Trouble In Origin Of Life Paradise

James Tour, a renowned nanochemist at Rice University, has been openly critical of Origin Of Life literature for being too optimistic, too sanguine and at times misleading. See this video for example www.youtube.com/watch?v=zU7Lww-sBPg

When Perry Marshall took part in a discussion on the Unbelievable show with Denis Noble and Lee Cronin, host Justin Brierley mentioned Tour and his criticism. A reaction ensued, which led to Tour and Cronin going head to head on an international radio program and podcast. Here, we re-broadcast the scene that provoked the controversy and the debate that followed.

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TRANSCRIPT OF THE DEBATE:

Justin Brierley: Today on the show it’s Round 2, debating the origins of life. James Tour and Lee Cronin join me on the show today. In November last year I brought you an unbelievable discussion on how on earth did life begin, featuring Lee Cronin, whose Glasgow lab is working to crack the mystery of the origins of life.

Lee believes his research group is on the cusp of giving a purely natural explanation for how inorganic chemicals turned themselves into the first self-replicating form of life. Following that discussion, I was inundated with requests to bring one person on opposite Lee to make the case for why current research into origins of life is nowhere near to overcoming the complexity and odds involved in getting life going.

His name is James Tour, though he goes by Jim. He’s Professor of Material Science and NanoEngineering at Rice University in Houston. Jim is regarded as one of the leading voices in the world responding to origins of life research.

Today is a rather unique show, bringing together two people who are leaders in their field in this fascinating and much-disputed area of science. Jim and Lee, welcome along to the show. It’s great to have you both with me today.

Perhaps we’ll come to you first of all, Jim, as someone I’ve long wanted to have on the show. I’m really pleased that in one way or another the last discussion on this sort of facilitated you eventually making the time to come on the show. I’m really pleased about that.

Tell us firstly, before we get into the subject today, a little of your scientific background and the sort of work that you undertake in the laboratory when it comes to nanotechnology.

Jim Tour: I’m trained as a synthetic organic chemist, and I’ve worked for the last 30 years moving more away from natural products and more toward material science and nanoengineering, trying to build systems that can function and operate as machines. We use, for example, a light input and have those machines operate. More recently we’re having them drill into cells and do cancer treatment in that way, plus we have a large program in graphene and carbon materials – everything from medicine to aircraft wings to just making new materials possible, things that had never been made before, so we span across several different areas.

Justin: You are a Christian, in terms of your personal faith commitment. Does that make any difference to the way you do your science in the laboratory and the way you approach issues, for instance around origin of life research?

Jim: Actually, I don’t work in the area of origin of life. I just started reading about origin of life about four years ago, trying to understand where people were coming from. I was studying evolution and that brought me to origin of life.

As I started to look at the organic chemistry that’s been done in the origin of life, I came to the conclusion that humankind is clueless on where life began. As I started to study the work, I felt that so much was being said that was untrue, that was just hyped up. Not only are young students mystified and bewildered by this, but professors themselves don’t know and professors themselves are lost in these issues. They think that all of this has been figured out, that carbohydrates came from the foremost reaction and life built up from an RNA world, because they’ve never studied it. They were just like me. I had never studied it and I took these things for granted. I trusted people, and I see that I shouldn’t have trusted them because when I looked at the data it wasn’t there.

I wrote one article on the topic, calling people out on it, and then that snowballed from there. I started being invited to give talks on this. It’s interesting that none of my colleagues privately would disagree with me. They’d all agree with me that they didn’t know, but I don’t personally work in the area of origin of life.

Now, you asked whether I’m a Christian. Not only am I a Christian, but I love Jesus tremendously. He is the best. He is everything to me. I am much more than just a Christian in name. I come from a Jewish background, so when I came to the Lord at the age of 18 and I came to see that Jesus was the Messiah, it was a huge change. For me it is not just something in name.

You asked how does it affect my research. It affects my research in the way I interact with people. I’m held to a higher standard because of Jesus Christ. I ask God to give me insight, to give me wisdom, to give me creativity in my work.

The scriptures are filled with people like Bezalel, where God specifically filled him with the Holy Spirit and gave him wisdom, for example in Exodus 31, across many different disciplines, so in that sense I pray and I seek the Lord. But still, that doesn’t mean that I have to neglect the book work. I have to study the work. For me it’s just asking God for wisdom, is what it is.

Justin: Let’s turn to you now, Lee. Welcome back. We didn’t scare you off too much in the last show, I’m glad to say, and it’s great to have you back on the program. I’d just be interested to know what sort of reaction you got from being on the show, whether you’ve heard back from any of your colleagues in the area or others to the discussion that we had last time on the origins of life.

Lee Cronin: Actually, I got some quite unexpected feedback from some of your listeners, some scientists who are Christians, because I come across as quite a forceful character. They were pleasantly surprised by the consideration I gave their religious point of view.

I’m an atheist, but I don’t think that is an excuse for me to demur on someone’s ideas or beliefs. As I talked about, I don’t believe that belief and falsifiability in science actually interact. Where falsifiability ends, belief begins, so I do react against people like Richard Dawkins, who kind of assert that religious people are somehow not smart enough. That’s just a lie and offensive.

What I would like to say, though, is I think what is important is to really, as Jim was saying, do the book work, but I do think it’s not just about a point of view. I think if you have a point of view where there was a Creator – obviously if you believe in God, you believe in God as a Creator of some description, however God affects the universe – I think there is a mystery in terms of how was the universe set up.

I don’t think there’s anything magical in the physical universe at all, actually. I think it can all be described by science. Jim might disagree, and we can talk about that, but I think it’s really important to have the frame of this discussion respectfully, and also on the basis of what we can interrogate using the rules of science.

I think there is an interesting problem about the history of origin of life, but I’ll let you bring us into that.

Justin: I was going to say, Jim, I think you’re keen to stress yourself that at the end of the day you’re interested in the evidence, just like Lee is, aren’t you?

Jim: Oh absolutely, and this is where I think I was mischaracterized by you, Justin, in your last broadcast, when you were on with Lee and with Denis Noble. For me, I have never brought God into any of my arguments on origin of life. I’ve never done that. The four papers that I’ve written on this topic, I sent them to Lee and he can attest that I don’t mention God in this. I use purely naturalistic explanations for what I have to say about the evidence. I am just merely critiquing the evidence of others. I never bring God into this. If you look at any of my scientific papers, I don’t bring God into this. I’m quite able to speak like that, and that’s all I wanted to address in this discussion, was to only address it in that way. I only just mentioned God and Jesus Christ because you asked me the question.

Justin: Sure. We’ll maybe come back to this towards the end of the show as well. Obviously the parts of the world where these issues are being contested sometimes involve the intelligent design community, and I know you have spoken at conferences run by Discovery Institute and so on, and obviously some scientists see them as somehow having a God agenda.

What’s your view? For you, could it be that if the naturalistic explanations in origins of life aren’t working, that one option is, “Well, maybe there is a Designer, some kind of cosmic Designer that’s at work here.”

Jim: Let me just make a distinction, and this gets back to addressing why I’m even on your show today. It’s because I want to correct things that were said about me in your last program when I wasn’t there. At 54 minutes into your talk you said, “James Tour fits with the intelligent design view. You cannot get a naturalistic explanation that does justice to the origin of life. There’s too much improbability, too much complexity.”

That’s what you were suggesting that I speak on, and that’s just not true. Then Lee’s response to that was, “I’ll give you one word: nonsense.” So you set up this straw man of who Jim Tour is, and then Lee came in and kicked the thing down.

Lee: Let me just come in there and say I think we can discuss it, because you do design what you call nanomachines, but they’re not machines, so we can talk about narrative in design and what that means, and I think we can do that in a very productive way.

