The Origin of Life and the Fallacy of Composition


During a recent discussion of the origin of life on Facebook some atheist friends challenged me to get up to speed on abiogenesis research and understand that life has essentially been created by scientists in a laboratory. To prove the point they directed me to an article at the Daily Mail, "Scientists Create Artificial Life."[1] Given that scientists have created a living bacterium, they suggested, there remains no reason for thinking that the creation of life requires the intervention of God. So I'm supposed to think that the mystery of life's origin has been solved and any suggestion otherwise invokes the "God of the gaps" fallacy.
Now as mentioned on the Facebook thread, I had issues with all this, beginning with the article itself:
1. The misleading headline. There's a huge difference between creating artificial life from nothing but chemicals, as the headline implies, and reverse engineering an existing bacterium to produce a "rebuilt" version. Without a diligent construction effort using an extant bacterium as a template, an abiogenesis "experiment" could not hope to get off the ground.

2. Abiogenesis is purported to be an undirected "natural" process. Clearly a "painstaking" process involving a team of devoted researchers and a lab full of tools and technologies is not undirected. May as well load a herd of swine onto a 737 to show that pigs fly.

3. But I do agree with Dr. Venter, in that the "broader implications" here are that life has been (intelligently) designed.
My conclusion: "Reverse-engineering genetic material within preexisting living organisms is not abiogenesis, and intelligent living organisms spending 15 years and $400 million of research in an organized, intentional, directed effort to create more living organisms is not abiogenesis." That pretty much ended my part in the discussion. 
But I think there's another problem facing the prospect of abiogenesis, from a logical rather than empirical-scientific standpoint. This has to do with the fact that abiogenesis is not so much a testable theory in the first place, but a research program consisting of distinct subdomains. Ian Musgrave explains:
While the basic concept of abiogenesis can be stated simply (development of life from non-living substances), and is often referred to as a theory or hypothesis, abiogenesis isn't a really a theory per se (this is not unique to abiogenesis, it is true of most other "big" theories as well). What it is, is a well defined research program with a number of defined and well connected sub-domains (origin of building blocks, origin of polymers, self-replicator dynamics, transition of a self replicator system to a genetic system, origin of the genetic code, origin of metabolic systems from prebiotic precursors)…. 
In each of the subdomains is a number of hypotheses and theories (basic building blocks [heterotrophic theory, autotrophic theory], RNA world theory [pure RNA, cofactor catalysis, ribopeptide world]), each of these theories is then subject to a number of experimental and observational programs, and some have far more support than others…[2]
Confirmation that abiogenesis could actually occur in a natural environment would require confirmation that each segment or phase of the overall process could occur. This has not been done yet. But even if, or when, it is confirmed that each subprocess could occur, we would need to piece all these processes together. After all, to say that confirmation of each of the subdomain processes required for abiogenesis to occur somehow "adds up" to confirmation of the whole process, is to say that a whole equals the sum of its parts. And to say that a whole equals the sum of its parts is to commit the fallacy of composition.
The act of creating a living bacterium is not reducible to so many individual processes and parts any more than a symphony performance is reducible to so many individual players, instruments, and musical notes. In order to confirm abiogenesis we would need to confirm that the entire process could occur – i.e., that all the individual subdomain processes are acting together, in space and time, in a particular way. To confirm abiogenesis, then, would require scrapping the subdivided research program and starting over with a much more ambitious objective. Otherwise all that has been demonstrated is that a complex entity consists of many parts, which is something everyone should have known going into the discussion. 

[2] Ian Musgrave, "Progress in Abiogenesis Research," Talk Origins Archive (June 2002),


im-skeptical said…
Good job, Don. I agree with your conclusions. Still, it would be worthwhile for you to see what's happening in recent research on abiogenesis. There's no reason to think that it couldn't or didn't happen through natural processes.
Joe Hinman said…
True of the emergence of life per se within the localized combines of our oceans. But that does not answer the question where the oceans came from. That can be answered but just follow the chain of causes all the way back to the origin of the universe and there is a reason to keep asking where it all came from. The experiment producing bacterium does not answer that question.
Joe Hinman said…
good article Don.
BK said…
Excellent article, Don. As I pointed out in my own most recent comments on this issue, the creation of life is a highly complex process and it is becoming more and more clear that it is very unlikely (if not practically impossible) for it to arise by chance. As Dr. James Tour, Professor of Chemistry at Rice University has stated:

"THOSE WHO THINK scientists understand the issues of prebiotic chemistry are wholly misinformed. Nobody understands them. Maybe one day we will. But that day is far from today. It would be far more helpful (and hopeful) to expose students to the massive gaps in our understanding. They may find a firmer—and possibly a radically different—scientific theory. The basis upon which we as scientists are relying is so shaky that we must openly state the situation for what it is: it is a mystery."
Don McIntosh said…

From one skeptic to another: Thanks for your remarks. :-)

I agree that there's no reason to think abiogenesis "couldn't" happen, at least in minimal terms of logical coherence or physical possibility, but many reasons to think it didn't happen – including reasons given in my post.
Don McIntosh said…
BK, I appreciate your comments, and the referral to James Tour. I started to watch an interview with him some months ago and was duly impressed, not just with his many and lofty credentials, but his modesty and the clarity of his speech.
im-skeptical said…
... but many reasons to think it didn't happen – including reasons given in my post.

I didn't see that many reasons. You did say: "to say that confirmation of each of the subdomain processes required for abiogenesis to occur somehow "adds up" to confirmation of the whole process, is to say that a whole equals the sum of its parts. And to say that a whole equals the sum of its parts is to commit the fallacy of composition." True enough. But that's not the claim of scientists. What we call 'life' is emergent. What you get is greater than the sum of its parts.

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