Re: The young age of Earth

Kevin O'Brien (Cuchulaine@worldnet.att.net)
Thu, 1 Apr 1999 17:20:26 -0700

KLOB: You may not be a vitalist in that you invoke vitalism, but your
"physicalism" depends heavily on vitalistic assumptions whether you
recognize it or not. You have on a number of occasions stated that there is
a wide gulf between life and non-life, despite the obvious fact that
everything we know about life and the physiochemical laws that govern it
tell us otherwise. The difference between a stone and a living cell may
appear to be obvious, but it is in fact a difference in degree, not kind.
In the final analysis, any insistence that there is life and there is
non-life and there is nothing in between is in fact a vitalistic assumption,
not an observable fact.

DJT: The major difference relates to information - the stone has specified
order whereas the cell has specified complexity.

Which means what exactly? Please define these two terms, give examples,
then explain how they compare and contrast one another. Pay particular
attention to why they are mutually exclusive.

DJT: More on this below. BTW, this is not vitalism.

Not in the classical sense, no, but it assumes a number of vitalistic
concepts, including the most basic, that there is a fundamental difference
between life and non-life. In fact, modern science has revealed that there
is no such fundamental difference.

KLOB: You have a vested interest in keeping life and non-life separate.
Fine, but all I ask is that you present some concrete evidence for this.
You have had ample opportunity to do so and yet you have so far failed to do
so. As long as you refuse to either support your claim or to use the
accepted scientific definitions, we can have no meaningful discussion.

DJT: It seems to me that we have moved some way from the burden of my
original posting on this thread. I will endeavour to respond to your
comments above, but think it appropriate to revisit some of the arguments
and to develop them somewhat.

This discussion has certainly evolved since it first started, but my main
point has always remained the same: there is no fundamental difference
between life and non-life. I have supported this by describing research in
which life has been created in a laboratory. You have yet to provide any
support for your position; all you have done is make vague references to
insufficient time and supposed difficulties. Will you finally provide some
support?

DJT: Back in 1954, George Wald estimated, in a "Scientific American"
article, that about 2 billion years was abailable for abiogenesis, and that
this was sufficient for the extremely improbable formation of a
self-replicating structure to take place. He said that "time itself
performs the miracles". This is perhaps a good starting point for this
debate. Since Wald wrote, the time available for abiogenesis has shrunk to
perhaps 550 million years, during much of which time, the earth's surface is
thought to have been bombarded with bolides. My original contribution was
to say that advocates of abiogenesis have a tighter time constraint within
which they can work.

I've explained this already, which you appear to have ignored. Back in
1954, the earliest life we had clear fossil evidence for was the Cambrian
explosion. This convinced many people that abiogenesis was difficult and
required a great deal of time in which to work. Then clear fossil evidence
of bacterial life 2, then 3, then 3.5 billion years old demonstrated that in
fact life must have arose quickly. This caused a paradigm shift in which
the same people who thought abiogenesis was difficult now believed it was
easy, even inevitable. Abiogenetic and other research has verified
this new view. As such, this "constraint" is largely an illusion caused by
your belief in the old paradigm while using the evidence that has produced
the new paradigm.

DJT: It is fair to say that Wald's perspective is not strongly held by
contemporary researchers.

That's because of this paradigm shift; even Wald would have changed his
perspective.

DJT: Instead of chemical evolution being a "chance" phenomenon, a route to
achieve it by the operation of natural laws is sought.

Even when it was considered highly unlikely, there was still an effort made
to explain it by natural laws. Chance is not a scientific substitute for
miracle.

DJT: The inference is made that if conditions are "right", the emergence of
the first living structures would be inevitable. In such a scenario, time
is not perceived as a problem: the real challenge is to identify the
"right" environment and the "right" chemicals that will allow the emergence
of life.

That is the new paradigm.

DJT: It is my view that research in this direction has not resulted in
anything that can be called a solution.

Your view is wrong; read the scientific literature. What evidence do you
have to support this claim?

DJT: Furthermore, this approach invites the debate as to whether the "law"
responsible for bringing about life is equivalent to "chemical and physical
law". This debate is about information and the genetic code.

Information in the biochemical sense and the genetic code are all governed
by physiochemical laws.

DJT: Can information be a product of "natural law"?

That depends upon how you define information; care to take a shot at it?

DJT: The problem here is that law brings order and repetition. Law
produces snowflakes and crystals, not biological information.

On the contrary, biological information could not happen without orderly,
repetitious physiochemical laws. However, you are mistaken in one sense:
the actions of physiochemical laws often produce disorder as well. Ever see
a tornado tear into a trailer park? Everything you see is being controled
by orderly, repetitious physiochemical laws, but the result is disorder, not
order.

Or are you suggesting that a tornado, under the control of orderly,
repetitious physiochemical laws, can pass through a junk yard and leave a
fully assembled and functional 747 in its wake?

DJT: Law produces specified order, whereas what we observe in living things
is specified complexity.

Again, these terms are meaningless unless you define them and explain what
importance they have for this discussion.

DJT: Until a viable mechanism to produce information is found, the "law"
route to abiogenesis will not deliver anything substantial in a billion
years, or two billion years, or three billion years.

