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Friday, August 1, 2014

Creating Life in the Lab

Posted by jlwile on February 26, 2011

Last year, I posted my take on Dr. Craig Venter’s amazing accomplishment in which he copied the genome of one bacterium and transplanted it into a different (but very similar) species of bacterium whose DNA had been removed. It was a marvel of biochemistry, but as I pointed out, it clearly demonstrates the impossibility of abiogenesis (the fantasy that life originated by natural processes). One commenter announced that my claim was bogus and undermined my credibility. He further said that the claim was “infantile and wrong on so many levels.”

Well, I guess there are now at least two PhD chemists whose credibilities have been undermined and who are “infantile and wrong on so many levels.” It turns out that Dr. Fazale Rana, a PhD chemist (with emphasis on biochemistry), also takes the same position in his book, Creating Life in the Lab. Indeed, the theme of the entire book is how modern developments in the attempt to make artificial life have conclusively demonstrated that life cannot the the product of strictly natural processes.

While the goal of Rana’s book is to survey all the different ways scientists are trying to produce life in the lab, he starts out his first discussion of actual laboratory results with Venter. This is probably because Venter has come the closest to producing artificial life. However, as I stated in my original post, Venter’s team had to rely on already-living cells no less than three separate times in order to produce their “synthetic” life form. As Dr. Rana states in his discussion of Venter’s results:

Though not their intention, Venter and his colleagues have provided empirical evidence that life’s components and, consequently, life itself must spring from the work of an intelligent Designer. (p. 46)

After discussing Venter’s work, Rana spends some time discussing other (less successful) approaches to making synthetic life. As a part of that discussion, he talks about DNA, and he makes this interesting point regarding any attempt to understand how the genetic code itself evolved:

Biophysicist Hubert Yockey determined that natural selection would have required exploration of 1.40×1070 different genetic codes to hit upon the universal genetic code found in nature. Yockey estimated 6.3×1015 seconds as the maximum time available for the code to originate. Natural selection would have had to “evaluate” roughly 1055 codes per second to find the code. (p. 68, emphasis his)

So even under the scientifically-irresponsible assumption of an old earth, there simply isn’t the time for the genetic code to have evolved.

Rana spends the majority of time in his book talking about the various means by which people have tried to imagine that life could have been formed by natural processes. As has been detailed in many other books, this area of research has met with nothing but miserable failure (see here and here, for example). In that sense, then, Rana covers very little new ground. However, he does bring up some good insights along the way.

Some of his most interesting comments are related to the various International Society for the Study of the Origin of Life (ISSOL) meetings he has attended over the years. For example, early in the discussion of how scientists have tried to recreate abiogenesis, he talks about the famous Miller-Urey experiment that showed some of the simplest biologically-relevant molecules could be produced from conditions similar to those thought present on the early earth. Later on, he talks about the chief scientist involved in those experiments (Stanely Miller) at the 2002 ISSOL meeting:

With Miller seated at the front of the room in the place reserved for his wheelchair, the conference chairman pointed out in his introductory remarks that Miller’s work could no longer be considered relevant. (p. 123)

While Rana talks about how heartrending that must have been for Miller, I immediately thought, “If the current origin-of-life community has known since 2002 that Miller’s work is not relevant to the origin of life, why does nearly every high school biology book still discuss it as if it is relevant?”

Another interesting report from the 2002 ISSOL conference continued Rana’s theme of how current origin-of-life research is simply confirming that life needs a designer:

I had the pleasure of attending [James] Ferris’s opening lecture…I was deeply impressed with the amount of work his group had done…During the question-and-answer session, Robert Shapiro, a well-known origin-of-life researcher in his own right…summarily dismissed decades of work, asserting that Ferris’s research efforts…had provided elegant proof of intelligent design. Shapiro’s comments were about as unwelcome as someone cursing out loud at a church service. (p. 155, emphasis mine)

Of course, Shapiro was right. Ferris’s lab has done incredible work related to whether or not clays could be involved in the origin of life, but all his systematic studies show is that even many of the basic chemicals of life can only be formed by forethought and design.

Probably the most powerful part of Rana’s book comes when he is discussing the problems that origin-of-life researchers have when trying to produce (from scratch) enzymes, which are proteins that act as catalysts, speeding up chemical reactions that would otherwise be too slow to support life. He first discusses all of the careful steps that must be followed in order to attempt to produce enzymes in the lab from scratch. Then, he discusses one of the “successful” projects, which managed to produce an enzyme that catalyzed a certain non-biological chemical reaction. He notes that after all the hard work and careful laboratory protocols:

…the enzyme operated with ten thousand to a billion times less efficiency than enzymes typically found in living systems…If it takes this much work and intellectual input to create a single enzyme from scratch, is it really reasonable to think that undirected evolutionary processes routinely accomplish this task? And with far superior capability each time an enzyme emerged in nature? (pp. 93-94)

Obviously, it is not. As Rana makes clear in his book, if modern origin-of-life research has taught us anything, it is that life cannot be the product of natural processes. It must have been designed.


