Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Tour on Abiogenesis

I filched some of the following post from philosopher VJ Torley at Uncommon Descent. He has some interesting things to say about Dr. James Tour's work and views on the origin of life that I'd like to pass on to you.

The technical name for the origin of life is abiogenesis, the emergence of living cells from non-living material precursors. Abiogenesis is a necessary first step for the evolution of higher life forms. Until there was life there was no evolution.

Interestingly, all theories of naturalistic abiogenesis entail mind-blowingly improbabilities, which means that it's highly probable that naturalism, the belief that everything is explicable in terms of natural processes and forces, is false.

Torley introduces us to Dr. Tour who is nothing if not an expert witness:
Professor James M. Tour, a synthetic organic chemist, specializing in nanotechnology, who is also is the T. T. and W. F. Chao Professor of Chemistry, Professor of Materials Science and NanoEngineering, and Professor of Computer Science at Rice University in Houston, Texas. In addition to holding more than 120 United States patents, as well as many non-US patents, Professor Tour has authored more than 600 research publications. He was inducted into the National Academy of Inventors in 2015, and he was named among “The 50 most Influential Scientists in the World Today” by TheBestSchools.org in 2014. Tour was named “Scientist of the Year” by R&D Magazine in 2013, and he won the ACS Nano Lectureship Award from the American Chemical Society in 2012. As if that were not enough, Tour was ranked one of the top 10 chemists in the world over the past decade by Thomson Reuters in 2009.
So how does Dr. Tour say that unaided nature produced the first living cell? He states emphatically that we have no idea whatsoever:
We have no idea how the molecules that compose living systems could have been devised such that they would work in concert to fulfill biology’s functions. We have no idea how the basic set of molecules, carbohydrates, nucleic acids, lipids and proteins, were made and how they could have coupled in proper sequences, and then transformed into the ordered assemblies until there was the construction of a complex system, and eventually to that first cell. Nobody has any idea on how this was done when using our commonly understood mechanisms of chemical science. Those who say that they understand are generally wholly uninformed regarding chemical synthesis.

From a synthetic chemical perspective, neither I nor any of my colleagues can fathom a prebiotic molecular route to construction of a complex system. We cannot even figure out the prebiotic routes to the basic building blocks of life: carbohydrates, nucleic acids, lipids and proteins. Chemists are collectively bewildered. Hence I say that no chemist understands prebiotic synthesis of the requisite building blocks, let alone assembly into a complex system.

That’s how clueless we are. I’ve asked all of my colleagues: National Academy members, Nobel Prize winners. I sit with them in offices. Nobody understands this. So if your professor says, “It’s all worked out,” [or] your teachers say, “It’s all worked out,” they don’t know what they’re talking about. It is not worked out.
In other words, all those people who tell us that the naturalistic evolution of life is a fact and that only nincompoops, Trump voters, and Westboro Baptists are skeptical of its efficacy, are in fact clueless as to how the first step in the process could have ever been taken.

Torley quotes Tour some more:
Let us assume that all the building blocks of life, not just their precursors, could be made in high degrees of purity, including homochirality where applicable, for all the carbohydrates, all the amino acids, all the nucleic acids and all the lipids. And let us further assume that they are comfortably stored in cool caves, away from sunlight, and away from oxygen, so as to be stable against environmental degradation. And let us further assume that they all existed in one corner of the earth, and not separated by thousands of kilometers or on different planets. And that they all existed not just in the same square kilometer, but in neighboring pools where they can conveniently and selectively mix with each other as needed.

Now what? How do they assemble? Without enzymes, the mechanisms do not exist for their assembly. It will not happen and there is no synthetic chemist that would claim differently because to do so would take enormous stretches of conjecturing beyond any that is realized in the field of chemical sciences…

I just saw a presentation by a Nobel prize winner modeling the action of enzymes, and I walked up to him afterward, and I said to him, “I’m writing an article entitled: ‘Abiogenesis: Nightmare.’ Where do these enzymes come from? Since these things are synthesized, … starting from the beginning, where did these things come from?” He says, “What did you write in your article?” I said, “I said, ‘It’s a mystery.’” He said, “That’s exactly what it is: it’s a mystery.”
It's a mystery, he says. If a theist were to give this answer in reply to some question about God the skeptic community would suffer collective side-stitches from laughing so hard, but the cornerstone of naturalism, the belief that life arose from non-life without any intelligent intervention or direction, is an inexplicable mystery. Yet naturalists insist that it's rational to believe in an inexplicable mystery, no matter how improbable it may be, and that it's irrational to believe that somehow life arose as a consequence of intelligent agency.

Let's put this a different way. Which is more probable, that a functioning computer was produced by a series of highly improbable physical accidents or that a functioning computer by an intelligent engineer? We have lots of experience of engineers producing amazingly complex structures which contain high information loads, but we have little or no experience of such things being produced by the random action of natural processes. As with computers so, too, with the first cell.

Thus, the existence of a first cell is more probable given the existence of an intelligent agent than it would be if no such agent exists, and since it's more rational to believe what's more probable than to believe what's less probable, it's more rational to believe that life arose as a result of intelligent agency.

If you've a background in cellular chemistry or an interest in the topic and would like to watch Tour's entire lecture it's here.