Again, that depends upon how you define information. The information
content of a polypeptide's amino acid sequence determines the resulting
protein's function, but the mechanism by which that information is
translated into function is operated by known physiochemical laws. And the
mechanism by which the amino acid sequence is obtained can itself be random
and operated by known physiochemical laws.

DJT: I seem to have been reading books that say this for quite a long time.
It is not new - and the problems do not go away. The latest is Paul Davies.
"The fifth miracle: the search for the origin of life" (Penguin 1998).
Davies is both a theistic and a naturalistic scientist: he is seeking a
self-organising universe.

I like Davies, but he is more philosopher than scientist, despite his
training. As such, much of what he discusses is in fact untestable and does
not match the practicalities of everyday scientific research.

DJT: Quotes -- "A law of nature of the sort we know and love will not
create biological information, or indeed any information at all." (p.210)

Again, that depends upon how you define information. In point of fact
biological information cannot be produced without these very same
physiochemical laws Davies would denigrate.

DJT: Quotes -- "Since the heady success of molecular biology, most
investigators have sought the secret of life in the physics and chemistry of
molecules. But they will look in vain for conventional physics and
chemistry to explain life, for this is a classic case of confusing the
medium with the message. The secret of life lies, not in its chemical
basis, but in the logical and informational rules it exploits." (p.212)

Davies is simply wrong in this respect. He is not a biologist, biochemist
or molecular biologist, so he is unfamiliar with the research that in fact
demonstrates that life can be understood in terms of physiochemistry. He
doesn't understand that biological information in fact needs these
physiochemical laws to function. And by suggesting that there is a
fundamental difference between life and other physiochemical systems --
namely "information" -- he is advancing a vitalistic argument.

DJT: Quotes -- "Real progress with the mystery of biogenesis will be made,
I believe, not through exotic chemistry, but from something conceptually
new" (p.216).

Which has already been refuted by the advances in abiogenesis research in
the last decade alone, advances Davies seems to be unaware of.

DJT: Davies has correctly identified the problems, but is not yet able to
offer anything outside Law and Chance to address them. Consequently,
Davies' book will neither please the naturalistic scientists nor most
theistic scientists - though he, himself, has a foot in both camps.

He has nothing to offer as an alternative explanation because his point of
view is based on false assumptions. Meanwhile, abiogeneticists -- oblivious
to the fact that Davies thinks they are using the wrong approach -- continue
to make strides in establishing the physiochemical origin of life. Perhaps
he should join you in reading the scientific literature.

DJT: The quotations above serve the purpose of expressing my own
convictions regarding the status of abiogenesis research. People look in
vain for answers. The claims of success are, in my opinion, a triumph of
naturalistic dogma over science.

Don't rely on your own ignorance or the ignorance of others: read the
scientific literature.

DJT: From the vantage point of today, it is sometimes difficult for some to
assess the validity of these optimistic claims.

Hardly; just read the scientific literature.

DJT: Hence my prediction: time will show that the answers are not coming.

Your prediction has already been disproven; read the scientific literature.

DJT: Books like Davies' "Fith miracle" will continue to be written.

Undoubtedly, as long as people do not read the scientific literature and
instead rely on their own ignorance.

DJT: Fortuitously, the current issue of "Science" has a review/comment on
the book: The Molecular Origins of Life: Assembling Pieces of the Puzzle by
André Brack, Ed. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999.

DJT: The review is written by Steven A. Benner: Science, 283(26 March),
1999, p 2026. It has this conclusion: "The Molecular Origins of Life may
find its greatest value by highlighting the inadequacies of the field.
Opposing sides frequently argue past each other, failing to engage because
they use different logic and different language. Efforts to reconstruct
ancient metabolisms by picking and choosing features of modern metabolism
are often undermined by the lack of a coherent underlying strategy, and the
book contains informative examples of this shortcoming. Those who wish to
have the latest word on the "classical" approaches to the origins of life,
which have characterized the second half of the 20th century, will find this
volume worth purchasing. But let us hope that the next overview of the
subject goes farther."

This sounds like another hatchet job like Coyne's review of the Majerus
book. _Science_ has had a number of them lately. Read the book, Dave, and
make sure that you are not simply making another mistake as you did with
Coyne and Majerus.

DJT: I understand this to mean that "classical" abiogenesis research has
failed to deliver - but there are a number of exciting ideas around now
which we really are very hopeful about.

Assuming the review is even accurate; read the book, Dave, don't rely on
your ignorance or the ignorance of others.

DJT: The "bottom line" message is that at this point in time we have not
even one coherent and convincing scenario of abiogensis.

Read the scientific literature, Dave.

So, in conclusion, Dave had yet another opportunity to provide some real
evidence in support of his position, and once again refused to do so and
instead offered his usual vague notions of lack of time and supposed
difficulties, bolstered by opinions of people who have no real knowledge of
what they are discussing, simply as "authority" figures so that Dave can
claim, "See? These people believe as I do, so I must be right!"

Dave has nothing concrete to offer to this discussion, and as I explained
above with nothing concrete to discuss this debate has stalled. Dave, you
can have the last word if you wish; more than likely it will simply be more
of the same, but if you actually offer some concrete support for your
position, I will respond.

Otherwise, all I could say is what I said continuously throughout this post:
don't rely on your own ignorance or the ignorance of others; read the
scientific literature.

Kevin L. O'Brien