The Instigator
Pro (for)
0 Points
The Contender
Con (against)
24 Points

Abiogenesis Is Improbable

Do you like this debate?NoYes+6
Add this debate to Google Add this debate to Delicious Add this debate to FaceBook Add this debate to Digg  
Post Voting Period
The voting period for this debate has ended.
after 6 votes the winner is...
Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 1/2/2012 Category: Science
Updated: 6 years ago Status: Post Voting Period
Viewed: 12,497 times Debate No: 20079
Debate Rounds (4)
Comments (78)
Votes (6)




This round is for acceptance, definitions, and rules only.

"The supposed *spontaneous* development of living organisms from nonliving matter. Also called autogenesis, spontaneous generation."-The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language

(Emphasis on spontaneous added so as to avoid a debate on semantics. This keeps in line with the original definition since "abiogenesis" can also be called "spontaneous generation" as given by the dictionary)

Rules: This debate will be about what science has already discovered. Neither side can appeal to a negative. For example:

Pro can not use the argument "Science does not know how X could exist, therefore X did not exist"

Likewise, Con can not use the argument "Science has discovered many things. Therefore, in the future scientists will discover how X could exist, therefore X existed"

The resolution will be whether or not abiogenesis is probable based on current discoveries and scientific knowledge.

I look forward to whoever accepts!


34 comments after issuing this challenge, I realized that some aspects of the debate were rather ambiguous. Let me clarify some points:

1. Intelligent design is not being taken into account. This is not to say that we are assuming intelligent design is or is not the cause of life on this planet. It just means we are ignoring it all together. We are focusing, specifically, on the spontaneous generation definition of abiogenesis.

2. We are debating about the probability of abiogenesis taking place anywhere, at any time past or present. Whether it be on other planets, or on our planet. That is to say, we are examining the legitimacy of the abiogenesis hypothesis. Arguing that abiogenesis is probable because life exists on the planet, ignores that there are other hypothesis about the origins of life. This debate is not about what specifically caused life on our planet, or if there is life on other planets, but whether or not abiogenesis itself is probable or not.


The Meaning of the Resolution


Abiogenesis is "a hypothetical organic phenomenon by which living organisms are created from nonliving matter." [1.].

There is no exact definition of "living." Suppose we try the definition, "an ordered structure than grows and replicates itself using energy from the environment." That sounds pretty good, but salt crystals meet that definition. Moving up in complexity, "viruses are entirely composed of a single strand of genetic information encased within a protein capsule." [2.] Vruses are a borderline case between living and non-living material. They replicate themselves and have genetic material, so they can evolve, but they can also be crystallized. [2] We need a new flu vaccine every year because they evolve quickly. Evolution is not confined to living things.

Higher animals are definitely alive, so we don't need the precise definition of living so long as there is an evolutionary path from non-living to living matter. My point is that abiogenesis occurs when the simplest of life foms emerges.

We need a definition of "improbable." The probability of dealing any particular hand of bridge is so low that a particular hand would occur only in a trillion lives of the universe. Yet, every time the cards are dealt, one of the wildly improbable events occurs. In this debate we are concerned with the probability of life originating spontaneously on any planet having environmental conditions suitable for life. Suitable conditions include enough gravity to hold an atmosphere and temperatures that sustain liquid water.

If life occurred with one chance in a hundred million, would we say it is probable? Yes, given Pro's clarification that we are discussing "the probability of abiogenesis taking place anywhere, at any time past or present.". The bogus calculations of Creationists purport to show that it unlikely to have happened anywhere in the universe. [3. explains] The known universe has bout 100 million galaxies, with an average of about 100 million stars in each. Hence even a one in a hundred million occurrence who produce illions of instances.

Calculation of the probable occurrence of life in the universe is summarized by the Drake Equation. [4.] This debate is about one term in the Drake Equation:

f = the fraction of potentially habitable planets that actually go on to develop life at some point

If f is greater than, say, one in a hundred million, then it is not improbable. For abiogensis to be improbable, it must not have occurred around any of the 10^16 stars in the universe.

Burden of proof

Pro has assumed the burden of proof in the debate, both as instigator and by affirming the resolution. Pro must show that enough is known about the origins of life to affirm that abiogenesis is improbable. If not enough is known to establish the probability, then the resolution fails.

Estimate from the time to originate life on earth

We know that abiogenesis occurred at least once, on earth. That it occurred once des not mean that it is probable, per the analogy with dealing a bridge hand. However, the length of time it took to occur is additional information that permits a probability calculation.. [4] cites "In 2002, Charles H. Lineweaver and Tamara M. Davis (at the University of New South Wales and the Australian Centre for Astrobiology) estimated fl as > 0.13 on planets that have existed for at least one billion years using a statistical argument based on the length of time life took to evolve on Earth."

Abiogenesis not only occurred on earth, it occurred fairly soon, a few hundred million years after conditions permitted it. If the event were improbable, we would expect it to have occurred much later in the 4.5.billion year history of the earth.

There are probable evolutionary paths to life

To better understand the probability of abiogenesis, scientists are attempting to understand paths from non-living to ling material. The work is described in [6.] The Emergence of Life: From Chemical Origins to Synthetic Biology by Pier Luigi Luisi], summarized

This book presents a systematic course discussing the successive stages of self-organization, emergence, self-replication, autopoiesis, synthetic compartments and construction of cellular models, in order to demonstrate the spontaneous increase in complexity from inanimate matter to the first cellular life forms. A chapter is dedicated to each of these steps, using a number of synthetic and biological examples.”

A focus of current research is in the description of a minimal cell. Scientists do not know how simple a cell can be and still meet a reasonable definition of living.The simpler the first life form, the more likely the evolutionary route will occur. current science, as described by [6] is that the minimal cell is much simpler than supposed by creationist.

