Monday, April 23, 2018

Questions About Abiogenesis Aren't Answered By Vague Statements About Evolution

As a longtime listener to the CBC radio science program Quirks and Quarks* which, often, has the best electronic science reporting in English that I'm aware of, I am often struck at how a close consideration of what is said on it exposes some of the most common habits of scientists and science reporters. 

Last week's listener question concerned a recent news report that claimed that graphite deposits found in Newfoundland might have been laid down by life which spontaneously arose around mid-ocean hot water vents, a listener from Ontario asked the entirely sensible and excellent question that if such life arose that way four billion years ago, "Why doesn't life continue to spontaneously occur around such vents?"  The text summary of the short segment at the Quirks and Quarks website says:

 Dr. Ali Aksu from the Earth Sciences Department at Memorial University of Newfoundland explains that life on Earth began as progressively complex organic molecules arose from non-living mater. It is quite likely that this took place around hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor about 4 billion years ago. Life did not begin in a single event, it began as a series of processes that started a constant evolution that continues today. Those processes were unique to conditions on the planet at that time. For that reason, it is not possible for life to re-evolve even though we still have active hydrothermal events in the oceans.

Given that the scientific basis of the claims leave some room to doubt the age of the graphite deposits I wouldn't be surprised if the status of the claims isn't as durable as the rocks they're based in but that's not what I'm interested in.  I'm a little skeptical as to the durability of their interpretation of what they're looking at, but that's based on questioning how much they really know about it.

I have no problem with an extremely early date for life on Earth, though I think there is every reason to believe that the earlier the date is the more improbable most of the work in the pseudo-science of abiogenesis is, all of it based on evidence from hundreds of millions if not more than a billion years after the beginning of life - much of it based on such complex molecules as RNA (used to be they made claims on DNA) which can't exist outside of an organism.   I do have to say that my earliest thoughts on this claim leaves me a little less certain of the single-origin of life on Earth theory which I have always believed on the basis of the presumed probability of life arising by chance.  Though I'm still thinking that through.

My problem is that Dr Aksu didn't answer the question, not at all.   

If the conditions around hot water ocean vents are what gave rise to life "through progressively complex molecules  (which) arose from non-living mater" (sic) why wouldn't that happen today? 

Why wouldn't it have been happening all during the intervening four billion years? 

The response to the question doesn't even begin to answer that and I'm not at all sure that either the scientist or the science reporting staff on Quirks and Quarks even realizes that the response is no answer to the question.   If such life rose once or, far more improbably, many times in the conditions on the early Earth through random chance based on the ambient physical conditions present, those same conditions that probability worked itself out into life that time have existed ever since. 

I would imagine that the number of such "complex molecules" that might have somehow assembled into organisms then is miniscule as compared to such complex molecules manufactured in organisms after life had become established and flooded the environment with complex organic molecules manufactured in living organisms.   If the scenario that Aksu presents was how it happened, as a result of random chance operating on the available material, then I would ask why with much more of such material around the odds of it happening again, once or many times  doesn't increase enormously.

The situation that is used to explain why it doesn't happen now would also make it far less probable to have happened then.

Why he would bring the entirely separate issue of evolution into it is interesting to consider.  It really has nothing to do with far more reliably established belief in the evolution of lines of organisms into separate species, the meaning of the word, after all. 

The "answer" that is given isn't given to explain why it doesn't happen, it's a dismissal of the question.   I would think that among the most logical conclusions to make about the absence of continued spontaneous creations of new life in such thermal vents is that the likelihood of it having happened in the ambient conditions billions of years ago was even more vanishingly small than the traditional estimates have been.  And that that makes a skeptical response to the traditional Darwinian claim that it happened spontaneously as a result of random, chance events far more respectably reasonable.   Though I don't think you're going to hear it even on the often excellent Quirks and Quarks.

