Testing The Hypothesis of Abiogenesis

I wish to show here, that there is no viable current theory of abiogenesis–how living things can arise from non-living matter.  A scientific theory, that makes assertions about cause and effect relationships, must make specific predictions, that can be tested experimentally, and must be falsifiable. I’ll try to make this as non-technical as possible.

Typically, a scientific experiment will have one or more independent variables (the factors that are changed or manipulated across experimental conditions) and one or more dependent variables (the factor that is measured to be used in determining the outcome of the experiment).  Also, every attempt is made to control for other influences that may affect the dependent variable or confound (1) the outcomes of the study.  The more variables that are involved, the more experimental groups are required, and the more complex the statistical analysis.  Now, one thing that is important in designing an experiment, is estimating the statical power (2) that is required.

An experiment can be thought of as a specific type of method used in scientific inquiries, and personal questioning, usually to study causality. Often the objective is to test a hypothesis: i.e. a tentative explanation of a phenomenon or mechanism of causality. The essence of an experiment is to introduce a change in a system (the independent variable) and to study the effect of this change (the dependent variable). Two fundamental considerations of experimental design are:

  • That the independent variable is the only factor that varies systematically in the experiment; in other words, that the experiment is appropriately controlled – that confounding variables are eliminated; and
  • That the dependent variable truly reflects the phenomenon under study (a question of validity) and that the variable can be measured accurately (i.e., that various types of experimental error, such as measurement error can be eliminated).  (3)

For example, it might be hypothesized that that patients who are prayed for will recover faster than patients who were not prayed for.  You can randomly assign patients to a “prayed for” group and a “not prayed for group.”  However, in this type of experiment, it is virtually impossible to eliminate confounding variables (i.e., the patients may pray for themselves, the patients family members may pray for them, people in general may pray for the healing of the sick).  So, a finding of no statistically significant difference in recovery rates between the groups would be confounded by prayer actually occurring in the “not prayed for group.”  (4) [footnote 1]

For a better example of a controlled experiment, consider the following:

Two hundred participants are randomly assigned to either a group that takes vitamin C or a placebo for 6 weeks.  The number of colds for each participant are counted during the trial period.  The individual involved in counting the number of colds is “blind” to the condition that the participants are in.  Statistical analyses are conducted to see if the number of colds differ significantly between the control and experimental condition.

The criteria used most often in a controlled experiment is that if the results could be expected by chance 5% or less of the time, then the groups are consider to differ significantly supporting the hypothesis.  In this case, that taking vitamin C will significantly reduce the number of colds experienced over a 6 week period.  That means approximately 5% of the time, chance will produce these results, and the experimenters will be wrong in finding support for their hypotheses that often.  This is considered a reasonable level of risk in being incorrect in their inferences.

So, back to abiogenesis.  The number of “subjects” or trials needed in order to successfully examine the notion that a “prebiotic soup” could result in non-living matter becoming life is beyond any, and possibly any future, experimental methods.  By the accounts of naturalistic evolutionists, the chances of a pre-life-unit arising in this hypothetical prebiotic soup are 1 in 4.29 x 10^40 (that’s 4.29 followed by 40 zeros).  Creationists calculations claim a much larger number (2.04 x 10^390) (5).  Naturalists claim a hypothetical state of the early seas containing a high concentration of organic monomers.  They claim that the correct combination of materials could have occured within 1 million years, or on the first try.

So, in order to conduct controlled experiments that may support this theory, you’d probably need to conduct 80 to 95 times 4.29 x 10^40 trials in order to say that these early conditions could not form a pre-life-unit.  In conducting those trials, a single pre-life-unit would support the theory.  This is impossible to conduct, and thus the theory is unfalsifiable.  It fails to pass the basic requirements needed to be a viable scientific theory.

References

(1). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confounding_variable
(2). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Experiment
(3). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Statistical_power
(4). http://www.secularhumanism.org/library/fi/avalos_17_3.html
(5). http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/abioprob/abioprob.html

Footnotes

[1] The assumption is that God would allow Himself to be a manipulated independent variable in research.  “Thou shalt not test the Lord thy God.”

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23 Responses

  1. This is what I heard a chemistry prof at OSU state several years ago, and I remember thinking, “If the odds are stacked this high against abiogenesis, then why would any scientist continue to pursue it as though it can be substantiated?”

    But as sure as God made little green apples;-), this information will be downplayed or even blasted as ID dogma by many who frequent your site. Odds-makers in Vegas wouldn’t touch this bet with a ten mile long pole, but I guess scientists and their followers have much greater faith!

