This is a discussion between me, one of the world’s most renowned physiologists, Denis Noble, and Lee Cronin who is from the University of Glasgow. He is one of the leading research chemists in the world and is increasingly involved in Origin of Life research. Here, we outline some of the unsolved problems and Lee Cronin gives an overview of his approach. Lee indicated that he believes he has solved the information problem and can win the Evolution 2.0 Prize. We await his submission. Meanwhile, enjoy this cordial and wide-ranging conversation.
For Perry Marshall’s Evolution 2.0 Prize: https://evo2.org/
For Lee Cronin: http://www.croninlab.com/
For Denis Noble https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denis_Noble
For more faith debates and extra resources visit http://www.premierchristianradio.com/Shows/Saturday/Unbelievable
Justin Brierley: Good afternoon and welcome along to Unbelievable. This is Justin Brierley. We have a really interesting edition of the show today. “How on earth did life begin?” we’ll be asking, and I’ll be introducing my guests in a moment’s time.
This is the program that brings Christians and non-Christians together for conversations that matter, every Saturday afternoon here on Premier Christian Radio and around the world via our podcast. You can find more episodes at PremierChristianRadio.com/unbelievable, and you can also find links there to our YouTube channel as well, and today’s show available as a video too. If you’re not subscribed to the YouTube channel, go and do that because you’ll join thousands of people who are doing that these days, and watching these shows on video as well.
Can chemistry crack the mystery of the origin of life? That’s our question today. How on earth did life begin? We’re quite literally asking that question on the show. How did inorganic chemicals in the primordial soup of early earth become living systems capable ultimately of developing into human intelligence?
Three distinguished guests with different perspectives join me on the show today. They’re all keen to find an answer to this. I’m going to be joined by on the show today. He’s Regis Chair of Chemistry at the University of Glasgow. He and his research team have pioneered new chemical experiments, seeking to effectively sort of fast-forward the conditions on earth that may have gotten life going. He’s going to explain why he believes that understanding chemistry is the key to this mystery.
is a noted Oxford biologist who’s been critical in some ways of the neo-Darwinian view of evolution. Three years ago he organized a exploring new third-way trends in evolution, and he’s got an interest in this area.
is the person responsible for bringing this show together today. He’s got a background in computer science and he’s something of an entrepreneur, and he believes that understanding where biological information came from is the key to the origins problem. He’s established a for anyone who can crack the mystery of how life got started.
Can we find a purely naturalistic explanation for the start of life? Is there maybe room for a guiding hand beyond merely physical processes? That might come into our conversation. I’d be very interested to hear the perspective of my three guests on the show today, so welcome along, Lee, Denis, and Perry.
Perhaps Perry, we’ll begin with you because you sort of suggested this meeting of minds today. Do you want to tell us about the problem first of all, the origin of life issue, and about this big cash prize you’ve organized for anyone who can crack it?
Perry Marshall: I went down the rabbit hole of “Where did life come from?” about 15 years ago and I started investigating evolution, and I found that while evolution was an incredibly complex and detailed subject, where did life come from was actually much simpler. It was simpler in the sense that nobody knows where it came from. There’s lots of stories and there’s lots of theories.
In fact, one time I was listening to an NPR program and Richard Dawkins was on. Somebody called in on the phone and they said, “So where did life come from?” and Dawkins said:
“It was a happy chemical accident.”
I listened to that and I thought, “Did he actually say that? Does he actually expect us to believe that that’s a scientific theory?” He was a “professor of the public understanding of science,” and I felt it was really an anti-scientific answer. I started reading origin of life books and I was disappointed at the lack of rigor, and their willingness to just kind of go along with a certain amount of fiction.
On the other side I was very sympathetic towards the intelligent design view and I really embraced that for a while. I had a great “God of the gaps” argument, but over time I started to feel that if you just said “God did that and that settles it” you haven’t really settled anything, and you’ve really damaged science as well because a scientist can’t say, “Well, God did it. Let’s put that in a paper and let’s go out to lunch.”
So what I decided to do was create a technology prize, because these kinds of prizes have been very successful in other fields. They brought a huge breakthrough in space flight, for example. I said, “Let’s put money on this thing and let’s get people really trying to solve it.”
Justin: It’s fascinating. Perry, you’re the kind of guy who I can just see instigating this kind of a search and putting some money behind it. Denis, you’ve endorsed this prize yourself. You’re one of the judges as well. Tell us a little of your background firstly and why the origin of life issue has become such an object of fascination to you.
Denis Noble: I will start by making a very simple factual observation. I suspect that many of your listeners will think that life depends entirely on DNA. That’s one of the molecules that contributes to our genetic inheritance.
I’ll tell you an interesting fact. If I could take the complete DNA out of one of your cells and I put it into a petri dish – that’s the kind of dish that people use to study bacteria and other little bits and pieces – so we put it there with as many nutrients as you wish, I could keep it for 10,000 years and it would do absolutely zilch. DNA as a molecule is one of the most inert.
RNAs, which are formed from the DNA template, they’re more interesting. They can actually be catalytic, as the chemist will say. They can actually make two molecules interact with each other faster than they would otherwise do. That’s a key. You need that to have any living system, to make things go in a particular kind of way.
What that means to me is that it’s extremely unlikely and really unbelievable that DNA was there at the beginning. That’s one of the reasons why just incidentally I think your other guest, Lee Cronin, is on the right track by not starting with DNA but starting with what are called polypeptides. These are little molecules connected together called amino acids. Let’s not worry too much about the technical language. The key to them is they’re very good catalysts if their shape is right, so I think he’s right starting that way.
Justin: We’ll obviously dig into this as we go along. I want to sketch out the big picture first of all for listeners of what’s at stake here and why this has obviously foxed so many people up till now.