Justin can talk about his mischaracterization or not, but what I was saying was actually the whole idea that intelligent design has any scientific basis is for me not just nonsense, but demonstratable nonsense, and we can discuss the reasons for that.

I think actually, from some of the things that you’re discussing, that we’re going to agree a lot on that, and it’s quite important I think from both our point of views, whether you’re religious or not, to have a fair and well-grounded debate so we can actually make progress.

Justin: I will hold my hands up wholeheartedly, Jim, if any misrepresentation took place. I was speaking off-the-cuff and in a sense that’s exactly why I’ve got you on the show today, so that you can speak for yourself and be clear on what you actually do believe and what you are saying about the research.

Before we come to that, for the sake of people who maybe can’t remember or didn’t catch the first time round, Lee, just very briefly describe what your research essentially boils down to and is saying about how life got going on earth.

Lee: I’m an inorganic chemist and I’m always being faced with the complexity of crazy kinds of reactions and understanding what goes on in a reaction vessel, in an experiment. What I was trying to convey in the last discussion was that although the presence of life on earth seems like it’s a miracle of complexity, I think that we have begun to develop a pathway to understanding not only how that complexity arises, but creating that process in the laboratory – not identically. It’s not about identically kind of trying to check a historical account or a time machine, but showing that the laws of the universe allows life to come into being, and to explain that that’s just a gradual process.

Also I think we might vigorously agree, but we’ll wait until Jim and I discuss it, to express some frustration in the origin of life community, where people set themselves up for an improbable discussion to say, “If this molecule was present at this concentration on this day, then this would happen and this would happen.” Scientists want to have mechanistic control. I would argue that people aren’t being disingenuous. They’re just using a narrative to explain their experiments.

This actually is happening in nanotechnology. People are building nano machines? No, they’re not. They’re looking at the formation of architectures from the top-down and bottom-up. Same in the origin of life debate. Top-down – “I think this happens. I imprint my narrative on it,” rather than going bottom-up – “How do we actually see what features of the universe and our complexity to develop such that evolution can get going?”

I think what I can do today is carry on the discussion about how those experiments can be used productively to kind of have a new debate, because it’s important for the young scientists coming into this that they don’t get sucked in by a narrative, that we ask the question in a new way.

Again, I don’t want to speak for Jim, but I think he and I might agree that there is a need for displacing a narrative with more interesting and unifying questions.

Justin: Let me come back to you first then, Jim. It might be helpful for you to sketch out how you have understood Lee’s research and what he seems to be saying in it. Equally, use this time and feel free to obviously address any other issues that came up in that first recording we did, where you feel either the research or yourself were not being represented adequately.

Jim: Let me just address that. I think that I was not being represented adequately by you, Justin, and I just corrected that, but also by Lee. Lee said of me, “#1 he’s just trying to provoke people to see how they will react,” and that’s just not true. That’s absolutely not true. I think now that I’ve sent him my papers and he’s read them, he might say I’m putting forth arguments. I’m not just trying to elicit a reaction from people.

I really want to say also that I respect Lee for coming on here. He is the first origin of life scientist willing to speak to me in a public forum. Others have spoken to me in private, but he’s the first one willing to speak to me in a public forum, and I think that that’s telling in and of itself, that the community is avoiding me in a sense. They’ll avoid a discussion with me on the very topics in which they are publishing. It’s not that I haven’t tried to speak with them. So first of all, let me thank Lee for being willing to stand up and do this.

I’d like to just go through step-by-step the things that I heard in the last program and address these. Lee spoke for about 45 minutes in the last program. He said a number of things and I tried to track with him. I really did want to understand. I went through four times that program – four times! That’s four hours I went through this program to try to understand where he’s doing, and then he kindly sent me five papers, which I’ve gone through, to try to understand where he is on the origin of life and what he’s trying to do. I’d love to be able to discuss with him the things that he’s trying to address, and give my critique on it.

Justin: Let’s start maybe with just one of them, let’s say. Tell us what you understood to be the basic thesis of Lee. This will obviously have to be a sketch, but just generally where you find it problematic ultimately.

Jim: I find it problematic in that there’s an extrapolation from a very small experiment in a laboratory. There’s an extrapolation to giving people an idea that we really understand more than we do. What I appreciate about Lee is that he said he’s a scientist and he likes to have discussions and he says, “I like to have discussions where I can have arguments about evidence.” That’s what he said and I’m all for that.

Justin, you then said that you in GCSE biology – which I had to look up because I didn’t know what GCSE is, and I found out that’s sort of like equivalent to our high school – you said, “There was some kind of primordial soup billions of years ago on the surface on the earth, chemicals swimming around, maybe bolts of lightning going off, and somehow something happened and poof! You got your first very simple cell or something swimming around in the ocean.”

Then you asked Lee, “Am I right?” You asked Lee, “Is this view essentially correct or fundamentally wrong?” and Lee said, “You’re not wrong. Your GCSE chemistry is not too bad at all,” and I’m like, “What? Where is the evidence for this? Here is a man who just said that he likes to discuss evidence. You tell him that there’s a primordial soup and somehow things sort of got going, and that’s how life formed.” You asked Lee, “Is that right?” and Lee, being the authority on origin of life, says, “You’re not wrong. Your GCSE chemistry is not too bad at all.”

I’m like, “This is the type of extrapolation that I’m talking about, from one of the premier people in the world in origin of life.” I’m saying, “Okay, you got evidence for me? Help me. Give me the evidence for that, Lee. Give me the evidence. I’d love to have it.

Lee: Let’s just take a step back. It’s clear that chemicals on earth before life were simpler because there was no machinery to make chemicals. I think you’re digging into a debate that origin of life people have, that I was giving Justin a GSCE, not a degree in chemistry. I don’t care whether the atmosphere was oxidizing or reducing. We simply don’t know. We can look at the fossil records or geological records and so forth and ask those question.

However, for meteorites that we have from the solar system, from where the birth of the solar system is, we know what type of chemicals are present. Basically, when you look at Murchison or other meteorites, carbonaceous chondrites, we find very simple organic molecules with some nitrogen, some oxygen, some carbon, some hydrogen, maybe a bit of sulfur, the elements that we’d expect we’d find on earth, in very simple versions. So all I was saying was that.

Now, I think, Jim, you’ve got to be careful here because you are trying to build a narrative, and building narratives I’m not interested in. His GCSE chemistry was fine. GCSE is high school chemistry. Was there simple chemistry on earth? Was there some energy on earth? All those things, to the best of our knowledge, yes. There was energy. There were a lot of things going on.

There’s a great deal of evidence for the Late Heavy Bombardment and all that stuff, but if you want concrete evidence you can get meteors that are 4.7 billion years old which have simple chemistry on them.

I think you’re maybe creating a straw man here, because I think we basically agree that in the past, chemistry looks to have been simpler. We have seen no evidence of complex chemistry emerging before life on earth. By complex I would say large molecules that you can hold in your hand, maybe that you can manufacture in your lab. There is good evidence for that. There are plenty of peer-reviewed publications which talk about that information.

Now, there is not evidence for what the lifetime is of Eurasia and the half-life of that complexity; however, we are beginning through radioactive carbon dating, heavy atom carbon dating, and looking at the entropy of material, the disorder of material, to kind of piece together if there was something complex there, but that is a very hard problem.

So I’d disagree with you that Justin’s chemistry is just fine. I don’t know what the precise nature of that is, and maybe what you’re getting at is that some origin of life people say, “Look, it was reducing. Then it was oxidizing, then there was phosphorous, then there was sugar and there was RNA.

I would agree with you there is no evidence about what sequence of small molecules were there, but was there a super simple molecule there on earth at the beginning? Yes, and we can trace it back to the Big Bang. We have proof that there was a Big Bang, and then we have stars forming and those stars explode, and when those stars explode they produce elements in their elemental form. And when they increase on a planet they then gain complexity.