  2. DB: “this information will be downplayed or even blasted as ID dogma by many who frequent your site.”

    No, DB, just by one. The others have picked up their ribosomes and gone home, shaking their heads in despair.

    Shrink’s exposition of experimental methods is good. Mathematical models first must reflect valid principles. But another source of error is that they also reflect the data that you put into them.[1] The key phrase is, garbage in, garbage out.

    Shrink got his numbers third-hand from TalkOrigins. These guys generally do a good job, but they don’t update very often. As I’ve noted many times elsewhere, a lot of research has gone under the bridge since 1998. Focus has changed from warm little ponds to deep-sea volcanic vents, structure has morphed from protein coats to simple lipid vesicles, autocatalytic replication without DNA or RNA has been demonstrated, and so on.[2] There is as yet no “theory,” because we don’t know which one if any of the known alternatives might fit the early environment, or even what that environment was like to any precision. I’d bet even CSI Miami would have a hard time tracking that down after 4 billion years.[3]

    To address the specific numbers that Shrink cites, let’s hear from the Conclusion section of the same Web page that was cited: “At the moment, since we have no idea how probable life is, it’s virtually impossible to assign any meaningful probabilities to any of the steps to life…” Garbage in, garbage out.

    ====================
    [1] Usually rather strongly. The classic equation (sorry, can’t remember the name) for the probability of extraterrestrial life is the product of a dozen or so factors, almost none of which are unknown within a wide range. And most of them are small, which amplifies the effects of errors.

    [2] I cited a much more recent summary in Scientific American previously. Sorry, not going to go look it up again.

    [3] Unless you are cdesign proponentsists. Then all you have to do is assume anything you like, smile smugly, and deny all evidence to the contrary. And, as lagniappe, you never have to change your mind about anything. (Q: Why did I sign up for the team that has to do all the wok? A: To paraphrase Samuel Johnson: Curiosity, Madam, pure curiosity.)

    [*] Shrink, if you ever want a mind-buster in statistics, look up the Turing-Good Estimator. I still find it hard to believe that one can estimate the probability of something whose antecedent sample size is zero.

  3. DB: “But as sure as God made little green apples;-)”

    Are you familiar with Ray Comfort’s little video showing the existence of God by the “perfect” design of bananas?

    This is a hoot and a half. What we know, but apparently Ray doesn’t, is that the banana was designed in 1836 in Jamaica.

    Before then, the “banana” was a 4′ red & green plantain that was so tough and starchy that humans had to pound and cook the bejeepers out of it before it was edible. (Monkeys have much stronger jaw muscles, thank you very much.) Then Jean Francois Poujot succeeded in breeding a large, sweet, yellow mutant that captured the imagination of modern civilization and is, I think, currently our favorite fruit (although technically it’s an herb, not a fruit).

    So, thanks a bunch, Jean Francois Poujot! You have demonstrated the existence of intelligent design.

  4. Are you familiar with Ray Comfort’s little video showing the existence of God by the “perfect” design of bananas?

    And Aristotle thought that decaying material could spontaneously form into animals. Talk about a hoot. It took a Christian researcher, Louis Pasteur, to disprove all the old silly, and funny, notions of abiogenesis.

  5. To address the specific numbers that Shrink cites, let’s hear from the Conclusion section of the same Web page that was cited: “At the moment, since we have no idea how probable life is, it’s virtually impossible to assign any meaningful probabilities to any of the steps to life…” Garbage in, garbage out.

    Then, I think they should probably not use numbers that have to do with the probability and then turn around and state that “we have no idea how probable life is.” So, they say they know and then they don’t. I think that’s a bit convenient. And I think it doesn’t really matter if the origin is a warm pond, cold space, clay, liquid crystals, diamonds, deep sea vents, or what have you. If you have a notion for the minimal complexity of the “protocell,” then you have an idea about the probability.

  6. Shrink: “If you have a notion for the minimal complexity of the “protocell,” then you have an idea about the probability.”

    That’s a big ‘if’. But the point is that the required complexity keeps getting smaller and smaller. And the theory of self-organizing systems allows larger and larger self-assembled things using only simple components and rules. The more we learn, the simpler it seems to become.

    Shrink: “It took a Christian researcher, Louis Pasteur, to disprove all the old silly, and funny, notions of abiogenesis.

    No, it took a science researcher. In science, your religion makes no difference. While Christian and Muslim jihadists slaughter each other, Christian and Muslim physicists co-author papers on cosmology. (The ones I had specifically in mind were John Archibald Wheeler and Abdus Salam.)

