Dr. James Tour Tells Us How Little We Know About the Origin of Life

James Tour is a giant in the field of organic chemistry.

James Tour is a giant in the field of organic chemistry.

A few days ago, a reader asked me to review an article by Dr. James Tour, as well as a video of a talk that he gave. I was initially hesitant to do so, because Dr. Tour is a giant in the field of organic chemistry. For example, he is the T. T. and W. F. Chao Professor of Chemistry at Rice University. For those who aren’t familiar with the academic structure of universities, only the most elite professors are appointed to a position that is named in honor of someone else. This is called an “endowed professorship,” and anyone who holds such a position is in the upper echelon of academia. He has won several awards for his outstanding research accomplishments, including being named by Thomson Reuters as one of the top ten chemists in the world in 2009. Not only is his research outstanding, but he is also an excellent teacher, having earned the George R. Brown Award for Superior Teaching at Rice University in both 2007 and 2012. What could I possibly add to the words of someone so knowledgeable and distinguished?

After reading the article, however, I do think I have something to offer. Because of the nature of what he is trying to discuss, his article is very, very technical. There were times, quite frankly, when my eyes glazed over a bit. I didn’t listen to a lot of the video (it seems to cover the same ground as the article), but it is also quite technical. For those who do not have the fortitude to make it through such a technical article or talk, I thought I could summarize it.

The “take home” message is straightforward: We have no idea how some of the most basic molecules necessary for life could have been produced by unguided processes. Why does Dr. Tour feel compelled to write a detailed article making a statement that, in my mind, is quite obvious? He explains:

Those who think scientists understand the issues of prebiotic chemistry are wholly misinformed. Nobody understands them. Maybe one day we will. But that day is far from today. It would be far more helpful (and hopeful) to expose students to the massive gaps in our understanding. They may find a firmer — and possibly a radically different — scientific theory. [Note that “prebiotic chemistry” refers to the chemistry that occurred on earth before life existed.]

Now please note what he is not saying. He is not saying that we have no clue how unguided processes could produce the molecules necessary for life, therefore they couldn’t have been produced that way. He is saying that we need to be honest with our students and explain the gaping holes in our knowledge so that they can investigate it further. This may lead to us finally getting a clue, or it may lead to a new paradigm in origin-of-life research.

Of course, there is a lot more to the article. He draws on his experience as a synthetic organic chemist (a chemist who designs and makes organic chemicals) to discuss the things that nature would have to do in order to produce the molecules necessary for life. He does this by discussing a series of what I consider to be his most clever inventions: nanovehicles, which are vehicles made from just a few molecules.

These vehicles can roll around on specific surfaces, just like the vehicles we ride in. The difference, of course, is that these vehicles are incredibly tiny. Why discuss the making of nanocars in an article about prebiotic chemistry? He explains:

Designing nanoncars is child’s play in comparison to the complexity involved in the synthesis of proteins, enzymes, DNA, RNA, and polysaccharides, let alone their assembly into complex functional macroscopic systems.

In other words, by giving you a feel for how hard it is was for him and his team to make nanocars, you will get some idea of how incredibly hard it would be for nature to produce life.

Dr. Tour succeeds in this endeavor by simply giving you a realistic view of what it took for him and his team make nanocars. For example, he discusses how most of the chemical reactions in his process had byproducts that would have been harmful in subsequent reactions. Thus, purification was necessary in most of the steps. In addition, many of the chemicals that had to be made were unstable in the presence of air, sunlight, room light, or water. As a result, some steps had to be done in an oxygen-free environment, others in a dark environment, etc. His team, of course, could produce the needed environments and switch between them at will. Nature would have to do the same thing in order to make the molecules necessary for life.

If you want to get an idea of how complicated it all is, he gives the details on how he made one of the many chemicals that he needed (episulfide 37). It involved starting with a pristinely-cleaned flask, a chemical that had been made and purified in a previous step, an organic solvent (not water), and two simple chemicals. Since the reaction produces heat that would destroy the process, the flask was soaked in a very cold bath so that it wouldn’t get too hot. After that, it was cooled even more. The solution was then filtered, and the resulting liquid went through another chemical reaction that produced a solid, which was (once again) filtered. The filtered solid was then washed with alcohol and dried under vacuum.

That was how they made just one of the many chemicals they had to make in order to produce a nanocar. Temperature had to be carefully regulated throughout the process, and to make that single chemical, two separate filtering steps had to be performed. Finally, to get rid of all traces of liquid, the solid had to be dried under a vacuum.

Of course, there’s a lot more to be considered, but that gives you some idea of the complexities involved. After he gives the excruciating details of how he and his team built their nanocars, he then explains why making the nanocars was, indeed, child’s play compared to making the molecules necessary for life. He discusses how his group made their task easier (using organic solvents instead of water, for example) and points out that nature has none of those options. He also points out how producing the molecules necessary for life requires a lot more chemistry than his “simple” nanocars.

In the end, Dr. Tour makes it very clear that we truly don’t have a clue about how unguided chemical reactions between simple chemicals could ever produce the necessary molecules for life. If you are told otherwise, you are being misinformed.