Expert opinion says abiogenesis is inevitable.

Forty of the top scientists studying abiogenesis have collaborated on a book, [7] Origins, Abiogenesis and the Search for Life in the Universe, Michael Russell, et al.. They conclude that abiogenesis is not merely likely, but inevitable,

Be it on Earth or some other world, life had to begin via processes known as abiogenesis Obviously, there must have been an evolutionary progression beginning with simple chemical compounds to proto-life, then to DNA-equipped life capable of replicating itself. As detailed in this text, those prebiological evolutionary steps may have taken place in submarine alkaline hydrothermal vents and required various chemical interactions and divisions involving amino acids, polyphosphate-peptide synergy, the creating of biosynthetic pathways and the emergence of sparse metabolic network, and the assembly of pre-genetic information by primordial cells, with some championing compartmentalizaton, others, vesicles, and all this leading to an RNA world in which viruses and retroviruses played an important part. The origin of life and evolution of prokaryotes was not a matter of chance, but deterministic, probable and necessary and that these bioenergetic principles are likely to apply throughout the universe …”

Hoyle's Fallacy produces erronously low probabilities.

The fallacy was described by Musgrave in [3]. The faulty calculation assumptions that lead to a low probability estimate are summarized in [5.] Hoyle and others err because:

  1. They calculate the probability of the formation of a "modern" protein, or even a complete bacterium with all "modern" proteins, by random events. This is not the abiogenesis theory at all.
  2. They assume that there is a fixed number of proteins, with fixed sequences for each protein, that are required for life.
  3. They calculate the probability of sequential trials, rather than simultaneous trials.
  4. They misunderstand what is meant by a probability calculation.
  5. They underestimate the number of functional enzymes/ribozymes present in a group of random sequences.

The root of the errors in the probability calculations is a failure to assume that life evolved in steps, with each step governed by physical laws. For example, calculate the probability of a snowflake forming. If one suppses that each of the illions of water molecules randomlyarrives at it's position in the six-pointed snowflake, then there is no chance of a single snowflake forming in the history of the unverse. In fact, snowflakes form as a consequence of rules that are part of the properties of water molecules. The probability is correctly calculated only from an understanding of the governing laws and the process.

Debate Round No. 1


First of all, I'd like to thank my clearly formiddable opponent for accepting this challenge. As a new-comer on DDO, I am honored that my opponent would consider debating with me. Here's to a lively debate!

The Meaning of the Resolution

In regards to the definition of living, I believe my opponent is proposing that a virus can be referred to as a living organism. I have no objection to this.

In addition, I agree with Con that we are not discussing probability. If there were even a slight probability that something could take place, then it would be probable. Clearly I am arguing that abiogenesis is improbable not probable. The definition of "improbable", as given by the The American Heritage® Dictionary [1], is "Unlikely to take place or be true". This is not the same as saying something is impossible.

To illustrate, we know that it is impossible for light to be dark. We have studied light in depth, and discovered that light can not be anything other then what it is: light. In contrast, it is improbable that cheetahs exist on the dark side of the moon. Of course, it is possible that cheetahs do in fact exist on the dark side of the moon and we just haven't seen them yet. Perhaps they had evolved some sort of a biological spacesuit that allows them to recycle their air. However, there is no evidence to support this hypothesis, and the evidence we do have argues against it.

Thus, I will attempt to prove that abiogenesis is improbable.

Burden Of Proof

While I agree with Con that the burden of proving abiogenesis to be improbable is on my shoulders, there is nothing in the debate challenge about whether "enough is known about the origins of life" or not. For one, the word "enough", in context, is arbitrary. What do we define to be "enough", in regards to origins research? There was no prior agreement about what can be defined as "enough". In addition, the rules of the debate challenge specifically read:

"This debate will be about what science has already discovered"

It did not read:

"This debate will be about whether there is enough known about the origins of life to affirm that abiogenesis is improbable or not, and if there is, what that affirmation is"

The above statement is an entirely different debate. This debate is about whether abiogenesis is improbable or not based on all currently known scientific research. Were Con to propose that "not enough is known about abiogenesis to affirm whethere it is improbable or not" he would actually be breaking the rules as listed in the debate challenge. Essentially, he would be arguing that "Abiogenesis is probable because once scientists know enough about origins they will discover how abiogenesis is probable". Lastly, although I conclude that Con's speculation about the burden of proof is flawed, I do believe that there is enough research in regards to origins to conclude that abiogenesis is improbable.

Quick Rebuttals:

Rebuttal A: We do not "know" that abiogenesis took place at least once. If we did, it would be self-evident, and we wouldn't be having this debate. Secondly, Con ignores the other hypotheses in regards to origins, such as intelligent design.

Rebuttal B: While it is understandable that Con would not give evidence in the first round, it is important to note that the phrase "there are probable evolutionary paths to life" is essentially key to this debate. It raises the question: Are there really probable evolutionary paths to life? My position will be to prove there are none.

Rebuttal C: Not all scientists believe abiogenesis is likely. There are reasons for this, which I will outline below.

Side Note: Con's source has essentially outlined RNA World Hypothesis for us. This is (I believe) the prevalent hypothesis accepted amongst abiogenesis researches. For anyone wanting a more detailed outline of RNA World Hypothesis, Wikipedia explains it in depth:


Probabilities (On My Part) Will Be Ignored

For three reasons: 1) As Con illustrates, they are flawed. 2) They are boring. and 3) They assume abiogenesis is probable, thus strengthening the position that abiogenesis is probable.

