Commentary on Reasons to Believe’s Interview with an OOL Insider

By Holger.Ellgaard (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Holger.Ellgaard (Creative Commons)

This commentary is based on an interview conducted by Reasons to Believe (RTB) with origin-of-life researcher Robert Shapiro. It was recorded on an unknown date prior to his Dr. Shapiro’s death in 2011.

One cannot listen to Dr. Robert Shapiro without being struck by this synthetic chemist’s brilliant mind and impressive credentials. He is well-studied in the multi-disciplinary field of origin-of-life (OOL) research, and the elegant simplicity of his illustrations belies his depth of understanding. As an independent thinker, he sustains an unrelenting critique of the OOL community from a position of agnostism. From this detached perspective, he evaluates experimental details without philosophical duress or (apparent) financial reprisal. He asserts that unfounded assumptions hinder the advance of the OOL discipline and that the research community needs to start over from scratch with a more open-minded intellectual agility. His self-described exile by the scientific community seems to expose the establishment’s pre-commitments that are grounded in something that is less constructive than the scientific objectivity that Shapiro seems to demonstrate more authentically. The fact that life’s definition is elusive and ill-defined seems to justify his position: “When I get to something [where] I do not know the complete answer (which covers, I think, even the mystery of our existence), I’m not ashamed to say I don’t know and to go on from that. So, [agnosticism is] the best label to apply to me.”

Shapiro is able to step back from the detailed chemistry that confounds most and view the big OOL picture. He then authoritatively states what the layperson had hoped was obvious: organic molecules are not alive, irrespective of their abundance and diversity. Moreover, more time does not solve the problem. Life requires more than just chemical reactions; it requires complex organization. We simply do not comprehend its origin.

Shapiro dislikes the use of the term “prebiotics” when applied to meteor composition due to the unfounded assumption that such chemicals would become “biotic” under some yet-to-be-determined circumstances. Rather, he believes that the “massive molecules” that characterize biological systems on the contemporary Earth run counter to what chemists currently know and can explain. He points out that the very scientists who claim to recreate the first unguided steps toward life on early Earth are actually conducting carefully controlled experiments, magnificent in terms of their design by intelligent agency. After all, organizing complexity is not what we typically find in chemical milieus governed by second law of thermodynamics. Is it reasonable to believe that, once upon a time, some highly significant, albeit unguided, reactions somehow capitalized on localized releases of energy to self-organize and advance in their complexity when no experiments have been conducted to support this notion?

It is beneficial, as well as somewhat refreshing, that all critiques are not being made by creationists. Internal disagreements between replicator-first and metabolism-first OOL camps provide insight into the shortcomings of each. Few secular researchers are willing to openly acknowledge the flaws of both positions and suggest taking an entirely different approach. Shapiro is critical of bottom-up research of chemical mechanisms carried out in pristine laboratory settings as guided by ingenious investigators. He is also critical of top-down paradigms. Whereas biologists see the uniformity of materials that compose living organisms as our greatest clue towards a viable OOL solution, Shapiro considers the continuity of life’s structure as something that may be misleading scientists, diverting their attention from the exotic reactions that might be found to spawn life.

Shapiro seems to think that life should occur fairly readily under the right conditions, so that’s what researchers should be looking for — but we don’t seem to be finding it here on Earth. He seeks a self-sustaining set of reactions that might occur under a set of circumstances and conditions of which we are not yet aware. This is why he believes that the exploration of other celestial bodies within our solar system (and experimental reach) is important. He is excited by the prospect of finding novel, independently developed life-forms on the icy moons of Saturn, but he likewise acknowledges that such life might not relate to the origin of contemporary life on Earth. He makes a subtle but important distinction between finding life and finding the origin of life. Furthermore, recognizing that directed panspermia only re-locates the OOL question, he views this position as a last resort when all other feasible exploration and research endeavors provide no answer. He espouses “science of the gaps,” then perhaps “aliens of the gaps,” but never “god of the gaps.”

