Are we close to discovering the Origin Of Life? James Tour vs Lee Cronin


Even if science does manage to discover a plausible mechanism by which biological life self-emerges from the laws of chemistry and physics The IDers won’t accept it. I guarantee we’ll hear

  1. It can’t be demonstrated that is how life on Earth actually began, and
  2. It still took intelligence to make the process work.

They’ll still insist their God be installed into those gaps.


I’ll agree with them on the first of those.

Well, I suppose I agree with the second point too, except that I’m sure I disagree on what intelligence is. From my perspective, intelligence is the ability to adapt.

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Anybody watch yet? Worth it?

I’m enjoying it.

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It kind of fizzled though. There’s not much to Tour’s position as far as I can see, annoyingly so at points. That line of thought (I guess I don’t really need to outline it here) has never made much sense to me, and though I did enjoy hearing the whole thing hashed out, others may find it less interesting.

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It had a few high notes and there was an interesting back and forth in the middle of the discussion where I think Tour gave a good characterization of the different approaches to the origin of life field, and Cronin did a good job explaining how his own work could be relevant, but besides that I was also frustrated to hear both parts make some silly statements.

I don’t like when Cronin suggested perhaps Tour might be jealous of his work (that’s extremely childish I have to say and comments like that have no place in that discussion), and when Tour says if you pick a chemical off the shelf to use in your experiment(he went even further and said if you just walk into the lab), you’ve influenced the result, is ridiculous to me. How are you supposed to DO an experiment without putting something in your flasks? Obviously you have to start with your flasks having something that actually might have existed in that form, on Earth, when life first formed. Setting up the experiment to reproduce a natural environment as faithfully as you can isn’t “influencing” the results in any way that makes them doubtful or implausble. I really don’t see any sensible point to this prong of his criticism. It is setting an impossible and completely irrational standard.

Tour’s suggestion that we’re getting further away from an explanation over time is just flatly false. Tour is saying because we find out more and more about how extant life works, it becomes more and more difficult to explain how it originates. But that is based on the assumption that life had to begin in it’s modern form. That to have life we have to have E coli, or yeast. Most of the attributes of extant life are evolved. Tour is implying we have to have E coli crawl out of a flask we aren’t allowed to put anything into, and if that doesn’t happen we haven’t explained the origin of life. This is absurd. There’s approximately 300 million years worth of evolution between the end of the late heavy bombardment, and the time of the last universal common ancestor.


This seems to be a common theme in a lot of ID/creationist arguments. We may help ourselves out by stressing “trees, not ladders” when discussing evolution with the general public. Provocative statements like “E. coli are just as evolved as humans” may open up some conversations. Scientists sort of have themselves to blame in this regard since they use language influenced by Linnaean and Victorian thinking more than they should.

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I’m 15 minutes in, and all Tour has done is whine about what the host said about him on a previous video, then express how affronted he is that no OOL researchers, had previously agreed to debate him face to face. As if he is somehow entitled to this.

Given the lukewarm reviews above, I might not give this anymore time. But I wonder if anyone has seen the earlier video with Cronin by himself, and if it’s worth watching?

Hmm. Cronin has an interesting point at aroun 24:40, where he explains that he sees his work as analogous to Newton providing the laws that govern gravity, even though everyone already knew that gravity existed.

I wonder if a better analogy would be to Darwin, that he seeks the laws of chemistry that allow complex organic molecules to evolve, i.e. the equivalent of descent with modification and natural selection. It may not be possible to determine the exact chemical steps that led to the origin of life, anymore than we can determine the exact mutations that led to a particular species evolving. But we still understand the process quite well.

Yes I liked this analogy. It didn’t satisfy Tour, who wants to know how life as we see it originated. As in how does something with the complexity we see originate. I share this very same desire to understand this process. I wouldn’t fault Tour for pointing out that nobody has explained this yet, or asking questions about how that would work.

But Cronin is asking a more fundamental question about how does something that is recognizably alive originate. It is true that there is a disconnection between those two questions, though they may be related. I just think Tour is underestimating the role that evolution has played historically in generating the complexity of the life we see.
This is not to say there aren’t very interesting, very important, and fundamental questions about how “first” life evolved into complex life like E coli, and yeast. Those too are questions we all want to be answered, but it’s not clear to me that is actually a question about the very first origin of a living cell, but is probably more a question about the earliest stages of evolution once a kind of cellular life has emerged. The origin and evolution of genetics, and the origin and evolution of the translation system.

If think we can reduce biological evolution down to its most basic form and look for simple feedback loops that incorporate thermodynamics and homeostasis. There has to be something replicating, it has to use energy, and there has to be an inside and outside of a cell. These concepts could be applied to relatively simple chemistry. In my opinion, the real powerhouse is replication because it can amplify processes exponentially and boost itself above the background of chemical noise. Once you have replicating systems competing for resources (i.e. energy, thermodynamics) it starts to get interesting.


I agree, and I think this is precisely one of the “fatal flaws” of ID’s argument, in my mind. The question: did God design life on Earth, and the question: are there plausible natural mechanisms that could account for living organisms to form from non-living chemicals, are completely separate questions. A plausible mechanism does not mean the mechanism was actually used. Conversely, much like GAE, if God “seeded” the process we’d likely never know. ID seems to buy into this idea that science can “see” everything. I seriously doubt science will ever be able to conclusively show how life originated on Earth, to the point of excluding all other competing hypotheses.

To me this is part of the answer to Behe’s (and others) argument that nobody can show a precise set of mechanistic steps to generate flagella, or ATPase, or the bug gears. Even if a plausible mechanism was found, it doesn’t necessarily follow that that was the mechanism actually followed. And if the plausibility of a mechanism doesn’t ensure its actuality in history, then surely the lack of a plausible mechanism at this time doesn’t ensure its impossibility in history either. In other words, it does absolutely no good to go down the “mechanism” rabbit trail because neither answer (yes, we have one or no, we don’t) actually answers the real question of God’s involvement in the origin of life.