As many of you are aware, Dr. James Tour, who is one of the world’s top chemists, has forcefully criticized scientific models purporting to explain the origin of life. And yet, in an article titled, Origin of Life, Intelligent Design, Evolution, Creation and Faith, he writes:
I do not know how to use science to prove intelligent design although some others might. I am sympathetic to the arguments and I find some of them intriguing, but I prefer to be free of that intelligent design label. As a modern-day scientist, I do not know how to prove intelligent design using my most sophisticated analytical tools— the canonical tools are, by their own admission, inadequate to answer the intelligent design question.
Over at Evolution News and Views, Dr. Brian Miller, who is a physicist, has argued that intelligent agency was required to coordinate the steps leading to the origin of life. He wrote a series of four articles back in June 2017:
Thermodynamics of the Origin of Life
The Origin of Life, Self-Organization, and Information
Free Energy and the Origin of Life: Natural Engines to the Rescue
Origin of Life and Information — Some Common Myths
I was not satisfied with some of his arguments, so I responded in a post of my own, over at The Skeptical Zone:
That was back in June. Dr. Miller has finally responded to my article, in a new series of posts over at ENV:
I have to say that Dr. Miller has put up a strong defense of his views. A few brief quotes will serve to convey the tenor of his argument:
The bottom line is that life has higher energy and lower entropy by any definition than the molecules from which it sprang. Therefore, nature would always resist its spontaneous formation. The fact that the building blocks have to be arranged in a highly specific order could simply be added to the entropy as a configurational part. Alternatively, the probability of them coming together properly could be thought of as a separate probabilistic challenge in addition to the entropy challenge. Either way, the entropy/configurational barrier is insurmountable…
All … papers that propose solutions to the thermodynamic challenges [to the origin of life] use the same approach. They ignore nearly all practical challenges and completely disassociate their work from realistic experiments. And they assume the existence of an unlimited source of energy, an efficient energy converter (engine), and information. However, the converter and the required information must already exist before the converter could be created. The only explanation for the sudden appearance of such molecular machinery and the information is intelligence.…
No chiral building block of life (e.g. right-handed ribose) has been shown to interact with any substance to self-replicate. On the contrary, in all realistic environments mixtures with a bias of one enantiomer tend toward mixtures of equal percentages of both left-handed and right-handed versions. Goldenfeld “solved” the homochirality problem by creating an artificial world that eliminated all real-world obstacles. All simulations that purport to be breakthroughs in origins problems follow this same pattern. Conditions are created that remove the numerous practical challenges, and the underlying models are biased toward achieving the desired results…
In the same way letters combine to form meaningful sentences, the amino acids in proteins form sequences that cause chains to fold into specific 3D shapes which achieve such functional goals as forming the machinery of a cell or driving chemical reactions. And sentences combine to form a book in the same way multiple proteins work in concert to form the highly integrated cellular structures and to maintain the cellular metabolism. The comparison is nearly exact.…
The most essential early enzymes would have needed to connect the breakdown of some high-energy molecule such as ATP with a metabolic reaction which moves energetically uphill. One experiment examined the likelihood of a random amino acid sequence binding to ATP, and results indicated that the chance was on the order of one in a trillion. Already, the odds against finding such a functional sequence on the early Earth is straining credibility. However, a useful protein would have required at least one other binding site, which alone squares the improbability, and an active site which properly oriented target molecules and created the right chemical environment to drive and interconnect two reactions — the breakdown of ATP and the target metabolic one. The odds of a random sequence stumbling on such an enzyme would have to have been far less than 1 in a trillion trillion, clearly beyond the reach of chance.…
Venema was referencing the research by Michael Yarus, but he misinterpreted it. Yarus states that no direct physical connect exists between individual amino acids and individual codons. He instead argues for correlations in chains of nucleotides (aptamers) between amino acids and codons residing where the latter binds to the former. However, Koonin argued that correlations only existed for a handful of amino acids, and they were the least likely ones to have formed on the early Earth.
… [N]o physical explanation exists for the encoding of amino acid sequences into codons, nor can the decoding process either be explained or directly linked to the encoding process. Such a linkage is crucial since the encoding and decoding must use the same code. However, without any physical connection, the code must have preexisted the cell particularly since both processes would have had to have been instantiated around the same time. The only place a code can exist outside of physical space is in a mind.
I’d like to start the ball rolling by making a few quick comments of my own, and inviting others to join in:
(1) Dr. Miller’s claim that “the entropy/configurational barrier [to the origin of life] is insurmountable” strikes me as a very strong one, as it would apply equally well to any chemical precursor of life which has higher energy and lower entropy by any definition than the molecules from which it sprang.
(2) Dr. Miller’s states that all solutions that have been proposed to thermodynamic challenges to the origin of life “assume the existence of an unlimited source of energy, an efficient energy converter (engine), and information.” What kind of information is he talking about here?
(3) Dr. Miller’s criticisms of proposed solutions to the origin of homochirality are substantive, and merit a serious response.
(4) I continue to stoutly maintain, contra Miller, that sequences of amino acids in life contain functional but not semantic information. He quotes from a paper by Shen and Tuszynski, claiming that the semantic structure of a protein sequence is similar to a language structure which goes from “letters” to “words,” then to “sentences,” to “chapters,” “books,” and finally to a “language library.” But the passage he quotes undermines his claim. To be sure, the 20 common amino acids in proteins can be likened to the 26 letters of the English alphabet. But Shen and Tuszynski jump from letters to whole sentences or paragraphs, which are held to be the equivalent of protein sequences. There’s nothing in between, corresponding to words - and hence, nothing remotely like English grammar. That makes the comparison invalid, in my book.
(5) As I understand it, the probabilistic resources available to evolution have been estimated at 10^42 [apparently Dryden, Thomson & White argue that up to 4×10^43 different amino acid sequences could have been explored since the origin of life]. So when Dr. Miller writes, “The odds of a random sequence stumbling on such an enzyme would have to have been far less than 1 in a trillion trillion, clearly beyond the reach of chance,” he is factually mistaken, as one trillion trillion is “only” 10^24.
(6) I can’t comment on Dr. Miller’s claim that Professor Dennis Venema misinterpreted the research conducted by Michael Yarus. Would anyone care to comment? The point here is a crucial one, as it relates to whether we can properly speak of a genetic code, as such. Venema appears to think that this way of speaking is inaccurate, as it assumes that amino acids bind to their codon in a wholly arbitrary fashion. Miller also writes: “Koonin does reference the possibility of the evolution of the modern translation system being aided by chemical attractions between amino acids and pockets in tRNA. But he states that the sequences in those pockets would have been “arbitrary,” so they would not relate to the actual code. As a result, no physical explanation exists for the encoding of amino acid sequences into codons, nor can the decoding process either be explained or directly linked to the encoding process.” Is that a fair summary, in the opinion of readers?
(7) Astonishingly, Dr. Miller says nothing about evidence I put forward in my TSZ article against the standard genetic code having been designed: there are about 10^84 possible genetic codes. The one used by living things is in the top 1 in 100 million (or 1 in 10^8). That means that there are 10^76 possible genetic codes that are better than it. To make matters worse, it’s not even the best code in its local neighborhood. It’s not “on top of a hill,” as it were. Does that make sense, if it was designed?
Just a few thoughts. What do other readers think?