Justin: Feel free to respond there, Jim.

Jim: Lee, that’s not what you said and that’s not what you put forward. I agree we have small molecules that might be oxidizing.

Lee: No, I did not say anything else. That’s exactly what I said. Justin said, “Was there a prebiotic soup?” and I said, “Yes, the evidence says so.”

Jim: And Justin said, “Then cells came forth, life came forth from that.” You were a little bit loose on that. Let’s get more specific. What I’m saying is you are the authority here. He asked you specifically. He says, “There was a primordial soup and very simple cells came forth from this. We have no evidence how this thing happened. Lots of small molecules. You know, a cell is pretty complex.

Lee: We don’t know how it happened, but the evidence on earth says in the fossil record that life appeared very, very quickly after the Late Heavy Bombardment. That is evidence in the fossil record. That is not disputable. I think we both agree planet earth formed – rocks, simple chemistry, no life, right? We don’t know all the details of that, but then within a few hundred million years there’s evidence in the fossil record that life formed – simple cellular life. Those two facts are not, as far as I know, disputed.

Jim: Those are not contestable. How we got from Point A to Point B

Lee: Absolutely, but I did not say we knew.

Jim: You and I agree, Lee, that how we got from simple molecules to life – it happened but we don’t know how. Now, I’m trying to understand what you were teaching us here. You said, “There’s nothing magical about the emergence of life. It’s really simple.” That’s what you said.

I’m not a biologist so I looked up what are the characteristics of life. I just Googled it. “What are the characteristics of life?” It’s responsive to the environment, growth and change, ability to reproduce, have a metabolism and breathe, maintain homeostasis – I can give you a definition for that if you need it – being made of cells, and passing traits on to offspring.

Now, we may or may not agree on that definition. That is a textbook definition of the characteristics of life. You said that if you have information, you have life. You said, “Universes without life are universes without information.”

I just want to understand you. I’m asking you a question. Information itself is not life. Would you agree with that? Life has information, but information itself is not life. I can have a piece of paper and write on that piece of paper. That piece of paper bears information, but that piece of paper does not have life.

Lee: No, no, no. That information on the paper is as much alive as you are, actually, but let me frame that properly because again I think most of our argument today may be semantic.

If you did not exist, you would not be able to write on that piece of paper. If someone brings to me a piece of paper with words on it, that just tells me that’s evidence of life somewhere. The problem we have with life and the origin of life and definitions is we don’t actually know what life is, and that’s a problem.

That’s why I made that very well-thought-out statement, that universes without life can’t have information, because there’s no syntantic information. There’s no encoder, no decoder. Universes without life of course have the laws of physics in them and the laws of chemistry, but I’m really interested in that transition to an agency or a decision-making entity, like how many chemicals do you need in a pot?

We’ve begun to see in my laboratory how that can be steered, and I think that’s countered all the debate, countered what you’re saying is possible, countered what the origin of life says is possible, but we’re just doing experiments to ask those questions.

So I would say the piece of paper you write on isn’t alive. It’s not metabolizing, not in your definition, but you put that there; therefore, if I found that piece of paper on another planet and I was able to discount that from background entropy, I would know that a living thing had put it there. That’s all I can do right now.

I know so little about what life is that I’m able to understand. I kind of view myself a bit like before Isaac Newton wrote down how gravity worked. I know that gravity exists. I can see it, but I don’t yet have the equation for it. Isn’t it interesting that it took Newton and then Einstein to quantify the law of gravity, and then obviously people could then apply that everywhere in the universe, but we knew it existed.

I’m kind of excited because we’re in this pre-quantum mechanics world for biology – pre-understanding the equations and physical laws that give rise to biology, but confident I am that we’ll find them, and I can give you many reasons for that. But confidence is nothing without evidence. What we have to discuss today is the evidence trail that is leading me down this track.

Obviously, it’s not finished yet. I haven’t made life in my lab yet. I will. The argument will be that life that I made in the lab, did it just come from me? And where did I come from? So what we have to work really hard to do is not obsess about the origin of life but how can we create complex history from simple chemistry, and what are the laws that turn that complex chemistry?

One comment I’ll say is that we’re never ever going to make nanomachines deterministically. We have to evolve them. The cell is a good example of that. Even today with all this work in nanotechnology, Jim, that you work in, there is not one functioning nanomachine in our technology made from the chemist-up. It’s all from the electrical engineer down.

Justin: I’m just going to go to a quick break and we’ll return with Jim responding. It’s a fascinating discussion. I’m so glad I’m able to bring both Lee and Jim together for today’s conversation on the origins of life. It’s a Part 2 really to the conversation that Lee took part in at the end of last year.

+++++++

Justin: Welcome back to today’s show. I’m really excited to be bringing Lee Cronin and Jim Tour together for another debate on the origins of life. This was following a session we did with Lee as one of the guests last year on Unbelievable, and I had so many requests to bring on Jim Tour opposite Lee. Jim is Professor of Materials Science and NanoEngineering at Rice University in Houston, and one of the leading critical voices really in terms of current origins of life research and whether it really is leading towards a naturalistic explanation for how life arose on earth.

We heard in that last section Lee trying to give an explanation of why he sees that information is key, but it’s understanding sort of the laws ultimately that lead from inorganic chemistry to these complex forms of chemistry that ultimately result in life.

It sounds to me like Lee is saying at the end of the day, whatever the theories are behind this, what we’re seeing happen in the laboratory is evidence that it happens. It’s just getting to grips and understanding those laws ultimately. It’s not magic. It happened and it can happen again if we create the right kinds of conditions and do the right kind of research.

What is your response here to all of this, Jim?

Jim: Lee said that we may come down to a matter of semantics in our discussion. I don’t disagree with that. Let me just say also up front, the reason I have never supported intelligent design, although I’m sympathetic to the arguments, is the first line on my website under the Evolution/Creation page. I don’t support intelligent design because I have no tool to measure it. I have not a tool to measure that something has been intelligently designed.

I hold my colleagues to the same tools and standards that I’m going to have to hold myself. That’s why I don’t support it, because I have not a tool to measure it. I’m not against it. I just have not a tool to measure it.

Secondly, I’ve never said that this cannot happen by a naturalistic explanation. In fact, I’ve gone on to say that I have no idea what we’re going to discover in 50 years, 100 years, 300 years from now. If 150 years ago you asked somebody, “Where is information stored in a cell?” they would have said, “I have no idea. It must be God.” No. We understand that the information is stored in the cell in the DNA, so we learn things with time and that’s what I’m saying.

As of now, there’s many things that we just don’t understand, so to project as if we understand them, whether we’re speaking about high-school students or professors, is wrong. We just have to say, “This is an open discussion. We can address this.”

As far as information that Lee was talking about, life has information. Yes, if you find a piece of paper and something written on it, you know that life was there. I agree. Life has information. Life has matter. We have to deal with both of these. We have to deal with information and we have to deal with matter. Matter is a huge, huge problem. 99% of what I talk about in my papers is the matter. I might have a paragraph on information.

Lee says my biggest problem is I don’t understand information. That’s what he said in the last thing. I will confess, I’m not an aficionado of informatics. That I am not. You had Perry Marshall on there and he is. I don’t deal with information. Most of my argument has to do with the matter. In order to have life, you have to have the matter around life. It is not merely information.

Lee has said all that biology is is chemistry with history. I look at this and I’m thinking, “Well, biology is really complex. Biology has chemistry with history, but it is not just chemistry with history. It is enormously more than just chemistry with history. It’s extremely complex.”

