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Do We Have An Adequate Understanding Of The Origin Of The First Life? No
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How close are the scientists to understanding the mechanism behind the origins of the very first life?
Scientists are clueless and none understand it, says Dr. James Tour. In fact, he is the one person who has the authority to make such an audacious statement.
Dr. James Tour
isn’t one of those scientists whose primary occupation is to write books and appear on TV shows. He makes molecules for a living, and he makes it
. He is one of the ten most-cited chemists. He is an active synthetic organic chemist who has more than 130 patents and over 680 research publications. He is the T. T. and W. F. Chao Professor of Chemistry, Professor of Computer Science, Professor of Materials Science and NanoEngineering at Rice University. He was named the
World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds
by Thomson Reuters.
James Tour claims that
scientists are clueless about the origins of the first life
I have written a long article on the origin of life: http://inference-review.com/article/animadversions-of-a-synthetic-chemist. It is clear, chemists and biologists are clueless. I wrote, “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.”
He goes on to say that scientists are clueless about the
source of the information
that’s required to build the first cell. In other words, no one knows where that information (to build the very first cell) could have come from. Dr. Tour writes:
The information or coding within the DNA (or RNA) that corresponds to the sequence of the nucleic acids is primary to the entire discussion of life. Some would rightly argue that the information is even more fundamental than the matter upon which it is encoded. I merely showed that the requisite molecules (lipids, proteins, nucleic acids and carbohydrates) are so unlikely to have occurred in the states and quantities needed, that we could never have gotten to the point of figuring out the genesis of the requisite code or information. The code is analogous to the difference between the Library of Congress and a big box of alphabetic letters— the library has a huge amount of embedded information while the random box of letters has little. So origin of first life is the ‘nail holding the coffin closed’ on the emergence of biological evolution. Without that first life, or simple cell, which requires the four molecule types plus information, all proposals regarding biological evolution are without the base of life. And it is difficult to discuss biology without life.
But even if one were given all the molecules needed in complete stereochemical purity, and the information code, could a cell be constructed using the chemical and biochemical tools that we have today? I have written about such a hypothetic experiment, and how it would be impossible, using today’s expertise, to even construct the lipid bilayer, namely the exterior packaging that holds the cell’s nanomachinery in place. Just the lipid bilayer (which itself surrounds thousands of nanosystems) is beyond our ability to synthesize. The conclusion of that thought experiment is that “life based upon amino acids, nucleotides, saccharides and lipids is an anomaly. Life should not exist anywhere in our universe. Life should not even exist on the surface of the earth.” “Yet we are led to believe that 3.8 billion years ago the requisite compounds could be found in some cave, or undersea vent, and somehow or other they assembled themselves into the first cell.”
J. Warner Wallace of Cold Case Christianity enlightens us more about this dilemma:
The building blocks of life (proteins, ribosomes, enzymes etc.) are formed at the direction of specific nucleotide sequencing in DNA, the largest molecule known. In humans, DNA contains as many as 10 billion atoms. The adenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine bases in DNA are linked in a particular order to form the genetic code containing the master plan for every organism. The information in DNA guides and instructs the formation of proteins; without it, protein formation would be a haphazard, hit-or-miss proposal. The nucleic sequence in DNA is informational.
Physicist Paul Davies expresses it well: “Once this essential point is grasped, the real problem of biogenesis is clear. Since the heady successes of molecular biology, most investigators have sought the secret of life in the physics and chemistry of molecules. But they will look in vain for conventional physics and chemistry to explain life, for that is a classic case of confusing the medium with the message. The secret of life lies, not in its chemical basis, but in the logical and informational rules it exploits.”
Information in RNA and DNA presents a problem for researchers, especially those who propose RNA as the first molecule to appear through some combination of chance and chemical necessity (known as the “RNA World Hypothesis”). Even if RNA is a precursor to DNA, the first RNA molecules would have to be rich in information to replicate. Information must exist first, before any other transformational process can take place. Without the prior genetic information in DNA and RNA, nothing of significance happens within cells.
