Watching the Watchmen: Thoughts on Abiogenesis

I will be upfront and say I lack training in microbiology and biochemistry, and this post is intended to be a big-picture pondering on the subject, rather than a paper for peer review. So feel free to take what I write with a five pound bag of salt.

Abiogenesis is the notion that biological life can coalesce out of molecules. In this scenario, no more than the right circumstances and chemicals are required, and they can be acted upon by natural laws to bring about a complex self-replicating molecule that could eventually give rise to what we would normally call a cell.

It is also something that has never been replicated in the laboratory. The actual results behind the optimistic rhetoric of life’s “building blocks” (amino acids, etc.) being generated in the laboratory pales in comparison to our increased understanding of what would be required to be present in even the simplest conceivable cell, one much simpler than the ones we have yet detected under a microscope. And yet abiogenesis is taken for granted as having occurred at some point in the past, whether on Earth or elsewhere.

Some time ago on Facebook, I had a couple of debates with natural history illustrator and paleoartist Julius Csotonyi, who is also very well-trained in microbiology. My position was (and is) that decades of experimentation give us excellent reason to harshly criticize the assumption of abiogenesis, and even discard it. He pointed me to many, many papers on the subject and the basic argument put forward was, “We’re working on it, and are getting more answers. We just need more time to figure out how [not if] abiogenesis happened.” I would point out more problems after looking over the arguments given (and the papers I had time to peruse), and more papers would be thrown down to trip me up. All in the name of benevolently “educating” me, you understand.

Nonetheless, I know enough to recognize what we should be seeing if Csotonyi and other microbiologists are correct in saying abiogenesis must have happened. The issue was not what the papers contained, but what was missing from them. My basic requirement, that went all but ignored, was “Show me a cell or self-replicating complex molecule.”

We all know that either one of those showing up in a test tube would be the biggest biochemical breakthrough in this century and would instantly flood journals and social media both. In the meantime, the gap between laboratory results and the requirements to generate a cell should be shrinking. If that gap expands, it’s a good bet that abiogenesis is a faulty hypothesis, and to hold it as the clear explanation for life’s origin is to engage in pseudoscience.

As far as I can tell, a handful of possible but hotly debated answers have been uncovered, but that handful is dwarfed by the mountains of newly uncovered questions and obstacles. The gap between lab results and the requirements to generate even the simplest cell seems to grow every year.

Still, is there some chance that the stated results of abiogenesis experiments give any cause for excitement at someday creating a cell, or at least a self-replicating complex molecule?

Let us imagine a compulsive gambler who has racked up several million dollars in debt. Hoping to win it back, he returns to the tables, and manages to win a few hundred bucks. But he has not come close to paying it off. He’s even lost enough times, in his renewed efforts, to add another million to the bill.

Would any hope or optimism on the gambler’s part be warranted?

The obvious answer also applies to the ever-hopeful microbiologist who still seeks to find a way to generate a basic cell in a test tube. (I invoke gambling not to say life would generate “randomly.” This is a question of debt, or the criteria that an experiment’s results must satisfy before we can reach a cell.)

I admire the dogged persistence for a desired result. What disappoints and frustrates me is the double header of assuming the process must be possible, combined with a climate of hubris in academia, which perceives anyone who says abiogenesis cannot happen to be uneducated, or unwilling to consider it — perhaps out of some nefarious religious motivation.

It would be more accurate (and more gracious) to say that those more removed from the assumption that life can start by natural means may, ironically, be more observant and more willing to follow where the data points. Not only have the predictions of abiogenesis failed (or “been revised” to put it more politely), but the hurdles of statistics and chemistry have added to the problems with even the simplest conceivable cell assembling from a state without biological life.

This is much more than scientific inquiry whittling down explanations and refining the hypothesis. The debt does not merely still stand; it has been augmented.

The insistence of the True Believer combines with the momentum of grant money and an assumption that is less warranted than ever, that life “must have spontaneously generated” by natural process (the words of Stephen Hawking). Thus today’s model of Spontaneous Generation spins its wheels, all the while demanding exclusivity in laboratory and classroom alike.

My request remains. A cell or self-replicating complex molecule will do. Neither a computer simulation of a cell nor the laughably mislabeled “protocells” so far generated will satisfy the demand for abiogenesis to be scientifically tenable.

If the hypothesis fails, what should we replace it with? I am even less qualified to offer an answer to that, so I won’t dare speak on any replacement theory. All I can do is give speculation:

The changeable rules of “proper” science may cling to abiogenesis in the teeth of the evidence and hang a no-creators-allowed sign on its clubhouse door. But, if such a creator happens to exist, the necessity of such a being’s handiwork may insist on giving Him a hearing anyway.

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