Now, without further ado:

The Problems With Abiogenesis

I. Lack Of Means To Produce All Necessary Organic Molecules.

1) "Primordial" earth did not have a reducing atmosphere, meaning that oxygen was present. [2] This is key, because amino acids and nucleotides can not form in the presence of oxygen. [3]

2) In regards to the Miller-Urey experiment, there would also have been a lack of methane and ammonia. Today's volcanoes release CO, CO2, N2, and water vapor. Not methane or ammonia. Although cryovolcanoes do release methane and ammonia [4], these are only found on other planets. Furthermore, scientists no longer believe earth's atmosphere played a part in abiogenesis. [5]

3) Most (if not all) experiments to produce organic molecules only give small yields. In the Miller-Urey experiment, only 2% of the carbon used was converted into organic molecules. [6] Thus it is unlikely that any large concentration of amino acids would occur.

4) Cross-interference: Many of the organic molecules present in a primordial earth would have interfered with amino acid and protein production. For example:

a) Isopropyl and ethanol alcohol as well as heavy metal ions such as Ag+, Pb2+ and Hg2+ would have interfered with any protein created. [7]
b) Sugars produced in primordial chemical reactions react strongly with amino acids, affectig amino acid synthesis [8], as well as DNA and RNA replication. Ironically, ribose and deoxyribose, the sugars necessary to polymerize nucleotides in RNA and DNA strands are not produced in any known primordial chemical reactions.
c) The Miller-Urey experiment produced many other toxic compounds including cyanides and carbon monoxide. [9]

5) The nucleotide problem. Cytosine has never been produced in any spark experiments. Cytosine derivatives suffer dire problems (which will be discussed in length if Con cites cytosine derivatives as a probable means for cytosine to be created). In addition, while purine nucleotides have been found in meteorites, pyrimidine nucleotides have not, thus cytosine can not be assumed to have come from space.

6) As stated in part (b) of point 5, there are no known primordial chemical reactions that produce ribose or deoxyribose, necessary components of polynucleotides.

7) Racemic mix. All experiments that produced amino acids resulted in a racemic mix. [10] That is, a mixture of both left and right handed versions of the particular amino acid. Consequently, only left handed amino acids are used in proteins and only right handed sugars are used in polynucleotides, etc. Any protein utilizing right handed amino acids or polynucleotide utilizing left handed sugars is rendered useless for life. This is why chemists use pre-existing homochirality from a biological source to synthesize homochiral compounds. [11]

The Polymerization Problem.

1) Polymerization of proteins. Amino acids are able to bond in many locations by many kinds of chemical bonds. To form polypeptide chains, only peptide bonds can be made, and only in the right locations. In living cells, a complex system involving enzymes and ATP exists to ensure that inappropriate bonds are not made. If inappropriate bonds are made, the protein is destroyed. In addition, peptide bonds have a strong thermodynamic tendency to break down in water. [12]

2) In addition, assuming all nucleotides, sugars, and phosphates required for polynucleotides somehow existed, there is once again the problem of polymerization without external direction. I don't have much space left, but in a nutshell Con must show how polynucleotides could have come about without the use of enzymes or the complex biomechanics modern cells use today.

There are more issues. But I have no more room.

Sources are in the comments.


The Meaning of the Resolution

My source stated "Viruses are a borderline case between living and non-living material." The point is that evolution can take place in material that is not clearly living. My opponent did not dispute it.

Exactly how improbable must an event be to be "unlikely to take place or be true?" Pro said that to be improbable it had to be unlikely to occur anywhere among the 100 million galaxies each having 100 million stars. That' means he must show it is not just a little unlikely, but unlikely at the level of one chance in 10^16.

Science has formed hypotheses concerning the evolution of non-living matter into living matter. Pro must show that, based upon present knowledge, the chances of any abiogenesis hypothesis being true is less than about 1 in 10^16. Pro must show abiogenesis to be improbable anywhere in the universe. That encompasses the possibility that life on earth was transported here from another planet where the odds were better than on earth.

When Pro said that creationism was not a subject of the debate, Therefore our debate was within the domain of science. That means that a scientific origin of life on earth is assumed. God may work through natural law, of course, that's not part of the debate.

Estimate from the time to originate life on earth

Pro reaches outside of science to claim that abiogenesis did not occur on earth. A ground rule of the debate is that we can only consider what science currently knows. Processes outside of the laws of nature have not been discovered by science, therefore Pro cannot assume them for the debate. Pro is calling upon a "God the Trickster" argument, that's not part of science.

The calculation based upon the time for origination of life therefore stands. the odds of abiogenesis are better than one in ten based upon that calculation. Pro's later arguments imply that abiogenesis occurred sooner than supposed for the calculations. If so, the probability would be greater than calculated.

Expert opinion says abiogenesis is inevitable.

Pro asserted that not all scientists believe that abiogenesis is improbable, but he did not cite any expert in the field who holds that opinion. Therefore the argument stands. In the broad definition of "scientist" there are some, but are there experts in the field? How many?

Pro provided no references within the 8000 character limit of the debate, therefore I am entitled to ignore them. I will respond here under the assumption that he will introduce the references in the text of the next round.

Pro's Objections

Pro only attacks the RNA world model of abiogenesis, and at that he only attacks old versions of the model. As data emerges that show some paths unlikely, new theories have been developed that solve the problem. [8. ]

1) The earth is between 4.4 and 4.6 trillion years old. Scientists widely accept that an atmosphere with free oxygen would not be conducive to abiogenesis. Pro did not dispute that the earth began without free oxygen in the atmosphere, but cites a paper that that provides evidence that free oxygen may have existed in the atmosphere before 2.7 billion years ago, possibly as early as 3.8 billion years ago. The paper is controversial, because it is not yet confirmed by independent studies and there is a great deal of evidence for the 2.7 billion year date. [6. ] However, if the claim is true then life originated more quickly, and probability is greater. The articled cited by Pro says the team concluded that early abiogenesis was more likely as consequence, not less likely.

