Critique of TSW Part 20a Origin of Life

Blog 20140924 

Bill suggests that the origin of life from inorganic matter would be better termed abiogenesis. I agree.

I am ever so grateful to Bill Westmiller, whose comments are marked "BW: ". The quotes marked TSW are from "The Scientific Worldview" and my comments are marked "[GB: ".

The Origin of Life (Part 1 of 2)

BW: Generally, I agree with all of your conclusions, but there are several weaknesses in the argument.

TSW:  "... the scientific study of biopoesis, which is the process by which life originated from inanimate matter."

BW: I don't think that's the correct term. Biopoesis (or biopoiesis, or biogênese) was a coined word that specifically referred to "process of living matter evolving from self-replicating but nonliving molecules." I'm not sure what were considered self-replicating non-living matter at the time Oparin [1940] coined it, but Dmitri Ivanovsky had discovered a tobacco mosaic virus 50 years earlier and thought it was self-replicating. He was wrong, but viruses were considered the precursors of living cellular bacteria for several decades:

The correct term for the evolution of life from non-living matter is "Abiogenesis".

[GB: Good suggestion.

TSW:  "Frederick Engels was among the first to suggest that life originated from inanimate matter."

BW: Dicta from the Federick Engels Fan Club? Two millennia before Engels [1883 AD], Aristotle [350 BC] suggested that life arose from inanimate matter. He was wrong on the details (mainly due to erroneous reports from Egypt), but the presumption was popular for many centuries. Even primitive biblical authors thought Adam was "made from" clay.

It wasn't Engels' idea in any case. In "The Dialectics of Nature", Engels refers to scientific reports "only about ten years ago", probably referring to either Wöhler or Dmitri Ivanovsky, who had both observed that viruses exhibited some of the characteristics of life.

TSW:  "... neo-Darwinism, must be considered useless for this purpose because biopoesis is the study of the transition from the nonbiologic into the biologic."

BW: Except that, years before Ivanovsky, Charles Darwin [1871] expressed his belief that life evolved from a "warm little pond, with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, lights, heat, electricity, etc. present, so that a protein compound was chemically formed ready to undergo still more complex changes"." (See Wiki link on Abiogenesis.)

But, if the Engels Fan Club considers Engels' speculation to be "among the first", or contrary to Darwin, fine.

[GB: Thanks for the refs. You have shown that ideas about abiogenesis were in the air for centuries. It seems that like your experience, wherever I look, really new ideas are rare. There are smidgeons of thought on almost any topic imaginable. Your Darwin reference shows that he was more enlightened about abiogenesis than many of his successors who maintain that evolution only involves genes + natural selection. Like the almost total ignorance of Newton’s push theory, Darwin’s mention of abiogenesis was mostly ignored because it did not fit the indeterministic program. In the philosophical struggle, to the winner belong the spoils. The touchy nature of abiogenesis and its implications for religion left the field open to materialists and atheists—a lesson to all scientists tempted to use indeterministic assumptions instead.]

TSW:  "... the only way to preserve finity is to lump all the less important conditions under a singular cause: chance."

BW: Granted, that was one popular view after Darwin's book, propounded by those who discovered that cosmic rays *could* modify DNA, but only "probably" a cause of any particular mutation. That has taken a back seat to many other causes, but many of them are "chance" occurrences. Nothing to do with finity or infinity.

[GB: No. There is no such thing or occurrence as “chance.” Reread the section on the
Third Assumption of Science, uncertainty (It is impossible to know everything about anything, but it is possible to know more about anything.) Without our assumption of infinity, that statement would not be true. True to form, you seem to think of this as a mere quibble, but it is essential to the whole argument of "The Scientific Worldview." Your reluctance to dump Aristotle’s “absolute chance” is still typical of today’s indeterminists. With the idealist’s belief in solid matter and empty space necessary for Finite Particle Theory, comes the consupponible belief in absolute chance. On the other hand, univironmental determinism claims that, within what is normally called “chance” or “chaos,” lies an infinity of microcosms in motion producing an infinity of material causes, as assumed in the Second Assumption of Science, causality (All effects have an infinite number of material causes). There is no empty space anywhere in the infinite universe, just as there is no solid matter anywhere in the infinite universe. The word “chance” should be banned from our vocabulary—it is nothing more than observer ignorance.]

TSW:  "This quasi-Aristotelian view, that biopoesis is unlikely rather than likely ..."

BW: Again, ragging on Aristotle, for no good reason. See above.

[GB: See above. Aristotle’s mistake is very important because it is exploited heavily by indeterminists. For instance, the “unlikely” claim derived from it is used by creationists and other indeterminists as an opening for the “god-of-the-gaps” arguments they use to confront evolution in favor of their god hypotheses. Of course, given the proper univironment, abiogenesis not only likely, it is a near certainty. One could not be an exobiologist without that assumption. The discovery of the first exoplanet in 1988 (4 years after I finished the first draft of "The Scientific Worldview") puts us well on the way to discovering life elsewhere in the universe.]

TSW:  "A protein consisting of a chain of 100 amino acids is necessary for life as we know it."

BW: Actually, only 23 amino acids are produced by most living life forms, but they are all "assembled" by DNA/RNA, not by random encounters. Proteins are the *result* of DNA, not the cause of life.

[GB: Partly true. My statement is correct as written. Glad to see that you are backing away from chance as an operator. Sorry, but proteins can form independently of DNA. As mentioned in the Wikipedia article you cited: “Short proteins can also be synthesized chemically by a family of methods known as peptide synthesis, which rely on organic synthesis techniques such as chemical ligation to produce peptides in high yield.” No one would call such syntheses abiogenetic, although they might be necessary steps to producing life in a test tube.]

Next: The Origin of Life (Part 2 of 2)

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