Lee, it’s great to have you on the program today. I should say when you walked into our studio you were like, “Oh, it’s a Christian radio station, is it?” If that wasn’t made entirely clear in our previous correspondence I apologize, but I take it you don’t have any religious views yourself or faith to speak of, in that sense?
Lee Cronin: No. I’m a scientist. I like evidence and I like to have discussions where I can have arguments about evidence. That doesn’t mean I don’t dismiss people who don’t argue with evidence, but that’s a different system.
Justin: I’m all in favor of evidence too, as a Christian.
Lee: I have many Christian friends who are brilliant scientists. Being religious doesn’t stop you from using evidence. It just means that you have another belief system there as well.
Justin: But maybe not specifically scientific evidence, I suppose.
Lee: Sure. I mean we all have belief systems, whether we declare them or not, which was part of our discussion earlier. I think this whole question is really interesting because of course there is a mystery. We’re kicking things down and I would like to make a couple assertions or a couple of comments.
There is evidence that there was a thing called the Big Bang. We can argue about that, and that after that Big Bang there was stuff in the universe and that energy crystallized, if you like, into hydrogen. That hydrogen then crystallized into stars. Those stars burned, exploded, and produced carbon, and that carried on, which produced some heavy elements, and we have some planets and the material on those planets turned into biology.
I would like to make an assertion. I agree with Perry about being annoyed and confused by the assertion that life was a happy chemical accident. I can tell you that if we haven’t proven it yet – and I think we might have already done this in the lab – to say the emergence of life in chemistry is as inevitable as the emergence of stars in a universe where there’s matter.
Now, we understand that gravity produces stars. Now we need to understand, what is the gravity in chemistry that produces life? And that is partly what I’ve come here to tell you about today. It’s really exciting because we’ve had some breakthroughs in the last few weeks actually, and I want to push Perry on the criteria for the prize.
Justin: So you think you’re in with a chance of this $10 million dollars, do you?
Lee: Oh, I think we’ll win it if he’s willing to give it. [laughing] But that’s a discussion we can have, and I’m really excited. I take my hat off to Perry. He’s seen a gap, identified a problem, and I’m going to take that prize at face value and try to do my best to win it.
Justin: We’ll get Perry back on about that in a moment’s time. Just sketch out the big picture here because a lot of people assume – and maybe they learned this in GCSE Biology or something – there was some kind of primordial soup billions of years ago on the surface of earth, chemicals swimming around, maybe bolts of lightning going off, and somehow something happened and poof! You’ve got your first very simple cell or something swimming around in the ocean. That’s my GCSE vague recollection of what might have been explained as how life got here.
Is that view essentially correct or fundamentally wrong? What’s the big problem that people have and why they haven’t, up till now at least, been able to give a naturalistic scientific explanation for how all those bright bits got together to create life?
Lee: You’re not wrong. Your GCSE Chemistry is not too bad at all, but planet earth wasn’t just this magic melting pot of magical chemicals. It’s the same planet now but it’s got life on it. The problem we have of looking for origin of life is that it’s already populated by our current biology.
So cells emerged and created an ecosystem and there’s DNA and RNA and bacteria all over the planet, and they’ve terraformed the planet, from bacterial mats in the ocean to human beings burning forests, building airplanes and runways, so it’s very difficult to go back and ask “Where did life come from?” when life is polluting, so that’s the first point.
The second point is I would say there is nothing magical about the emergence of life. It’s really simple. What we’ve got to try to do – and again coming back to the prize and the idea of where does information come from – a universe is about life, a universe is about information. I think Perry and I really agree on that point, but I’ll let him comment on that in a moment.
So what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to produce a chemical system that produces its own context. I don’t like that word, and your listeners are probably like, “What do you mean by that?” What happens is the chemistry is random until a chance event – and that’s not a lucky event, but that means an improbable event on a probability distribution, like if I play cards I might get a Royal Flush, but I’d have to calculate how long I’d have to play randomly.
Once I’ve got that Royal Flush, that Royal Flush doesn’t mean anything to anyone unless I’m playing cards. But suddenly if that Royal Flush itself created a player to recognize a Royal Flush, you have a feedback loop.
So actually, when you then remove the need for magic random, it’s any random. Any random event gets trapped in a bubble in a rock, and that then allows another random event to be slightly less random because of what’s in that rock, because basically you’ve taken a coin and you’ve weighted it so you get slightly more heads than tails. Then that coin is able to make other coins slightly more heads than tails. Before you know it, you’re only flicking heads.
What you can do is you can do a model and show, “How many times do I need that to happen before I always go from heads and tails even to always getting heads?” That type of discussion is how we create experiments to create life.
Justin: So this is essentially what your experiments are trying to model – kind of flipping that coin however many times?
Lee: And not just that. What we’re showing in the lab is that we can have random chemicals that emerge that make their own code, but then that code is only a code if they can read it. If Denis starts writing and he’s writing in an odd language here I don’t recognize, but if suddenly I’m able to start reading that language and I can decode it, we’re onto something.
Justin: How are your experiments different from the Miller-Urey experiments of the 1950’s, where they basically put chemicals and put electric currents through them and said, “Oh look, we’ve produced some proteins”? I think that was by-and-large discredited, if I’m not mistaken?
Lee: It’s not discredited. Basically people were saying the Miller-Urey experiment was like the negative pole of a battery that was reducing, and we need a positive pole as well where it’s oxidizing, and there’s lots of arguments about that.
I think again Perry and Denis are right that there’s lots of anthropomorphic kind of “We want to basically make life in our…” – and I would also back Denis down a bit and say it’s even nothing to do with amino acids. What’s going in my lab, there’s one important thing that we’re doing, and we’re adding history. What we’re doing is Miller-Urey-like experiments, but we’re remembering what happened. All that biology is is chemistry with history.
Right now we are forced to use DNA as our tape. What we’re doing in the beginning is showing how we can use the soup to remember itself, and that’s very inefficient and it loses memories and forgets things, but over time it becomes better at remembering. If you’re better at remembering you persist. You don’t get erased when a comet hits you or whatever else is going on on earth. And before you know it, you’ve emerged your own error-correction system for your code.