What I feel that Lee is doing is that he is putting out a definition of life that would allow him to try to get at say this Evolution 2.0 prize, but it’s not a definition of life that any biologist would look at this and say that, “This is indeed life.” Again, maybe I’m wrong and Lee can correct me on this, but biology is the science of life and living organisms. An organism is a living entity consisting of one cell – for example, bacteria – or several cells – for example, animals, plants, fungi. That’s what biology is, and that definition that I just said is something that again I Googled and said, “What is the definition here?”

You’ve got to have a cell in order to have life. You just want to say that I have a recursive information system, that itself is not life.

Justin: Just before Lee comes in, from what I understood, and Lee can correct this, but what Lee has achieved in his lab in terms of what he’s witnessed in terms of these replicating – I think it’s salt molybdenum crystals or whatever – what he sees is the beginnings of an explanation of how life arose and how a complex system could ultimately emerge. You believe it’s nowhere near presumably what actually constitutes life, and therefore Lee shouldn’t be talking about it in terms of being some sort of approach to the origin of life.

Jim: I know Lee is bursting to comment, but you just asked me a question so let me answer that question. I wanted so much to understand from Lee what he was talking about. I listened very carefully on the last broadcast and he talked about salad dressing. He said life formed in bubbles and these bubbles are like salad dressing. Something gets stuck and then all the sudden he started talking about flipping coins.

I was trying to track with him, and then when he said, “There’s a paper on this,” and he was kind enough to send me this paper, I with great enthusiasm went to that paper, with great enthusiasm because I wanted to see. I feel like I was told, “This is going to be the greatest show on earth,” and I went in there and there was an old poodle standing on his hind legs. I mean there was nothing.

This is just an autocatalytic reaction. You’re forming some clusters, and other clusters can use those as templates to form around them. Autocatalytic reactions have been around a long time in chemistry for over 100 years. Ostwald came up with these over 100 years ago.

I don’t see how that is giving you information of life. The day his student walks in that laboratory, by walking into that laboratory he’s influenced that experiment. By choosing a chemical off the shelf he’s influenced that experiment, and then all he set up was an autocatalytic reaction.

I think that there’s nothing there. There’s nothing there that points me toward anything of life that any biologist looking toward what is defined as life – not by Lee’s definition, but by anyone else’s definition where you have to have, for example, one cell like a bacterium – anything like that, anything close. It’s not even close to that. So I think it’s been totally overblown.

Justin: Lee, strong criticisms there then. This is your chance to obviously defend yourself.

Lee: Look, I really respect Jim. He’s making a narrative, as he did in the document he sent me. I didn’t really expect him to kind of be so, I would say, I don’t know – anyway, look, let me address the first point. 

The right stuff is not enough, right? If I take a cell and grind it into atoms I get chemicals out, so of course information in the cell in how you get biology. The thing that I am perhaps a bit more humble than Jim is that Jim thinks he knows what biology is. I don’t. That’s why I’m doing experiments.

Biology isn’t necessarily defined by a cell. Biology isn’t necessarily defined by that. All I know is that if I take a cell and I grind it up I get atoms out, so reductionistically I put in my atom grinder.

Now, Jim is choosing to not understand my argument because I now know he’s making a narrative. People make narratives from an ideological point of view. I’m not going to go there, the ideology. I’m just going to give you the evidence of the experiments, and the listeners and viewers can judge.

Jim is right that autocatalysis has been around for 100 years. What Jim is talking about is the way that basically things can self-promote, but they have no information in them. He talked about a thing called Ostwald ripening. The listeners might want to look that up. Ostwald ripening is a macroscopic technique where there’s no information.

The paper I showed Jim, and actually is on the archive, shows that molecular information has a template like the DNA does with itself, a template at the molecular level, one structure that’s impossible to form without to form without that template.

It’s almost like you’re able to put a template into an archway, like a Roman archway. You put in a key, and then on that template you can build another one, and there’s a hierarchy of templates. What we showed is you can make what’s called an autocatalytic set. The word “set” is really important.

There’s no example outside of biology of a catalyst that makes a catalyst that makes a catalyst that makes a catalyst, and they work together. Maybe Jim is jealous because he wants to do it with his nano stuff, but no one’s managed to engineer it. We managed to discover one by scratch by searching.

And yes, I would agree with Jim. We went and got pure molybdate off the shelf. A human being did that deterministically, and we have to account honestly for the information that we put into the experiment, and that’s a valid comment. It’s not a criticism, it’s an assumption that you have to make.

Now, I think that Jim is saying it’s impossible to know what gives rise to biology because it’s complicated. I’m just saying that’s a fairly poor argument. We should say let’s agree on our assumptions. We both assume that the chemistry of the origin of life was simpler than what it is today. That’s an assumption that can be tested. I’m happy to write down all my assumptions and test them at every stage. That’s what a good scientist does.

1st assumption: no life

2nd assumption: simple chemistry

3rd assumption: a little bit of time

4th assumption: a bit of energy

5th assumption: some kind of selection in the environment, some kind of assistance. What is there?

I tried to help the listener understand, and I’m aware that not everyone is a professor of nanoscience so I put it in terms that I think a listener could get some kind of analogy metaphor out of, and Jim is kind of lambasting me for not having the correct term. He’s already admitted he’s not going to understand the mathematics if I write it down.

The point is that we are talking about only one point of biology on earth. We don’t know what biology is, so it’s ridiculous to kind of say, “I’m going to make biology.” I’m actually, if anything, an inorganic biologist or maybe an astrobiologist.

To counter Jim’s argument, I have made a detection system that’s going to allow us to distinguish alien life from non-alien life on other worlds, and also use that in the laboratory. I’ll give Jim a working assay for biology or not, which he can try and attack.

If I have a system – a magic black box – and let’s say in that black box there could be a living cell or there could be some random chemistry, and I’m not allowed to know what, the only way I can tell when I get stuff out of that box is by looking at the complexity of the molecule.

We’ve done some good mathematics and some good arguments, and I’ve sent Jim that other paper but maybe he’s going to tell me that’s all nonsense as well – that explains when you use a pair of scissors, if you cut up the molecules, whether that has been generated in a genetic system or an informational system, because genetics is a strong word, or not.

We have developed a test for finding chemistry that’s becoming more complex. We’ve been developing a model to go and search for that, and now we’re substantiating that in the lab with good experimental assumptions, and we’re going to go back and say, “Is that valid? Is that valid?

What we’re not doing – which I hope Jim will give us some credit for – is saying, “It’s RNA. It’s sugars. It’s this. It’s this. It’s this.” We’re saying, “No, we have no idea what the pathway to life was, but we know that living systems create complex artifacts, be they molecules, proteins, ribosomes, or the works of Shakespeare, so let’s use those as an encoding for an experiment.”

That’s the falsifiable thing that we’re doing, because the origin of life isn’t even a falsifiable question. I can’t even go back. I don’t know what happened and I never will. In fact, I actually don’t care what happened at the origin of life. What I care about is if I can create a lifeform in the lab now with minimal interaction with it or, even better, can I see a lifeform naturally emerging on another planet as an observer. That would be a dream.

Justin: That would, wouldn’t it. Plenty to respond to there. I’ll let you go for it, Jim.

Jim: I think this is where it’s going. I think Lee is becoming a lot more practical right now. He says that the reason he was saying things the way he was in the last broadcast was because he was lowering it to the explanation of the common person.

Lee: Not lowering, but making it accessible and not wanting to come across arrogantly.

Jim: Okay. Lee, I did look at your other papers and I have no problem with those. I think it’s great if you can come up with a testing system to see what is life. I can see why NASA would support such a system because they’re looking for life, so what are the signs of life? I have no problem with those papers at all.

In fact, I know that there are others that are trying to come up with a system to be able to test for intelligence, that there was intelligent design in a system, and I have no problem with that. Let them try to develop a model to look for intelligence. Again, I don’t go there. I never use intelligent design as an argument in what I’m doing. I’m just critiquing the science.