  7. Shrink: “So, they say they know and then they don’t. I think that’s a bit convenient.”

    No, it’s inconvenient. A guess is a place to start, and then it gets refined. Sometimes the initial guess is just a shot in the dark. But, unlike intelligent design, science always has more to learn. That’s what I like about it. Others find it unnerving, even frightening.

  8. That’s a big ‘if’. But the point is that the required complexity keeps getting smaller and smaller. And the theory of self-organizing systems allows larger and larger self-assembled things using only simple components and rules. The more we learn, the simpler it seems to become.

    Actually the probability just keeps increasing from Aristotle on. I thought you said the probability could not be determined so how would you know it’s decreasing?

    No, it took a science researcher. In science, your religion makes no difference. While Christian and Muslim jihadists slaughter each other, Christian and Muslim physicists co-author papers on cosmology. (The ones I had specifically in mind were John Archibald Wheeler and Abdus Salam.)

    I make this point because you seem to think that apart from Ken Miller, Christians are incapable of doing science. Your appeal to jihad is a red herring as other scientists, of no particular religious persuasion, have been involved in making deadly weapons.

  9. No, it’s inconvenient. A guess is a place to start, and then it gets refined. Sometimes the initial guess is just a shot in the dark. But, unlike intelligent design, science always has more to learn. That’s what I like about it. Others find it unnerving, even frightening.

    I have no problem with folks saying, “I don’t know.” That’s not what is done here. Abiogenesis is considered a forgone conclusion, although it is not, and cannot be demonstrated. It doesn’t hold up to the requirements of a valid scientific causal theory.

    ID also has more to learn. The edge of what must be designed versus what can be “created” through natural selection is ongoing. Some might find this frightening or unnerving, but I find it interesting.

  10. Olorin,

    I will remember your info on the banana as I eat my cereal tomorrow morning and thank God that I didn’t have to beat my banana into submission just to eat it!;-) I wonder if this was true of the Bic Banana also?;-)

    BTW, I don’t think too many have left, they’re just watching and taking it all in!

  11. No one worth taking seriously has claimed that abiogenesis has been demonstrated, so that claim that anyone does say so is a red herring. The question is whether abiogenesis seems plausible.

    It does not strike me as a neglect of epistemic duty, so to speak, if one thinks, as Olorin and I do, that as we learn more and more about (a) how little complexity is necessary for life and (b) how much complexity can be tweaked out the chemistry of self-organizing systems, that there is very likely a point at which mere chemistry ends and life begins, and that nothing supernatural need be added to chemistry to get life.

    To repeat: that it seems plausible that this is so, based on what we do and do not know, surely does not mean that abiogenesis has been demonstrated. But just the same, from the fact that abiogenesis has not been demonstrated, it surely does not follow that abiogenesis cannot be demonstrated.

    I guess I’d like to hear more from Country Shrink and the others here as where you think Olorin and I have made claims to which we’re not reasonably entitled. For it seems to me that the case you wish to make is that abiogenesis rests on an act of faith, and taking faith as an assertion made without sufficient evidence, it seems that I’m being accused of shirking my epistemic duty. That’s something I try to avoid, when I can.

  12. Shrink: “Actually the probability just keeps increasing from Aristotle on. I thought you said the probability could not be determined so how would you know it’s decreasing?”

    I didn’t say it could be determined. Read my comment again.

    Shrink: “I make this point because you seem to think that apart from Ken Miller, Christians are incapable of doing science.”

    I don’t think Christians are incapable of doing science. Read my comment again.

    Shrink: “[Abiogenesis] doesn’t hold up to the requirements of a valid scientific causal theory.”

    I didn’t say it was a theory. Read my comment again.

  13. Hi, Carl. Thanks for the succor. You say it less obnoxiously than I can.

  14. Carl, I don’t think I said that anyone said it had been demonstrated. I’ve asserted the opposite. I also assert that a general theory of abiogenesis is untenable as a scientific theory because it is untestable and unfalsifiable.

    You’re making an appeal to as yet undiscovered circumstances where chemistry can become life. I think it should be continued to be researched. I have no problem with that, but you need to develop better theories–ones that will pass scientific muster. Until then, if it ever happens, it is an article of faith.

    I wouldn’t tell someone what their epistemic duty is or is not. People are entitled to place their faith where they wish, and will do so on the basis of the knowledge they have among other factors. But this has little to do with the viability of a general theory of abiogenesis as a scientific theory.