Though Shapiro rightly points out the proactive role of the investigator in OOL research, he by no means accepts intelligent design as a tenable explanation for the origin of the universe or life. He politely, but rigidly, insists upon both philosophical and methodological naturalism, and he fully anticipates that naturalistic answers will be found through ongoing research. This provides the opportunity for Hugh Ross, PhD, to explain the importance of the RTB creation model that offers testable, scientific predictions based on various worldviews in order to see which one yields the best empirical results as more and more scientific data becomes available.

Referencing the RTB model, Fazale Rana, PhD, remarked that the extremely unlikely appearance of life during the hostile conditions of early Earth might be in accord with Earth’s description in Genesis 1:2. (Interestingly, Shapiro basically equates the term “miracle” with highly improbable natural occurrences.) After all, there appears to be both fossil and isotopic evidence supporting the presence of fairly complex life right after the inhospitable conditions of the late heavy bombardment around 3.3 to 3.8+ billion years ago. The ensuing divide between Rana and Shapiro shows the RTB creation model at work. Rana has no problem with data supporting life soon after the late heavy bombardment or even before. In contrast, Shapiro doubts the data on naturalistic grounds, moving first-life to a more comfortable data point — 2.8 billion years ago, “when life was probably very peaceful.” Accumulating evidence will increasingly support either Rana or Shapiro on this matter, yet even Shapiro’s accepted date for first-life doesn’t elucidate the mechanism of its arrival. Shapiro admits that “only time will tell, and time is not amicable to us.”

Shapiro finds his time and place in the universe to be limiting but, in reality, they are most favorable:

“From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.” Acts 17:26-27

When confronted with the possibility of the supernatural, Shapiro respectfully relegates anything beyond human senses and empirical proof as being something other than the science and the subject at hand. He stalwartly insists upon keeping the domains of science and philosophy separated into non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA), yet he is not immune to a desire for something more. It is with some vulnerability that he states, “Well, to me, our very existence is a wonder…a wonder, a surprise, something that’s awesome.” Perhaps his affection for “a [fictitious] place called Xanth where every human being had some magical property” is a trace of the unrealized capacity for eternity burning within.

“[God] has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” Ecclesiastes 3:11

Why would materialism lead to the conclusion that anything (much less everything) can be known? That which is bound by time and space cannot reach up to transcendence but rather transcendence must reach down to bestow not only knowledge but the very capacity for it. In a way, NOMA assumes that the philosophical realm does not align with the natural world – a dichotomy which is consistent with the naturalistic worldview, as alluded to by philosopher Kenneth Samples. Even so, the naturalist uses the same human brain to carry out the philosophical reasoning and logic as he does to conduct and accept science.

During the interview, Shapiro acknowledges that no one knows why there is something rather than nothing but then stops short. Perhaps the mystery of life is meant to lead us beyond the boundaries of empirical investigation – not to life’s origin but rather to its Source.

It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out.” Proverb 25:2

Make your own tracks…Another synthetic chemist, James Tour, PhD, addresses his colleagues regarding the search for life’s origin: http://inference-review.com/article/an-open-letter-to-my-colleagues.

Frustrating Extraterrestrials, Part 2

Extraterrestrial impactors of the late heavy bombardment are thought to have made Earth’s surface inhospitable to the prebiotic chemistry and biomolecules, frustrating origin-of-life scenarios. Image Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab

The advent of Big Bang cosmology narrowed the history of universe to 13.8 billion years. From a naturalistic perspective, both chemical evolution and biological evolution must fit within this timeframe. (The production of extraterrestrial prebiotic and organic molecules would not be constrained to Earth’s formation 4.5 billion years ago [bya].) As plausible dates for the last universal common ancestor (LUCA) recede further and further into the past, less time is available for complex chemistry to birth first-life.

