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From Nature, a Devastating Critique of Origin-of-Life Research

Image credit: Illustra Media.

It’s been over 153 years since Darwin’s “warm little pond” letter to Joseph Hooker, his tentative hope to close the final gap in his naturalistic origins story. Despite numerous well-funded approaches by leading teams around the world, propped up by media hype, none have shown real progress. After coacervates, spark-discharge tubes, proteinoid microspheres, the RNA world, hydrothermal vents, astrobiology programs, and the rest of the circus, research into the origin of life by unguided natural processes seems further behind than it did in Darwin’s day. The time has come for a confession, a reassessment, an overhaul, a paradigm shift, humility, and a collective restart.

Where is this stated? Not just in the ID literature, nor in a lecture by James Tour — although of course they both do say it. But in Nature. Are you listening, “Professor Dave”?

Yes, Nature, that magazine started by Norman Lockyer in 1869 to promote Darwin’s naturalistic views, has had to face judgment day. Researchers have learned a lot of facts about molecules, but “Findings can be true but irrelevant,” the authors warn. 

Confession Is Good for the Soul

Nick Lane and Joana Xavier should be commended for their bravery in writing a Comment in Nature’s current issue, “To unravel the origin of life, treat findings as pieces of a bigger puzzle.” Despite the hopeful title, their assessment is devastating to the methodological naturalist origin-of-life (MN-OoL) field and threatens to unmask all the pretensions of the circus actors and their publicists in the media. Their statements are all the more remarkable because the two still believe in OoL and remain hopeful that a solution will come from somewhere, some day.  

Explaining isolated steps on the road from simple chemicals to complex living organisms is not enough. Looking at the big picture could help to bridge rifts in this fractured research field. [Emphasis added.]

Here are some of the confessions readers will see in this evaluation of MN-OoL: Nobody has figured out:

  • The target of selection.
  • What to look for, or where.
  • Whether microfossils are biological or not.
  • Where genes and proteins came from.
  • How to unify the splintered field of OoL research.
  • How to build a coherent framework for OoL.

In addition, Lane and Xavier identify major problems with the most popular approaches:

  • Prebiotic soup model: implausible sources of ingredients, concentrations, and longevity.
  • RNA World: ribozymes tend to disintegrate and randomize, not grow in complexity.
  • Hydrothermal vents: no plausible origin of metabolism or polymerization.

Their questions are brutal. James Tour calls the OoL field “clueless,” and that’s not very far off from the takeaway offered here. Apart from Tour, I haven’t seen such frankness since Leslie Orgel and Robert Shapiro shot down each other’s scenarios back in 2008. “Golf courses don’t play themselves,” Shapiro argued. “Pigs don’t fly,” Orgel shot back.1

Similarly probing questions apply to other origins-of-life scenarios. If organic molecules were delivered from space — for instance, in carbonaceous chondrites such as the Murchison meteorite — then how and where did they come together, how did they polymerize, and so on? The delivery of organics from space simply stocks a soup and doesn’t solve most of the downstream problems — with the further issue that such a delivery method is unlikely to have been reliable and consistent at specific locations.

If life started out as droplets known as coacervates, in which immiscible liquids separate into distinct phases that promote different types of chemistry, then one must ask where all the precursors to feed their growth came from.And how did these phase-separated droplets morph into cells with different topology, in which these distinct chemistries now mostly occur under aqueous-gel conditions?

It’s not like researchers in the MN-Ool field are unaware of these issues. Professor Tour’s challenge to ten of the leading scientists went unanswered. Why does what reporter Susan Mazur called The Origin of Life Circus go on and on? 

The origins-of-life field faces the same problems with culture and incentives that afflict all of science — overselling ideas towards publication and funding, too little common ground between competing groups and perhaps too much pride: too strong an attachment to favoured scenarios, and too little willingness to be proved wrong.

Xavier has been bold in her criticism of academia and its entrenched biases, as Paul Nelson noted in his response to an interview she had in 2022 with Perry Marshall, author of Evolution 2.0. That’s why she helped found an organization, OoLEN (origin-of-life early-career network), where young researchers could talk openly about issues in the field outside the publish-or-perish sweatshop where one is judged (and funded) by the quantity of their papers but not the quality of their ideas.

Offering Hope to Disgruntled MN-OoL Captives

As a bioengineer working for biochemist Nick Lane at University College London, Xavier occupies a unique space in a field dominated by methodological naturalists. Her engineering background helps her understand that a system like a cell fulfills a plan. She has a profound appreciation for the complexity of life and agrees with Richard Dawkins that life looks purposeful*. To her credit, she is not averse to talking to people from other perspectives, including intelligent design advocates. She says she read Stephen Meyer’s book Signature in the Cell and enjoyed it for its presentation of the issues (“one of the best books I’ve read in terms of really putting the finger on the questions”), even if she could not agree with his conclusion. But like Paul Nelson noted, she has a job and needs targets to work on. Can the ID “big tent” offer a welcoming safe space for asking questions and seeking career guidance for fundable research projects?

Admittedly, no one in the origin-of-life field wants to hear “God of the gaps” as the only alternative. The either-or fallacy (naturalism or God) troubles scientists, who not only think “creationism” as the only other choice, but would be out of a job, they think, if they abandoned the search for naturalistic answers. What does ID offer a scientist to work on? Contrary to the absurd cartoon stereotypes, ID proponents don’t just say “God did it.” There are puzzles to solve, mysteries to clear up, and research funds to spend. Xavier points to numerous applications arising from OoL research.2 But is this a false dilemma? It begs the question that applications like mRNA vaccines, vitamin biochemistry, and other findings in basic biology might have been reached in other ways, without help from the OoL field. What can ID offer a scientist with her enthusiasm and openness?

