Mucking Around in the Primordial Soup

The common understanding of the rise of life on Earth by the typical layman is pretty vague. Still, most will swear to the common understanding that life arose naturally using time, chance and evolution in a mixture of chemicals and amino acids in the primordial soup (or pre-biotic soup) of the early Earth … even though most scientists admit that they have no knowledge of how it actually occurred. But the popularizers of the belief of life arising by chance make it sound as if the case for this spontaneous arising of life is already beyond doubt.



For example, Live Science published an article entitled “How Earth’s Primordial Soup Came to Life” – which seems like a pretty strong affirmation that scientists know how life sprang forth from the primordial soup . But notice what the article actually says:
Life on Earth first bloomed around 3.7 billion years ago, when chemical compounds in a "primordial soup" somehow sparked into life, scientists suspect. But what turned sterile molecules into living, changing organisms? That's the ultimate mystery. By studying the evolution of not just life, but life's building blocks as well, researchers hope to come closer to the answer.
“Somehow” sparked into life? “Scientists suspect”? Researchers “hope to come closer to the answer”? Really? That doesn’t sound like a resounding affirmation of the scientific backing for life springing forth from the lifeless primordial goo, does it?

Well, perhaps Scientific American will be better. Consider the article “How Structure Arose in the Primordial Soup.” Now, that title certainly sounds like it will give us the answer as to how life came out of the early mess of chemicals, doesn’t it? So, what exactly does the article tell us?
About 4 billion years ago, molecules began to make copies of themselves, an event that marked the beginning of life on Earth. A few hundred million years later, primitive organisms began to split into the different branches that make up the tree of life. In between those two seminal events, some of the greatest innovations in existence emerged: the cell, the genetic code and an energy system to fuel it all. All three of these are essential to life as we know it, yet scientists know disappointingly little about how any of these remarkable biological innovations came about.

“It’s very hard to infer even the relative ordering of evolutionary events before the last common ancestor,” said Greg Fournier, a geobiologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Cells may have appeared before energy metabolism, or perhaps it was the other way around. Without fossils or DNA preserved from organisms living during this period, scientists have had little data to work from.
Even an article published in Science Daily entitled “How life arose from primordial muck: Experimental evidence overturns accepted theory” which seems much more adamant that scientists are coming close to figuring out how it happened due to a new Peptide-RNA hypothesis, has a little disclaimer buried in the middle of the article.
But it's still a mystery how the amino acid building blocks were first assembled according to coded nucleic acid templates into the proteins that formed the machinery of all cells.
So, this new theory -- which is still not accepted by the consensus of scientists -- is being proposed to try to explain why the accepted theory doesn't seem to work? Is that what's going on? Isn't this a tacit admission that new ideas are needed because the old ideas and theories don't work?


The simple fact is that no one knows how life came to be on Earth. There is no known mechanism that accounts for the rise of life from the so-called primordial or pre-biotic soup. The present state of the science is really no more than, “Give us time, we will figure it out.” Why is it necessarily true that the scientists will figure it out over time? Because the mere fact that life exists on Earth is proof to them that it had to have happened by some mechanism within the primordial soup that we simply have yet to wrap our heads around. “Give us time,” they urge, “because the answer has to be here somewhere.”

 Not so fast, says Dr. James Tour of Rice University. Now, I have previously discussed some of the work of Dr. Tour in a post entitled, “Star Trek, Proxima b, Nanovehicles and the Unlikely Appearance of Life.” In that post, I quoted a description of the eminent qualifications of Dr. Tour from Dr. James Wiles’ blog, Proslogion, where he describes Dr. Tour's accomplishments as follows:
Dr. Tour is a giant in the field of organic chemistry. For example, he is the T. T. and W. F. Chao Professor of Chemistry at Rice University. For those who aren’t familiar with the academic structure of universities, only the most elite professors are appointed to a position that is named in honor of someone else. This is called an “endowed professorship,” and anyone who holds such a position is in the upper echelon of academia. He has won several awards for his outstanding research accomplishments, including being named by Thomson Reuters as one of the top ten chemists in the world in 2009. Not only is his research outstanding, but he is also an excellent teacher, having earned the George R. Brown Award for Superior Teaching at Rice University in both 2007 and 2012.
Needless to say, Dr. Tour is not a light-weight in the scientific community. So, when he speaks on issues related to organic chemistry, his words have to be taken seriously. Today, Eric Metaxas played part 2 of an interview he had with Dr. Tour on his radio show. The entire hour of the show can be found here. At the very outset of the show, Dr. Tour makes an interesting statement: we should put a moratorium on origin of life research. Put a hold on origin of life research? Why? Because it is provably absurd. Dr. Tour sets forth a very simple case as to why we should put a hold on this research:
Tour: Because it’s getting nowhere. When things get nowhere for a long time, then you have to reassess whether you’re even going in the right direction. If may give just a simple little example; alchemists used to think they could turn inexpensive metals into gold.

