Continued from part #1 of this series of origin of life specialist Prof. John Keosian's critique of leading naturalistic origin of life theories in a paper "The Crisis in the Problem of the Origin of Life" presented at the 1978 Second International Society for the Study of the Origin of Life (ISSOL).
[Left: "Life Did Not Appear with A Self-Replicating Molecule" Softpedia]
This part of Keosian's critique of the `naked gene' origin of life theory of Nobel prize-winning geneticist Herman J. Muller (1890-1967).
The following quote by Keosian I had already posted in part #1, critiquing the `naked enzyme' origin of life theory of biochemist Leonard T. Troland (1889-1932), because it also applied in part to Muller's `naked gene' theory, that "Both ... have the fatal fault of depending on the accidental formation of a highly complex molecule through the random collisions of atoms and inorganic molecules" which is "an event of zero probability ... and ... has not even a theoretical future" (my emphasis):
"Criticism of Molecular Theories Both the enzymic and `naked gene' theories of the origin of life have the fatal fault of depending on the accidental formation of a highly complex molecule through the random collisions of atoms and inorganic molecules. Such an event, as the basis for the origin of life, is an event of zero probability. An autocatalytic enzyme or a naked gene is alive only by the author's proclamation, and in the absence of organic compounds, has not even a theoretical future." (Keosian, J., "The Crisis in the Problem of the Origin of Life," in Noda, H., ed., "Origin of Life: Proceedings of the Second ISSOL Meeting, the Fifth ICOL Meeting," Center for Academic Publications: Japan, 1978, pp.569-574, p.569. Emphasis original).
Keosian continued, specifically criticising Muller's and "the present derivative nucleic acid theory" that "both lead to a dead-end" one reason being (and this would apply to all nucleic acid theories including Thomas R. Cech's later 1989 RNA ribozyme theory) that even if such a self-replicating molecule: 1) could even exist (and no one has ever shown that it could-as Keosian points out, "Even this limited effect is dependent on enzymes and a fairly complex apparatus which could not conceivably" i.e. fully naturalistically "have been a part of the primordial soup"); and then 2) assemble itself fully naturalistically (and no one has ever shown that it plausibly could); 3) it "would replicate at an exponential rate" such that it "would consume the requisite raw materials in a short time, perhaps in a few days" (my emphasis):
"MULLER's more recent theory (1966), and the present derivative nucleic acid theory, both lead to a dead-end. Staying within the confines of the properties of genes or self-replicating nucleic acids, the postulated primordial `living thing' would replicate at an exponential rate. It would give rise to mutants which would likewise increase in amount. Each gene and each mutant would serve as a code for its corresponding protein. In an otherwise sterile medium they would consume the requisite raw materials in a short time, perhaps in a few days, giving rise to oceansful of genes (or nucleic acids), their mutants, and the corresponding proteins. Even this limited effect is dependent on enzymes and a fairly complex apparatus which could not conceivably have been a part of the primordial soup. Genes or self-replicating nucleic acids could not have served as the original ancestors of living things. At best, had they formed, they would have been viruses in search of a host. But there were no hosts in the beginning." (Keosian, 1978, pp.569-570. Emphasis original).
Origin of life theorist Robert Shapiro also critiqued Muller's "naked gene" theory in his "Origins: A Skeptic's Guide to the Creation of Life on Earth" (1986). But first he set the scene by noting that it is part of the "protein versus nucleic acid"-first "chicken or the egg" dilemma, which arises for scientific materialists like him who "must accept that one occurred before the other in the origin of life" if they "are to avoid invoking either a Creator or a very large improbability" (emphasis):
"Genes and enzymes are linked together in a living cell two interlocked systems, each supporting the other. It is difficult to see how either could manage alone. Yet if we are to avoid invoking either a Creator or a very large improbability, we must accept that one occurred before the other in the origin of life. But which one was it? We are left with the ancient riddle: Which came first, the chicken or the egg? In its biochemical form, protein versus nucleic acid, the question is a new one, dating back no further than Watson and Crick and our knowledge of the structure and function of the gene. In its essence, however, the question is much older, and has provoked passion and acrimony that extend beyond the boundaries of science. In an earlier, broader form, the question asked whether the gene or protoplasm had primacy, not only in the origin but also in the development of life." (Shapiro, R., "Origins: A Skeptic's Guide to the Creation of Life on Earth," Summit Books: New York NY, 1986, p.135) .