It been assumed that the primordial atmosphere was full of toxic gases like ammonia and methane. New studies show that the early atmosphere was far more conducive to abiogenesis than thought.[7. ] So new evidence suggests that abiogenesis is more likely,not less likely.

2) Pro's [5] only says that cryovolcanoes now occur elsewhere in solar system, and makes no statement about the primordial atmosphere on earth. Pro's [6] is an outdated 1985 book by a scientist who hypothesize an abiogenesis path with a different atmosphere. If Pro's [6] is true, then Pro must rebut that path to abiogenesis and he did not. My [7] says the latest data favors a early atmosphere highly conducive to abiogenesis.

3) Pro provided no evidence that high concentrations of amino acids are needed for abiogenesis. His source says that amino acids are found in meteorites, showing that some generation process is common in the universe, even if Frey-Urey is not the only source.

4) Pro provides no evidence that any of the isolated claims is significant, not even slightly significant, to abiogenesis. The fallacy along the lines of "bird strikes are hazards to airlines, therefore no flight can be completed."

5) Cytosine is only necessary for one of the hypothesized paths to abiogenesis. A scientific article skeptical of the availability of cytosine points to "origin-of-life theories that do not require the four RNA bases: (i) The first
..A number of possibilities may exist, with the clay system of A.G. Cairns-Smith (74) perhaps the best
known. (ii) Life began with cycles of autocatalytic reactions. .." [9.]

6) Ribose and dioxyribose are simple sugars. "A slightly different version of the RNA-world hypothesis is that a different type of nucleic acid, such as PNA, TNA or GNA, was the first one to emerge as a self-reproducing molecule, to be replaced by RNA only later.[ Pyrimidine ribonucleosides and their respective nucleotides have been prebiotically synthesised by a sequence of reactions which by-pass the free sugars, and are assembled in a stepwise fashion ..." [8] they are not required for abiogenesis.

7) About a dozen natural methods have been suggested for sorting racemic mixes. the problem is called "breaking chiral symmetry." Creationists are fond of citing a 1995 conference in which scientist concluded the problem was unresolved. The solution is still not certain, but a 2005 paper offers a likely solution: "As Professor Michael McBride says in the News & Views section of Nature (452 [7184]: 161-2, 2008), this grinding method is "the first original method for isolating single-handed crystals from a mixture of mirror-image forms since Pasteur used tweezers to effect such a separation in 1848." [10. ]

8) The solution to peptide bond formation involves an intermediate step in protein formation. "Elucidation of the evolutionary route from the simple system to the present complex rib some is a big challenge in modern science; this gap may be filled by the concept of the proto-ribosome, which is composed of a symmetrical tRNA-like dimer." [11. ]

9) Experiments have shown that polymerization can occur under the right conditions of heat and pressure, but its more likely that clay served as a catalyst. "... it turns out that recent work by James Ferris, who is at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, has shown exactly that this process does work under abiotic conditions." [12. ]

Pro makes objections only to one narrow formulation of the RNA world theory. Those objections mostly date to the mid-90s and earlier. Modern theory [7, 8] has provides probable solutions to the puzzles, and has encompassed other theories, such as clay theory. Science has shown that abiogenesis is probable.
Debate Round No. 2


The Meaning of the Resolution.

Viruses incorporate self-replicating genetic material and complex proteins that could, theoretically, evolve into more complex organisms. If Con can prove that there is a probability equal to or above 1 in 10^16 that this could happen, I have lost the debate. However, all I need to do is prove that there is no probability of this taking place at all, and I have won.

Keep in mind that probabilities can only be established if there are natural mechanisms in existence to allow something to take place. Theoretical mechanisms can not be relied upon unless they have been proven to work. There may be, of course, natural mechanisms in existence that allow abiogenesis to take place. However, we can not assume this until these mechanisms have been discovered.

Estimate from the time to originate life on earth

Con seems to have misinterpreted the phrase "we do not know that abiogenesis took place" to mean, "we know that abiogenesis did not take place". I am not citing the existence of other hypotheses in regards to origins as evidence that abiogenesis is improbable. I am simply saying that one can not use the existence of life as evidence of abiogenesis being probable, because it can not be proven, and there are other widely accepted hypothesis.

Con's calculations assume abiogenesis took place on earth. This, in Con's words, "reaches outside of science". Con is basing his evidence that abiogenesis is probable on the belief that abiogenesis has taken place on earth. The latter has not been proven and the former relies on the latter.

Expert opinion on abiogenesis

This does not constitute an argument. It wouldn't make sense for someone to dedicate their life to a field of research they didn't believe to be possible. Where could I find an abiogenesis expert who would willingly admit that abiogenesis is neither possible nor inevitable? However, if by "expert" you simply mean a PhD in microbiology or chemistry that has studied abiogenesis hypothesis and drawn a conclusion, then the list of scientists on this website should suffice:


Why Abiogenesis Is Improbable

Abiogenesis is a process that involves many steps. All I have to do to show abiogenesis to be improbable is to prove that one or more of these steps is (according to current scientific research) impossible and impassable.

1) First of all, I think Con meant to say "billion" not "trillion" []. Secondly, Con's first source gives no actual rebuttal to the existence of free oxygen before 2.7 billion years. All the author does is speculate about the seemingly conflicting evidence and even says in line 19: "Sometimes, when I hear a controversy like this, I wonder if they’re both in fact right..."

Con's second source [his 7] is not only absent of any mention of how the primordial atmosphere was more conducive to abiogenesis, but literally strengthens my case by providing evidence that free oxygen has been present in earth's atmosphere since earth's formation:

"...scientists show that the atmosphere of Earth just 500 million years after its creation was not a methane-filled wasteland as previously proposed, but instead was much closer to the conditions of our current atmosphere".

This does not prove that abiogenesis is more likely. It proves that abiogenesis would have to be more likely in order for it to be true.