The problem is, Lee, that a lot of the times that people hear these things, they hear people from the origin of life community say things and they believe it. The origin of life community may be saying, “Well, I was just trying to make that accessible to you,” because when I ask them for details on it, the details seem to go away.

Lee: If I can call you out on that one. When the nanotechnology community says that they’ve made nanomachines, “We’ve made these robots and they’re going to fix you,” you’ve done this as well, and I’ve read some of your papers.

I would argue the origin of life community isn’t seeking to be duplicitous. They’re simply trying to get people excited about the possibilities. What I’m trying to do is to take a middle road, to say, “Look, you’re in your nano work trying to get people excited about the possibilities for nanotechnology. That’s brilliant. Let’s make the extrapolation. Maybe we can give that accommodation to the origin of life.” Sorry to interrupt.

Justin: Is that a fair criticism that in nanotechnology as well you’re making claims that may seem something in the public, but obviously need more working out in the laboratory?

Jim: Possibly. I mean there’s a company now started around the nanomachines to drill into these cells to affect the cells, to be demonstrated that through these nanomachines we can deliver antibiotics that were formerly outdated, that couldn’t get through the bacterial membrane, and now they get in and they kill those bacteria beautifully. We are showing that they are indeed working, and we’ve been working on this for all of just a couple of years with these cells, and already we’re getting this to work.

The problem with the origin of life community is this is a hard target. Lee has said, “All life is is pretty boring, if you think about it. Life is a complex chemical system that can persist over time.” Lee, I’m trying to just follow what you say. In one sense you say it’s pretty boring, and in the same sentence you say it’s a complex chemical system. I agree with you. It is a complex chemical system. It entails lots of complex molecules.

The origin of life community is trying to make a complex molecule and another set of complex molecules. Most of the time they make them racemic anyway. They rarely deal with the purification problem, and they won’t take what they’ve made and bring it on to the next step. It’s all relay synthesis over and over again.

It’s very complex. It’s hard to do, but Lee, as I understand your work, you’re not trying to do what many other people are doing. You’re not trying to make yet another way to make amino acids, another way to make a nucleotide. You’re not doing that. You’re trying to bring us back to the fundamentals of what is life and can you begin to make something that’s life-like in your lab, so I appreciate that. I didn’t know anything about that. That’s why I’ve never critiqued your work in any of my writings, because it’s new to me. I understand better what you’re doing now, so I’m not holding you to account for what these other people have written.

Justin: Just before Lee comes back in, because you obviously have responded to other people in the origin of life community, Jim, you might want to sketch out some examples of people who you think are basically painting a sort of just-so picture of how inorganic chemistry went to sort of RNA or whatever, and you just think that they’re massively simplifying or brushing over the complexity that’s involved in that process.

I think you had a particular critique of an article that went in Nature. I forget the name of the person who wrote the article and so on, but as you say, Lee is doing something a bit different to those guys, but you’ve obviously had quite strong words for others in the community who are trying to make out that there is this naturalistic explanation that we’re pretty close to understanding.

Lee: Yes. When they take their little experiment in the lab and they extrapolate it and they bring it to life, it makes the layperson feel that we understand what’s going on. That’s not the case at all, and it’s not just the layperson. Even my faculty colleagues have been confused by these things. The extrapolations are way overboard and I think Lee would agree with me a lot on this, as I’ve read his work. 

Lee’s work is very different. Getting back to Lee’s work, I think it’s oversimplified. I think he’s nowhere near life, but what he’s trying to do – and I see this, he said this on the last broadcast. He said we can’t agree on what life is. He said there’s no agreement among different people. He says, “What I’ve come up with is forgetting what life is, but looking at what life does,” and “What does life do that is different than say a non-living plant? Life makes things.” Again he says, “Living systems tend to make stuff, and that is what we call life and we are looking for it.”

So I see what Lee is doing. He is trying to step back, because I just read to you a Google definition of what biology is. Biology says you’ve got to have a cell there. And Lee is stepping back from his mathematical background. He’s stepping back to what I see is something much more basic. Does life have to be a cell? Or can life come from something simpler, and then we move on towards this?

What I feel that he’s done, though, in doing this is he projects that what he’s doing is he’s making life. He’s saying, yes, it’s not life as we would understand it as a cell. It’s doing things that life might do. Life tends to make things. Lots of chemistry makes things.

Lee: I think that’s a very good point I can be very constructive on, if I may, Justin.

Justin: Please do.

Lee: I don’t even know if life really exists, right? That’s a really metaphysical discussion we could have another day. What I think is really important is to say, look, if I looked at the asteroid belt and just zoomed in, and I didn’t know anything about the laws of gravity, and let’s just say I was someone who liked asteroids, I’d say, “Man, that’s really complicated.” Then a physicist says, “Oh, no, actually I’ll just write down the equation that gravity inverse square law and 1/r2 sum of the masses between them. Boom.”

The asteroid belt is a really bad place to discover gravity. But if you then go and look at a big gravity well and there’s an asteroid falling into it, suddenly that simpler explanation can then be applied in the more complex context.

I want to just quickly speak to one apparent contradiction – life is boring and life is complicated. What I’m saying is I think it’s boring to try and imagine what the chemistry could be at the origin of life by just taking cells apart, because we’ve got an existence proof problem. I’d rather zoom out and say let’s just put what we have available (guess in a can) and see what complex comes out and say, “Does that follow our Turing test for life?” Then when it does we then go, “Okay, we now care and we’re going to go and do that detail mechanism.

We’re going to be an organic chemist. We’re going to do what all those amazing prebiotic chemists do, but we’ll do them in the context of having made an observation that we find interesting, rather than doing a historical narrative-based experiment.

The good news for all the prebiotic chemists – and they’re fantastic chemists – is that there is work for them to do. The bad news is they might have to change their narrative, but that’s great because we’ll get closer to the problem.

I’m saying I think I’m discovering gravity, the equivalent of the force that produces life, and what is the natural phenomena that does it. I haven’t done it yet. I’ve got indications it might work. Your listeners must not take my words as proof we’ve made life. Most certainly not, and I didn’t say that in the last episode word for word. I would explain very honestly that I am as confused as the next person. That’s why I’m doing the experiment. If I already knew the answer, why would I do it?

There are some people out there who are engineers doing chemistry because they want to make stuff and make machines and do all that, and there are other people that are going from the bottom up and saying, “What is it about physical reality that gives me complexity?” and that’s what we’re homing in on. It’s a very important problem that hasn’t been addressed correctly, and I’m pretty sure we’re going to be really astonished at the outcomes from what I’m seeing in my lab.

Great claims need absolutely fantastic evidence, completely transparent to argument, and that’s one of the reasons why I came on and was happy to debate with Jim because I think this is incredibly productive to basically lay bare our assumptions and prod them and poke them and say “Why?”

I think the prebiotic chemists are doing that now, to their credit, and I think that Jim hopefully will become more and more satisfied by that.

Justin: But Jim’s earlier critique of you, Lee, that the autocatalytic kind of things that you’ve been able to create in the lab are, at some level, the very early foothills, if you like, of what it will take for more complex systems to develop, and ultimately to have all those facets of biological life that Jim outlined earlier – what I got from him was that that is a huge extrapolation right there.

Lee: I can explain why in one second. This is the thing. What we’ve got in our system is this. If you can imagine a system where you have a monkey on a typewriter and you say, “We’ve got a universe full of monkeys, and one day they’re going to make Shakespeare,” you have to have a universe full of monkeys.

What we’ve done in this system is we’ve shown, “Okay, we used pure sodium molybdate.” Actually, on earth there is a spring in Idaho that has these molybdates which naturally form, so we could go and find them in the natural environment. These molybdates, when you add acid to them, they form a catalyst template that has information associated with it, which reads out a bigger structure that’s impossible to form on its own. What does that mean? It’s the template that gives the monkey the information to write Shakespeare, and we get some Shakespeare out.