  15. Ok Olorin, I guess we don’t really disagree that much then. I’m sorry, I think I was reading between the lines, perhaps too much, on your comment. Although I think you might be able to see how I would think you were making these assertions at least implicitly.

  16. I wouldn’t let me off the hook so easily if I were you, Country Shrink. By which I mean, there are conditions under which it is appropriate to take a “leap of faith,” and conditions under which it is not, if we deserve to be taken seriously as rational beings. The very point of dialogue is to remind each other of our epistemic duties — that is, our obligations as reasoners, thinkers, and knowers. That’s what makes rational dialogue different from a mere “show and tell” of personal opinions.

    So yes, Country Shrink, you are not merely entitled but obligated, as a rational being, to tell others what their epistemic duties are — and you are likewise obliged to respond to what others tell you. And the exact same holds for myself, and for Olorin, and for everyone else.

    You’re making an appeal to as yet undiscovered circumstances where chemistry can become life.

    Fair enough, perhaps, but the real question is whether or not it is reasonable to believe that those circumstances could be discovered. And at pain of repetition: the point here is not whether one choose to make some leap of faith beyond available evidence, but whether, on the basis of evidence, it is reasonable to believe that the transition from mere chemistry to life took place without supernatural (or intelligent) intervention.

    To take some examples on which there is more agreement: I would like to think that we can all agree that it is very reasonable to believe that the next president of the United States will be a man, somewhat reasonable to believe that it will be a black man, and completely unreasonable to believe that the next president of the United States will be an australopithecine.

    (Note: when I say that it is ‘somewhat reasonable to believe that the next president of the United States will be a black man,’ this is entirely independent of what anyone may hope or fear will be the case — it is based on an assessment of polling data, demographics, trends in American politics over the past few months, etc.)

    So someone who sincerely believes that the next US president will be an australopithecine is someone who, despite the sincerity of her conviction, has lost the right to be taken seriously. She is, as they say, a loony.

    What I want to know is this: is it your view that someone who believes that the transition from mere chemistry to life took place without supernatural intervention a loony?

  17. Shrink: “I also assert that a general theory of abiogenesis is untenable as a scientific theory because it is untestable and unfalsifiable.”

    I think we have a fundamental misunderstanding here. Abiogenesis not only is not a scientific theory, it cannot be a scientific theory.

    Is evolution a theory? No. Darwinian evolution is a theory. Why? Because it is a mechanism or model that explains a group of facts or observations, can be tested, and makes predictions useful in understanding and/or controlling physical phenomena. Darwin’s theory of evolution is summed up as common descent by means of heritable variation and natural selection. Variation and selection are the mechanism, just as, say, Gmn=8piTmn is the model of relativity.

    Abiogenesis by itself is not mechanism or model. If someone proposes how life arose from chemicals on the early earth, and what processes were involved, then we have a “theory” of abiogenesis. This theory can then be tested and is capable of being falsified.

  18. Carl wrote:

    So yes, Country Shrink, you are not merely entitled but obligated, as a rational being, to tell others what their epistemic duties are — and you are likewise obliged to respond to what others tell you. And the exact same holds for myself, and for Olorin, and for everyone else.

    Well, first off, thanks for speaking my language. Secondly, I don’t believe I’m always obliged to tell others what their epistemic duties are. But perhaps since we are having a rational conversation I do have an obligation, so I’ll make a go of it.

    Fair enough, perhaps, but the real question is whether or not it is reasonable to believe that those circumstances could be discovered. And at pain of repetition: the point here is not whether one choose to make some leap of faith beyond available evidence, but whether, on the basis of evidence, it is reasonable to believe that the transition from mere chemistry to life took place without supernatural (or intelligent) intervention.

    I’ll answer this way. Certain materials that go into the formation of a car can form naturally (e.g., glass, alloys). You can even experimentally form all the required materials needed for a car. You could even build all the individual parts of a car. But you would be neglecting your epistemtic duties by assuming that some day a theory will be discovered which will explain how these parts can self-assemble into a working, drivable car.

    What I want to know is this: is it your view that someone who believes that the transition from mere chemistry to life took place without supernatural intervention a loony?

    No. I consider each position, ID and the naturalistic explanation, to require roughly equal leaps of faith. For me, the involvement of intelligent agency is more compelling (the naturalistic explanation requires a greater leap of faith).

  19. Olorin wrote:

    Abiogenesis by itself is not mechanism or model. If someone proposes how life arose from chemicals on the early earth, and what processes were involved, then we have a “theory” of abiogenesis. This theory can then be tested and is capable of being falsified.