Fossil and geochemical data indicate that earliest life dates back to 3.7 bya, perhaps to 3.8+ bya.1  For example, rocks in Australia and South Africa dated at 3.3 and 3.5 bya bear the signs of fossilized prokaryotes. The carbon-12 enrichment of the samples implies past photosynthetic activity.2 Researchers do not question the early appearance of life but rather “the rapid emergence of cyanobacteria and complex photosynthetic processes.”3 pushing dates for a more chemically simplistic LUCA back even further. Chemical evolution and biological evolution therefore must vie against one another for the available cosmic time.

But as potential dates for first-life work their way further into the past, chemical evolution is pushed back into less-than-hospitable time in Earth’s history.  During the late heavy bombardment (LHB), impact collisions produced a hot, molten surface that would deter the formation of a permanent land and ocean features until about 3.85 bya.4,5 A very recently published paper asserts that ancient rocks in western Greenland and Eastern Canada show signs of life from as early as 3.95 bya.6 These new dates begin to overlap with this turbulent time period when warm, little, life-friendly ponds were not likely. Appeals to the Hadean Era (prior to the LHB) appear no more accommodating and require not just one, but “multiple, independent origin-of-life scenarios.”7 Neither do hydrothermal vents scenarios provide safe haven. Scientists estimate that the entire ocean cycles through such vents every 10 million years. This destructive process once again severely limits the timeframe for origin of life (OOL) and, once again, thwarts attempts to provide a naturalistic mechanism to produce life.8

“Traditionally, origin-of-life researchers have posited that chemical evolution took place over hundreds of millions, if not billions, of years. More recent assessments allow only about ten million years for life’s origin to take place.”9 Given the available timeframe, scientists like Antonio Lazcano and Stanley Miller must simply retrofit their time estimates for the evolution of cyanobacteria to suit.10 Furthermore, all OOL scenarios require the development of delicate RNA molecules that must be soon incorporated into living systems or degrade quickly11 – an independent indicator that life must develop rapidly. Meanwhile, no viable mechanisms have been determined to potentially produce life on early Earth – slowly or rapidly.

1 Fazale Rana and Hugh Ross, Origins of Life: Biblical and Evolutionary Models Face Off (Covina, CA: Reasons to Believe, 2014), 75.
2 Ibid, 70-4.
3 Ibid, 69.
4 Ibid, 63.
5 Ibid, 88.
6 Takayuki Tashiro et al., “Early trace of life from 3.95 Ga sedimentary rocks in Labrador, Canada,” Nature 549 (2017): 516-8, http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v549/n7673/full/nature24019.html.
7 Fazale Rana and Hugh Ross, Origins of Life: Biblical and Evolutionary Models Face Off (Covina, CA: Reasons to Believe, 2014), 91.
8 Fazale Rana, Lecture #10: “Early Earth’s Environment,” Reasons Institute “Origin of Life” online course, 2017.
9 Fazale Rana, Creating Life in the Lab (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011), Chapter 8.*
10 Fazale Rana and Hugh Ross, Origins of Life: Biblical and Evolutionary Models Face Off (Covina, CA: Reasons to Believe, 2014), 87, 90.
11 Ibid, 90.
*Page numbers not available in Kindle version.

Frustrating Extraterrestrials, Part 1

Artist’s depiction of extraterrestrial impactors of the late heavy bombardment striking Earth, perhaps the most significant origin-of-life frustration event. Image Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab

In order to understand how the requirements for life might have first been met, origin-of-life (OOL) scientists must determine the chemicals, conditions, and time(s) available to meet first-life’s requirements. Nucleosynthesis of hydrogen and helium began minutes after the Big Bang, then elements of increasing mass developed over time in burning stars and through supernova events. The formation of hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, sulfur, and phosphorous are of particular interest since they are the elemental constituents of peptides, nucleotides, and phospholipids;1 these polymers are the organic precursors to proteins, nucleic acids, and cell membranes.2 “Chemical evolution and planetary evolution are [therefore] inextricably intertwined,” according to Alan Schwartz and Sherwood Chang.,3

Life-essential elements, prebiotic compounds, and even organic molecules, occur in interstellar space,4,5 comets,6  meteorites,7 asteroids, planets, and moons.8 Schwartz and Chang thereby assert that “organic matter occurs throughout the Universe as an integral component of cosmic evolution…[T]he prospect of identifying other life-harboring solar systems seems inevitable.”9 OOL researchers must yet determine how closely the prevalence of life directly corresponds to the proper abundances of necessary reagents, catalysts, and energies.

