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Where’s the Chemistry? On the Origin of Life, James Tour Exposes Professor Dave as “Clueless”

Photo source: YouTube (screenshot).

Last week, renowned Rice University chemistry professor James Tour debated popular YouTuber Dave Farina, aka “Professor Dave,” on the origin of life. The debate took place on the Rice campus in Houston, Texas, in Tour’s own lecture hall, and was streamed live over the Internet. Unlike Dr. Tour, Farina isn’t a real professor. I suppose in today’s manner of speaking, we could say that he identifies as one, while lacking a PhD, a faculty position, or as it seems now, anything like the needed chemistry expertise to explain how life arose. 

One Thing Seems Clear

The topic of the debate was: “Are We Clueless About the Origin of Life?” After watching it, one thing seems clear: Professor Dave, like the origin-of-life field itself, is certainly “clueless” about any reasonable level of chemical detail about how the origin of life might have occurred.

The mic drop moments of the evening came after the opening statements when each debater was given the opportunity to ask his opponent questions. Tour focused on the science. The challenge he posed to Farina was simple: If Farina really thinks the origin of life has been explained, come to the blackboard and show the audience the chemistry that can produce, under realistic prebiotic conditions, five key elements of biology. Those are polypeptides, polynucleotides, polysaccharides, specified information, and a functional cell. 

In each case, Farina declined. 

Tour listed those five key elements of biology on the blackboard. At the end of each, after Farina had refused to come to the blackboard to explain the chemistry to the audience, Tour wrote “Clueless” next to the item. In another context this might have seemed harsh, but given that the agreed-upon question of the night was whether origin-of-life researchers are “clueless” about how life arose, it seemed entirely fair. 

A Scientist Comments

While Tour focused on the chemistry, Dave Farina spent most of the evening directing personal attacks against Dr. Tour, calling him a “liar” over and over again as well as many other invectives. We’ll discuss this distasteful aspect of the debate further in a subsequent post. A friend of mine who is a scientist watched the event and had this to say: 

I went into the debate knowing very little about Dave. I had no feel for his level of competence in chemistry or OOL issues. (I know Jim Tour, so I know he’s an expert chemist.) I was open to Dave being a self-taught expert on the issues, willing to push back on Jim’s dismissals with clear evidence.

In his opening volley, Dave made it clear that he wasn’t there to discuss chemistry, he was there to attack Jim. This is less than persuasive, since even if Jim was a donkey, there are prebiotic chemistry questions that need to be answered. It doesn’t matter who’s asking them. (It didn’t help that they were at Jim’s home campus, and Dave is calling him a fraud to his colleagues who know he’s not a fraud from direct experience.)

The turning point in the debate in Jim’s favor was when he wrote, in chalk, the precursor substances and the derived substance schemata. He then called Dave’s bluff: if we are not clueless on how this was made chemically, write the equations. “But mountains of peer-reviewed literature explain it…” Dave suggested. OK, then open those papers, find the equations, and write them here. Dave couldn’t.

It became clear to an outsider like myself that (1) the pathways and equations weren’t actually known, and (2) if they were known and actually in the papers, Dave couldn’t understand them. Or else he would have simply written down the relevant reaction equations.

A good portion of the audience seemed to realize this, too, and began to turn against Dave, prompting him at points to lash out at them. (Pro tip: In a debate, if you ever get to the point where you’re attacking your own audience, you’ve lost.) But I’m biased, so I checked the YouTube comments to see if my perceptions were widespread. I saw more than a few comments from atheists and those on Dave’s side saying he embarrassed them in the debate. Dave literally had nothing but personal attacks and pointing to words in paper titles and abstracts. Jim had actual chemistry. The comments section showed that even Dave’s own crowd saw this as a loss.

A Lost Opportunity

Indeed, Farina made many assertions about various scientific papers — and we’ll be discussing those soon. But Tour gave Farina a clear opportunity: If the paper explains how key aspects of life arose, then write on the board the chemical reaction equations that show how it happened. Farina would not even take the chalk. He couldn’t do it. If he could, he certainly would have done so.

At end of the debate, Farina finally took the chalk and wrote something on the blackboard. It was two words: “NOT CLUELESS.” It was intended as cheekiness, but I think it backfired because it only served to highlight the fact that he was unable to explain details of the chemistry behind the origin of life. More importantly, it didn’t answer Tour’s request for a scientific explanation. Farina could not answer a single challenge from Tour. 

Professor Dave’s inability to provide the chemistry to back up his claims calls to mind the famous Wendy’s ad from the 1980s, where an elderly woman keeps asking: “Where’s the beef?” One might likewise ask Dave Farina: Where’s the chemistry? For that, don’t look to Professor Dave.

It was a turbulent evening, but that was the main takeaway from the debate. We’ll offer more analysis in subsequent posts.