On Origin of Life, “Stated Clearly” Has Clearly Misled Viewers
The latest installment of Long Story Short reviews popular YouTube videos on the origin of life. See my two earlier posts on the episode, here and here. The videos promote a materialist perspective, encouraging millions of viewers to believe that life started through purely natural processes (abiogenesis). However, as Long Story explains in its typical cheeky manner, the videos subordinate science to ideology. Actual science clearly contradicts their teaching.
In this final article of my series, let’s take a look at the video “Can Science Explain the Origin of Life?” by Jon Perry and the YouTube channel “Stated Clearly.” Funded by the Center for Chemical Evolution, Georgia Tech, the National Science Foundation, and NASA, the video includes attractive graphics and clear and accessible descriptions. But as science it falls short. You could tell that to the 1.2 million viewers so far who have watched it.
Evidential Support for Abiogenesis?
Early on, the video presents its basis for supporting abiogenesis (at 1:37):
[T]he first reproducing creature could not have developed through biological evolution, because biological evolution requires reproduction in order to work. The origin of life needs its own explanation. The most promising idea right now, the one that is consistently leading scientists to new discoveries, is the idea that life started from chemistry.
No alternative idea is mentioned in the video, so why is this “the most promising idea”? Jon Perry may be a proponent of methodological naturalism, which constrains science to consider only natural causes, regardless of the scientific evidence. In that case, the only allowed idea is that life started from chemistry — all others are excluded a priori. This creates a circular argument and an epistemological crisis — of course the only permitted idea is the most promising one.
Or perhaps Perry is following empirical science: Either life started from chemistry (the null hypothesis), or life could not have started from chemistry (the alternative hypothesis). The genuine scientific approach would follow the evidence to determine which hypothesis is best supported. This would lead us to interpret Perry’s statement, “The most promising idea right now…is the idea that life started from chemistry,” as implying that the evidence really does favor his hypothesis. Let’s look at the evidence he presents.
Life’s Building Blocks
First to be considered are the building blocks of life. The video suggests that they are easy to produce (at 4:22):
Researchers have recently discovered that many of the building blocks of life, amino acids and sugars, exist inside of meteorites — rocks which have fallen to the earth from outer space. This tells us that these special molecules are being produced spontaneously all throughout our solar system, and may have been common on the ancient Earth.
It is true that amino acids and sugars have been found in meteorites, but we know that these simple building blocks are very rudimentary compared to what is needed for life, and we know that the same chemical processes also produce a vast array of molecules that are not relevant to life – molecules that would either get in the way or be toxic.1 Speaking on this topic, University of Chicago origin-of-life chemist Jack Szostak has said:
The problem is that those collections of molecules are mostly things we don’t want. Very little of the right molecules, in very, very low concentrations.2
As a result, these building blocks are not useful to advance toward life, and this evidence does not support the idea that life started from chemistry.
Some Self-Assembly Required
As further evidence, Perry describes how some molecules self-assemble into complex orderly structures (at 5:15):
Some self-assemble into hollow spheres, almost identical to the membranes of modern living cells.
Here, the video shows a spherical lipid bilayer. The goal is to convince the viewer that cell membranes can form spontaneously. But anyone who understands the structure or function of a cell membrane knows that this is a gross misrepresentation; the spheres in question are not “almost identical” to cell membranes. Actual membranes, even in the simplest life, must actively maintain homeostasis through the actions of more than 100 different transmembrane proteins.3 About a third of all the proteins produced by organisms operate as part of the cell membrane,4 and even the lipid components of a membrane are finely tuned.5 See this earlier Long Story video for more:
As a result, this attempt to claim self-assembly of membranes also does not support the idea that life started from chemistry.
“Remarkably Similar” to DNA?
Perry’s unfounded claims continue (at 5:20):
Others self-assemble into long columns, remarkably similar to strands of DNA, found in life.
Here, the video shows self-assembling stacks of macrocycles, apparently influenced by the work of Sijbren Otto’s laboratory.6,7 Anyone with even a basic understanding of DNA should be scratching their head at this claim, pondering how these stacks of individual disks could possibly be “remarkably similar” to DNA. The macrocycles are not covalently bonded to each other. They bear no resemblance to the structure of DNA, how it is produced or replicated, or how it stores information. The video is attempting to convince the viewer that the complex molecules and structures in life self-assemble, but actual science teaches a different lesson.
In reality, natural processes work against almost every required step in the formation of life, supporting the alternative hypothesis that life could not have started from chemistry. Natural processes produce a very wide array of chemical structures, far more than the select building blocks of life,1 and thus strongly inhibit progress toward life. Natural processes produce racemic mixtures, not the homochiral building blocks found in life. Natural processes produce a mixture of bonding structures, not the highly consistent polymer bonds found between life’s building blocks. In aqueous solution, natural processes are well known to inhibit the formation of RNA or DNA from nucleotides, and the formation of proteins from amino acids. Natural processes degrade RNA, DNA, and proteins over short time spans, requiring life to incorporate repair or recycling mechanisms. Through natural processes, the entire probabilistic resources of the universe are incapable of generating a self-replicating RNA,8 yet life would require a succession of millions of forms of self-replicating molecules to get started.
Despite what this video from Stated Clearly says, science strongly favors the alternative hypothesis — that life could not have started by chemistry. Anyone, including biology students, who have watched the video, and took Jon Perry seriously, have been seriously misled.
- a) The Murchison meteorite contained “tens of thousands of different molecular compositions, and likely millions of diverse structures,” which “suggests that the extraterrestrial chemodiversity is high compared to terrestrial relevant biological- and biogeochemical-driven chemical space.” Schmitt-Kopplin, P., et al., High molecular diversity of extraterrestrial organic matter in Murchison meteorite revealed forty years after its fall. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2010; 107: 2763–2768. b) Wotos A. el al., Synthetic connectivity, emergence, and self-regeneration in the network of prebiotic chemistry. Science 2020; 369: 1584.
- https://youtu.be/ZLzyco3Q_Rg at time 1:15:11
- Fraser, C. M., et al., The minimal gene complement of Mycoplasma genitalium. Science. 1995; 270: 397–403.
- Poetsch, A. and D. Wolters, Bacterial membrane proteomics. Proteomics, 2008; 8: 4100–4122.
- Dingjan T, Futerman AH. The fine-tuning of cell membrane lipid bilayers accentuates their compositional complexity. BioEssays 2021; 43:202100021
- Carnall JMA, Waudby CA, Belenguer AM, Stuart MCA, Peyralans J J-P, Otto S. Mechanosensitive Self-Replication Driven by Self-Organization. Science 2010: 327; 1502.
- Malakoutikhah M, Peyralans J J-P, Colomb-Delsuc M, Fanlo-Virgós H, Stuart MCA, and Otto S. Uncovering the Selection Criteria for the Emergence of Multi-Building-Block Replicators from Dynamic Combinatorial Libraries. J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2013, 135, 18406–18417.
- Totani T. Emergence of life in an inflationary universe. Scientific Reports 2020; 10: 1671.