More specifically, Earth’s history and formation as part of the larger solar system must be considered in order to assess the plausibility of proposed OOL scenarios. The presence of interstellar organics might be thought to seed and speed Earth’s chemical evolution process; however, a steady pummeling of high-energy impactors during the Hadean Era, Moon-forming event, and late heavy bombardment (LBH) would have likely destroyed complex molecules, vaporized surface water, and significantly altered atmospheric conditions.

At this point, it should be noted that an inadequately founded assumption regarding the composition of the early atmosphere reduced (pun intended) the Miller-Urey proof-of-principle experiment from a milestone to a mile marker on the road to first-life. But during the OOL’s “greatest frustration event,” the LBH, impact collisions produced a hot, molten surface that would deter the formation of a permanent land and ocean features until about 3.85 billion years ago.10,11 Fossil and geochemical data indicate that earliest life dates back to 3.7 billion years ago (bya), perhaps to 3.8+ bya.12 The plausible window of opportunity for elaborate chemical pathways to produce Earth’s first life closes, nearly shut. “Origin-of-life researchers [now] recognize that life had no more than tens of millions of years to emerge”13 – a far different scenario that what could have ever been imagined by earlier scientists who accepted a steady-state model of the universe. A rapidly increasing understanding of how cosmological events impacted (pun intended) the early Earth is reshaping OOL models. Those seeking purely naturalistic scenarios find that life is hard and its origin frustrated.

1 William J. Schopf, ed., Life’s Origin: The Beginnings of Biological Evolution (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002), 33.
2 Ibid, 46.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid, 51.
5 Ibid, 52.
6 Ibid, 59.
7 Ibid, 62.
8 Ibid, 47.
9 Ibid.
10 Fazale Rana and Hugh Ross, Origins of Life: Biblical and Evolutionary Models Face Off (Covina, CA: Reasons to Believe, 2014), 63.
11 Ibid, 88.
12 Ibid, 75.
13 Ibid, 27.

Welcome to RNA World! Carefully watch your steps…

The proposed RNA World is a linchpin concept in origin-of-life (OOL) research. RNA seems to conveniently solve the chicken-or-egg dilemma faced by scientists who observe double-stranded DNA coding for the very same protein-based enzymes responsible for its own replication, transcription, and translation processes. In contrast, single-stranded RNA seems to multi-task well, both replicating and providing enzymatic functions. Furthermore, different RNAs mediate critical steps in the process of protein synthesis from DNA; their pivotal intermediary roles assumed to be embedded traces of a past RNA World. Yet the RNA World does not fare well in bottom-up chemical evolution models, especially when carefully managed proof-of-principle experiments in pristine laboratory conditions are compared to the environmental conditions likely present on the early Earth.

The RNA World is a necessary destination on the broader naturalistic pathway called chemical evolution. Upon entry to this phenomenological place of great OOL promise, some assembly will be required. Herein lies many problems. First, water breaks down nuclide polymers, “casting doubt on any soupy version of the RNA world – [e]ven the synthesis of the four bases required as building blocks is not without serious problems.”1 The two known synthetic pathways to produce cytosine are unlikely to have existed in sufficient quantities on the early Earth. Competing chemical interactions would be problematic and the half-life of the desired product insufficiently brief.2 Spark-discharge experiments and meteorites (assumed analogues of the primordial landscape) have even failed to produce any cytosine.3

Next, consider production of the five-carbon sugar ribose required for the RNA molecule’s backbone. The only known mechanism to assemble long-chain sugars is the formose reaction, which produces over forty different sugars along with many more unintended products when contaminants are present. Ribose yield is low and its instability high. Rapid breakdown is inevitable as evidenced by the striking lack of sugars in meteorite samples.4