Shapiro noted Muller's theory was adapted "from an earlier theory of L.T. Troland" (see part #1), the latter holding "that enzymes and genes were the same substance," whereas Muller "in the late 1920s," i.e. in his paper "The Gene as the Basis of Life," Proceedings of the International Congress of Plant Sciences, Vol. 1., 1929, pp.897-921, "was the foremost exponent of the primacy of the genetic material in the origin of life":
"We will enter this arena by considering an article published in 1966 by Nobel laureate H. J. Muller (1890-1967) in the American Naturalist, which summarized his views on the origin of life. Muller was an American scientist who had discovered that X rays can produce mutations. He was among the first to warn the public of the adverse health effects of radiation, and was also an advocate of human improvement through voluntary eugenics. He was one of the founders of modern genetics. Not surprisingly, Muller was the foremost exponent of the primacy of the genetic material in the origin of life. He had suggested this idea in the late 1920s, adapting it from an earlier theory of L.T. Troland. The Troland theory held that enzymes and genes were the same substance (this was long before Watson and Crick) and that this substance, catalyzing its own reproduction, was the master chemical of life. Muller recognized that the functions might be separate, and attached more importance to the gene. We will quote from his 1966 article directly: `It is the specific sequences in the DNA which determine those in the proteins and changes in the former result in corresponding changes in the latter, whereas the reverse relation does not hold, any more than, in general, other acquired characteristics are inherited. This circumstance clearly gives the gene material primacy.... The `stripped down' definition of a living thing offered here may be paraphrased: that which possesses the potentiality of evolving by natural selection.... The gene material also, of natural materials, possesses these faculties and it is therefore legitimate to call it living material, the present-day representative of the first life...Primitive conditions afforded it enough means of exercising them to allow it to evolve protoplasm that served it...Thus the gene material itself has the properties of life.' [Muller, H.J., "The Gene Material as the Initiator and the Organizing Basis of Life," American Naturalist, Vol. 100, 1966, pp.493-517]" (Shapiro, 1986, p.135. Emphasis and ellipses original).
Muller's "naked gene" was promoted and popularised by Carl Sagan (who "spent one summer in Muller's laboratory in Indiana") as "a primitive free-living naked gene situated in a dilute medium of organic matter," being "the earliest ancestor of deoxyribonucleic acid, DNA, the master molecule of life on Earth":
"Muller's views do not lack advocates today, among them the astronomer Carl Sagan. Sagan was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago in the early 1950s and spent one summer in Muller's laboratory in Indiana. Subsequently, as a graduate student, Sagan published an article expressing views similar to Muller's: `The design of the organism is merely to provide for gene multiplication and survival.... Now this picture we have been drawing of the proto-DNA molecule, associated with protein, is certainly strongly suggestive of a primitive free-living naked gene situated in a dilute medium of organic matter.... There was no protoplasm per se for the naked gene to act upon. ... In time the naked gene found it of greater adaptive value to control the environment by becoming no longer naked. [Sagan, C., "Radiation and the Origin of the Gene," Evolution, Vol. 11, 1957, pp.40-55] Sagan has continued to advocate this position during his outstanding career in astronomy and science writing. In his book and television series Cosmos, the origin of life was equated with the formation of the first self-copying molecule: `the earliest ancestor of deoxyribonucleic acid, DNA, the master molecule of life on Earth.' [Sagan, C.E., "Cosmos," , Macdonald: London, Reprinted, 1981, p.31]" (Shapiro, 1986, pp.136-137. Emphasis and ellipses original).