Metaxas: Like lead.

Tour: Right, like lead. They learned that if you take iron and you add sulfur to it, you could get listeris* compounds that look very much like gold. It was called lead sulfide, but it was fool’s gold. And …

Metaxas: Is that was fool’s gold is?

Tour: Yes, lead sulfide. And so they thought, let’s keep adding sulfur to different metals. And the metals would turn somewhat more and more yellow as they added more sulfur. And so they thought they were on the right track, but they weren’t on the right track at all.

Metaxas: Don’t you think honestly that if they had just had a little more funding and a little more time they would have cracked that nut?

Tour: That’s probably certainly what they thought. And that’s what happens when the fundamentals are wrong. Until we start addressing the fundamentals of life and how to assemble these things we’re going down the wrong path. So, I’m calling for a moratorium and let’s step back because there was an experiment done in 1952 by Miller and Urey….

Metaxas: That’s the famous experiment… it was in all my textbooks growing up. It’s probably still in textbooks…

Tours: It’s still in textbooks…

Metaxas: …the famous Miller…1952 Miller and Urey experiments.

Tour: …and nothing has happened since. So, that’s 66 years ago – two thirds of a century. In that same amount of time we’ve had human space flight. In that same amount of time we’ve had satellite inter-connectivity; we have the Internet; we have all the DNA advances that we have; and zero, nothing has happened to move us closer to life.

Metaxas: Now, when you say nothing, you mean actually nothing.

Tour: I mean actually nothing. They’ll make what they say is the proto-cell which is a total misnomer. It is just a bunch of assemblies into a liposome which has nothing to do with a real cell. It’s not living.
He then went on to talk about the pre-biotic soup. While Dr. Tour had no problem with the alleged make-up of the pre-biotic soup, he continued by discussing the four essential elements that would need to be created in the primordial soup for life to exist. He then proceeded to tell how amazingly difficult it would be for life to arise naturally by a mere combination of chemicals and energies. He concludes that the approach that has been taken to this point has been all-wrong.

It is a fascinating discussion, and I encourage everyone to listen to the podcast in its entirety and consider what this expert in the field of organic chemistry has to say. At the very least, he makes it sound like the likelihood of life arising out of the primordial soup based upon present knowledge is no more likely than a new life-form springing out of my bowl of Campbell’s Chicken Soup. Could it have happened? Sure, anything is possible as they say. But saying it could have happened and showing a reasonable route for someone to reasonably conclude that it likely happened are two different things. Let’s not confuse them.

=====

* I am not familiar with listeris compounds, and this may be my inability to correctly interpret what Dr. Tour said in the interview. Organic chemistry is not my strong point which is why I look to experts like Dr. Tour on these points.

Comments

The Pixie said…
So what?

You are right that we do not know how it happened, and likely never will - though I think within decades we will know how it could have. We are talking about something that happened 4 billion years ago, and establishing what happened that long ago may well be impossible.

Do you think that in any way suggests it did not happen at all?
im-skeptical said…
we should put a moratorium on origin of life research.
- Sounds like this guy is afraid of the answers the science might arrive at. Tour's claim that the research is getting nowhere is simply not true. There has been tremendous progress since the Miller-Urey experiments. Nobody is claiming that we know how life actually originated, but there certainly has been productive work in understanding the most likely mechanisms.

I note that you go to great lengths to acknowledge Tour's credentials as a expert in the field. What you didn't mention is that Tour is a science denier who believes in creationism. He has signed a statement sponsored by Discovery Institute that reads "We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged." Given his public stance on science, I would say that your efforts to make him sound credible will impress fellow creationists, but anyone who appreciates science will simply ignore what he has to say.