Finally, phosphates play a crucial role in RNA (and DNA) backbone structure as well as for adenosine tri-phosphate molecules that can generously liberate energy for necessary chemical reactions to take place. Proposed chemical routes to produce polyphosphates encounter typical OOL problems when taking the primordial environmental conditions into consideration: inadequate concentrations of reactants, low product yields, chemical interference, and/or rapid degradation. In addition, although is Earth’s crust in the most phosphorus-rich material in the universe, it bears an elemental abundance of only 1,000 parts per million. Ross and Rana note that “[w]ithout life molecules (already assembled and operating), no known natural process can harvest the amounts of phosphorus necessary for life from the environment.”5

Synthesis of RNA’s homopolymer backbone is contingent on precisely controlled laboratory conditions and a high level of researcher involvement,6 and the characteristic right-handed chirality of RNA sugars only occurs in living systems. Outside a cell, enantiomers almost always tend towards racemic mixtures in relatively short order.7 The purported evolutionary capabilities of RNA also depend on a high level of intervention,8 which better supports intelligent design than chemical evolution by naturalistic processes. Despite their many successes in the laboratory, even the researchers have yet to make truly, self-replicating RNA molecule.9

Given the seemingly intractable problems of the RNA World, as well as dissatisfaction with metabolism-first OOL scenarios, researchers now look back further to a Pre-RNA World to set the stage. Achiral peptide nucleic acid (PNA)10 or threose nucleic acid (TNA) alternatives appear to solve some problems but concurrently add layers of complexity to an already daunting challenge.

“It may be claimed, without too much exaggeration, that the problem of the origin of life is the problem of the origin of the RNA World.” — Leslie E. Orgel11

1 Paul Davies, The Fifth Miracle: The Search of the Origin and Meaning of Life (New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2000), 134.
2 Fazale Rana and Hugh Ross, Origins of Life: Biblical and Evolutionary Models Face Off (Covina, CA: Reasons to Believe, 2014), 114.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid, 115-6.
5 Ibid, 96.
6 Ibid, 119-120.
7 Ibid.
8 Fazale Rana and Hugh Ross, Origins of Life: Biblical and Evolutionary Models Face Off (Covina, CA: Reasons to Believe, 2014), 121.
9 Ibid, 121.
10 Ibid, 135.
11 Leslie E. Orgel, “Prebiotic Chemistry and the Origin of the RNA World,” Critical Reviews in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology 39 (March-April 2004): 99-123.
*Page numbers not available in Kindle version.

Who Moved My Primordial Soup?

“The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” Proverb 18:17 (ESV)

The mere suggestion of a primordial soup made the idea of a naturalistic origin of life (OOL) easily imagined and readily accepted by both scientists and the public. The Miller-Urey experiment seemed to provide proof-of-principle for a mechanistic event that was both plausible and fairly simple; however, the assumed chemicals and conditions were simply irrelevant to those present on the early Earth.1 Although a more neutral (rather than strongly reducing) nacent atmosphere has since been accepted by the scientific establishment, laypeople still retain the textbook image of Miller’s experimental contraption in their memory. They confuse the production of a few amino acids with the creation of a living organism. They believe first-life was simple and therefore simple to make.  Meanwhile, scientists have come to realize that life’s origin is actually quite elusive, its location mysterious and mechanisms uncertain. The soup is not just murky – it’s missing.2,3

New OOL solutions have been sought in the neutral atmosphere of the early Earth to no avail. Either the necessary hydrogen tends to slip away due to an inadequate gravitational grasp4 or the chemically promising, but sparse, products yielded by carbon monoxide do not endure.5 The Earth’s crust and volcanic emissions have been found to be as oxidizing today as 3.6 billion years ago,6,7 and the oxygen-ultraviolet paradox continues to plague OOL conjecture.8 Perhaps most significantly, high-energy impactors are thought to have blasted away Earth’s initial atmosphere and vaporized its waters until the end of the late heavy bombardment around 3.8 billion years ago. Isotopic signatures of complex photosynthetic life appear in the oldest of remaining rocks around this time.9 Life shows up early and rapidly, with no warning and no soup.10