*    In browsing the CBC website yesterday I found this blast from the 37-year-ago past, one I remember listening to.  It seems quaintly out of date now, though I am sure the issues involved have evolved on all side.  I thought it was really weird to classify Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge as somehow anti-Darwinist, though I don't remember thinking it sounded weird way back then.  Also, back then I didn't appreciate that they didn't seem to have a very close understanding of "creationism" in that they seemed to lump actual 7-day creationists in with people who accepted that evolution happened but who didn't buy the atheist dogma of it happening by random chance events.  Even some of the people who work at the Discovery Institute wouldn't fit an accurate definition of "creationist."   And I'll remind you that one of the most eminent and totally conventional Darwinists of my youth,  Theodosius Dobzhansky said eight years before that show It is wrong to hold creation and evolution as mutually exclusive alternatives. I am a creationist and an evolutionist. Evolution is God's, or Nature's, method of Creation.


  1. I was going to say, the "answer" given is pretty much: "because it doesn't, that's why!"

    Life is "more complex" now, and that somehow blocks the mechanism (if there was one) of life forming around those vents now? Why? Because that's what life does? Reminds me of the arguments going about in the 19th into the 20th century about what "life" was/is. Virginia Woolf touches on it in her essay "The Death of the Moth," where she watches a moth die in a window. She writes about "elan vital," a now discredited term, but science still can't explain why one group of organic molecules is animate but another is not (one alive, one dead), or why the dead corpse was once animate, and why it will be animate no more. The only explanation medical science can give is that a corpse became unable to sustain the life process (whatever "life process" is). But why? Well, because it's now a corpse, obviously.

    Which is not to say the answer is mysticism or eternal Platonic souls, but just to point out the explanations are often little better than "Because!" And "because" is covered up with lots of bafflegab because science should explain everything, or at least be consistent with our observations of the world, so: why doesn't life continue to form around such vents? Because it doesn't, that's why! Because life doesn't form that way anymore because it doesn't need to!

    Oh, so "life" is a unitary thing which pursues its own goals much like, say, human reason? Except life is divorced entirely from human thought and culture and exists....where, again, exactly? And exerts this influence over the physical universe how, exactly?

    More and more that answer reminds me of "Male Answer Syndrome," where men must come up with an explanation no matter how poor it is, because "I dunno!" is unacceptable. In this case, of course, "I dunno" means explanations for how life started are nothing better than random guesswork, and we can't let that get about, so....Male Answer Syndrome.

    Gotta have an answer for everything, right?

    1. I almost used the Red Green formulation of the three words men find it so hard to say but I used that one not long ago.

      I really don't hear any evidence that Bob MacDonald or the staff at Quirks and Quarks or the scientist from Memorial University realizes that no answer was given to the question. Which is a remarkable commentary on the culture of science and the faith that citing evolution in some formulation is an answer to such a question. I wish I had the math to come to some estimate of what that it hasn't happened in about four-billion years does to the previous claims about the improbability of it happening under ambient conditions back then (in so far as we can guess what those were). I question how they can really come up with such confident assertions about what the graphite that they found in metamorphic rocks of that age and their interpretation of it.

      I used to be quite a conventional believer in abiogenesis though that didn't last even a half an hour into reading a description of the widely sold Miller Urey experiment and its relation to "the origin of life". Literally every single thing I've read by scientists on the topic has made me ever more skeptical of their claims or even the possibility of subjecting such a question to science because of the impossibility of observing the way that life actually did arise on Earth. This latest one looks like a scientist pushing away an embarrassing question and pretending that dismissal is an answer to it when what's claimed only makes things worse.

    2. We would also have accepted "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!"

      Because that explains the silence of MacDonald and Quirks and Quarks as well as anything else does. Can't expose the humanity of science, you might destroy it's awful majesty!

  2. "Questions About Abiogenesis Aren't Answered By Vague Statements About Evolution"

    That's so true, Sparky. You know what else is?

    Questions about the recent digital remaster of The Beatles SGT PEPPER aren't answered by the mono mix included in the box set versus the vinyl and analog stereo stuff.

    1. Another typical Simps simplification.

      Anything and everything that could be said about that boring old thing were said by 1970. Possibly the most overrated LP in history.

      Go on, say something as stupid as your last comment.

  3. Here's a clue Sparky: The joke is that you don't get the joke.

    1. I'm sure you're a real hit on open mic nights. How many times do they hit you on an average night?

    2. Oh, that was a joke!

      I was wondering....

    3. Oh, he's the King of Komedy, and he'll tell you that for free.