and by Richard Dawkins in his "The Selfish Gene" (1976), as "a particularly remarkable molecule ... formed by accident" called "the Replicator" which "had the extraordinary property of being able to create copies of itself":
"In Wednesday's Tale in the Prologue, I paraphrased a modern popular account, by Robert Jastrow, of the chance creation of the replicator [Jastrow, R. "Until the Sun Dies," , Fontana: London, Reprinted, 1979, pp.46-49-see `tagline' quote below]. Others have appeared recently. For example, Richard Dawkins wrote in 1976 in The Selfish Gene: `Processes analogous to these must have given rise to the `primeval soup' that biologists and chemists believe constituted the seas some three to four thousand million years ago. The organic substances became locally concentrated, perhaps in drying scum round the shores or in tiny suspended droplets. Under the further influence of energy, such as ultraviolet light from the sun, they combined into larger molecules ...in those days large organic molecules could drift unmolested through the thickening broth. At some point a particularly remarkable molecule was formed by accident. We will call it the Replicator. It may not necessarily have been the biggest or the most complex molecule around, but it had the extraordinary property of being able to create copies of itself.' [Dawkins R., "The Selfish Gene," (1976), Oxford University Press: Oxford UK, New Edition, 1989, pp.14-15. Emphasis original] Dawkins then continues along the lines put forward by George Wald. Such an event would be unlikely, but it only had to arise once in a billion years. `Actually a molecule which makes copies of itself is not as difficult to imagine as it seems.... The small building blocks were abundantly available in the soup surrounding the replicator.' [Ibid., p.15] We badly need the point of view of the Skeptic once again. Obviously, the chances for the spontaneous generation of a nucleic acid replicator are better than those for an entire bacterium. But the latter case was so hopeless that there is room for enormous improvement, and matters could still be hopeless." (Shapiro, 1986, pp.167).
But as Shapiro points out, "the chances of obtaining a self-replicating machine depended on the number of parts to it" and even for "a single strand of RNA of ... 20 nucleotides" (of which there is no evidence that any length of RNA alone could replicate itself, let alone one of only 20 nucleotides), such a "replicator would have about 600 atoms" and on the analogy of "Charlie the Chimp" randomly typing even a message of "18 characters" (let alone "a 600-letter message") on a "keyboard with ... 45 keys," "Charlie will still be typing away long after the stars have ceased to shine" (my emphasis):
"Now how difficult would it be to put together the replicator at random? The minimal published estimates of its size propose a single strand of RNA of perhaps 20 nucleotides. To build this structure, about 600 atoms would have to be connected in a specific way, much less than the many millions needed for a bacterium. ... But what are the odds? J.B.S. Haldane recognized that the chances of obtaining a self-replicating machine depended on the number of parts to it. If the number was small, there was no problem: `By mere shuffling you will get the letters ACEHIMN to spell 'machine' once in 5040 trials on an average.' [Haldane, J.B.S., "The Origins of Life," in Johnson, M.L., Abercrombie, M. & Fogg, G. E., eds, "The Origin of Life," New Biology, No. 16, Penguin Books: London, April 1954, p.14] If you could shuffle at the rate of once per second, it would require only 84 minutes to run that many tries. This analogy suggests that it should not be hard to put together a smallish replicator, so we must look more closely at it. We will stay with the metaphor of language, but set aside the letters on cards in favor of another much-used situation: the monkey at the typewriter. Let's call him Charlie the Chimp. Charlie is special. He never gets tired, and types out one line per second, completely at random. ... Now let us give Charlie a normal keyboard with, say, 45 keys. The odds suddenly escalate to 1 in 457, or 1 in 370 billion tries. It would take Charlie (or his descendants) 11,845 years to run that many attempts. The word `machine' does not arise as readily as Haldane's first analogy would suggest. Things get rapidly worse when we use longer messages. We will let Charlie try for a bit of Hamlet. The phrase `to be or not to be' has 18 characters, if we count the spaces as characters. The chances that our chimp will type this out are 1 in 4518, or 1 in 6 x 109. At one try per second, it will take poor Charlie more than 1022 years to do that number of tries. Should the open model for the universe be correct, Charlie will still be typing away long after the stars have ceased to shine and all the planets have been dispersed into space through stellar near-collisions. But now we have developed a real thirst for Shakespeare. We want our monkey to type out `to be or not to be: that is the question,' which has 40 characters. The chances then become 4540, or about 1066, to 1. This is a number 10 million times greater than the number of trials maximally available for the random generation of a replicator on the early earth. There we have it. If the chances of getting the replicator at random from a prebiotic soup are less than that of striking `to be or not to be: that is the question' by chance on a typewriter, we had best forget it. The replicator would have about 600 atoms. The chances of Charlie typing a 600-letter message (twice the size of this paragraph) correctly are 1 in 10992. ... There is a further irony. Even should the miracle occur and the replicator find itself awash in the seas of the prebiotic earth, its fate would be unkind. It would perish without further issue. For in this random sea, it would encounter only hosts of unrelated chemicals, and not the subunits it needs to reproduce itself. A second miracle would be needed to surround it with exactly the ingredients it needs for further progress." (Shapiro, 1986, pp.168-170) .