2) Con's [7] show that earth's early atmosphere is similar to that of today's. In regards to earth's atmosphere, we can not rely on methane-ammonia as a means to produce amino acids. Con must show how amino acids can be produced without methane and ammonia.

3) It's very simple. Amino acids can't polymerize unless they're actually near each other. If only low quantities are made, the amino acid concentration will be quickly diluted. This is why Urey speculated that the earths oceans would have to be 10% organic compounds [Urey, H., The Planets: Their Origin and Development, Yale University Press, New Haven, pp. 149–157, 1952]

4) Sugars created in primordial reactions would react with amino acids, deteriorating them, as outlined in source [8]. Thus amino acids would have to be somehow isolated from the sugars created.

5) Con gave no rebuttal to the absence of cytosine. This is important: Cytosine is necessary for RNA and DNA. You can't have RNA or DNA without cytosine. Con's source does nothing other then strengthen my case. His next, rather choppy quote, claims that there are "...A number of possibilities" involving "cycles of autocatalytic reactions". What are these possibilities? Have they been proven to work? What exactly do "cycles of autocatalytic reactions" entail? Can con come up with any sources regarding this? What processes are there that can compensate for the lack of cytosine?

6) Con seems to have failed to assign a source to [8]. I can't give a rebuttal to information from an unknown source. However, PNA and TNA have their own problems. In regards to PNA, that is pRNA:

"Consequently, pRNA and RNAs are not able to form duplexes with each other, which would preclude exchange of information between these two molecules, suggesting that pRNAs are unlikely to have been the genetic material that preceded RNA"- [Orgel, L. 2000. ORIGIN OF LIFE: A Simpler Nucleic Acid]

In regards to TNA, supposed methods exist, and are complex. But essentially they rely on the interaction of TNA and RNA in the first place, which would not have taken place. []

Also, where would the TNA have found the cytosine or ribose to evolve into RNA? You can't have RNA or DNA without the sugars and corresponding nucleotides. Eventually cytosine and ribose would have had to be used. Furthermore, we do not have any evidence of organisms using TNA or PNA, thus we can not conclude that these DNA derivatives were the first genetic material.

7) Here Con fails to cite a relevant method. Professor McBride's method simply deracemizes crystals, but it is unclear about whether it works on amino acids. Of course, he does claim that "we are working with this novel grinding method in the realm of amino acids with very good initial results". But he doesn't reveal what those results are, or how "good" they are, or even if his method deracemized amino acids at all.

8) The source Con cites, other then being very complex, seems to essentially be outlining the doctor's hypothesis in regards to peptide bond formation. The Professor appears to be assuming that TNA and some other factors were involved in protein synthesis. Of course, Con must prove that spontaneous polymerization of TNA is possible in the first place. However, it's really not that clear to me what his source is saying. Con must elaborate on the intermediate step works. (So myself and the audience can examine the validity of his claim)

9) For one, Con's source itself neither describes what the actual work James Ferris was, nor what his experiments consisted of. It doesn't even cite a paper or website where his experiments are described. Thus we can't honestly rely on it. In addition, Con's source says, after making an alleged claim of protein synthesis in prebiotic conditions, that "The proteins and DNA that Ferris and other have produced are not functional". Not to mention as Dr. Graham Cairns-Smith, researcher in regards to clay theory, states:

‘“However,” he added, “in our experiments, the organic compounds became so strongly held to the clay particles that they could not undergo any further chemical reactions.”’ []

To top it off, as [] puts it: "Even if modern clays did have a chiral bias, this could be due to previous absorption of optically active biomolecules", which, of course, wouldn't have existed."


The Meaning of the Resolution

Pro asserts, "Theoretical mechanisms can not be relied upon unless they have been proven to work." Pro then implies that anything sort of a precise explanation s a "theoretical mechanism." That's not a reasonable interpretation of the resolution. with that interpretation, anything that has not be accomplished is proved impossible. For example, let's prove that no building can ever be built taller than 3000 feet. Calculations for the strength of materials and the design of a structure, both performed by competent engineers, could show it is possible, and those competent to judge say its possible. But it hasn't actually been accomplished, and by Pro's interpretation, anything not prevents to be judged impossible.

The way to prove abiogenesis impossible is to show that one of the steps required violates a known law of nature. For example: "Traveling faster than the speed of lights impossible because the theory of relativity show it cannot be done with finite energy." What is disallowed is to suppose that a new law of nature will be discovered that makes it possible.

It could be shown to be improbable by establishing a sequence of steps required for life to emerge, and showing that one step in the process can only occur with very small probability.

Estimate from the time to originate life on earth

Only scientific propositions can be debated within the realm of science. consider the proposition "The universe was created last week, with all the evidence of an older universe created as well." that's proposition, but since it denies that the laws of nature apply, it isn't a scientific proposition. It's purely in the realm of faith.

In the case of creationism, the Bible hints that a natural process was the mechanism for creationism. Life is said to have come from dust, not to have appeared from nothing. What's interesting is whether the natural process is common or uncommon in the universe. As a question of creationism, it is whether the process is so improbable that life probably only occurs on earth, or whether it is probably common in the universe.

The probabilities of living matter forming completely randomly is vanishingly small, but not impossible. Present scientific thinking is that abiogenesis is so likely that may be found on Mars or one of the large moons of the outer planets. More than seven hundred planets have been discovered orbiting distant stars. The probability of the occurrence of life is a serious question.

As noted, the fact of abiogenesis having occurred does not mean it is probable or improbable. How fast it occurred does imply a probability. "Scientists surmise that 4 billion years the earth's surface was desolate and lifeless. .. yet evidence locked in earth's early rocks suggests that by about 3.8 billion years ago, tiny bacteria had emerged to establish a firm foothold." [13. Robert Hazen, in his textbook, Genesis: the Scientific Quest for Life's Origin] that life emerged so quickly suggest that the probability is high.