6 Responses to “Creating Life in the Lab”
  1. Josiah says:

    “it is that life cannot be the product of natural processes. It must have been designed.”

    I disagree. It is neigh impossible in many cases to demonstrate that something is impossible. It reminds me of the extreme example of a friend who pursued the argument that she was an Elf, and challenged me to disprove it. NB it doesn’t actually sound quite so ridiculous in consideration of the old legends of the fairy changeling. Granted respect and friendship limited the level of arguments I could really resort to in that case, but even without that factor it is a surprisingly defensible argument to hold because it forces negative arguments.
    In such an argument the obvious response is to lay out evidence for a contrary positive assertion–demonstrate the girl’s humanity, or in the real topic at hand demonstrate that God made the world. This is not your position here however, which has God win by default because you say “life cannot be the product of natural processes” therefore….

    The alternative is to show that the argument simply does not work. This is difficult however where your opponent can retreat into relative mystery**–the shrouds of legend surrounding elves for example, or as we already mentioned moving the origin of life into space. This is the trick that disappointed me the most in the Blind watchmaker, wherein Dawkins simply made up numbers about the number of life supporting planets and the probability of absiogenesis–possible because we do not have that sheer scale of data about other planets to prove otherwise. This (proof on inconsistency) too is not the argument you present here. Instead you want to prove impossibility by shifting the burden of proof, making them prove that it can be done. This is fair play in a debate, but they could as easily say “prove that God exists.” And we can’t, because they won’t listen. Furthermore…

    The failure of the one group doesn’t show that the task is impossible. To paraphrase Edison it just shows (another of) 10,000 ways that (probably) won’t work. The argument “life isn’t produced in the Venter experiment by natural processes; therefore it must have been designed.” is clearly a false dilemma fallacy.

    ** Incidentally I don’t doubt that this is actually the biggest annoyance for evolutionists trying to argue with a creationist, hence Dawkins’ Ultimate beoing 747 argument which comes down to “stop postulating a super-powerful super-intelligent lifeform before you can create life.”

  2. jlwile says:

    Josiah, I think you are missing both my point and Rana’s. We are not saying the failure of one group (or even the failure of 1,000 groups) shows that abiogenesis is impossible. We are saying that by looking at the methods used by any group that has even limited success, we can learn about the minimum requirements for life. The things all the groups that have even limited success have in common is that they use an enormous amount of forethought, a lot of preplanning, and intricate design. Even then, they do not come close to making life. This tells us that life without forethought, preplanning, and intricate design simply is not possible.

  3. Josiah says:

    They have forethought planning and intricate design. They may however lack worlds upon worlds of raw resources, billions of years to try combinations, unique starting positions from stellar or nebulous conditions, and so on.
    Can you state for sure that the limiting factor may not be one of these? Is a minimum requirement perhaps not the intelligence available but some other resource, or more likely take the economist’s world and require a combination of many resources. Furthermore is it not possible that some resources can substitute for others as there are in fact numerous ways to potentially cook up life much as a factory could replace labour with machines?

    You can show that each proposal is infeasible (Miller) or irrelevant (Venter), but cannot by that means show that absiogenesis cannot occur. You therefore still have a false dichotomy unless you can rubbish every possible proposal.

  4. jlwile says:

    In terms of raw resources, the experiments have more. Indeed, Miller’s experiments are deemed irrelevant because they use chemicals that are now thought not to have been available on earth earth, and they still couldn’t produce life. Those who are making enzymes from scratch use much more than what would have been available on early earth (or the early universe as a whole), and they are still woefully inefficient.

    There might be some different starting positions or conditions out there, but they won’t get over some of the hurdles that origin-of-life and artificial life experiments have demonstrated. For example, Venter’s experiments (far from irrelevant in origin-of-life) show how hard it is just to PIECE parts of DNA together to get a working genome. They couldn’t do it at all, even with all their sophisticated equipment. They had to enlist the aid of living yeast cells to get the job done. It’s things like this that show no amount of time or unique conditions will get over the hurdle of going from nonliving chemicals to living things.

    I think if you read the book, this will become more clear to you.

  5. Josiah says:

    Is the book this one as per the title of the post?

    I still do not, fundementally, believe that failure (one time or a thousand) implies impossibility. Nor do I believe that success with one route (using life) implies that that is the only possible route. Essentially I cannot accept inductive logic to prove a negative.
    However as you point out I’ve not read the book, so I’ll leave that argument unless/until I’ve done so.

  6. jlwile says:

    Yes, that’s the book. Once again, Josiah, it is not failure that implies impossibility. The heroic steps necessary to get to limited success indicate details of the structure of life that make it clear that life cannot be formed by unguided, natural processes.

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