Justin: Before I bring Denis back in, Perry, what do you want to say to this? Firstly, are you willing to give this money out if the conditions are met? And do you think Lee is getting along the right lines? He says at the end of the day it’s actually quite a simple problem. It’s not as complex as people make out.
Perry: The prize money is quite real. We’ve got a group of investors who have signed in blood that they’re going to write big checks, and the net worth of the investor group is actually about a billion dollars, so the money is not a problem. Really our biggest problem is just not getting enough applicants and not getting enough word out there about what we’re doing.
I like what Lee is doing. Lee, I really enjoyed your paper about pathway assembly, which is where you are recognizing that information is a core entity to the whole process of life. I like Sarah Walker, of course, who you co-authored that paper with.
Just for everybody’s benefit, what pathway assembly says is there’s a certain minimal set of instructions necessary to assemble chemicals in certain orders and certain sequences. Since biology is the only known source of agency, then if there is a discernible pathway assembly then therefore there’s agency involved.
Denis and I have had a lot of conversations about how this prize is really a search for the origin of agency or the ability of a system to act in its own self-interest. Lee and I met in Santa Fe at a Santa Fe Institute event and we had a really great conversation. Lee, when I read your work I feel like I’m dealing with somebody who doesn’t feel the need to excessively fictionalize or romanticize what they’re doing, and I really appreciate that.
Justin: Denis, what’s your view overall of Lee’s project here?
Denis: First of all, I like the way he put it because he started with that very improbable event, a Royal Flush I think you called it, and I like that idea because it’s not saying that the nature of that arising is completely unbelievable. It’s just saying it has a certain probability.
I like the second thing he went on to say, because I would describe what he was then talking about, how you move from extremely low probability to very high probability, possibly getting your tails all the time or your heads all the time. I call that harnessing the stochasticity. That’s a long phrase. Harnessing is like you harness a horse. It controls it.
The big difference between people like me and the neo-Darwinists who propose that there’s chance and then just selection by natural selection is that I think that chance is used, and it’s used by biological systems, and you can prove that. Our immune systems are doing that now as we talk.
If a new invader comes and invades our body – another virus or bacterium that we haven’t met before – what do we do? We start playing around with the chance down in a particular region of our genome to create the antibody to that invader.
Justin: My understanding – and forgive me, I’m certainly the layperson in this conversation – was that you kind of have to have a DNA or something like that for evolution to begin. You’ve got to have that in place for mutations and whatever to then be able to play into the system, but you’re shaking your head at that, Lee. What have I got wrong there?
Lee: I think the really interesting thing about evolution and life is we don’t know what they are yet. We have a little bit of how they work. We know what evolution is in the context of biology. It’s a bit like flight. If you could imagine a world without airplanes or helicopters and you said to somebody, “What is flight?” they would look at a bird and say, “Well, that’s flight,” or a bee or maybe a hot air balloon. But now for me a successful flight is getting on a plane at Heathrow and maybe ending up, if I’m going to Arizona, in Phoenix on a 747. Flight is defined by a machine that can do work to create lift, so we actually then have a theory for that.
The problem we have right now is we don’t really have a theory for the emergence of evolution, but we have a theory of evolution that operates when we already have a memory, and that memory is basically DNA. Actually, evolution doesn’t happen in DNA, it happens in cells, in populations. I think that’s something that the population biologists have really taught me. So now I have a population of molecules. Those molecules are in different states. Those molecules are partitioned in and out of a cell.
I make salad dressing a lot in my lab, and that salad dressing is probably the most important thing for the origin of life. It’s oil in water. What happens when you shake oil and water? You get bubbles formed spontaneously. Some molecules can dissolve in those bubbles in different ways, and each bubble has a different set of molecules in them, and you can fingerprint that using a device, similar to how you’d maybe test your blood to look at.
If every droplet is different, some you have individuals. If individuals are now interacting in those droplets all bashing around in that salad dressing they can compete with each other, they can cooperate together, and they can start to record stuff.
Justin: But we’re still talking at this point about inorganic chemistry, right?
Justin: And I suppose the thing I’m trying to get my head around is it feels like there’s a big difference between a kind of chemical which has no sort of teleology – it just is what it is – and a system which kind of has this trajectory to start replicating and what we call life.
Lee: That’s a really important point you’re making. Teleology is a word I only learned a few months ago, but actually I now know what it means so I can retort to you. I would say if I design a fork to pick up something I know it’s a fork, but if I observe a fork arising, I look at the pathway assembly of the fork and say, “Well, actually it’s below my threshold.” It could have emerged, but an agency built that fork and I can discern a number of features.
What I mean is chemistry is at the border between ateleological, if that’s a word, and teleological systems. When the chemistry is able to create, it basically is able to affect itself in the future, that then becomes teleological.
Justin: Right. It crosses over from inorganic to organic.
Lee: Exactly, and that’s really the exciting discovery we’re trying to make, that Perry wants to pay for, not just my lab but anyone’s lab competing. He wants to see, and I’m putting this precisely so he can challenge and Denis can challenge, a self-generating system that is teleologically generating objects.
What you’re saying is, “Oh boy, DNA, we’re convinced it evolves, but how did that happen?” I would say evolution occurs firstly in bubbles. Imagine a massive system of disorganized chemistry persisting. As that persists over time it has to compress those features and stop errors creeping in. What happens over time is polymers get formed.
What is a polymer? A polymer is when two ping-pong balls, if you like, are able to come together and rather than bounce off one another they connect and then there’s two ping-pong balls connected together, so you have double the information before and so on, and you get the sort of daisy-chaining.
Justin: It’s extraordinary. In a way it sounds like what you’re saying is if it’s possible for life to arise, it will arise, effectively.
