James Tour and Joshua Swamidass: A Fiery Debate on the Origin of Life

In this livestream, Dr. Josh Swamidass and Dr. James Tour discuss whether science has come anywhere close to explaining the origin of life on planet Earth.

Looking forward to a friendly conversation with my good friend this Friday!


I think most researchers working in the field would say no to that.

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I agree entirely. Which is why I’m so puzzled at times by the “debate” about abiogenesis.


Tour has written that it’s essentially impossible. As in, he knows chemistry well enough to say that life shouldn’t exist. That is NOT an uncontroversial statement. He’s also stated that apparently chemists are admitting to him in private that they don’t really know or understand any of the things they publicly claim to know or understand.

Creationists and ID proponents everywhere is taking that to mean that the origin of life is impossible without God. Tour will occasionally pay lip service to the idea that he doesn’t intend to state as much, but he really doesn’t spend much of his time making sure his captive audiences understand that. He seems to spend most of his time vaguely insinuating, with plausible deniability of course, that life can’t originate.


Well that was a very interesting conversation. I wonder what the forum thinks.

Short summary - James Tour doesn’t understand, cannot comprehend, therefore OOL NEVER!!!

Pretty lame, in fact embarrassing. IMO.


I would say that rather than talking about possibility, which can be anything that can be imagined that isn’t a logical contradiction, the discussion should be about plausibility. And I think that’s what Dr. Tour’s point is, that as scientific knowledge increases, the plausibility of OOL decreases to the point of being extremely implausible. And I would say that an argument could be made that it is in fact utterly implausible.

Yes, good. This means you, like me, can “read between the lines”. All, and I do mean ALL theists I talk to who listen to or read what Jim Tour says on the topic of the origin of life, comes away with that message. That the origin of life is basically just short of impossible. He doesn’t explicitly come out and say that of course, but he will often go as close as human language permits. One could be forgiven for thinking this is exactly what he intends to convey when religious organizations and popularizers book him to come talk to them. Imagine if he didn’t say that, why would they have him come and talk at all?

Can we all please just stop pretending that Tour isn’t doing Christian apologetics?


Well, Tour is wrong.

But it’s worse. Tour did not mention anything - not a single, solitary iota of “scientific knowledge” that even closely resembles what we know about the OOL, about the many interesting and fruitful avenues of research that tell us much (NOT everything, but a whole lot more than Tour would have his audience believe) about the OOL. He spouts off DI bullet points and rants.

I disagree (with @Jim and with @swamidass, who seemed to agree with Tour on this point).


The way I see it he’s basically laying out the facts and pointing out that it’s the OOL researchers that are making erroneous statements. If anything it seems they are the ones guilty of doing apologetics for naturalism.

@Art I did not agree that it was implausible.

Rather, I think the likelihood is indeterminate. We don’t have enough information to tell.

Even events with vanishingly low probability will take place once in a large enough universe, and the first cell has only to arise one time. Moreover, we can’t even compute that likelihood because we don’t know the process. Knowing the process, the probability may not be vanishingly low. For this reason, I do not think “implausible” is the right word nor do I think this is a useful way to analyze this particular problem.


Hi @swamidass,

I agree with your point, and would re-state things along the lines of “we cannot know the implausibility/probability UNTIL we know just what happened”.

Just to help you understand how the discussion came across, when you mentioned things like “low probability” and “large enough universe”, you come across as agreeing with Tour about this matter. Even though you don’t, this is what the audience will take away. And it is certainly what Tour will seize upon.


Hi @Jim, I think that’s the message Tour wanted to convey. However, from my seats (just a few rows behind Spike Lee and Jack Nicholson),Tour laid out no credible “facts”, and he completely misrepresented the many un-named OOL researchers, and indeed the entire field.

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Not to mention the fact that many of his complaints come down to the well-known problem with clickbaity online “science journalism”, rather than any actual problems with the research itself. But the issue here is that none of this is in any way unique to the OOL field, despite what Tour seems to imply.
Even his own field, synthetic organic chemistry, is full of grandiose popular-press assertions, where people hype and speculate their own results both in news articles and in the introductions and discussions of their published articles.

The difference is people generally don’t care as much about synthetic organic chemistry as it’s not cast in the context of a religious, social, and political conflict.

Try googling stuff like “carbon nanotube revolution” just to pick an example, and read all the grandiose hype around this Next Big Revolutionary Technology.

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Don’t we all agree that the Earth 4.5 billion years ago had no life on it and then 3.5 billions years ago we all agree that there was single celled life all over the planet? So some time during those billion years:

a) life arose by natural chemical biological processes,
b) life arose by God guided chemical biological processes, or
c) life came to Earth on meteors or asteroids.

But the fact is that Earth was lifeless once and then has had life on it that has evolved for billions of years.

Hi Jim,

I think what you say about Jim Tour is right. I don’t think he’s is engaging in Christian apologetics with his criticism of origins research. Even if he is, there are atheist/naturalist scientists who are at least as pessimistic about the whole origins of life (OOL) research project.

None of the problems Jim Tour raises are dependent on Christianity, and few of them are unique to Jim Tour. OOL researchers have already identified most of these problems, published on them, and are working to solve these problems, and/or identify scenarios where these problems no longer apply.

In my experience, OOL researchers don’t engage in ‘apologetics for naturalism’. I’m a Christian and an OOL researcher, so I certainly don’t engage in apologetics for naturalism. I rarely engage in any apologetics.


So you want me to accept your assertion that someone who is a world renowned expert in synthetic chemistry stating myriads of facts in several public articles and presentations mostly from the field of synthetic chemistry is wrong without even mentioning any specific instance of such?

If I might ask, what do you know about synthetic chemistry? And can you at least start with one instance of one of those facts that is wrong in all of the articles and presentations he has made entailing myriads of facts of why OOL research cannot even begin to claim that they have any idea of how life began out of nonlife?

Let me see if I can further clarify what I think is Tour’s position and how my position differs from his. As far as I can tell Tour is demonstrating from his experience in synthetic chemistry how, from what we know at present, the facts don’t allow for any of the proposed naturalistic mechanisms of OOL research to be plausible options.

However, he does feel that there could be a plausible naturalistic explanation, but if there is it can only be discovered with a new and radically different approach. I on the other hand, am of the opinion that by following the evidence where it leads, the only reasonable conclusion is that something supernatural had to occur in order for life to begin.

Well, I did say “if anything.” :slight_smile: I would say, though, that even if it isn’t the rule, I suspect there is some of that going on to some extent.

In fairness though @Art, in this particular exchange I was interrupted quite a bit and could not make my point for this reason. Also, the primary goal wasn’t to litigate the details but to build trust with him and his audience.

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So far I’ve only watched the first 15 minutes or so of the exchange - I had to quit because of how frustrating Tour was interrupting you over and over without adding anything to the discussion. Does it get better further along?