As Paul Nelson points out, ID can lead to novel observational consequences. It can generate hypotheses that lead to “money in the bank” for the scientist. He points to William Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of blood as one example; Harvey’s belief in intelligent design did not stop him from investigating blood, the heart, and the function of blood vessels. It motivated his detailed investigations of how veins and arteries work and led to new insights and applications.

Harvey Was Not Alone

The assumption of actual design in nature led to discoveries made by Johannes Kepler (planetary orbits), Robert Boyle (compressibility of gases), James Simpson (anesthesia3), James Joule (conservation of energy), Michael Faraday (unification of forces), George Washington Carver (agricultural chemistry4), and many, many other discoveries in all fields of science. Some of these investigators are celebrated as the founders of whole disciplines. A design perspective kept each of them very, very busy in productive work and led to numerous applications that have dramatically improved human flourishing. We have this historical evidence, therefore, that design is not a science stopper. In fact, some historians of science have pointed to the Judeo-Christian worldview as the match that lit the scientific revolution itself. This is all the more astonishing in stark contrast with MN-OoL which is admittedly stuck at square one after a century and a half of effort. 

These thoughts can begin to allay fears that ID will put origin-of-life researchers out of work. What else can ID offer them? Here are some starter questions to get the discussion going:

  • Origin of life: Is there a baseline level of functional integration that serves as a biomarker irrespective of the molecular substrate (e.g., carbon, water) comprising it?
  • Autocatalysis: Can an autocatalytic system be modeled without the input of external information?5
  • Memory: What is the nature of memory in the most primitive life, and what are the minimum requirements for memory for an autonomous living system?
  • Biochemistry: How do proteins “know” where to go for their functions in the cell? Is this information encoded in genes, or somewhere else? (See this recent discovery.)
  • Geology: What are the elements required for life as we know it, and how were they delivered to the early Earth at the right place and time, and in the right concentrations?
  • Reverse engineering: If cells were in fact designed, can we improve human engineering by learning how they solved problems?
  • Biomimetics: This lively field owes its existence to the assumption that biological solutions are often superior at solving some of the problems that engineers face.
  • Systems biology: The “big picture” view of a cell or organism as an interconnected system can remove the limitations of reductionism and provide insights into functional wholes.6
  • Ecology: Do obligate parasites and disease vectors represent innovations or degradations of former mutualistic symbioses? If the latter, can a pathway be elucidated?
  • Astrobiology: Turn the current focus on molecules (e.g., water, amino acids) to information: how would scientists detect interconnected systems that communicate functional information? (This could work for SETI as well.)
  • Conservation: What can we learn from explorations of other planets and moons about the uniqueness of earth as a habitat for life? How can this inform efforts to protect what we have?
  • Philosophy of science: At what point does it become wise to abandon a fruitless quest? For example, a snipe hunt can waste resources, even if the snipe hunter learns some things about the forest in the process. “True but irrelevant” findings do not justify a fruitless pursuit, especially if those truths can be discovered other ways.

Parts vs. Wholes

In view of their focus on “the bigger puzzle” of life, here is an analogy of the current unproductive methodology that has led to the OoL field running in place and not making progress. Imagine a canyon with sheer walls needing to be bridged. On one side is the abiotic Earth. On the other side is the first primitive autonomous life form. The current methodology is to imagine a complete bridge emerged naturally, and then model a single part: a steel girder in the middle, an anchor on one side or the other, a type of rivet or bolt required. The researcher works on that part, modeling it on a computer or experimenting with its molecules under controlled lab conditions. Then he or she dangles it out in the middle of the canyon, as if suspended from a helicopter, boasting that a key component of the bridge has been discovered. The press writes this up as a major breakthrough. But without the supporting superstructure, the component drops to the bottom of the canyon as soon as the helicopter releases it. Unless that component is realistically connected with all the other parts, it accomplishes nothing, and no understanding is gained about how a bridge originated.

This is why Lane and Xavier’s emphasis on the “big picture” is so timely. They are asking the follow-up questions: how is that girder to be bolted to the other parts, and to the anchor on the cliff? In what order do the parts need to be assembled? “What happens next?” Xavier asks. Unless a research team connects their piece to the whole structure realistically, nothing has been understood. Academia should not waste limited taxpayer funds on fruitless busywork. A “systems approach” that accounts for all the requirements at once — container, code, and metabolism — is the only method likely to yield understanding. As ID proponents will argue, the only such systems for which we have observational knowledge of their origin are the result of intelligence. Paul Nelson’s proverb bears repeating: “If it works, it’s not happening by accident.”


  1. I wrote about this elsewhere here.
  2. There is a cartoon where a layman asks a caricature of Richard Dawkins (who agrees life “looks” designed), “Are you an expert on the origin of life?” “Yes,” he replies. The layman asks, “How did life originate?” Dawkins answers, “Well, nobody knows.” The layman continues, “In what way does that differ from the non-expert?” Dawkins replies, “I know the ways it didn’t happen — which proves we’re on the right track.”
  3. Simpson was motivated by the story of the creation of Eve in Genesis that there must be a way to do surgery without pain by putting the patient to sleep.
  4. Carver famously asked, “Lord, why did you make the peanut?” and went to his lab to figure it out, coming up with 300 products from peanuts.
  5. In the video with Xavier, Marshall shows a famous Escher drawing of a hand drawing a hand and calls it his “best explanation” of autocatalysis. But surely Escher conceived the work and used his creative intelligence to draw it. Could any autocatalytic system generate itself without an artist?
  6. Recall how Francis Crick suspected a translating molecule must exist to communicate the genetic code to the protein code. This “adaptor hypothesis” led to the discovery of transfer RNA.

* Updated 3/28/24.