Justin: There’s a kind of principle at work by which that’s the direction things will go, if the physical conditions are simply possible.
Lee: I’m pretty sure by the end of my academic career, if not earlier, we’ll show that the emergence of life is inevitable as a discovery of extra planets.
Justin: You’re a confident man, and I guess you need to be when you’re dealing with these kinds of areas. It’s like you believe you’ve got the theory and you’re going to follow it through.
Lee: The only belief system I have, I guess, is the belief that chemistry is not magic, so I’m believing there’s nothing magic in chemistry. I’ve got to set up those experiments and look at the emergence.
Justin: Just before we come back to Denis, Perry, you said this is all about agency ultimately, and information. Do you think that Lee has got this right, that there is this kind of simple principle that if the conditions are right, life will happen because there’s this – and I’m not expressing it well here, but the teleology will kind of kick in as the different ways in which it can be expressed are found in all these different combinations? What’s your view on that, Perry?
Perry: I don’t know. I’m open to the possibility that this exists, and I’m open to the possibility that Lee can prove this, and I’d love to see it happen. So far it appears to me, as far as I can tell, that whatever makes life happen or whatever makes information happen is akin to some other law of physics that we’ve never understood.
Lee and Sarah’s paper talks about that. Paul Davies and Sarah have done all kinds of work around that issue. Denis contributed to a book called From Matter to Life, where they explore that question. So I’m open to the possibility that Lee can figure this out.
Lee, as far as I can tell, if you figure this out, then you’re the next Nicola Tesla or Albert Einstein and this is the next E=mc2 because it seems to me that it’s something entirely different than what we currently understand.
Justin: Quite apart from the Evolution 2.0 prize, I think the person who cracks this is open for a Nobel Prize. This is big stuff.
I love it when I get to sit down with people who are just experts in their field. My job is to try and bring it down to the level of the ordinary layperson, and I hope we’re doing that for you on the show today as we talk about the origin of life. How on earth did life begin? That’s quite literally the question, because at some point life started on earth, but we’re still trying to work out what happened because it presents a lot of problems.
A lot of people have said the probabilities are just so astronomical that it’s very hard to see some kind of naturalistic explanation, but Lee Cronin, who joins me on the program today, says no. Understand the chemistry, that’s the key, and he’s doing the experiments which he says are going to win the Evolution 2.0 $10 million dollar prize that Perry Marshall and Denis Noble have come in to talk about today.
Denis, you’ve obviously been working on this yourself on the sidelines, to some extent. What is going on? We’ve heard lots of different words here – teleology, which essentially means a sort of purposeful process, and agency, which is the same sort of idea, information, and of course the chemical processes as well.
Can you frame this in a way that is perhaps helpful for the listener, as to what you think is at the center of this enigma that is the origin of life?
Denis: I think I’m going to do that by first using the title of your program, which I believe is Unbelievable. I’m going to make a very unbelievable statement – at least I think it would be unbelievable both to neo-Darwinists and to most of your listeners, and that is the very existence of DNA requires teleology first.
That may seem very strange because many of those who believe the idea that DNA is the center of life – it’s what directs the whole process of producing the organism, which I’m afraid is untrue – it’s actually a complete cell which is the beginning of life, but let’s leave that to one side for a moment.
What I mean by DNA requires teleology first is it’s an incredible process, the way in which cells handle our DNA. When the DNA is copied to be contributing to two cells in a cell dividing, which is an essential part of the development of the organism, then what you find is that the natural error rate in that copying is very high. It’s 1 in 10,000 of those ping-pong balls that Lee described. Imagine 10,000 of them and you get an error. It might seem very rare, but we’ve got 3 billion ping-pong balls so that is over 100,000 errors. No organism would be able to survive that.
So what does it do? The cell comes along and it corrects those errors, and from 1 in 10,000 you get 1 in 10 billion. It’s extremely good because genomes are therefore copied completely faithfully.
Why do I say that requires teleology first? The cell is a teleological structure. It ‘knows’ – and I use that word advisedly – how to copy itself. That’s what Lee is trying to do in creating the chemical conditions….
Justin: But he’s taking it back a step to the inorganic.
Denis: Indeed so, and I respect that and I like that, but I’m just establishing first that it cannot be the case that DNA, as we know it today, was there at the beginning. First of all it’s inert. It needs activating by the rest of the system to do anything at all. Second, it has this terrible error rate, which our cells correct all the time.
Justin: So you need the cell for the DNA to be worth doing anything with.
Denis: Absolutely so, and that’s why I say DNA requires teleology first.
Justin: In that sense, if teleology is there to start with – now, as you say, the neo-Darwinists will say you’re putting the cart before the horse because you’re introducing something that seems a little bit mystical almost at the outset….
Denis: But I don’t think teleological is mystical.
Justin: You’re shaking your head at that, Lee, so go ahead.
Lee: Actually I don’t think Denis’s statement is unbelievable at all. In fact, it’s entirely amenable to what we’re trying to do in the lab. I really share Perry’s frustration in looking at the origin of life and reading those books. Everyone is trying to make a soup that magically comes up with DNA, RNA, or simple proteins. It isn’t going to happen because it’s an information catastrophe.
Perry alluded to a paper that I’ve written that talks about a threshold where we’re looking for living systems. What that paper is allowing us to do is make a life emergence detector. Basically I’ve made a detection system that allows me to spot flight when I haven’t yet invented a flying plane. The Wright brothers only went a few hundred yards in a wooden thing with some bicycle pedals. You’re not going across the ocean in that.
So what I’m trying to find out is the lineage of chemistry that makes the most primitive rubbish machine that isn’t a machine, it’s a random ensemble, but as soon as that random mess is able to copy itself – and we’ve actually got one, I’m just publishing it right now – a salt that makes itself, actual table salt that can self-replicate from nothing.