Pro gives a generic list of creationists, but identifies no one who studies abiogenesis as research specialty. In particular he doesn't identify any scientist who thinks that creation through natural processes is impossible, rather than merely improbable. The abiogenesis is improbable is a perfectly respectable research stance, and was once commonly shared my many scientists. It's only the course of research that has turned opinion overwhelmingly on the side of it being highly probable.

Pro Objections

1. Yes, the earth is between 4.4 and 4.6 billion years old. All agree that the earth's atmosphere was toxic up to 4 billion years ago. The latest research [7] shows that by 3.8 billion years ago, the atmosphere was no longer toxic, but that it contains no free oxygen. Hence Pro's claim that free oxygen would prevent abiogenesis is false.

2. No, the source says that the atmosphere is similar to that of today only in terms of toxic components. There was much more CO2, and no oxygen. methane and ammonia were present up up to about 4 billion years ago, providing the source for amino acids. Between 4 billion and 3.8 billion years ago, life emerged and the atmosphere changed. The first life forms consumed CO2 and created the free oxygen present a billion or more years later.

3. Pro's 1952 source assumes that high concentrations of amino acids are required for polymerization, but does not argue it is necessary. One identified mechanism that avoids the need for high concentrations is mineral surfaces serving as catalysts. [14. is a list of scholarly articles]. Another mechanism is origins in high concentrations around undersea hydrothermal vents. [15.] One theory does not exclude the other, both mechanism could operate.

4. Pro re-asserts that there are problems but fails to link them with abiogenesis. His [8] is a 1941 journal article that seems unrelated. I cannot find and reference in current research to these issues even being problems. they are asserted purely upon Pro's authority.

5. Pro did not establish that cytosine was necessary for abiogenesis. My reference [9] showed it was not.

6. I gave reference [8] earlier in the debate, after which I just recited the reference number. Modern theories do not rely upon a theory simple sugars are required for abiogenesis. Pro needed to show they were required, contrary to modern theory. He did not.

7. Pro needs to show that there is no natural method for sorting racemic mixes. His complaint is that while many methods have been identified, not have been demonstrated to his satisfaction, and that doesn't make the mechanisms vanishingly improbable. the modern theory of mineral surface catalysts [14] is now preferred because it accomplishes both polymerization and the sorting.

8) No, I don't need to explain complex organic chemistry to Pro's satisfaction, which is a good thing because I'm not capable of explaining it. It suffices to say that and expert in the subject makes the claim, and that other experts have not since contradicted him.

9) The list of references in [14] gives more detail on surface catalysts. Pro cites a religious site, not a refereed journal, The Ferris paper was published in a journal. [15. Cations As Mediators Of The Adsorption Of Nucleic Acids On Clay Surfaces In Prebiotic Environments by Marco Franchi, James P. Ferris and Enzo Gallori, Origins of Life and Evolution of the Biosphere, 33: 1-16 (2003)] The scientific work Pro cites only covered clay-based racemic sorting in clays near thermal vents, not the general subject. The author supports the RNA-world theory rather than the thermal vent theory;he does no assert improbability.

Debate issues

Thanks to Pro for an interesting and topical debate.

I invited Pro to include his references in this round of the debate, so that they could be counted within the character limits. He declined to do so, so arguments referencing them are not sourced. Failure to respond is a conduct violation. Without references, the arguments rest entirely upon Pro's assertions, and therefore the arguments fail.

I intend to pass the last round so we each will have made three debate arguments. It's a rule that no new arguments can be introduced.


We know abiogenesis happened once because we are here. Current research has shows abiogenesis occurred in a sequence of steps over a geologically short period of about 200 million years, Science has not settled on a single theory of abiogenesis. Pro only addresses only one version of the RNA-world abiogenesis theory, mostly with outdated objections. Mechanisms have been discovered showing how each step is not ony possible, but likely. Pro needed to have argued that there was something highly improbable common to all theories, and he failed to do that.

Science says that abiogenesis is probable.
Debate Round No. 3


The Meaning of the Resolution

Con asserts that dismissing theoretical mechanisms is not a reasonable interpretation of the resolution. Yet on what logical grounds does Con make this claim? Any probability created using theoretical data becomes nothing other then a theoretical probability. Take, for example, the probability of rolling a six in dice. You can only establish the probability of rolling a six if you know that rolling a six is even possible. You can not calculate the probability of cheetahs existing on the moon because there is no evidence nor known mechanisms by which cheetahs could come into existence on the moon.

Con's example and second paragraph are irrelevant because this debate is not about whether abiogenesis is impossible or not. This debate is about whether abiogenesis is improbable or not based on what science has already discovered.

Theories do not constitute discoveries. When a scientist creates a theory, he does not say "I have discovered my theory!". Rather, if he finds evidence that either supports his theory or proves his theory to be correct, then he can say "I have discovered that my theory is accurate".

Estimate from time to originate life on earth

There is no need to devote much time to this section. Con himself agrees that even if abiogenesis did take place, that would not mean it would be probable. In paragraph one Con basically states that because God does not exist within the laws of nature, intelligent design is can not be used as an argument in this debate. This is true. This is why I'm not basing my argument that abiogenesis is improbable on the existence of other hypotheses regarding origins.

In paragraph two Con forgets the "spontaneous" part of the definition of abiogenesis.

Paragraph three is irrelevant since we are not debating about the possibility of abiogenesis.

In paragraph four Con attempts to prove the probability of abiogenesis based on the existence of life. I have already shown how the existence of life is not necessarily proof that abiogenesis is probable. It's like saying "UFO's exist, thus it is probable that they are piloted by aliens."