25 Comments

  1. Richard Kinel says:

    Mahalo Dr. Wile. The same goes for the climate of the earth. As an operational meteorologist,
    I really get frustrated with the popular press and their pseudo-scientific enablers telling us about “global warming” or “climate change.” They discuss these matters as if anybody has a real understanding about the climate. The complexity is beyond belief.

    I really enjoy your insights. And thanks for the Ark Encounter piece. [My boys and I just visited there when we went back to the mainland to see my mother (their grandma) and other relatives and friends.]

    1. Jay Wile says:

      I agree, Richard. The failure of climate models shows us quite clearly that no one understands climate!

      What did you think of the Ark Encounter?

    2. John says:

      Hey Richard,
      I have an off topic question for you if you have a second… I’ve always had trouble accepting the explanation for 2 high tides. I was wondering if the standard explanation is readily accepted by all working scientists – http://www.physlink.com/education/askexperts/ae338.cfm
      Dr. Wile if you have anything to add, please do.

      Thanks!

      1. Jay Wile says:

        For some reason, John, your link isn’t working. I assume you are talking about this explanation. It is the standard explanation, so I assume most scientists accept it. That doesn’t mean it is correct, of course. However, it seems to be consistent with observations as well as physics. Thus, I have no reason to doubt it. Do you have something specific that makes it hard for you to accept?

        1. John D. says:

          Yes.. the same explanation.

          It’s tied in with my whole gravity as magnetism search. Just poking my nose around where I don’t really belong! I find the moon anomalous in many ways. I don’t really accept that it spins on it’s axis. I’ve read all the stuff on tidal locking but it seems an illusory explanation. I was about ready to give up and then found a paper Tesla wrote where he states it’s fact that the moon is not possest of axial momentum. It’s really interesting! If you are bored I highly recommend – http://www.teslauniverse.com/nikola-tesla/articles/moons-rotation

          p.s. just watched your youtube debate with Dr. Robert Martin – great video. Thank You! Unfortunately, after that youtube recommended “Fighting Creeping Creationism” with Bill Moyers. Yikes! Scary stuff.

        2. Jay Wile says:

          I am not sure I will get around to reading that article, John, but thanks for posting it. It is hard to understand how the moon doesn’t rotate. After all, when the moon is closest to the earth, we see 8 degrees more of the eastern side of the moon, and when it is farthest from the earth, we see 8 degrees more of the western side of the moon. That fits perfectly with the idea that the moon is rotating at a constant rate, but because its orbit is elliptical, the orbit doesn’t match up perfectly with that rate. Thus, when the moon is traveling faster (due to its proximity to earth), its rotation can’t quite keep up with its motion, so you see more of the eastern part of the moon (and less of the western part), and while it is traveling slower (due to its distance from earth), its rotation is faster than its motion, and you see more of the western side (and less of the eastern side). I don’t see how that can be explained if the moon isn’t rotating.

          Of course, even if the moon isn’t rotating, that doesn’t affect the explanation of the tides. A non-rotating moon would still produce the gravitational attraction that causes them.

          I am glad you enjoyed the debate.

      2. Bruce Rennie says:

        Good evening Jay,

        the 0 at the end of the url needs to be removed. I have read the article in question and it is not very accurate. The article you supply has far better details.

        regards

        1. Jay Wile says:

          Thanks. I fixed it.

    3. Ed Pearson says:

      If you add GHGs to the exsting GHGs in the atmosphere temperatures MUST increase. You can argue about rates etc and regional effects but the overall energy budget of the earth will increase.

      The natural greenhouse effect has raised the earths temperature some 30C and it is mainly governed by CO2. We have increased the CO2 by ~ 40%.

      Why is it difficult for some to understand the simple physics involved?

      1. Jay Wile says:

        It’s not nearly that simple, Ed. First, carbon dioxide absorbs only a narrow range of infrared wavelengths, some of which are also absorbed by water vapor. At some point, adding more carbon dioxide won’t increase the amount of heat absorbed, because all IR light of those wavelengths is already being absorbed. At that point, global temperatures will no longer be affected by increasing amounts of carbon dioxide.

        More importantly, the earth has many negative feedback mechanisms that help maintain a steady temperature. As more carbon dioxide is added to the atmosphere, those negative feedback mechanisms become more important. Once again, then, rising carbon dioxide levels don’t necessarily mean increasing temperatures.

        The problem we have right now is that some scientists want to treat this as a simple physics problem when it is anything but simple!

        1. Bruce Rennie says:

          Good evening Jay,

          Just a note about CO2 absorption of heat. A set of experiments were undertaken at the University of Melbourne many years ago which showed a leveling off of temperature against increasing levels of CO2. The findings and the experiment details were published at the time. I can’t give you any further details as I can no longer find the relevant report.

        2. Jay Wile says:

          It’s too bad you can’t find the report. I would love to read it!