Joe Hinman said…
I note that you go to great lengths to acknowledge Tour's credentials as a expert in the field. What you didn't mention is that Tour is a science denier who believes in creationism. He has signed a statement sponsored by Discovery Institute that reads "We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged." Given his public stance on science, I would say that your efforts to make him sound credible will impress fellow creationists, but anyone who appreciates science will simply ignore what he has to say.


that's stupid. The atheist opinion mafia says this guy is "science denier" which really means he wont tow the party line. He is a scientist and major guy in his field. how can be denying science, you are deny science, you are not into science you are into the party line.
The Pixie said…
Joe: that's stupid. The atheist opinion mafia says this guy is "science denier" which really means he wont tow the party line. He is a scientist and major guy in his field.

But Tour is the one trying to stop science. He is on record saying we should stop researching the origins of life.

Okay, it is his opinion that it will fail, but a lot of science fails, that is the nature of the beast. I speak as someone with a Ph.D. in chemistry; I know experiments fail.

We learn from those failures. Not as much as from the successes, and they do not get published of course, but the march of science is advanced. Even if abiogenesis is wrong, just investigating it will advance human knowledge.

The only reason to put a stop to it is religious, not scientific.

Joe: how can be denying science, you are deny science, you are not into science you are into the party line.

It is Tour who wants everyone else to tow his party line. He is the one saying what others sciences should not do.
Joe Hinman said…
Ok Pix not my filed, I respect your credentials. I was confused about what you were saying about Tour. U still think science denier an emotional black mail term. It's like saying "you don;t follow the party line."
BK said…
Pixie, no one is denying that something happened or we wouldn't be here.

im-skeptical, he is suggesting a moratorium. We are throwing lots of money pursuing answers where the complete and utter lack of progress has proven over the years that the present approach is wrong. What he is suggesting is that we stop wasting money trying to find out how it happened until we know more about what happened, i.e., how life can even exist.

To say he is anti-science is hilarious, btw. I mean, this guy is one of the most prestigious scientists in the field; to suggest that he is anti-science because he recognizes that the search for how life began is a wasted effort and needs to be halted until we get other answers strikes me as quite funny. I agree with Joe -- when people say "science denier" it means that they don't follow what the speaker believes they ought to be saying. It has nothing to do with science.
im-skeptical said…
he is suggesting a moratorium. We are throwing lots of money pursuing answers where the complete and utter lack of progress has proven over the years that the present approach is wrong. What he is suggesting is that we stop wasting money trying to find out how it happened until we know more about what happened, i.e., how life can even exist.
- If Tour is concerned about wasting effort and money on dead-end scientific endeavors, then he should back away from Discovery Institutes dogged pursuit of pseudo-science (which they call Intelligent Design). DI has yet to produce anything at all of scientific value. But they are actively engaged in trying to stifle genuine scientific progress, as well as education in science. Tour's claims about lack of progress are lies. As I said, there has been plenty of progress, and that's exactly what Tour wants to stop. For a sample, read through this article.

To say he is anti-science is hilarious, btw. I mean, this guy is one of the most prestigious scientists in the field; to suggest that he is anti-science because he recognizes that the search for how life began is a wasted effort and needs to be halted until we get other answers strikes me as quite funny. I agree with Joe -- when people say "science denier" it means that they don't follow what the speaker believes they ought to be saying. It has nothing to do with science.
- Now that's hilarious. I never said "anti-science". I said he is a science denier, and I do not use the term lightly. If some PhD serves as a shill for the energy industry and denied the fact of global warming, I call him a science denier. Evolution theory is about as well-established as a scientific theory can get, AND TOUR DENIES IT. That makes him a science denier.

Joe Hinman said…
I never said "anti-science". I said he is a science denier,

I never sad Garbonzo beans chick peas.

I never said murderer I said assassin.

I never said black I said ebony
BK said…
Ah, im-skeptical, your prejudice is showing through. You think it is a dead-end only because of your preconceptions. And, of course, saying he is a "science denier" is not different than saying he is "anti-science." Both assume that he is incapable of doing science due to preconceptions, while the real preconceptions are that these areas of science are "settled" when (as the post points out) the people who think they all have it figured out don't have a clue as to how it happened.
Joe Hinman said…
The problem is if you look t the other people he calls "sconce denier" they include people like Thomas Kuhn, Carl Popper I think, yours truly. So when the only quote produced in the discussion from Tours says "read Darwin carefully," I have so say Skep has not met his burden of proof. NO reason why I should assume Tours is a creationist and I want real proof.

Hey read everything carefully
im-skeptical said…
the people who think they all have it figured out don't have a clue as to how it happened.
- That is more correct than you know. That's why I prefer to stick with science. Science only works if we don't assume that we already know the answers. Religion always assumes that the answers are known.

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