Problems With Abiogenesis

1. Con should reread his [7] source. It clearly shows that free oxygen has been present on the earth for nearly 3.8 billion years. Con also has failed to define "toxic". Toxic for life today, or life then? Oxygen destroys amino acids. Thus the existence of oxygen shows that earth's early atmosphere would be toxic for abiogenesis.

2. Con's source made no mention of the levels of CO2, and clearly showed how oxygen has been present for 3.8 billion years. Furthermore, Con has provided no source nor evidence that suggest methane and ammonia were present in primordial earth.

3. Con's sources show de-racemization of amino acids, not methods that bypass the need for high concentrations of amino acids. However, the first proposed method only de-racemizes glutamic acid, aspartic acid, and O-phospho-L-serine. The second method relies on high concentrations of amino acids in undersea hydrothermal vents. The problem is: where would the high concentrations come from? The only proposed method of obtaining amino acids is through spark reactions. Spark reactions would have to take place in the atmosphere. Yet the atmosphere would not have been reducing, and even if it was, would only have produced small amounts of amino acids. Thus since we can not assume there to be high concentrations, we can not rely on the second method. The first method only de-racemizes three amino acids. There are 20 amino acids required for life.

4. Sugars, as shown by my source, deteriorate amino acids. This is does not show that abiogenesis is improbable automatically, it just shows that abiogenesis can not take place in an environment riddled with these sugars. It furthers my case, but does not seal it.

5. Cytosine is a necessary component of RNA and DNA. Even if TNA could be a substitute, or pre-requisite to RNA and DNA, (even though TNA is not known to occur naturally and is not found in any living organisms) [] there would have to be some point in which cytosine was subsituted with the theorose. Furthermore, there is experimental evidence that TNA and GNA could not have been pre-requisites to DNA []. Thus TNA and GNA are nothing other then failed hypotheses.

6. Ahh, I've found it. Con put it in before adressing my 9 points, throwing me off. Point 5 refutes this.

7. I do not need to disprove a negative. Con's claim is equivalent to saying "You have not proven that cheetahs do not exist on the moon thus it is probable that cheetahs exist on the moon".

8. In that case, while I do not fully comprehend the mechanics proposed in Con's source, it is clear it relies on the existence of a proto-ribosome and tRNA. Yet Con, nor Con's source has provided a mechanism that polymerizes proto-ribosomes nor tRNA (keep in mind that there is a difference between TNA and tRNA), thus rendering Con's source invalid. Con has unknowingly trapped himself into a "chicken-or-egg" scenario.

9) I cited an article written by Dr Jonathan D. Sarfati, Ph.D. His article also happened to be on a religious site. If we throw out the writings of all scientists simply because of their ideologies, then we must ignore the work of scientists all together. Since nearly all scientists have some sort of ideology. Anyway, seeing as how Con gave no criticism of my source's claim, and failed to comment on how amino acids become trapped in clays, rendering them inable to undergo further chemical reaction, we can consider his point void.

Debate issues

Thanks to Con for accepting this debate. He is clearly a challenging opponent.

Going into this debate, I was actually unaware that sources could not be put in the comments. Furthermore, I can find no rule on DDO that claims you can not put your sources in the comments. Pro claimed that doing so was a conduct violation. While I am inclined to believe him, as he is a veteran debater, he did not reference me to any pre-explained rule regarding sources. If it is an unspoken rule, then it should have been conveyed to all me, seeing as how I am a new-comer to this site. I did not fail to respond because my later arguments had the sources in the comments. I had no more room in round two to put in all my sources from round one due to the already established nature of the debate. Putting in sources would require me leaving many of Con's objections unanswered.

If the audience really feels that I should be penalized for breaking a rule I did not know existed, then so be it. Though the rules regarding sources really should be explained to new-comers so they do not make the same mistake.

Furthermore, if I lose solely because I failed to put sources in round one, then I think it is only fair for Con to accept a rematch. Especially seeing as how he is a veteran debater on this site, and he failed to mention these unspoken rules to me prior to the debate.

I'm not sure if this counts either, but I've seen it done in other debates, so I assume it is not against the rules. Here are round one's sources:


Con has failed to show known mechanisms exist that prove abiogenesis is probable. In 1) he provides a source that argues against his case. In 2) he makes a groundless assertion. In 3) he provides a mechanism that would only work for 15% of all amino acids, and another mechanism that relies on high concentrations of amino acids, clearly unlikely. In 5) he fails to prove that cytosine can be synthesized, or even bypassed. In 8) Con's method relies on proto-ribosomes and tRNA, specifically things that would not have existed (tRNA requires cytosine). In 9) Con fails to address the problems I outlined. Thus we can see that no probability can be established. All Con has shown is that the abiogenesis hypotheses exist.

Con has not shown that abiogenesis is probable.


In order to keep the debate equal at three arguments for each of us, I am passing on the last argument.
Debate Round No. 4
78 comments have been posted on this debate. Showing 1 through 10 records.
Posted by SuburbiaSurvivor 6 years ago
@RoyLatham, exactly. I'd researched it a lot before, but I think my biggest flaw was in how I formulated the argument. Using more recent sources would've helped as well.

I guess then one would have to examine any proposed system that could theoretically adapt. Since RNA and DNA seems to be the only system capable of adaption, it makes sense to focus on that.

As someone who is arguing against abiogenesis, it does make sense to study all theoretical mechanisms however. It'll be something I keep in mind in future debates on this topic.
Posted by RoyLatham 6 years ago
@Suburbia, Indeed, debate force a person to do his homework. I took this debate so I'd have to do mine.

