15 April 2023

Some musing on the Abiogenetic Origin of Life

I started reading what I thought was a scientific critique of some of the ideas for the Origin of Life (abiogenesis at origin), by Robert Stadler and Change Lee Tan, entitled The Stairway to Life, an Origin-of-Life Reality Check. The book is essentially based on the idea that each the 20 or so steps they identify as essential to the origin of self-reproducing cellular life is extremely unlikely to occur spontaneously even in an available time of tens or hundreds of millions of years, and that each must be multiplied, not added, to yield an estimate of the overall probability of that happening. Their conclusion: an abiogenetic origin of life on the early Earth was spectacularly unlikely (so it must be God). Sure enough, looking into it a bit they're Intelligent Design Creationists, and he's funded by the "Creation Science Institute." (An oxymoron, to be sure). I should've suspected this. 

All these arguments legitimately do is to demonstrate just how complex and difficult a problem this is, since the predicate, that it "must be God," is not in any sense scientific or supported by evidence. Even if you accept some of their assumptions, they play fast and loose with estimates for how likely certain sequences of events that may actually be driven by the energetics of the environment actually are.  (They are very critical of the (to them) overly optimistic assumptions of people like Carl Sagan and Nick Lane). They tend to treat them more like the question, if you just mix the ingredients for life together, how likely is it to spontaneously form an organism?... which ignores the function of synergy in complex systems. It becomes increasingly obvious as you follow their arguments that they are driven by a preconceived faith agenda: that life must have been created by God, so let's tear apart all the thinking and work that has gone into investigating how life might have originated on Earth naturally. It's pretty easy to tear down intellectual edifices if all you intend to replace them with is "it's supernatural." After all, this is one of the great mysteries of our time, and there is no one who seriously claims that we fully understand the origin of life. 

Having said that, we have to face the fact that this really is a virtually entirely unresolved question. You often read that "life seems to have originated within a relatively short time after its continued existence under the conditions of the early Earth had stabilized," and that this should be at least some indication that the origin of life itself may be pretty likely, as opposed to some of the milestones along the way to the evolution of the complex ecosystems of the current earth, and the evolution of human-level intelligence, some of which appear to have been "difficult," i.e., weren't very likely and took a long time to emerge in the course of evolution. The basic idea is that the origin of life must be likely, because it seems to have happened right off the bat on Earth. 

But is this really a reasonable supposition? I'd submit that we just do not know. It is at least possible that the arguments for why the abiogenetic origin of life is very unlikely are essentially right, and that the fact that it (apparently) happened early on Earth falls more in the Anthropic Principle sphere of reasoning. In other words, maybe it is extremely, extremely unlikely, but since we would not be here to talk about it if it hadn't happened, our very existence is a selection effect that isolates an extremely unlikely event. And, of course, if that is so, we should not expect life to have originated anywhere else in the universe, ever. Which, so far, we cannot absolutely rule out. In fact, the fact that no evidence for life originating elsewhere than Earth has emerged after decades of searching all available evidence is becoming somewhat concerning to those who are predisposed to expect life to be common (this is what's called a scientific bias, but it's the predominant one, we have to admit).

Truth is, we simply do not have enough evidence to choose between these alternatives, or some intermediate. This is why I believe NASA's (and others') goal of searching for evidence of non-terrestrial life, somewhere, is crucial. A discovery of a second presumptively abiogenetic origin of life will change this debate radically, and serve as an impetus to finally figure out what happens when the conditions for the origin of life arise, presumably in planetary environments more or less like the early Earth. Until we are sure that this actually does happen, and is not some incredible, never-to-be-repeated fluke, we cannot fully refute the Creationist view. That doesn't mean Creationism (or Intelligent Design) is science; it isn't. They demonstrate fairly thoroughly the tough nut of the problem, but then they just say, well, it's impossible, so it must be God. To me that's as good an example of specious reasoning as you'll ever find. Even if all their critiques are right, and it just seems like a miracle, all that proves is that it's unlikely; it says nothing about some posited agency that "created" life... that is an intellectual leap that isn't justified by any evidence at all. And, of course, carrying that forward to the particular, historically contingent and arbitrary version of a supernatural origin invariably favored by these pseudoscientists can't even pretend to be logical, rational, or scientific. Faith requires none of those, but if they are the criteria, as they should be, then any conclusions based on faith are excluded from scientific consideration. 

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