DNA Origin of Life

Does peer-reviewed research support a naturalistic origin of life?

So, on Friday night, there was a debate between Dr. James Tour and Professor Dave, an atheist with a bachelors degree who makes YouTube videos. The atheist spent his entire opening speech attacking Tour’s character. When Tour asked him to show him origin of life chemistry, he refused. The atheist shuffled through papers he apparently found by Googling, and read the titles. When asked what was in them, he said that he couldn’t remember.

But I was trying to decide who won the debate. There was one place where the atheist claimed that the early Earth had no molecular oxygen. He needs that to be true, in order for the chemistry that creates the building blocks of life to work. So I thought I would talk about a paper that refutes that. After my argument, I’ll talk about another mistake that the atheist made in the debate. Based on those two mistakes, I concluded that the atheist was speaking errors either intentionally or unintentionally, and therefore lost the debate.

Here’s a paper published in the prestigious peer-reviewed science journal Nature, entitled “The oxidation state of Hadean magmas and implications for early Earth’s atmosphere”.

Evolution News explains what the paper is about.

Excerpt:

A recent Nature publication reports a new technique for measuring the oxygen levels in Earth’s atmosphere some 4.4 billion years ago. The authors found that by studying cerium oxidation states in zircon, a compound formed from volcanic magma, they could ascertain the oxidation levels in the early earth. Their findings suggest that the early Earth’s oxygen levels were very close to current levels.

[…]Miller and Urey conducted experiments to show that under certain atmospheric conditions and with the right kind of electrical charge, several amino acids could form from inorganic compounds such as methane, ammonia, and water. Several experiments have been done using various inorganic starting materials, all yielding a few amino acids; however, one key aspect of all of these experiments was the lack of oxygen.

If the atmosphere has oxygen (or other oxidants) in it, then it is an oxidizing atmosphere. If the atmosphere lacks oxygen, then it is either inert or a reducing atmosphere. Think of a metal that has been left outside, maybe a piece of iron. That metal will eventually rust. Rusting is the result of the metal being oxidized. With organic reactions, such as the ones that produce amino acids, it is very important that no oxygen be present, or it will quench the reaction. Scientists, therefore, concluded that the early Earth must have been a reducing environment when life first formed (or the building blocks of life first formed) because that was the best environment for producing amino acids. The atmosphere eventually accumulated oxygen, but life did not form in an oxidative environment.

The problem with this hypothesis is that it is based on the assumption that organic life must have formed from inorganic materials. That is why the early Earth must have been a reducing atmosphere. Research has been accumulating for more than thirty years, however, suggesting that the early Earth likely did have oxygen present.

[…]Their findings not only showed that oxygen was present in the early Earth atmosphere, something that has been shown in other studies, but that oxygen was present as early as 4.4 billion years ago. This takes the window of time available for life to have begun, by an origin-of-life scenario like the RNA-first world, and reduces it to an incredibly short amount of time. Several factors need to coincide in order for nucleotides or amino acids to form from purely naturalistic circumstances (chance and chemistry). The specific conditions required already made purely naturalist origin-of-life scenarios highly unlikely. Drastically reducing the amount of time available, adding that to the other conditions needing to be fulfilled, makes the RNA world hypothesis or a Miller-Urey-like synthesis of amino acids simply impossible.

If you read the paper’s abstract, it finds that molecular oxygen would have been present by the end of the Hadean era. The earliest signs of life we have are from just after the end of the Hadean era. So, its undeniable that molecular oxygen was present. Did professor Dave lie, or was he just ignorant? One thing for sure, he pronounced that there was no oxygen in the same confident, insulting voice that he used for the rest of his presentation.

OK, so with that out of the way, Professor Dave also cited a paper in the journal Science. And there is an article on Creation.com by Johnathan Sarfati, who has a PhD in chemistry, about that very paper.

His post says:

It’s likely that the media reports you mention were referring to the paper in Science journal by Tracey Lincoln and Gerald Joyce.1 Quite often, the media hype just doesn’t match what was actually discovered. To be fair, Joyce, a well known chemical evolutionist, made it clear that he and his Ph.D. student Lincoln had not produced life, despite the headlines.2 Much earlier, Joyce admitted:

“The most reasonable assumption is that life did not start with RNA … . The transition to an RNA world, like the origins of life in general, is fraught with uncertainty and is plagued by a lack of experimental data.”3

Joyce and Lincoln started off with a fairly long RNA molecule. Given that nothing like RNA appears in Miller–Urey experiments, this already shows unjustified interference from an intelligent investigator. In fact, not even the building blocks, ribonucleotides, appear in such experiments, and they do not spontaneously form RNA. In fact, there are numerous chemical difficulties with obtaining RNA by blind undirected chemistry, the only sort allowed on the hypothetical primordial earth, as chemical evolutionist A.G. Cairns-Smith points out in his book Genetic Takeover4 (see extract at Cairns Smith: Detailed criticisms of the RNA world hypothesis). And it’s a huge step from RNA to the genetic code, its major use today.