Think about that for a second. Not only can it self-replicate, but its children are just ever so slightly more complicated than the parents, but not so complicated that they’re impossible to get. If you carry on making those templates, if you like, you start to get towards the sophistication of DNA without requiring…
Justin: What’s happening there? Because inevitably we tend to anthropomorphize this salt as though, “Oh, the salt wants to do this and it’s going to….” and that’s unhelpful, isn’t it.
Lee: What I’m trying to get is the emergence of anthropomorphic behavior in a completely different way, and that’s nice. It’s almost like metaphysics squared. It’s like the metaphysics of metaphysics, or the politics of the politics of the B words.
What I mean is that Denis and Perry are both right that DNA is a ludicrous molecule to expect to spontaneously form. That’s not actually good evidence for a creator. It’s evidence for other primitive living systems that no longer exist on earth.
It’s a bit like the lineage of computers. I’ve been designing computers all my life, but if I was to obliterate all the computers on earth right now we’d have a problem, because we need a computer to build a computer. So I would ask “What is the simplest computer I can use to build a slightly more sophisticated computer, to build a more sophisticated computer, so I can make silicon chips again,” and I get all the way back.
That is exactly what we need to look at with DNA, which is what is the simplest machine that makes another machine that makes another machine, that ends up with DNA.
Justin: My stupid question at the base of all this is when this simple salt molecule effectively reproduces, and some of its children become slightly more complex salt molecules, and then the complexity kind of builds and builds, why? What’s the benefit of that happening?
Lee: This is where the new physics comes in. If you go back to the big bang and I write down the equations of physics, you’d say you know how the universe would unfold, yet none of those equations predict life. That’s really infuriating probably to Perry, to Denis, and myself.
What we’ve found is that there is a missing phenomenon which I’ll call assembly. What happens is the universe likes to assemble things. You can see that on Jupiter’s spot. You can see that in hurricanes.
What the salt is doing is it happens to find the motif that fights against error. When the wind blows the sand away, because it’s resistant to being blown away it can make itself cease to exist. All life is pretty boring actually when you think about it. Life is a complex chemical system that can persist over time, and if you erase it it’s no longer there and you don’t care.
What I’m saying is that salt that can make itself can recruit other salt ions to assemble, and they are now resistant to being erased.
Justin: I kind of understand that argument on the biological evolutionary side because there’s a sort of sense in which there’s a will almost in even the simplest organisms to reproduce.
Lee: No, it’s the same phenomenon. There’s a missing physics of information which connects physics and chemistry, and we try and understand the heat of the universe. That’s a really interesting problem to try to join together. There’s a lot for us, but life is not special. It’s just a manifestation of chemistry.
Not all matter is equal. I’m holding a bottle of water. I own that bottle of water. I could destroy the bottle. I could drink the water. This matter is inanimate, I’m sorry.
Justin: Yeah, it doesn’t really matter.
Lee: It doesn’t matter. So what we’re trying to ask is: What makes matter matter? That’s the informational imprint.
Justin: Perry, what do you want to say to all of this? There’s lots I’m sure you’d like to respond to.
Perry: I think the key thing that he said was there’s a missing physics of information. I am very enthusiastic about somebody who can solve this and I think this is great. I have to admit to being a little skeptical that Lee has solved it, but I’m totally open that maybe he did.
I again think this is akin to discovering a new law of physics. I think pathway assembly that he’s talking about, he’s right on track. I have to commend Lee for bridging the information and the chemistry worlds together.
At the Origin of Life meeting at the Santa Fe Institute at Stu Kauffman’s house there were like 4 or 5 chemists, 3 or 4 physicists, and some biologists. The chemists had a very different view of everything than most of the other people in the room. It was actually kind of difficult for different parts of the room to talk to each other because they were approaching it so differently. The fact that you’re doing an interdisciplinary bridge between these two fields I think is great. I’m not in a position to comment on how successful you’ve been so far, but I like the work that I’ve seen to this point.
Justin: So you’re hopeful that this might be a new way into the issue and could bear some fruit. For you, what are the sticking points? Where can you see it potentially coming unstuck, and maybe Lee can respond to that.
Since I’ve known you, Perry, and I know your views have changed over that time, but you’ve always been about the information and about the fact that you have to have information right at the beginning to be able to have something that kind of makes sense from that point on. There’s no free lunch. You can’t get information just spontaneously appear in that kind of way.
Talk to me about that issue and how it pertains to this problem, and whether Lee has a chance of kind of solving that issue for me, Perry.
Perry: Information is abstract and symbolic. The words in a book are formed from paper and ink, but they are not ink. In DNA, the genetic code GGG is instructions to make glycine, it’s not glycine. There’s a symbolic relationship, and nobody knows how to get from chemistry to symbolic relationships.
If Lee has got that, man, you’re going to get a lot more recognition than just getting $10 million dollars, and it’s really extraordinary. I have some caution that you’re making it sound too easy, but I don’t know what you accomplished in the last few weeks so I remain willing to be convinced.
Justin: Whatever that salt is, it’s not going on any fish and chips anytime soon, I suspect.
One thing that I know you’re very concerned about, Denis, is as we search the stars and the planets for the possibility that life might exist elsewhere, we obviously need to be very careful we don’t cross-contaminate with what’s already happened…
Denis: I might disagree.
Justin: What would it mean for you, Denis, if we did find even the most simple life or the building blocks of life let’s say elsewhere?
Denis: First of all, there are a lot of very important questions that are not yet clear. First of all, the code itself between the sequence of DNA and sequence of proteins we know, as Perry has already referred to, that particular triplets code for particular amino acids, an important fact about that code is its redundant. There are far fewer amino acids than there could be from that code alone. There’s only about 20, and you could easily have 32. Each of the amino acids can be coded for by more than one triplet. That’s the redundancy.
