respond to this challenge by appealing to natural selection. Yet nothing is reproducing, so their only hope for explaining life is a delusion. Here again, the authors present a bleak picture of the field by concluding that life’s origin appears “untenable.”

Assembling the Cellular Components

Ironically, explaining the synthesis of life’s building blocks (e.g., proteins, RNA, membranes, sugars) is far easier than explaining how they could assemble into a functional cell. What would happen if aliens deposited millions of tons of randomly sequenced proteins and RNA, cell membranes, molecular machines, and every other cellular component on the early Earth? Everything would simply decompose into “uselessly complex mixtures.” Even if decomposition were somehow prevented, forming a minimally complex cell would still require three steps: 

  1. Selecting the correct proteins, RNA, and other structures out of an unfathomably large pool of molecules. 
  2. Localizing the building blocks in a microscopic environment. 
  3. Properly assembling the molecules and structures into a fantastically rare arrangement.

Tour explained the complete implausibility of these steps through known natural processes in a video, which I summarized in a previous article

Irrelevant Research on Life’s Origin

Examining the assembly problem reveals the irrelevance of current origin-of-life research. Origins experiments and hypotheses represent mere nibbling around the edges of the real challenge, for reasons that can best be understood with an analogy. Imagine a group of scientists claiming that the laws of aerodynamics guarantee that a tornado plowing through an auto parts store will often assemble the parts into a functional car. To prove their point, they attempt to demonstrate that high winds under the right conditions can push nuts and bolts closer together. Even if successful, this one step is inconsequential in relation to the entire task of car assembly. 

Similarly, simply forming a few biologically relevant molecules or linking them together is inconsequential when compared to fabricating a cell, which represents a nanotechnology vessel capable of such feats as energy production, information processing, and error correction. Any honest assessment of the evidence must conclude that life did not originate through natural processes, but instead is the product of a mind.