And note also that "Even should the miracle occur" then "the replicator ... would perish without further issue" because "in this random sea, it would" not "encounter ... the subunits it needs to reproduce itself" and so "A second miracle would be needed to surround it with exactly the ingredients it needs for further progress" (my emphasis)!
By way of confirmation, as astronomer Edward Argyle had pointed out four years before in 1982, "even one gene of average length encodes about 2400 bits" yet "It would seem impossible for the prebiotic Earth to have generated more than about 200 bits of information" (and "there is little comfort to be gained by enlarging the arena to the whole Galaxy" since "Even if there are 109 Earth-like planets in the Milky Way, the potential for random generation of information rises only to 224 bits") , therefore "it is not useful to speak of a primitive naked gene that reproduced unless it was so short that it specified a protein of no more than about 33 amino acids" which then "there is the difficulty of visualizing the way so small a molecule could have commanded the environment":
"It would seem impossible for the prebiotic Earth to have generated more than about 200 bits of information, an amount that falls short of the 6 million bits in E. coli by a factor of 30 000. A natural attempt to save the scenario is to postulate a simpler first cell. However, there is little to be gained through this proposal. An average virus codes about 2% as much information as E. coli (120 000 bits) and is not capable of reproducing in an abiotic environment. Rather it must subvert the metabolic machinery of a regular cell for materials, energy and protein synthesis. It is difficult to imagine an independently reproductive cell as simple as a virus (Watson, 1970-1), and even if one can, it helps little to bridge the enormous information gap between chemistry and life. Parenthetically, it is interesting to note that if the probability of the chance appearance of life on Earth seems remote, there is little comfort to be gained by enlarging the arena to the whole Galaxy. Even if there are 109 Earth-like planets in the Milky Way, the potential for random generation of information rises only to 224 bits - less than 0.2% of the content of the average virus. Even one gene of average length encodes about 2400 bits, so it is not useful to speak of a primitive naked gene that reproduced unless it was so short that it specified a protein of no more than about 33 amino acids. Whether one prefers to think of the first nucleic acid, the first gene, the first protein or the first enzyme as the unique structure that began life, there is the difficulty of visualizing the way so small a molecule could have commanded the environment to its selective reproduction. If life on Earth had a spontaneous origin, there must have been an intermediate mechanism that was capable of augmenting the information content of one or a few early molecules up to the million-bit level required by the first organism. ... . If the 200-bit figure is seriously in error, it is too large. If the true figure is less than half this upper limit, it will probably be necessary to discover information-generating mechanisms beyond those discussed here." (Argyle, E., "Chance and the Origin Of Life," in Zuckerman, B. & Hart, M.H., "Extraterrestrials: Where Are They?," , Cambridge University Press: New York, Second Edition, 1995, pp.131, 137)
So this helps explains why Keosian had independently concluded by 1978 (i.e. before Shapiro's 1986 book and Argyle's 1982 paper above) that "MULLER's more recent theory (1966), and the present derivative nucleic acid theory, both lead to a dead-end" because it (like Troland's "naked enzyme" theory, has "the fatal fault of depending on the accidental formation of a highly complex molecule through the random collisions of atoms and inorganic molecules" which is "an event of zero probability ... and ... has not even a theoretical future" (my emphasis)!
PS: See `tagline' quote of Jastrow's account of how "a molecule is formed that has the magical ability to produce copies of itself" referred to above by Shapiro. Shapiro's comment put in the mouth of a "Guru," that "there were more dissenters now than there had been twenty years ago" because "a growing number of scientists now believed that neither the atmosphere described nor the soup had ever existed" and "Laboratory efforts had also been made to prepare the tragic molecule from a simulation of the soup, and thus far had failed" (my emphasis):
"The Guru agreed that this story had been told many times. He had taken his version from an account given by the astronomer Robert Jastrow in his book Until the Sun Dies. It was not likely, however, that the scientists who rejected this theory now would accept it in the future. In fact, there were more dissenters now than there had been twenty years ago. The Skeptic asked why this was so. He was told that a growing number of scientists now believed that neither the atmosphere described nor the soup had ever existed. Laboratory efforts had also been made to prepare the magic molecule from a simulation of the soup, and thus far had failed." (Shapiro, 1986, p.20).
