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I’m Baffled by Lee Cronin, and I’m Not Alone

Photo: Lee Cronin, by Alfienoakes, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

As Dr. James Tour’s sixty-day challenge to ten top origin-of-life scientists draws to a close this coming Monday, I wonder what brilliant comments will appear in response to the question, “How did life evolve from non-life?” The challenge, as David Klinghoffer summarized: “The deal is, if any of them can answer just one of five questions, relevant to solving the mystery of the origin of life, Professor Tour promises to shut up about the OOL and take down all his public material on the subject.” Professor Lee Cronin is one of the ten. He said this the other day on X:

Not a Mind Reader

I am curious what if anything Cronin and the other nine will offer in response to Dr. Tour. Perhaps they have already cracked the challenge behind the scenes and Tour will be obliged on Monday to admit defeat. But when I tried to interpret Cronin’s comment, I struggled. I’m no expert on OOL myself. Not a mind reader, either. Perhaps Dr. Cronin intended his remark in response to interlocutors other than Tour — like the scientists who are currently taking issue with his new paper with Sara Walker in Nature. As Philip Ball comments in Chemistry World:

The paper claims that an idea called assembly theory (AT) ‘explains selection and evolution’. This has drawn a clamour of responses from scientists on social media – many of them offended, some baffled — and prompted unusually vigorous debate in the online ‘comments’ section of the Nature site. Evolutionary biologists in particular have expressed outrage — denouncing the paper as nonsense, and even a Trojan horse for creationism.

It’s not hard to see why. From the first sentence of the abstract, the paper seems to imply that the authors have cracked a foundational problem for biology: ‘Scientists have grappled with reconciling biological evolution with the immutable laws of the Universe defined by physics.’ No we haven’t, biologists respond – we have never found the slightest contradiction between them, and to suggest otherwise opens the door to intelligent design.

Apparently, being “baffled” puts me in good company. Which brings us back to Cronin’s recent tweet. 

Taking the Bait

Do you know those prank mirror illusions where some object seems to just be sitting in a dish ready to be picked up, but you reach for it and there’s nothing there? Trying to find the promised clarity in his tweet was like reaching for the bait and finding nothing.

Our physicist colleague Brian Miller helped rephrase Cronin’s argument: “Imagining life originating spontaneously and then evolving seems implausible. Instead, long before a cell formed that could reproduce, much simpler chemical mixtures copied themselves, which allowed them to evolve into a cell.” Reducing that to a syllogism (a logical structure), Cronin is saying, “All life undergoes change, and some change is nonbiological, so life and its origin can be nonbiological too.” Apparently, finding evidence of nonbiological chemical change can help explain the OOL.

But his logic seems faulty, particularly considering Tour’s challenge. 

Let’s say I were to ask you, “I wonder, how did the first music soundtrack originate?” Please don’t respond, “Your ego and your lack of clarity are a little too much. It’s key to remember that musical notes predate movies. Simple sets of notes formed spontaneously and then randomly changed the notes into a music soundtrack. Let me tell you about early musical notes.” Cronin’s reasoning follows the same logical structure and is just as confusing.

Shall We Play Chess?

Another oddity about his tweet strikes me: it doesn’t seem very sporting to respond to a challenge (whether from Tour or other scientists) by altering it. If your friend says, “Care for a game of chess?” you can’t very well respond, “Chess is my favorite, and I always win. If you wouldn’t mind, though, I think we should switch out the pieces for a deck of cards and use a cribbage board.” Tour detailed five challenge questions, and Cronin’s reformulation looks as similar to Tour’s questions as cribbage is to chess. Cronin assumes that simple chemical mixtures capable of reproduction formed spontaneously, and they then evolved into modern cells. The problem is that the formation of amino acids into protein chains or nucleotides into RNA or DNA are the very problems that Tour challenged experts to explain.

The unsound logic, ad hominem, and goalpost swapping in Cronin’s tweet are hardly what one should expect from a professor. But there are a few days left, and he can always follow up with a relevant chemical equation in another tweet. 

Oh, by the way, Cronin has also tweeted this, back in 2021:

That, from an OOL researcher? Baffling indeed. Well, Dr. Tour is waiting for illumination. Evidently so are a lot of other people.