The Wretched Plight of "Professor" Dave on Origin-of-Life Science
As I sat and watched a "debate" between atheist YouTuber, Dave Farina (who, though he is not a professor, goes by “Professor Dave”) and (real) Professor James Tour of Rice University, the words of Proverbs 23:9 quickly came to mind:
“Do not speak to fools, for they will scorn your prudent words.”
The “debate” took place at Rice University and was broadcast live on May 19. The question at issue was, Are we Clueless about the Origin of Life?
I use the word “debate” in quotation marks because no real debate took place. In fact, any reasonable person who watched the exchange from start to finish would form the distinct impression that this was an honest attempt by Dr. Tour to explain the real problems within origin of life (OOL) research over against the venomous words of a character assassin who rained hateful insult after insult at his opponent but never addressed the underlying scientific issues. For those interested in the background to this development check out Picking on the Wrong Guy, my earlier Salvo blog about online exchanges between Tour and Farina.
Simple Questions, Hard Problems
Tour opened by stating that he was willing to overlook a huge foundational problem for OOL researchers: the origin of homochiral molecules. Biological molecules display what’s called “handedness” – that is, they come in two forms that are mirror images of each other, similar to your left and right hand. The amino acids that form proteins inside living cells must be all left-handed, while the sugars that living cells utilize must be all right-handed.
The trouble is, when chemists synthesize amino acids in the lab, they invariably get a 50-50 mixture of left- and right-handed molecules. Furthermore, there is no plausible natural mechanism for generating only one kind of handedness (homochirality) to any significant degree, but that is what is needed for the building blocks of life to assemble.
After making this point, Tour invited Farina to answer five simply put questions:
- How do amino acids link together in water to form proteins?
- How do polynucleotides like RNA form?
- How to polysaccharides(carbohydrates) form?
- How did the specified information in all of the above originate?
- How do the above assemble into a functioning living cell?
In his opening remarks, Tour stated that all five questions must be answered before we can even begin to talk about a functioning cell. Failure to answer just one of them means the whole OOL house of cards collapses.
He reminded Mr. Farina that all the experts he (Farina) had previously called upon to denounce Tour’s claims had publicly conceded that we are, indeed, clueless about the origin of life. Not only that, Farina’s favorite expert, Professor Lee Cronin, has publicly declared OOL research to be a “scam.”
Finally, Tour ended his opening remarks by inviting Farina to show him the data: “I’m looking forward to seeing the data with chemical specificity. That’s what I’m asking of you, so I’m telling you up front.”
Farina’s opening remarks, in contrast, were filled with invective venom. On multiple occasions he called Tour a “liar” who was “approaching the field not as a scientist but as a preacher.” He belittled Tour’s Christian faith and said that Tour emboldens “science-illiterate Christians who share his bias and delusions.” He called Tour “a brazen liar and charlatan” who is “deliberately lying to a gullible audience with no clue what he is talking about,” and a “pathological liar who actively promotes science denial.” Farina even insulted the audience, accusing them of not having “a f***ing clue what any of us are talking about,” even though the audience included a substantial number of chemistry under- and post-graduates and several Rice faculty members.
But what, if any, science did Farina bring to the debate that would persuade someone new to the problem that he might have a case to make? Just like his prior YouTube attacks on Tour, Farina resorted to reading off abstracts of papers purporting to show that all the problems Tour highlighted have been solved.
But that is far from true. Farina cited abstracts of reports, but all of the experiments being reported on had been done under very contrived conditions – in other words, they were experiments in which a high degree of human agency had been required to achieve even the simplest of results. Moreover, none of them had any relevance to the likely conditions of the early Earth.
More damning for Farina’s case is the embarrassing fact that the experts he drew upon have already conceded that the plight of OOL research is effectively untenable. For example, back in 2015, Steven Benner, a leading prebiotic chemist Farina had cited has conceded that:
An enormous amount of empirical data have established, as a rule, that organic systems, given energy and left to themselves, devolve to give uselessly complex mixtures, “asphalts”…
Further, chemical theories, including the second law of thermodynamics, bonding theory that describes the “space” accessible to sets of atoms, and structure theory requiring that replication systems occupy only tiny fractions of that space, suggest that it is impossible for any non-living chemical system to escape devolution to enter into the Darwinian world of the “living” (emphasis added).
Farina either was ignorant of these admissions or deliberately avoided mentioning Benner’s conclusions. Worse still, even though the chemical steps needed to synthesize biologically relevant molecules, such as proteins or polynucleotides like DNA and RNA, have not yet been elucidated, much greater problems arise when we begin to consider how these biomolecules could have assembled into something even remotely resembling a cell.
Dr. Brian Miller, Research Coordinator at the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, pointed out the problem this way:
What would happen if aliens deposited millions of tons of randomly sequenced proteins and RNA, cell membranes, molecular machines, and every other cellular component on the early Earth? Everything would simply decompose into “uselessly complex mixtures.” Even if decomposition were somehow prevented, forming a minimally complex cell would still require three steps:
- Selecting the correct proteins, RNA, and other structures out of an unfathomably large pool of molecules.
- Localizing the building blocks in a microscopic environment.
- Properly assembling the molecules and structures into a fantastically rare arrangement.
Miller forcefully lays bare the core problem with all of OOL research and how all of it thus far has utterly failed to hit the mark:
Life does not represent an emergent property of matter, but a system of processes directed by advanced nanotechnology to operate in conformity with a blueprint or design architecture. One could no more explain the organization of a cell through the chemistry and physics of its constituent molecules than one could explain the organization of a car through the chemistry and physics of metal, glass, rubber, and gasoline.
Personally, I’m glad Mr. Farina came out from behind his YouTube camera and into the real world. I’m even more glad that he engaged a real scientist who understands the fundamental problems of prebiotic chemistry. If anything, it showed that, while his smooth-talking subterfuge may fool an army of unwary online viewers unwilling to examine the details of his claims, he himself is, in fact, clueless about origin-of-life science.
What was at issue in the “debate,” was truth versus bluster, and how to distinguish one from the other. Let us pray that Mr. Farina can find that truth someday.
Here is the full debate (if you think you can stomach it):Neil English
is working on a new book, Choosing Binoculars: A Guide for Stargazers, Birders and Outdoor Enthusiasts, which will be published by Springer Nature in late 2023.• Get SALVO blog posts in your inbox! Copyright © 2023 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/post/cluelessness-at-the-intersection-of-chemistry-life