And as Jastrow himself admitted (apart from calling it "The Miracle), "What concrete evidence supports that remarkable theory of the origin of life? There is none" (my emphasis)!
Continued in part #3.
Stephen E. Jones, BSc (Biol).
"The Miracle The earth is one billion years old. A chill is in the air, for the sun is a young and relatively weak star, radiating only half the heat and light that it will produce later when i man walks on the earth. The sky seems familiar; its colour is a deep blue, spotted by puffs of white cloud. But its gases are strange; in place of oxygen, the atmosphere contains pungent fumes of ammonia, the odourless menace of methane, and traces of hydrogen. A shallow sea covers the surface of the planet. Its waters are sterile; life will flourish in them later, but has not yet appeared. The continents do not yet exist; they will appear later also. In a few places, islands of black volcanic rock break the surface of the clear water. The islands are bleak and unfriendly; no touch of green relieves the eye. Gradually the interior of the earth grows hotter; its surface seethes with volcanic activity; new islands form; the observer of today, transported back to that plutonic scene, is deafened by the sudden roar of a violent outburst. The ground shakes beneath his feet. A fountain of rock and scalding water rises two thousand feet into the air above a cauldron of lava in the central crater of a nearby volcano. On the slopes of the volcano, at some distance from the crater, hot springs bubble out of the cracks in the still cooling lava; here and there, a fumerole spurts steam into the thin air, and poisonous gases enter the atmosphere. Now a thunderstorm lashes the surface of the planet. The panorama is illuminated sporadically by flashes of lightning; in each electrical discharge, the gases of the atmosphere - methane, ammonia, water, and hydrogen - fuse together to farm strange new combinations of atoms, not previously seen on the earth. Those groups of atoms are the molecules known as amino acids and nucleotides. The appearance of amino acids and nucleotides marks the first step along the path to life. These molecules are the building blocks of living matter. Later, put together in different combinations like the parts of an erector set, they will make up every variety of organism on the earth - a tree, a germ, a mouse, a man. But those forms of life are not yet present; at this point, only the building blocks are here. Gradually, the amino acids and nucleotides drain out of the atmosphere into the oceans, creating a rich soup of organic matter, like a chicken broth but more concentrated. Now and then, collisions occur between neighbouring molecules in the broth; in some collisions, two small molecules stick together to form a large one; then another small molecule collides and sticks, and still another ... In this way, during the course of a billion years, every conceivable size and shape of molecule is created by random collisions. Some molecules are in the shape of long, thin strands; others are wound up into tight clumps of matter; still others are twisted into spirals. Eventually, after countless millions of chance encounters, a molecule is formed that has the magical ability to produce copies of itself. The magic molecule consists of two long strands of nucleotides side by side. The two strands are fastened together down the middle like a zipper. The molecule unzips; each unzipped half attracts new nucleotides from the water around it and fastens them to itself; then, forces of attraction between adjoining atoms zip the pieces together. Now there are two giant zipper-like molecules, where before there was one. The molecule has reproduced itself. The original molecule was the parent; the copies are its daughters. The daughter molecules unzip, divide, and reproduce again; soon their offspring are very numerous. In a short time they dominate the population of molecules in the waters of the young earth. Today the descendant of those self-reproducing molecules is the double strand of nucleotides called DNA, which lies in the centre of every living cell. Whenever a cell divides, the DNA molecule, unzipping just like that first parent molecule, becomes two complete copies, each in the centre of its own cell. DNA is the essence of life. Without DNA or a molecule like it inside a cell, the cell could not divide; without cell division, an organism could not grow. When the first DNA-like molecule appeared in the waters of the earth, the threshold was crossed from the non-living to the living worlds. The earliest forms of life were simple, and scarcely more than the non-living molecules that preceded them. The only property they possessed that could be called life was the ability to divide and reproduce. During the billions of years that followed, these simple, self-reproducing molecules evolved into the variety of plants and animals that now populate the earth. Today the land is carpeted with many shades of green; one hundred thousand kinds of fishes swim in the seas; a carnival of animals plays across the continents. According to this story, every tree, every blade of grass, and every creature in the sea and on the land evolved out of one parent strand of molecular matter drifting lazily in a warm pool. What concrete evidence supports that remarkable theory of the origin of life? There is none." (Jastrow, R. "Until the Sun Dies," , Fontana: London, Reprinted, 1979, pp.46-49. Emphasis original)