Furthermore, this paper didn’t demonstrate replication but ligation—joining two small RNA pieces, previously designed to be a match to the longer strand. So this research already assumed not just one but three RNA strands. For this to be relevant to chemical evolution, the two pieces just by chance had to have pretty close to the complementary base pairs of the first piece—natural selection could not be invoked before reproduction.

Furthermore, since polymerization is unfavorable, the RNA pieces must be chemically activated in some way. Note that a catalyst merely accelerates the approach to equilibrium; it doesn’t change it (see diagram and explanation in Dino proteins and blood vessels: are they a big deal?). The paper states that one of the two joining RNA strands has a triphosphate group on the end. This is very reactive, so would be an unlikely component of a primordial soup, and would not last long even if it appeared. So a supply of matching activated RNA pieces likewise shows unacceptable investigator interference.

See also Does ribozyme research prove Darwinian evolution? for a critique of an earlier Joyce paper on alleged ribozyme evolution, as well as Self-replicating peptides? which has many similarities to the recent Joyce claim.

Now Tour seemed to let this problem drop in the debate. It just seems that Professor Dave was assuming from the titles of the papers that they were relevant to the problem of life. Well, scientists always sound optimistic in their papers. I know, I had to write one for my masters degree thesis, and it was published. That’s why you have to look at the data and be skeptical. Sadly Dave wasn’t able to be skeptical. He wanted something to be true, so he just didn’t bother to interact with challenges to his view. The whole problem with the origin of life is that there are many counter-factual conditions, experimenter interferences, etc. that have to be done to make things work at all. Dave reads the titles of papers, but he just isn’t aware of how the experimenters have adjusted the experiments in ways that are not true to the conditions on the early Earth.

Dr. Tour lost his temper and shouted a lot during the debate, so I don’t think the debate is worth watching. However, if you want to watch a good debate on the origin of life, try this one between Dr. Fazale Rana vs Dr. Michael Ruse. And if you want to see a good explanation of the sequencing problem, check out this lecture by Dr. Stephen C. Meyer. (who has also debated atheists who didn’t lie, shout or insult him – and they even had doctoral degrees)

4 thoughts on “Does peer-reviewed research support a naturalistic origin of life?”

  1. You made a good point about the early-earth atmosphere. Many experiments fail due to their assumptions about the initial conditions. Beyond that, the environment necessary to produce one thing is often completely different from what’s necessary to produce some other important component in the target molecular system.

    Another problem is raised by this fact you mention: “The earliest signs of life we have are from just after the end of the Hadean era.”

    It should be noted that the “life” we’re talking here about is prokaryotic cells, similar to what we find today, which are so complex that nobody is suggesting that they were produced from raw chemistry. There is alleged to be a long road between the simple self-replicating molecules that origin-of-life theorists are proposing and the final cellular form that is all we have ever observed. We have neither evidence of that progression nor any idea of the steps necessary to produce it. It’s safe to say, however, that it would itself be a long and statistically problematic process. But the geological record doesn’t give evidence of much time for this to occur. You need both conditions and time for the first molecules to form as well as for each step to occur in the progression.

    Another problem is that most of the focus of these studies relates to the assembly of the molecules, but avoids the concern of getting them into the sequence necessary to do the desired work (e.g., “self replication”). Probability calculations are friendly to neither abiogenesis nor evolutionary theory.

    As I understand it, the RNA world hypothesis suffers from the problem of volatility of these molecules, i.e., they are easily destroyed. I thought about this during COVID when they talked about the unique challenges of preserving these mRNA vaccines, unlike other kinds of vaccines.

    Like

  2. I recently saw a video on Sabine Hossenfelder’s YouTube channel about the origin of life. She brought up the paper you mentioned, ““The oxidation state of Hadean magmas and implications for early Earth’s atmosphere,” saying it was published in 2011. But then she brought up another paper published in 2020 called “Creation and Evolution of Impact-generated Reduced Atmospheres of Early Earth,” which argued that there could have been a temporarily reduced atmosphere on earth after the impact that formed the moon that lasted long enough to give rise to life. Have you seen that paper?

    Like

    1. So, “maybe” a limited period of time to create some of the precursor molecules, which need to somehow assemble into self-replicators and evolve into a more complex, protected state before oxygen appears.

      One of the problems with the probability issues in achieving the various outcomes at each step in the supposed process is that it would require there to be massive amounts of the necessary chemical precursors in order climb mount improbable. This is the idea behind the legendary pre-biotic soup. The thing about this is that such masses of chemistry would leave signatures in the fossil record. But we find no such evidence of that, nor of any proto-life. Full cellular life appeared fairly quickly after the Hadean.

      Another interesting thing about this cellular life is that it was capable of complex processes, like chemosynthesis and photosynthesis. These processes are more complex than simply ingesting other cellular life or parasitic interactions. The simplest conceivable cell consists of 3 to 5 hundred genes, and this excludes the abilities that the first known life seems to have had (and perhaps *must* have had). It took a long, long time to go from single cell to multi-cellular life, but I’ve heard it said that this is as nothing in comparison to the work necessary to go from raw chemistry to the first cell.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s