Does that really have to be there? Could there be proteins with more than 20 amino acids? I can’t see why not. And if we find life wherever in the solar system, that’s the most likely place we might find it, in addition to earth, if it has a code at all does it have just the 20 amino acids that we know of or does it in fact have no DNA at all, as I think we’re postulating in this discussion. It’s extremely likely that if there are very primitive forms of life there won’t be any DNA at all. I would like to know the answer to that question.
Justin: So if we do, it won’t necessarily look like life on earth, and you’re nodding your head in agreement with that, Lee.
Lee: Yes. The assembly paper that Perry was talking about is really for me an important concept, and I want to take two seconds, if I may, to tell you about why we need it. The Large Hadron Collider has been one of the most successful experiments done, not just because of the grandness of the science but the way it’s been communicated.
You’ve got this thing called the standard model of the universe, which we believe is correct or we say we’ve got evidence it’s correct. There’s actually some wrinkles in it, but let’s just accept that that’s pretty okay. That standard model says for gravity to exist there needs to be a particle, and that particle was called the Higgs.
So then they took the standard model and they then worked that up and did a simulation, if you like, and they worked out what energy to find it. Then they devised an experiment. They know the standard model, they’re now looking for the Higgs, they got an experiment, and all they did is they looked in that energy range, smashing particles together, and they looked for the Higgs and they found it.
“We’re going to go look for life, guys. What are we going to find?” Perry will say, “We want this,” and Denis will say, “I want that,” and Lee will say….so we say, “Damn it, we can’t actually decide on what life is.”
So if we look for objects that basically can’t randomly form, that need to have a creator – and I don’t like using the word ‘creator’ because then we get into this discussion about intelligent design, but I think actually I shouldn’t be shy about having that discussion because many of your listeners will say, “Well, hang on. I have a belief system. I want to understand why you don’t have that discussion.” But living systems tend to make stuff, be it other living systems or art work.
Take a Jackson Pollock. You know a Jackson Pollock when you see one, but the thing is if you go to Mars and you found a Jackson Pollock you’ll say, “That’s a random assembly.” Now say you find three or four objects that look really complicated but they clearly have the artist, you would know that Jackson Pollock had been to Mars for sure.
That’s what pathway assembly starts to do. It gives you a metric and then says, “There’s this thing called life. We don’t have a general theory for it, but we know there’s this thing it does,” and now we have a way of going looking for it. That’s what we’ve been doing in my group.
Justin: So if they did go to Mars and find something that was approximate to that, basically your theory would be confirmed, like the Higgs confirmed that theory?
Lee: What I would say is if you went to Mars and you found 1,000 iPhones and they all turned on and they all worked, you could only conclude that Apple had started making iPhones on Mars, or was shipping them there. You wouldn’t go, “Oh, these iPhones just randomly assembled on Mars.” That’s what I’m saying.
Justin: All right. Let’s come back to you, Denis. You say that actually you’re really interested in the search for extraterrestrial life in that way.
Denis: Yes, because I think it would answer some of the big questions of biology today.
Justin: If we went out say in our solar system and any evidence we might have access to and just couldn’t find any sign of anything approaching, would that be strongly disconfirmational of Lee’s approach, do you think?
Denis: Not necessarily. We are an extremely tiny part of the universe, even the whole solar system, though it’s vast in terms of the size of an organism like you and me. It’s still a very, very tiny bit of the whole universe.
Now, there is a theory that some forms of life can go completely dry and survive in space. It’s called the panspermia idea. I think this is close as science gets to being unbelievable, but it is a theory, a theory that’s been seriously held. It was first formulated, as far as I know, by Fred Hoyle, the astronomer, many many years ago.
Denis: That’s the idea, yes indeed, and there is evidence for that because some of the meteorites that have come down onto earth from somewhere up there – we don’t know where from – contain organic chemicals and they can contain up to 70 different amino acids. That’s 50 more than we’ve got on earth.
Justin: I’ve got a feeling this was the premise of that Ridley Scott movie, wasn’t it, where the architects come and birth life or something early on, but go on.
Lee: Let me just answer that. We’ve turned this pathway assembly idea into a life detection system that we’re making for NASA. We’ve also taken all the meteorites and analyzed them using this detection system and, yes, you can make lots of amino acids but they’re all able to be made in a random shuffle of the card deck. They’re all random molecules.
So although you can find amino acids on meteorites, they’ve just been cooked up in space. They have never touched life. They’ve never been anywhere near life. They are not life, but they might be used by life. Bacteria could eat meteorites, no problem.
Justin: So you don’t think the panspermia thing is a going…
Lee: I agree with Denis that this is almost as unbelievable as they come, and I’ve certainly seen no evidence for panspermia. However, I won’t just shoot it down because it’s improbable or impossible or because I don’t like the idea. I think it’s far easier to make life on earth than transport life from elsewhere in the universe and put it here.
I think that life might have got going on Mars, a little bit of the chemistry search, and then it kicked out the chemistry. And because Earth has got a bigger gravitational pull, Mars was an inhabitable zone earlier so it got cooking so it did the pre-course for you and chucked it on Earth where it made the main menu.
Justin: That’s an interesting theory. What do you reckon about that, Perry? Do you feel in any way like there’s a chance we could find life elsewhere? And what would that have to say to your search for the origin of life yourself, Perry?
Perry: I don’t have a strong opinion about it. I’m probably roughly similar to Denis on this, and Lee. Hey, if this happens to be the case, that’s very, very interesting. On the other hand, there’s a book probably 15 or 20 years old called ? It’s a book about “Where are all these aliens that should be so abundantly likely to occur?” I don’t have a real strong opinion.
Justin: Probably going on 10 years ago now I had Paul Davies on my show, and it was around a particular anniversary of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. He had written a book called The Eerie Silence and I remember him saying that life is at one level incredibly improbable, such that either it’s only probably developed once here on Earth or there’s some other principle at work whereby if it can arise it will arise, which kind of sounds like your principle at some level, Lee.