    Perhaps. But in order to be useful, it must be truly testable. It must not take millions of years to conduct the experiment.

  20. Shrink: “Perhaps. But in order to be useful, it must be truly testable.”

    We’re not speaking the same language. Abiogenesis is not a theory in the same sense that a unicorn is not a theory. Unicorns might or might not exist; abiogenesis might or might not have taken place. Neither unicorns nor abiogensis forms “a logically self-consistent model or framework for describing the behavior of a related set of natural or social phenomena,” in the words of Wikipedia.

    Abiogenesis can be a fact, but cannot be a theory.

    The fact of (naturalistic, I assume you to mean) can be tested. Why do you think this would take millions of years? We know how stars form without waiting millions of years to watch one. Remember that science “proves” nothing in the deductive sense. It gathers evidence that may be more or less reliable and may be corroborated or controverted by other evidence. If we can winkle out the environment of the primordial Earth to a reasonable approximation, and find probable reactions among its components that produce something we would call “living,” and that could lead to life as we know it, then we’ll have a theory of abiogenesis.

  21. In a few days, I’m off to soak up some Springtime sun in Sydney. If you miss the constant din of annoyance, here’s a reading list for the rest of September.

    First, three recent books on evolution by leaders in their fields. You don’t have to get all your information from the fun-house mirror of the Discovery Institute, or even from third-hand sources such as Discover magazine.
    >> Neil Shubin is the discoverer of Tiktaalik. “Your Inner Fish” (Pantheon, 2008. $16.32 at Amazon) contains chapters on hands, eyes, ears, skulls, etc and how they got that way. As a bonus, you’ll get a glimpse of the obsessive curiosity that drives scientists to spend months digging in the rocks of cold sunless islands just to find a shard of bone.
    >> Carl Zimmer explores a “Microcosm” (Pantheon, 2008 $17.13 at Amazon, paperback out soon), a bacterial world using the flagellar e. coli as a guide. Zimmer is a knowledgeable and excellent writer, in a variety of subjects.
    >> Darwin’s “Endless Forms Most Beautiful” (Norton, 2006 $15.95) come alive in Sean B. Carroll’s description of evo-devo, a field that did not exist when Behe was a boy. The growing link between genetics and morphology is perhaps the last key to how the end-to-end process of evolution works.

    Second, three books on the evolution of science.
    >> Richard Westfall, “The Constreuction of Modern Science” (Cambridge, 1977 Amazon $23.39, but used from $8.00 Hey, it’s only 170 pages). A short history of the major concepts from the rise of the “mechanical” philosophy in the 17thC. Find out how hard-won are the concepts, and some of the false paths to them. People used to think that “force” was a property of objects themselves, rather than something applied to them from outside. Huh.
    >> Peter Dear, “The Intelligibility of Nature” (U. Chicago, 2008 $11.56). What are the methods by which science tries to make sense of the world? Again a historical perspective, but the emphasis is on what theories are and what they do. Might require some concentration, but a joy to read if you stick with it.
    >> Robert Park, “Voodoo Science” (Oxford, 2001 $12.21) was head of the physics department of U. Maryland. The American Physical Society asked him to be their liaison in Washington. In this capacity, he testified before Congress and federal agencies many times. He also became personally involved in what he later called “voodoo science,” from Joe Newman’s perpetual-motion motor to cold fusion to “Star Wars” (SDI) to the space shuttle. (Yes, the space shuttle is voodoo science.) His personal experiences bring insights into how these aberrations originate, progress, attract political clout, and delude even the originators of the voodoo. (I think the story of Stanley Pons parallels that of Michael Behe.)

    Sorry for the interruption. Regular programming will continue.

  22. In a few days, I’m off to soak up some Springtime sun in Sydney.

    Have a nice trip, that sounds enjoyable. I’ll be leaving on a fishing trip next Weds, so I’ll be gone for awhile myself. So there will be a caesura in my pseudoscientific drivel.

    I’ll add them to my perpetually expanding list of things to read…not likely for September though…

  23. In a few days, I’m off to soak up some Springtime sun in Sydney. If you miss the constant din of annoyance, here’s a reading list for the rest of September.

    Olorin,

    Will there be a spot-quiz when you get back?;-) Bring me back a steak from Outback!;-) Have a good trip!

    What, you’re both leaving me alone? Well, I guess it’s reruns of the sitcom, The Big Bang, for me;-)

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