The possibility of OOL at hydrothermal vents is also severely constrained by time limitations since the early ocean is thought to have cycled through such vents at least once every 10 million years.11 As in many proposed OOL scenarios, the potential organic products of such hypothetical reactions are destroyed faster than they can be produced.12  Ever-promising and multi-functional RNA molecules are quite delicate under any extracellular conditions, and they would need to be incorporated into a living system quickly before degradation could occur.13 In addition, if nucleic acids become long enough to code for anything meaningful, it is also likely that they will be too long to be replicated accurately without a complete array of enzymes already in place.14

The extraterrestrial delivery of organic compounds via comets, meteorites, and interplanetary dust has been shown to have been insufficient to seed Earth’s abundant early life, even if the desired molecules were not incinerated upon entry into the atmosphere. 15 Perhaps only a combination of molecular sources can offer an adequate concentration of prebiotic compounds.16,17 Yet, all the varied chemical mechanisms make their own peculiar demands, many of which are antagonistic to others.18  How might they all come together at the same place and time?19

I have not even mentioned the origin of biological information or the homochirality of biomolecules yet.20 Simply put, for those seeking naturalistic OOL solutions, life is hard.

”So far, no geochemical evidence for the existence of a prebiotic soup has been published. Indeed, a number of scientists have challenged the prebiotic soup concept, noting that even if it existed, the concentration of organic building blocks in it would have been too small to be meaningful for prebiotic evolution.“ — Noam Lahav, Biogenesis: Theories of Life’s Origin

1 Fazale Rana, Creating Life in the Lab (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011), Chapter 9.*
2 Ibid.
3 Paul Davies, The Fifth Miracle: The Search of the Origin and Meaning of Life (New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2000), 91.
4 Ibid, 90.
5 Fazale Rana, Creating Life in the Lab (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011), Chapter 9.*
6 Fazale Rana and Hugh Ross, Origins of Life: Biblical and Evolutionary Models Face Off (Covina, CA: Reasons to Believe, 2014), 104.
7 Fazale Rana, Creating Life in the Lab (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011), Chapter 9.*
8 Fazale Rana and Hugh Ross, Origins of Life: Biblical and Evolutionary Models Face Off (Covina, CA: Reasons to Believe, 2014), 103.
9 Ibid, 106.
10 Fazale Rana, Creating Life in the Lab (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011), Chapter 9.*
11 Fazale Rana and Hugh Ross, Origins of Life: Biblical and Evolutionary Models Face Off (Covina, CA: Reasons to Believe, 2014), 105.
12 William J. Schopf, ed., Life’s Origin: The Beginnings of Biological Evolution (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002), 101-2.
13 Fazale Rana and Hugh Ross, Origins of Life: Biblical and Evolutionary Models Face Off (Covina, CA: Reasons to Believe, 2014), 90-91.
14 Paul Davies, The Fifth Miracle: The Search of the Origin and Meaning of Life (New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2000), 62.
15 Fazale Rana and Hugh Ross, Origins of Life: Biblical and Evolutionary Models Face Off (Covina, CA: Reasons to Believe, 2014), 103-4.
16 William J. Schopf, ed., Life’s Origin: The Beginnings of Biological Evolution (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002), 107-8.
17 Fazale Rana and Hugh Ross, Origins of Life: Biblical and Evolutionary Models Face Off (Covina, CA: Reasons to Believe, 2014), 95-6.
18 Fazale Rana, Lecture #12: “The Fossil Evidence,” Reasons Institute “Origin of Life” online course, 2017.
19 Paul Davies, The Fifth Miracle: The Search of the Origin and Meaning of Life (New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2000), 91.
20 Ibid, 49-121.
*Page numbers not available in Kindle version.