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Another War of Words: Jim Tour and Lee Cronin at Harvard

Photo: Lee Cronin, via YouTube (screenshot).

On November 28, 2023, Rice University chemistry professor James Tour and University of Glasgow professor of chemistry Lee Cronin participated in a roundtable at Harvard University on the origin of life. The event was hosted by the Cambridge Faculty Roundtable on Science and Religion. There were far fewer fireworks than at Tour’s previous debate against YouTuber Dave Farina, held at Rice University in May 2023. However, the rhetorical dynamics and the result were strikingly similar: Tour spent most of the evening talking about the science — focusing on chemical obstacles to producing (1) polypeptides, (2) polynucleotides, (3) polysaccharides, (4) specified information, and (5) how to assemble these components “into an integrated functional living system” under natural earthlike conditions. While Cronin was far more civil and congenial than Dave Farina, Cronin nonetheless resembled Farina in that he spent an inordinate amount of time talking about Jim Tour. This included making the same strange accusation over and over again that Tour was “shouting,” or claiming Tour was being “overcritical,” or claiming he was saying “everyone’s an idiot” or that Tour called Cronin a “bad chemist.” 

Simply put, none of that happened. Tour didn’t shout. He didn’t call anyone an “idiot.” He never called Cronin a “bad chemist” or attacked Cronin’s scientific competency. And Tour’s scientific questions and challenges were entirely reasonable. Cronin’s rhetorical strategy seemed designed to distract people from the fact that he had zero — and if we go by Cronin’s statements during the event I mean absolutely zero — answers to Tour’s questions about how key biomolecules arose on the early earth. Instead, Cronin sought to use his charismatic personality to convince people we’re “making progress” on the origin of life such that they might have faith to believe that someday it will be solved. 

Perhaps it will be, perhaps it won’t be. But Cronin gave us no indication what that solution might look like. Cronin did discuss “Assembly Theory,” but spoke in vague metaphors and never tackled the chemistry of how life might have arisen from chemicals. His performance during the roundtable showed that he had no answers to Jim Tour’s questions about how life might have formed under natural conditions on the early earth. 

Review of the Previous Debate

Back in May, as I mentioned, we witnessed a fiery debate between Tour and Farina (aka “Professor Dave”). At that time, I wrote a post titled “A War of Words? How to Tell Who Won the Tour-Farina Debate.” I noted that a few years ago,

I received an email from an Internet questioner with the subject “War of Words.” This person expressed concerns that there is so much back and forth between experts in the debate over the origin and evolution of life and intelligent design, that it can sometimes be difficult for a non-expert to determine who is right.

Don’t fret too much, I explained, because “you don’t need a PhD in science and unlimited time to read the literature to quickly see who has the better argument” and “if you want to know who has the better argument, examining the rhetorical styles of different ‘sides’ of a debate can speak volumes.” 

Here we are, seven months later. Some of my Discovery Institute colleagues (David KlinghofferGünter BechlyBrian Miller) have already provided their own astute commentary. I also want to weigh in — continuing this “War of Words” analysis, and further considering how we can determine who has the better argument by examining rhetorical styles. 

Tour de Force: Still Focused on the Science

James Tour presented first in the roundtable, and as in his debate with Farina, his opening statement focused 100 percent on the science and did not descend to personal attacks. His argument was comprehensive and clear:

First: Surveys show that a large percentage of the public believes — incorrectly of course — that life has been made in the lab and the origin of life (OOL) is essentially solved.

Second: These incorrect beliefs must come from somewhere, and the most likely culprits are prominent OOL theorists who proclaim that life has been (or very soon will be) created from scratch in the lab. This include folks like Lee Cronin, whom Tour noted predicted in a 2011 TED Talk that we would “make matter come alive… within the next two years.”  

Third: Yet the science is pointing in the opposite direction and key problems in the OOL remain unsolved, including the following partial list given by Tour:

  • How to “make the enantiopure versions of carbohydrates, amino acids, nucleotides, or lipids in a prebiotically relevant manner.” 
  • That “the mixtures found in meteorites or interstellar space could be useful for synthesis” of key biological molecules.
  • How to solve “the mass transfer problem in chemical transformation from small molecules to a cell.”
  • How to polymerize molecules like carbohydrates without enzymes.
  • How to solve the “polymer stability problem,” where key molecules like RNA peptides have lifetimes on the order of a few hours or days.
  • How to link up amino acids into peptides without side chains reacting and preventing useful structures from forming.
  • How to solve “the code problem for ordering the nucleotides (or saccharides or proteins if those came first)” in the first self-replicating molecular systems. 
  • “Nobody has made any of the higher-order structures needed for the simplest of cells.” 

Fourth: Tour highlighted other problems as well, and noted he’d recently issued a “60-day challenge,” inviting ten leading OOL theorists to explain any one of five key necessary aspects of the OOL: How to make sufficiently pure / long (1) polypeptides, (2) polynucleotides, (3) polysaccharides, (4) specified information, or (5) how to assemble these components “into an integrated functional living system.” To entice the ten to provide answers, Tour offered to remove his videos critiquing the OOL if anyone answered his questions. Surely if anyone knew the answers to these fundamental questions about how life started, it’s those ten. But at the end of the challenge, no one even tried. Not a single OOL theorist attempted to answer Tour’s questions about how life might have originated. Tour’s plea to OOL theorists is to tone down their rhetoric and start giving the public a more realistic appraisal of the state of their field.

Fifth: Professor Tour ended with a powerful rhetorical question that exposed the trendline of OOL research: As science learns more, does a natural explanation for the origin of life seem to be coming closer within reach, or further away? Tour’s answer was clear: The pace of discoveries deepening our knowledge of life’s complexity far outstrips our attempts to explain how it might have arisen naturally. Each advance in OOL chemistry may solve one small problem, but meanwhile our knowledge of the complexity of the cell keeps increasing at a much greater pace, meaning the prospect of a solution to the origin of life is continually “receding.” “The problem gets worse,” said Tour. “We learn a little about chemistry and a lot about the cell!”

From the foregoing it should be clear that Tour’s presentation was highly focused on the science and he showed many slides explaining his scientific questions and challenges to OOL theorists. Yet despite the fact that Tour invited ten leading OOL theorists to address his scientific concerns, only Lee Cronin accepted the invitation to dialogue and was willing to have a conversation about these questions. Cronin deserves much credit for being willing to engage in the dialogue — but did he actually address any of Tour’s questions? We’ll see tomorrow.