Now, here’s what I’m going to drive at that’s really important for Jim, and I hope to convince him. This Shakespeare that we’ve written means nothing because Shakespeare doesn’t exist. So what we’ve got is a small template that’s randomly forming, that then is able to template a molecule that’s massive, that can’t form randomly, that there is a molecular information. Now this molecule forms and this molecule can act on itself and that information then becomes information.

What I’m trying to say is that the act of creating information is what we’re trying to capture here, and we’re showing a naturalistic process. That’s why I guess Jim is uneasy, quite rightly. It’s like I’m shuffling a card deck and getting a Royal Flush, and using that Royal Flush to make another Royal Flush.

I’m excited because this is the first time outside of biology that coupled catalytic sets have been shown to emerge. People have made them in DNA and proteins, but the amount of sequence information required requires you to create it, whereas in our salt system, yes, I have to get some sodium molybdate, which is one compound, and I have to add some lemon juice to it or some acid, but then the rest goes.

Justin: I think that’s why you’re obviously very excited, that for you this is a breakthrough, and obviously there’s a lot of work to be done in where that goes ultimately, but the principle you seem to be saying is what’s there.

What an interesting discussion today. Quite a deep dive on the scientific issues surrounding the origins of life. It’s Round 2 really of a program that really catalyzed all this – if you’ll allow me to use a scientific metaphor. When Lee Cronin came on the show, along with Perry Marshall and Denis Noble, to talk about his research in origins of life, the name Jim Tour came up during the course of our discussion.

A lot of people wanted to have Jim represent himself, and in the end Jim said he was available and has been on the show today, airing both some of his concerns with the ways were put across in that first show, the way he believes that by and large in the origin of life community complex issues are not being treated fairly and are being rather misrepresented in the popular literature and so on. But he’s also appreciative of Lee Cronin’s work, which he says is sort of tackling things from a different perspective. He’s not making quite such grandiose claims as Jim believes some of his colleagues sometimes make.

We got to the end of that last section there, Jim, and Lee is essentially saying, it seems to me, what he has managed to do in the lab with these catalytic sets and so on that have been established, are at least the beginnings of the principles you need for life in the sense of something that can exist in a complex system through time. You’re at the very beginnings of seeing something like that.

From everything that Lee has said, he sees that it’s going to be something like the law of gravity. It’s going to be the kind of biological equivalent of a law simply enacting itself in the universe. You don’t have to invoke anything special or magical. It will just happen, given the circumstances.

So where do you want to begin, Jim? Take it away.

Jim: Let me start by agreeing with Lee that those that are working in the origin of life community, the synthetic chemists, are amazing synthetic chemists. They’ve tied one hand behind their back because they restrict themselves to aqueous systems. They restrict themselves to very simple basic chemicals. They’re great chemists and they make amazingly complex things using all of their intellect and then suggesting that this could be how life formed, which is a big extrapolation from the one little molecule that they’ve made. But they’re great chemists. I have no problem with that.

I see that Lee is trying to get a fundamental piece of life, and that is being able to have information come from these little molybdate reactions, and that’s great. I’m happy for him and that’s a wonderful thing. I still think the extrapolation is just huge, and the target is hard.

Look, I don’t work in the area of origin of life. This is a hard target, and what happens is since Miller-Urey – and I’ve written about this; that was 67-68 years ago since they came up with the Miller-Urey experiment – many people thought we were very close. The problem is the target gets further away.

As we understand what life is, as biological life where we live, where most origin of life people are trying to direct toward, the target moves further and further away. So we’re not getting closer with time, we’re getting further away with time because every year there’s more found out about a cell and how a cell communicates, how information is transferred within a cell. You’re like, “Whoa! This is utterly amazing!”

What Lee has done is he’s trying to get at the very basics of how could you get information to build up from this random system, that he’s trying to approximate randomness with a pseudo-random system in his lab and build up information. That’s wonderful. Lee, I’m not contesting with you on that. I have no contest with that. But to suggest that that is a form that is going to give us some understanding of how life as we know it in a biological system – this is a very, very long way away.

I don’t know what that Evolution 2.0 prize demands. I don’t know what its requirements are. I’ve tried to look it up and it seems kind of nebulous to me, but it’s just so far from life.

I’m glad that Lee is here today and he’s saying, “Look, we haven’t made life.” He thinks he’s going to be able to make or have tell-tale signs of the beginnings of life, but I’m glad that he’s admitting that maybe he’s not – and maybe he’d like to correct me on this – that he’s very far from what we look at as a biological definition of life that has to have a cell – whether that be a eukaryotic cell or a bacterium. A bacterium is still a highly complex structure.

We’re very, very far away from that, and to project like we understand this or like we’re somehow close to this is just a wrong projection.

Lee: I would directly answer that. Thanks, Jim, for those comments. I think there’s a lot we agree on. I don’t think it’s such a stretch, but I do understand your reservation about the comment. I think you’re correct in saying the cell is so beautifully intricate, doing all these things, has all these orchestrations and all this machinery – we call it machinery, there’s stuff going on – but I would remind us what does a cell actually do? A cell is a collection of atoms that, when you feed it simpler atoms, it’s able to then metabolize and work. Then what distinguishes a cell from a lump of sand and other stuff is it can copy itself.

That’s what fascinates us, the fact that the cell is able to copy itself faithfully, not perfectly. It’s not like a copy of a Van Gogh. It’s slightly different and everything is in a different place, but it functions like a Van Gogh, if you see what I mean, so that’s really interesting.

I actually do think we might make a lifeform, but I think we need to set ourselves a high standard. So Jim, I would love you to be around in the next five years when we maybe show that we can go from sand to a cell and we say, “Hey Jim, look. Here’s sand. We shake the sand in our pot and out comes a cell.” We look at the cell and we do a Turing test and we put the cell under a microscope and you feed it food and it divides. And you look at a normal bacterial cell and it does the same thing. Then you’re like, “Wow, I can’t tell the difference.” But you look at the chemistry in there and you see the chemistry is more primitive.

What gives me hope is that evolution has taken a large number of years to search sequence space and make enzymes and the machinery very sophisticated to the environment. But if we basically make the environment in the lab very forgiving so we’re like a nursemaid but not a prescriber, like maybe we get in the origins of life community right now, we might see something new, so I think that’s really cool.

The reason I’m excited is one reason and one reason alone. It’s that for me, finding the gravity force or the phenomena that gives life is understanding how the universe creates random objects, that these random objects can then go on and become information-giving and act on random objects. Then that gives context and that creates information in the universe when there was none before. For it’s a natural consequence that cells will then come into being.

So what I’ve love to show Jim in a few years is a cell with polymers in it which are changing their sequence, reducing structures for function, which help the persistence of that cell, and then show him the lineage of how that cell then emerges from a soup that has evolution occurring, either at the cellular level first and then the molecular level, and you go on and make those nanomachines.

Justin: I’m sure Jim would love you to show him that as well. My question is, Lee, do you anticipate that’s what we are going to get in five years’ time?

Lee: Let’s say I’m not as pessimistic as Jim, but I’m as realistic. I don’t know if it’s going to work on the time scale. I’m pretty sure we’re seeing that there is a phenomena, but I don’t know how much time, how much stuff I’m going to need to do it, but I’m optimistic.

Justin: I’d be interested again in your response, Jim. The other question that’s striking me as well is we haven’t talked much about evolution in the sense of what happens after the point at which you do have some kind of – because from what I hear Lee saying, he’s fully confident that this process, time, and simply the ability for things to continue in an evolutionary process will develop the kind of complexity we see as you’ve described in the cell, those extraordinary information processing centers that exist.