        3. Bruce Rennie says:

          Good evening jay,

          I do have archives on CD somewhere. It may be on one of those. When I get some spare time, I’ll have to look at them again. If I do find it, I’ll let you know.

          regards

          Bruce Rennie

  2. Richard Kinel says:

    The boys (20- and 18-years old) and I really enjoyed it, but we couldn’t stay too long. We had driven down from Northeast Ohio to the site, and needed to get back that day (August 1st). We had seen the Creation Museum in 2012, and I thought it would be a hoot to at least see the Ark on this visit back to the “motherland” of Trumbull County, Ohio.

    Being a Christian and a young-earth advocate, I really believe in supporting ministries that are not ashamed of God’s Word. (I also support the Institute for Creation Research.) The Ark Encounter was fascinating, especially for the young men. Seeing the exhibits and reading the commentaries on the wall put us in a fine mood, that there are still people whose foundation for understanding and truth is Messiah Jesus and His Word!

  3. Tricia Roush says:

    Dr. Wile… Not to nit-pick, but you have a typo: “In other words, by giving you a feel for how hard it is was for him and his team to make nanocars, you will get some idea of hot incredibly hard it would be for nature to produce life.” – the word “hot” needs to be “how.”

    1. Jay Wile says:

      Thanks, Tricia! I made the correction.

  4. Wilbur Nelson says:

    What Dr. Tour demonstrates in the question of abiogenesis coupled with his experience in constructing nano cars is the insurmountable problem with evolution, writ large. Nothing of any complexity can be constructed without a target — as the saying goes in the manufacturing/tooling industry: “you have to begin well to end well.”

    The only thing that lecture needed was a mic drop at the end.

  5. Bill McClymonds says:

    I think the information given by Dr. Tour is part of a triple challenge for anyone who believes in a natural origin of life. Once a solution for the origin of life from prebiotic chemicals is explained naturally, the naturalist would have to explain the origin of the information in the DNA of that life form. After explaining the origin of information in DNA, the naturalist would have to then explain how a random process produced an arrangement of chemical elements that was capable of understanding and explaining both the assembly of prebiotic chemical elements and the origin of the information in the DNA of the first life form. That structure, of course, is the human brain.

    All three of these developments would have to occur without a target in mind at inception or any time during the developmental process. I think that makes it absurdly improbable to expect any one of them to occur naturalistically. Expecting all three to occur naturalistically is exponentially more improbable but I cannot think of a term that is stronger than absurdly improbable without declaring it totally impossible.

    I understand that wishful explanations have been proposed for all three processes but, as Dr Tour has pointed out regarding prebiotic chemistry, no one really understands how these three things could have happened when detailed scientific explanations are required.

  6. S S says:

    I oftentimes wonder if there were a third option in this debate. ID will claim it is a deity (specifically the Christian one), Neo-Darwinism will claim random chance.

    Couldnt it be something besides these two things?

    1. Jay Wile says:

      ID doesn’t make any claims about the designer, and at least one major player in the ID movement (David Berlinski) doesn’t believe in any kind of deity. He calls himself a secular Jew.

      It could most certainly be something besides these two things. For example, Dr. Thomas Nagel is an atheist philosopher, and he understands that the materialist Neo-Darwinian model cannot explain what we see today. He argues for a deep teleology in nature.

    2. Wilbur Nelson says:

      The elephant in the room is that when we try to discuss Evolution (beyond variations within species) we aren’t talking about a **thing**. There’s no specificity — no process or recipe to look to that builds systems. We could literally replace the term “evolution” with “magic.”

  7. Bill McClymonds says:

    Please correct me if it wasn’t you Dr. Wile, but I think you wrote something similar to the following question in the past. By the time you assign all of the characteristics to a natural process that would be necessary to produce life from non life, DNA, and the human mind and consciousness, wouldn’t you end up with something in nature that had most of the characteristics that we Christians would call God?

    1. Jay Wile says:

      That doesn’t quite sound like me, Bill. I do know that Simon Conway Morris (an ardent evolutionist) said something close to that:

      Francis Crick can write ‘An honest man, armed with all the knowledge available to us now, could only state that in some sense, the origin of life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle’…More than two decades on from Crick’s ruminations, however, it still remains the case that the notion of an infinitesimally unlikely series of chemical reactions – that from our perspective can be described only as a ‘near miracle’…remains the unbidden and silent observer at much of the discussion of how life originated. Yet, as Iris Fry (note 85) reminds us, such terminology is effectively that of creationism. Put this way, nearly everyone will ask that the now unwelcome guest should vanish through the adjacent wall.

      (Simon Conway Morris, Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe, University of Cambridge Press, 2005, p. 67)

      I have quoted him on that.

      1. Bill McClymonds says:

        Thanks for your correction Dr. Wile. If the quote wasn’t on your blog I’m not sure where I saw it. The person who made the comment went on to list some of the characteristics that a natural creative entity would need. I believe the person was also attributing the creation of the universe to this natural entity. The person listed characteristics such as extremely powerful, possessing some form of superior intelligence, and several other characteristics that I can’t remember.

        The point of the quote was that once you start assigning creative characteristics to any natural entity, the natural entity begins to sound a lot like God.