He was also very critical of the typical sort of “happy chance coincidence” kind of theory. He said that’s just not really a viable option.
We’re going to go to a break just shortly, but here’s a name and I don’t know if any of you have come across this. Probably Perry, you might want to speak to this. Someone who people keep saying I should get on my show to talk about this issue is James Tour, who I believe is a US professor of nanotechnology. Lee has put his head in his hands, which I guess suggests the way he feels about this name.
I’m coming to this as a layperson, but I’ve heard people saying, “, he’s your man because he knows his stuff,” and he says it just isn’t going to happen in a naturalistic fashion. There has to be some kind of design going on, an input of information right at the beginning.
Before we get to Lee, who had an interesting reaction to that name, Perry, what’s your position on Jim Tour and what he’s saying in this debate?
Perry: I admire anybody in academia who’s willing to go against the grain and call a spade a spade and say what he really thinks, because frankly I think most scientists are afraid to do so. He’s a chemist, I’m an information guy. He and I have had brief conversations. We speak different languages, so I’ll let the chemists duke it out about chemistry.
But what I would say is that a lot of origin of life people make it sound as though, “All we need to do is get a little replicator started and it’s all going to go from there,” and most of the time they’re being dishonest even about the word ‘replicator.’ If you want to replicate the way a cell does, you have to have symbolic code that stores information about how the organism is supposed to be put together, and that’s completely different than RNA strands making copies of each other, which is like crystals forming.
I’ve got to say there’s a lot of dishonesty in the origin of life field, and James Tour is saying what he thinks and I at least salute him for doing that. I’d be interested to hear what Lee has to say about the specifics. In fact, maybe Lee and James could have a debate on this show. It would be fantastic.
Justin: Maybe they could. We’re going to go to a break for now and then we’ll hear what Lee has to say about James Tour. We’ll come back shortly. We’re talking about the mystery of the origin of life and whether chemistry can crack it. Lee Cronin, Denis Noble, and Perry Marshall are my guests on this week’s edition of Unbelievable.
Justin: Welcome back to this week’s edition of Unbelievable with me, Justin Brierley. It’s been such an interesting discussion today, “Can Chemistry Crack the Mystery of the Origin of Life?” My guests, Lee Cronin, Denis Noble, and Perry Marshall have been with me.
Lee, before we continue the conversation, where can people go and find out more about your fascinating work?
Justin: Fantastic. I managed to watch a little sort of mini-documentary that I think is a couple of years old about you and your family and your search for the origin of life. One bit that amused me was you all sat around the dinner table or doing some activity with your little kids, who are older now, and you asked one of them, “Where did humans come from?” and one of them said, “God?” and then I think the younger one piped up, “No, don’t be silly. God doesn’t exist.” I thought, “I wonder where that’s come from?”
This takes us neatly to the question of design, the design hypothesis. You’ve said we need to look at it at least. We can’t dismiss it out of hand necessarily. It sounds like people like James Tour, who isn’t here to defend himself, but as far as I understand it he kind of fits with the intelligent design view, that you cannot get a naturalistic explanation that does justice to the origin of life. There’s too much improbability, too much complexity. You’ve got to have an input of information right at the beginning. What’s your overall reaction to him and to those kinds of theories?
Lee: I’ll give you one word – nonsense – but let me just unpack it. James is a really accomplished chemist. He’s a great designer. He loves designing molecules and he’s good at it. Where I think James has a problem – let’s take it at face value – there’s three possible things that James is trying to do here.
First, he’s just trying to provoke people just to see how they react, which is fair enough, which I guess he’s probably doing. But he clearly doesn’t understand information or the mathematics because the statements he makes are contradictory about complexity and how things emerge.
I think Perry is right about the origin of life kind of the way it’s pitched, but I wouldn’t say origin of lifers are disingenuous or being dishonest. I think they are not explaining the narrative properly. They’re just building a narrative.
What I find problematical is these people then argue against creationists to say, “You’re a creationist and that’s clearly not correct,” but yet the origin of life people require so many random things to not be random that you’re almost a creationist for the origin of life. I find these two communities argue with one another and I’m like, “Guys, you don’t understand information theory and the emergence of this.”
Jim is not here to defend himself. He’s a wonderful designer. Of course he’s going to say it’s too complicated, but let’s look at experiments that will demystify that and help give us some information to know whether it’s possible to create information.
I think one thing I would like to pull you and Perry up on is you said, “It’s impossible to create information.” No, it isn’t. That’s the point. You’re not creating information, you’re creating randomness without teleology. When something from that randomness finds a use, it is then trapped and promoted, and that process is the emergence of encoding and decoding.
It’s so super exciting because I think I will be able to convince Perry and Denis and anyone else who cares that we’ve got systems that can do that. More importantly, we can start a wider debate to put the limits on how much have we cheated. Having a lab and a robot, that’s cheating. Am I putting information in? That’s cheating.
Justin: Interestingly with you, Denis, I’ve often felt that you have some common cause with the intelligent design community because both you and the intelligent design folks, The Discovery Institute and so on, have an enemy in the neo-Darwinian explanations, and I know a number of them turned up to your Royal Society conference where you were looking at new trends in evolution.
Justin: Obviously origins of life all plays into this as well. Do you have any sympathies yourself with that particular way of getting at the issue, the design hypothesis, or do you think it’s a dead end, as obviously Lee does?
Denis: I think it’s a dead end for the following reason. It isn’t actually useful. I don’t take the view that scientific theories are ever completely proven. They can be disproven. I’m a Popperian, just to use the technical philosophical phrase for that. I think we can disprove things. We never completely prove something. In that sense there’s always a bit of mystery to science. We’re still asking questions. We resolve one question and we ask yet more questions.
The real function of theory in science is to be useful. What experiments would you do because you think this theory is worth testing? That’s my touchstone. The difficulty with the intelligent design view is I can’t see how you’d ever test it. It’s really saying, as it were, you’ll never do it, and Lee will never do it. I take the view that the only way to make an advance is to try to do it.