I’d just be interested as a nanotechnician what you make of the evolutionary account in the larger scale, as well as this origin of life stuff, in terms of the complexity that does ultimately come out of it. I’m happy for you to begin where you want to begin in terms of responding there, Jim.

Jim: I just hope that what we will have at the end of the day is really something that does have the signs of life. Lee has mentioned a couple of times the Turing test. Turing was very specific as to what we would need if we had a computer that is really life-like.

The last paper I wrote said let’s get the community together and let’s define what are the targets that we would have to hit to really define that we’re beginning to describe origin of life. That is a real problem here, so if we can put some parameters on this.

Somebody was explaining something and I showed them. I poured some olive oil in a pan and I added a drop of soap to it, and immediately that olive oil glob just started to move around and it really looked like it was alive. It was just moving around on the surface of the water. I told them, “That is not alive. There are chemical effects happening. It’s moving around but it’s not alive.”

There are things that might look like they’re living, but there’s really no life there, so if we’re going to define some things and have a Turing test, let’s put some parameters on it. “This is what we would have to show, that this would begin to suggest a living system.”

But everything that Lee is talking about, everything is very far from a biological cell and the complexity of the simplest cells that we have and the simplest cells that we have signs of having. In other words, the simplest cells that we have in the record are about the same complexity as our simplest cells today.

There have been estimates that you have to have at least 256 protein coding genes and this level of sophistication if we’re going to talk about what’s the origin of life, of biological systems as we look at them.

Lee is going way back before this, and how much this is going to suggest about the biological systems that we see today, I don’t know. I’m fine with Lee working on what he wants to do, but let’s put some parameters of what we’re going to have to say that this is going to have life, because things that look like metabolism may not be metabolism. We can have lots of chemical reactions that occur and we can say, “Hey, that’s metabolism.”

What do we mean by that? What is replication? What is self-replication? All around there are parameters of fidelity. Does it only have to make one copy of itself and then die? So there are parameters about this, and these things are open to discussion. I’m open to that.

Justin, you talked about evolutionary things, and I think evolution is an argument for another day. It’s not something that I’ve spent a lot of time addressing. I’ve spent a short amount of time addressing it. That’s another problem.

Justin: Okay, we’ll leave that one kind of open for the moment, perhaps for another time.

As it stands, Lee, I’m glad in a way that we’ve had some rapprochement between you both towards the end of today’s recording, because I think you want to be modest, Lee, about what it is exactly that your research is showing. Jim is encouraging you to be as modest as possible and say, “Let’s remember this is a long way from anything that looks like even the very simplest form of cellular life, and ultimately we don’t know really what direction this might go in.”

It strikes me though, Lee, that you’re highly confident about something, which is that there’s a principle at work in the universe and it’s just a case of finding that principle. It’s a case of finding the natural principle of which you’re absolutely sure that complex life – humans, Bach, Beethoven, Shakespeare – are all the result of this principle simply acting throughout history, essentially.

I’m interested because I think at one level it takes me back to that sort of discussion we had on the first program about this word teleology, this idea that there is a drive in the universe towards life, and not even just life, maybe conscious life, towards life that ends up understanding itself as we do.

Lee: I don’t think consciousness exists, but that’s another discussion.

Let me answer your point. Look, in the last few weeks we have got the beginnings of a new theory which explains how we can measure complexity objectively in molecules. That gives us something very interesting.

I think that evolution is a phenomena that goes beyond biology, so I don’t want to start the last discussion, but I would reassure Jim and you to say that actually the universe is evolving or uses chemistry to evolve, and that’s where all that complexity comes from.

At the moment I’m finishing my calculations and I think I know how much time it can take to generate a ribosome, the minimal ribosome. For your listeners, a ribosome is the minimum machine that takes genetic material and is able to produce the molecular machines of the cell and literally orchestrate the production of the cell.

Many people have thought by looking at the information content of the ribosome, it’s just so high you can’t possibly arrive at it. Well, we have worked out how. Now, I’m not going to claim that we can do this in one day, one month, or one year. All I’m going to say to you is I think we have a theory how, and we’re going to go in the lab and do it.

This should get us excited because it starts again to get back to an experiment where people are saying, “There’s this complexity for free. How did it appear? There must be some non-natural explanation” on one hand, or what Jim is rightly saying, and he doesn’t want to be mischaracterized, that we just don’t know how, and there could be a naturalistic one.

I’ll take the nice comment that Jim made earlier, that 100 years ago we had no idea that DNA was the way that information was flowing through cells. Now we know. So I think that we are starting to do this, and I think that we will make primitive ribosomes in the lab.

Now, I have to be optimistic and modest, but there is a reason for a little bit of immodesty, and it’s not about being grandiose. This is about doing something very important that chemists are not doing very well. I think we can develop a new theory which understands how biology exists, not just on earth but anywhere in the universe, but it’s hard.

I think that we need to get young people coming into chemistry and thinking big, and thinking about making molecules and how molecules can make themselves. It’s hard and we need to have a level playing field and argue constructively so we can actually make a massive effort for humanity to understand, the same way that humanity understands that the Higgs boson exists. What principle in the universe allows life to emerge?

Why I came on this program is not only because I respect Jim as a scientist, but I respect his right to argue. Other people not engaging with the arguments I think is disappointing because they need to engage with him, because if we are going to bring young people and taxpayer money and people’s time and effort from the public to get enthusiastic beyond this, we need to show how we’re working together. 

The gravity waves experiment was a 70+ year experiment, 30 years of building and constructing, no prospect of success. Then suddenly we discovered gravity waves, and only by working together did we do it. So if part of our discussion can inspire people to work together to reframe the problem and to accept that we just don’t know how hard or easy it’s going to be, we’ll get people excited and say, “I’m going to try. I’m going to try.”

Right now I’m telling Jim, “I’m going to try.” I’ve got a method. I’ve got a plan. I’ve got a theory. I’m going to test it. I could be wrong, but at least do an experiment, at least get some objective evidence that we go attack and go around the cycle and see what happens.

Justin: Jim, in some ways Lee’s almost casting it as, “I’m the optimist and maybe you’re a bit too much the pessimist when it comes to what could happen, what we might just find out in the lab about the origins of life.”

You’ve said clearly, though, that you are all for what Lee is doing in trying to explore the naturalistic explanation. Presumably if he did, and if he came up with something that met those criteria, passing some kind of a test of what life is, you would welcome it with open arms, Jim, because you want to know as well if there is a naturalistic route to forming life.

Jim: Absolutely. A naturalistic explanation doesn’t bother me at all and it doesn’t upset my faith at all. I would just say, “Wow! God is all the more magnanimous. So that’s how he did it.” It wouldn’t upset my faith at all, so I welcome a naturalistic explanation. I think in life we’re going to continue to see naturalistic explanations to things, and it doesn’t shake my faith at all. This is why we’re here.

Lee: Sorry, I was going to come back to that in the last discussion. Lots of people think this discussion is about science and religion arguing. I would just say science and religion can exist perfectly well if one respects the other. Science is falsifiable, religion is not, and how dare I as a scientist say to someone who believes in something, “You’re not allowed to believe in that.”

I think if we respect those boundaries and that construction, we can kind of push one another, because as I said in the last broadcast I’m not religious, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think the universe is incredibly beautiful and marvelous.

Now Jim might say, “Oh well, that’s because you don’t understand and you’re just manifesting another way.” That might be, but as an atheist I really exist in the universe that is my universe, and I want to ask why do things happen. I think that’s not anti-religion. It’s not anti-belief. It also allows Jim to embrace a naturalistic explanation, because you know at the end of the day if there was a big bang, God could just be the person that made the flick to set everything up. You might have the answer for that, right?

Justin: Do you want to respond to that, Jim, as we start to close out our program today?