Nucleotide sequences are more than statistical gibberish. They are semantically, pragmatically, and apobetically significant sources of information (for more information on these categories of information, see my new book, God’s Crime Scene). The genetic sequence has meaning and directs action for a specific purpose.
Our personal experience tells us information comes only from intelligent sources. In fact, in the entire history of the universe (and the history of science) a single instance of information arising from anything other than intelligence has never been identified. This presents a problem for those who attempt to stay “in the room” of the universe to account for genetic information. If we limit ourselves to the materials available to us in the universe, information must be explained from matter, chance, the laws of chemistry or physics, and nothing more. Nobel winning biophysical chemist, Manfred Eigen recognized this challenge when he once said, “Our task is to find an algorithm, a natural law that leads to the origin of information.” Efforts to account for information in this way have repeatedly failed. In fact, the information in DNA proves to be the decisive stumbling block for every naturalistic theory offered for the origin of life.
…The chance arrangement of information in DNA is prohibitively improbable, and there are no chemical or physical laws at work to dictate its existence. We are left, then, with a paradox: the laws and forces of nature cannot produce information, but information is required for life to begin. As Paul Davies laments, “we are still left with the mystery of where biological information comes from . . . If the normal laws of physics can’t inject information, and if we are ruling out miracles, then how can life be predetermined and inevitable rather than a freak accident? How is it possible to generate random complexity and specificity together in a lawlike manner? We always come back to that basic paradox.”
Given the utter inability of chance or natural law, and our observations related to the origin of information, intelligence is the best explanation. But this requires us to look for an intelligent source transcending the limits of the physical universe. Scientists trying to account for information by staying “inside the room” seem to be rejecting the obvious. In order to create information, the author of this information must have the ability to select between possible alternatives. This ability to choose selectively requires intelligence, will, and purpose. Unguided physical processes simply cannot accomplish the task. German engineer and IT specialist, Werner Gitt summarizes it this way: “A necessary requirement for generating meaningful information is the ability to select from alternatives and this requires an intelligent, volitional entity . . . Unguided, random processes cannot do this—not in any amount of time—because this selection process demands continuous guidance by intelligent beings that have a purpose.”
The selection process required in the creation of information requires an intelligent, volitional free agent. That’s why the information in DNA most reasonably points to the existence of God. For a much more thorough description of this evidence, please refer to God’s Crime Scene, Chapter Three – The Origin of Life: Does the Text Require an Author?
It’s sufficiently clear that OOL scientists are not even close to understanding the mechanism behind the origin of the first self-replicating life. Given this situation, James Tour exhorts his fellow scientists to admit that the
scientific community is far from understanding the origins of the very first life
[J]OHN SUTHERLAND, one of OOL’s giants and the most skilled synthetic chemist to engage in OOL research, has recently proposed that “chemical determinism can no longer be relied on as a source of innovation, and further improvements have to be chanced upon instead.”31 Chanced upon? It appears that Sutherland has come to appreciate the depths of the problems facing OOL researchers. In 2017, Ramanarayanan Krishnamurthy et al. showed that diamidophosphate can phosphorylate nucleosides, nucleotides, and stereo-scrambled lipid precursors. These can further result in the formation of random oligonucleotides and oligopeptides. The fundamental challenges with respect to synthesis and assembly remain unaddressed. Krishnamurthy was rightly measured in writing about “the pitfalls of extrapolating extant biochemical pathways backwards all the way to prebiotic chemistry and vice versa.”32 In 2018, Clemens Richert argued that “the ideal experiment does not involve any human intervention.”33 This is a step in the right direction. So, too, is the fact that he scrupled at the pure chemicals used by the OOL community.
It is time for a temporary time out. Why not admit what we cannot yet explain: the mass transfer of starting materials to the molecules needed for life; the origin of life’s code; the combinatorial complexities present in any living system; and the precise nonregular assembly of cellular components?
It would be helpful if leading researchers, among them very sophisticated synthetic chemists, were to step back, pause, and join forces. If the origins of life remain a mystery, two goals are within reach: an agreement about the rational standards by which OOL research should be judged, and a candid acknowledgment of the problems that remain to be overcome. A statement of this sort would be reassuring in its candor.34
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