I also think that it’s true to say that what life does is not just to exist. You used a phrase earlier on, Lee, which was it’s what life does that is important. I think that’s got the point. It’s the process. There’s something we know about processes. I don’t know exactly how Lee’s self-replicating salt works, but I suspect it’s a bit of a whirlwind there in some way or another that contains the information that keeps the thing going.
We see that with weather formations already. That’s what the spot on Jupiter also tells us. There are things that do naturally arise, and once they arise – and this is the key to them – they then harness the molecules that are in them to continue that process.
Justin: But in a sense it’s still chance that gets to that point, but it’s not these vast improbabilities, you’re saying, Lee, that some people paint as. You’re saying that once you get something that works, it’s going to kind of grab onto other things that sort of work.
Lee: It’s about trapping chance. What happens in the molecular level is basically lots of things can happen, so you’ve just got lots of possibilities and molecules in lots of different states. What happens when that chance gets trapped, that acts as what we call a template, like a template for an archway. That can make a really small archway and you can get there randomly, but suddenly you have ordered structure. All you need is stuff and energy.
Now you’ve got that archway, and stuff and energy can make another bigger archway. It makes a template of a template of a template, and before you know it you’ve got a complex self-replicating system that has emerged from no information.
That’s what we’ve just proven and it’s being published right now. You can get it in the archive. It’s the first ever spontaneously arising – I’m going to use a technical word now called an autocatalytic set, first predicted by Freeman Dyson and Stuart Kauffman. They’re both very excited that this occurs because the autocatalytic sets today – I’ll tell you about them quickly for your listeners.
An autocatalytic set is a bit like a mutual carpenter. Let’s just say you’re going to go and buy tables and chairs, and you can’t buy a table and chairs separately. What happens is in this case the table makes the chair, and the chair makes the table. Together they make each other. They don’t make each other independently. There’s a little bit of assembly.
These are thought to be the first systems that lead to evolution, but we’ve only ever seen them in very complicated pieces of nucleic acid, DNA, RNA, or very complicated proteins, and these are way above the information threshold.
Once again you have to have all that information. No one has ever shown the emergence of replicators coupled from randomness. What we’ve done is we’ve used this to generate an entirely new nanotechnology. Suddenly we can make really small molecules into a nanotechnology using this salt, and understand how to harness it for other devices.
Justin: Perry, you’re a Christian. You’re the only Christian among the three guests I’ve got on the show today. Where does this leave you and the God question? Were you always going to be happy if a naturalistic explanation was posited? Do you feel this has any implications for the uniqueness of life, if Lee may be correct?
Perry: A signature moment in my journey was discovering Barbara McClintock and finding out that a corn plant could edit its own DNA, and finding out that bacteria could chop their DNA into 100,000 pieces and rearrange them. I suddenly realized that the whole intelligent design argument, the way it’s traditionally made, is focusing on the wrong thing. They’re saying, “God is out there and God did this thing,” and as an engineer I completely understand that argument. But then when I found out that a cell edits its own DNA, it’s sort of like an M.C. Escher drawing where a hand is drawing a hand. Then it’s a whole new ball game.
To me as an engineer, a universe that works that way is way more impressive than a universe where God has to show up and push buttons, so I felt like the science was being misrepresented by both the neo-Darwinists and the intelligent design people. In fact, I was kind of astonished that the intelligent design people weren’t talking about it, but they weren’t.
I just take that and I wind it back to origin of life and I say, “What if that’s the same sort of thing?” We know that a corn plant can edit its own DNA. What if there are laws of physics that can cause information to emerge? That’s a dang impressive universe. So I still have my sense of wonder and I still believe in God and you still have to explain where it all came from, but it makes the whole system just that much more impressive.
Justin: Perhaps it does in your eyes, Perry, but I suspect for you, Lee, you’ll take your Occam’s Razor to that system and say, “No need for God. It all explains itself, thank you very much.”
Lee: I’m not sure we need to be discussing my religious leanings and using that as a way to kind of dismiss others. It’s not productive. What I think Perry is saying quite nicely is he wants to keep his sense of wonder. I have a sense of wonder in the universe and I happen to not use religion to have it, but I would maybe adopt what Carl Sagan says, that maybe in the end Perry’s God is the same as my god, but my god is the physical universe and I’m just like, “Wow, look at it unfold!”
Lots of scientists don’t like to have the argument with intelligent design because they feel that their words are going to be somehow misrepresented and put back against them. I find that problematic because there are lots of religious people that have beliefs, that are very smart, that want to understand how much of those beliefs can be falsified.
If something can be falsified, I can bring it into my Occam’s Razor world and away I go. If I can’t falsify it then I’m entitled to believe it and I have a belief system there. But I think that science and religion don’t touch in that way. They’re mutually compatible.
This is why I get angry about the origin of life people not correctly accounting for the complexity of their molecules and then dissing intelligent design, because they’re basically both making a narrative, which is not falsifiable.
Justin: It’s a really interesting way of putting it. It’s been such a fascinating program today. Thank you all for being on.
Where might people be able to find out more about your work as well, Denis? What should people be typing into their search bars in order to find out more about you?
Denis: The easiest answer is just type Denis Noble into Google, with one n, not two. There was a 2-n Dennis Noble who was a very great baritone. I am not a great baritone.
Justin: We don’t want to introduce any false information into our intelligently designed searches.
And of course, Perry, if people want more about Evolution 2.0 and the prize, where can they go for that?
Justin: I’ll make sure that all three of you have the links as well from today’s show. You can find that over at the web page, premierchristianradio.com/unbelievable.
It’s been an absolutely fascinating discussion. Lee, Denis, and Perry, thank you very much for being with me today.
Lee: Thank you.
Denis: It’s been a great pleasure.
Perry: Thank you.
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