Jim: God said, “Let there be light,” and there’s a naturalistic explanation that then comes in after all of this. I think that’s perfectly fine. I’m fine with naturalistic explanations. I’ve never been opposed to that, and I’m glad to see these things come forth.

Justin: And all you’re doing then, in a sense, Jim, is simply pointing out for people that there’s still a gaping gap between the current naturalistic explanations that are being put on the table, and the reality. For you it could well be that someone like Lee does eventually make something that’s more convincing.

If he doesn’t, and say we could all be sat here in 500 years’ time and that target has moved even further away in your estimation, would it raise the possibility that maybe it’s not a naturalistic explanation? Maybe there is a design somewhere. Maybe someone has been prodding the bits into place that were needed for life to get going on earth.

Jim: No, I don’t think that you could ever make that jump. I don’t think that’s possible. Just because it doesn’t come out in 500 years, maybe it will come out in 600 years. That’s why I never use this “God of the gap” argument, that what we don’t know must somehow be God, because I get surprised all the time. Every time I read the literature I get surprised. I’m like, “Whoa, that’s interesting. I didn’t know that,” so I’m quite open to naturalistic explanations because God has set up a natural world. That there’s a naturalistic explanation for everything that we see – I’m fine with that. I’m absolutely fine with that.

Anyway, I appreciate Lee joining me on this show. This is a first, that an origin of life researcher is willing to sit down and talk with me about something.

Justin: I appreciate you doing that as well, Lee, so thank you very much for coming back on the show. I should point people to both your websites. Croninlab.com is where you can find out more about Lee’s research, and DrJamesTour.com for more about Jim’s work and his speaking and so on.

In the meantime, I’m sorry the time is over so quickly. I’ve had a fascinating and fun time myself, so thank you, Lee, and thank you, Jim, for being on the show today.

Download The First 3 Chapters of Evolution 2.0 For Free, Here – https://evo-2.org/3-free-chapters/

Where Did Life And The Genetic Code Come From? Can The Answer Build Superior AI? The #1 Mystery In Science Now Has A $10 Million Prize. Learn More About It, Here – https://www.herox.com/evolution2.0

10 Responses

  1. Russell Snow says:

    Interesting discussion. At the end you said you oppose God in the gaps arguments. Shouldn’t we be equally opposed to science in the gaps arguments? The default seems to be naturalism which prejudices the debate.

    • Fantastic question.

      Naturalism of the gaps is really just: making up naturalistic stories for which you have no proof. There are a LOT of made-up stories in this business.

      God of the gaps is: “we can’t explain it, therefore God did it so there is no naturalistic explanation.”

      By upbringing and personal biases and everything else, I was much more inclined especially 10-15 years ago to prefer a God of Gaps to Naturalism of Gaps explanation.

      But I started coming to some realizations:

      First, a scientist has a job to do. He cannot write “God did it” in a scientific paper and publish it and get a paycheck. If Isaac Newton had watched the apple fall out of the tree and said “God did that” he would not have discovered gravity.

      (Nor should scientists be allowed to make up a narrative for which there is no real proof and publish in a scientific paper and get a paycheck, although that is often exactly what happens.)

      Second, once I got deep into the scientific literature I began discovering all kinds of things that the creationists and intelligent design guys were conveniently not bothering to mention. Things like transposition, symbiogenesis, hybridization.

      I explain that here:

      https://evo2.org/id-blind-spot/

      and

      https://evo2.org/michael-flannery-intelligent-design/

      Frankly I think both sides are being dishonest. Neither side is serving science. That’s why I wrote Evolution 2.0 and created a $10M prize.

      And by the way, one of the things the prize demonstrates is that nobody has solved the design problem in biology. Not Charles Darwin, not David Hume, not Richard Dawkins or anybody else. From now on, nobody gets to pretend.

  2. Giancarlo Reali says:

    Dear Perry,
    James Tour is admittedly “slightly” aggressive in some of his talks on the Origin of Life (OoL), nevertheless no one has been able to convincingly reply to him, nor Lee Cronin in my opinion. Tour is asking scientific questions while the others report essentially the Darwin’s hypothesis and picture or, worst, the happy chemical accident. He is right when he says that today we are way more distant from an answer than Miller’s times (1953!), a fact that for research budget convenience and/or for ideological/philosophical positions is purposely ignored. He flatly says that maybe a natural answer will be available in the future (without
    being touched a bit in his faith, he says) but he pretends honesty now in the statements of the scientists on the present understanding, as we ask
    on the question about evolution, where the academic position is still largely Neo-Darwinism, again mainly because of ideological/philosophical preconceptions.
    (By the way, in my opinion your exposition “Evolution 2.0” remains the most comprehensive, affordable, and clear report for uninitiated people; please, consider an update or, alternatively, an extended review including the OoL topic).
    Back to Tour, I have frankly not understood your position, if you agree or not, and to which extent: I would have preferred a more sharp position either case by you.
    Anyway, I am with Tour (which, by the way, has often a scientific stature far above his detractors, he’s really a superstar in his professional field). He is NOT an Intelligent Design person, as he clearly states in his home page: I think that that suspect is keeping someone away from his positions.
    Hope you’re well, we are still struggling with the coronavirus problem over here and see the recovery very far ahead.
    Cheers,
    Giancarlo

    • Giancarlo,

      Thanks for your compliments about EV2.0.

      I think Tour’s criticisms are well founded and he brought a rigorous approach to this discussion.

      I thought Lee’s reduction of the question to something much less than biology needs is exactly that – much less than biology – but I think it’s a worthwhile pursuit nevertheless.

      The thing I felt good about was, we got the two camps talking to each other in a very credible format. That’s half the battle. My hope is that we can “let out the clutch” in bringing more dialogue between these various camps.

      Also I think Tour’s rejection of contemporary theories combined with his distancing from the ID camp is appropriate.

      If you dig deeper into Cronin’s work, especially this paper https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1907/1907.04649.pdf

      you see that he is forthright about the problems of agency and complexity in biology. This paper cuts through a lot of crap, and forms the basis for some new work that he will soon publish that is very good.

      He is still far from solving the problem but he is definitely pushing the field further.

  3. Around the 33 minute mark, Lee inadvertently revealed the weaknesses of the kind of position he is putting forward in two of his comments. Firstly he said “Even in a universe without life, the laws of physics and chemistry would exist”. There’s a hidden assumption here. Physics and chemistry depend on mathematics. It does seem on a naive view that mathematics exists independently of consciousness, but actually the reasons for the validity of the Foundations of Mathematics is a very deep problem which has challenged the finest philosophical minds of the 20th century.
    It is by no means clear that – for example – the notion of an ellipse has any independent objective existence without a conscious mind to apprehend it. Clearly, we all assume that the earth was orbiting around the sun in an elliptical orbit before there was life here (much less human life with mathematicians), but it is a deep and currently unsolved mystery what could be the ontological status of an ‘ellipse’ without a conscious mind to conceive it.
    Secondly, he said ‘That life that I made in the lab, did it come from me, and where did I come from?’ That goes right to the heart of the matter. He acknowledges that he is not starting from scratch, he is bringing his own intentionality (and all the prior human investigation, and the human activity in providing him with his materials) to the problem. His lab work (which is admittedly impressive) is not starting from scratch on an unformed lifeless planet.

  4. Seppo Heikkilä says:

    The paper ‘Quantifying the pathway to life using assembly spaces’, by Lee Cronin and Sarah Walker mentioned above, is an example of what life does. But the physics of what life does is hardly enough for evaluating the truth of the theory presented in that paper. Moreover, there seems to be no pathway from physics to meanings of the following expressions used in Conclusions of that article: explore, mathematical formalism, define, indication, knowledge, detect, know, interest, identify, look for, emergence, intelligent, feel, concept, help, understand and believe.

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