The fundamental scientific problem with a comprehensive solution to the origin of life is not how the basic building blocks of biochemicals (amino acids, nucleotides, fatty acids) were formed, although there are still many unresolved questions about how conditions on the young earth could allow for the spontaneous, undirected synthesis of most of these compounds. It also isn’t about how such building blocks could come together to form peptides, oligonucleotides, and lipids, or even how these molecules could eventually produce the long polymers (proteins, nucleic acids, glycans, etc.) necessary for life as we know it. There are many problems yet to be worked out, but I do not consider any of these chemical synthesis problems to be a fundamental mystery because each of them may very well have an answer that is just beyond our current chemical understanding.
That is not the case for the actual fundamental mystery of abiogenesis. Even if all the difficulties with a chemical evolution approach to a natural synthesis of any of these chemical components of life are eventually solved, that mystery will remain.
That mystery (and I use the term mystery rather than problem or obstacle on purpose) is this: how is it possible for any of these biomolecules to gradually form complex systems by the standard evolutionary method of natural selection (the way all of biology works), when all such systems (which include highly accurate self-replication, highly efficient energy conversion, an inherited informational system, and complex functional membranes) are required to allow for the existence of this gradual evolutionary process of refinement or optimization.
In other words, since evolution by natural selection requires these systems to be at least close to their present levels of complexity and sophistication, such sophistication cannot be explained by an evolutionary process and could only be explained by purely chemical forces or random chance, neither of which is remotely feasible.
Mixing together strands of DNA, as many protein- or RNA-based catalytic polymers as you like, all the lipid and protein components of membranes, and all the molecules required to convert solar energy into the kind of chemical energy that can be used by cells does nothing but makes these molecules sit there in the test tube. The answer to this dilemma is that life as we know it could not have suddenly appeared in this way, but must have started out as a much simpler, more basic system of primitive systems that slowly and gradually improved and were selected for by…. Oh, wait. I just said that such selection cannot happen until those systems are already quite advanced. So, no. That doesn’t work. You begin to see why I call this the fundamental mystery?
Now you might say to me, “how do you know this is true? How do you that your premise about requiring a high level of sophistication and complexity is really a requirement for any kind of selection in the evolutionary sense? Do you have any evidence for this?
So glad you asked. As a matter of fact, I do. And it has been published in two peer-reviewed papers in the mainstream literature—to no fanfare and almost no notice. That doesn’t concern me, since the purpose of publishing scientific work (as opposed to a mass market book, for example) is not get lots of attention, but to establish a scientific finding that can be referred to when needed. And it is now needed.
I talked about the first paper in a blog post from November 2020, shortly after the paper was published:
Since then I have published a second paper in a new journal called BioCosmos, which used the results of the first paper to produce phase-transition diagrams illustrating the impossibility of a smooth, continuous transition from low-accuracy cell self-replication to high-accuracy replication. In this paper I also theoretically derived the same equations relating survival probability and replication accuracy (measures of fitness) to growth constants that came out of the empirical simulation experiments described in the first paper.
So, yes, there is evidence for my claim. And I am confident that if anyone looked, they would find the same empirical and theoretical evidence for the impossibility of gradually evolving energy conversion, membrane composition, and informational systems as well.
Where does all this leave us? Whenever science encounters a seemingly insoluble mystery (like the constant speed of light or the quantum nature of atomic orbital energies), the only way forward is to find an entirely new way of approaching the issue. I think its time to start doing exactly that.
Is this in short the problem of emergence? (asking s a layman…)
Hi Ineke, I think emergence (whatever that is) must be part of the solution, but as far as I can tell the phenomenon of emergence is just as mysterious, and is more of a description than an explanation.
A yes, of course. Thank you!
I love how you make this intelligible and exciting to someone with no background (just a lay interest) in the topic. Thank you.
Thank you, Sheila. More to come.
Great post. I actually remember us discussing this topic on Gather. Interestingly, shortly after that I read Woese’s paper and then we had another discussion.
My take on it is the reasoning used by forensic investigators: For life as we know it to exist, DNA must have formed simultaneously with its impressively complex repair system. When that many highly improbable events occur in the same place at the same time, the logical inference is that it was deliberate, not coincidental.