I think it's a mistake to focus narrowly on the RNA/DNA mechanism. That's how earth worked out, but it seems any mechanism that both replicates and is capable of adapting is going to lead to life.
Posted by SuburbiaSurvivor 6 years ago
@RoyLatham, there's still a day left, but I think it's obvious you won. Thank you for taking this debate. I learned a lot through it, as much about debating as the topic itself. The next time I debate this topic I'll definitely be formatting it differently.

I think probably the largest problem with abiogenesis is the synthesis of genetic material. As shown by the evidence in Round 4 TNA and GNA don't form the double helix required for life. Furthermore the question of cytosine remains.

But your defense of clay theory was stellar. I'll be doing a lot more reading up on that. I want to find out whether clay really does have a natural bias towards chirality, or if it's simply the result of imprintation from biomolecules. (Which would make sense, since there is so much organic matter on earth). Furthermore I have questions of whether polymers made on clays really can increase in size or not.

All in all, good debate. I learned a lot. Thanks for taking it.
Posted by RoyLatham 6 years ago
Going into this debate I didn't have an opinion on whether abiogenesis is highly probable or no so probable. I was sure it happened on earth, but I didn't have a strong opinion on whether we were likely to find life on other planets in the universe or not. The debate was a good excuse to read up on the subject. Prof. Hazen is a good source; I referenced his book, and he also has an excellent series of video lectures published by The Teaching Company.

After reading up, I think abiogenesis is highly probable. Crystals propagate in regular patterns, so all that needs to happen is for a mechanism to occur by which patterns not only replicate, but improve their chances of replication. That's evolution prior to life. It seems inevitable for that to happen.

There are some possibilities in our solar system: Mars, Europa, and Titan. I think the chances are pretty good that something will be found. We're talking something very primitive.
Posted by RoyLatham 6 years ago
@Brute, I don't think the Conduct category is so much about "misconduct" as about the plain rules. If a football player steps out of bounds, that's not misconduct, but it's a rule violation. Someone started a forum thread with a conduct question, and I gave a lengthy reply on the types of conduct violations.

I think that the rules should changed so that the DDO character count excludes html references. That would largely solve the problem while still keeping debates compact. I started a forum thread on that:
Posted by SuburbiaSurvivor 6 years ago
I support intelligent design. But in the debate I wanted to disprove abiogenesis purely on scientific grounds. Not on my belief in intelligent design.
Posted by SuburbiaSurvivor 6 years ago
It's clear I made a mistake in saying to avoid intelligent design in the debate. The reason why, was because I wanted to argue against abiogenesis by showing flaws in the hypothesis, instead of saying "Well God did it, so abiogenesis didn't happen".

My argument in regards to intelligent design was that we can not know that abiogenesis took place, and we can not attempt to prove abiogenesis purely by the existence of life.

I'm attacking abiogenesis purely on the grounds that it is a scientifically flawed hypothesis. Con failed to show how the amino acids and nucleotides could have existed, and how they could have polymerized. His defense of clay theory was good though, which is why I want to do more research on it. But abiogenesis fails if at least one of the steps is improbable and inpassible. He completely failed to compensate for the lack of cytosine, citing GNA and TNA, when I showed experimental evidence that neither of those could have formed the double helix required for life.

I'm a little disappointed that I'm losing so heavily... But I guess that's what happens when you go against such a seasoned debator. Oh well. There's always next time.
Posted by Meatros 6 years ago
I need to reread this - I'm having difficulty discerning what Pro is arguing. It seems he's not arguing ID. That said, he is taking the position that abiogenesis or spontaneous generation is improbable.

So am I to understand thatPro's position is that life always existed or came into existence from nothing (the second seems to be spontaneous).... I mean, life exists, so at some point it had to come from non living matter - unless we posit that it always existed or just popped into existence.

Do I have this right?
Posted by wiploc 6 years ago
Pro is largely incoherent. Con did a good job in the face of that incoherency. That is, he figured out a possible topic for this insane debate (how do you calculate something's likelihood without considering the likelihood of the alternatives?) and made a calm and clear argument on that topic.

I read Con's first post, but none of his others, because Pro never had a cogent response to Con's first post. The case therein established went unrefuted.

I feel bad about the conduct point, since Pro didn't know better. But he did go over the character limit by continuing his post in the comments. Why have a limit if you can continue a post elsewhere? Pro's sources-posted-elsewhere must be ignored. So I could give Con two points for sources, or one point for conduct. I choose the lesser: one point for conduct.

Largely incoherent? Yes. Pro said:

: Neither side can appeal to a negative.
and he wrote
: Let me clarify some points: 1. Intelligent design is not being taken into account. ... we are ignoring
: it all together.
but then he complained
: Rebuttal A: ... Secondly, Con ignores the other hypotheses in regards to origins, such as intelligent design.

Pro wrote as the resolution, the topic of the debate
: Abiogenesis Is Improbable
and he further wrote
: Clearly I am arguing that abiogenesis is improbable not probable.
But then he wrote
: In addition, I agree with Con that we are not discussing probability.
: Probabilities (On My Part) Will Be Ignored

Pro cites expert opinion approvingly when he thinks it supports him
: Furthermore, scientists no longer believe earth's atmosphere played a part in abiogenesis. [5]
and he posted all those citations to what I assume are expert opinions. But then says when the weight of expert opinion goes against him
: Expert opinion on abiogenesis ... This does not constitute an argument. It wouldn't make sense for
: someone to dedicate their life to a field of research they didn't believe to be poss
Posted by Oldfrith 6 years ago
This is the most comments I've seen on a debate in a long time.
6 votes have been placed for this debate. Showing 1 through 6 records.
Vote Placed by Wnope 6 years ago
Agreed with before the debate:-Vote Checkmark-0 points
Agreed with after the debate:-Vote Checkmark-0 points
Who had better conduct:--Vote Checkmark1 point
Had better spelling and grammar:--Vote Checkmark1 point
Made more convincing arguments:-Vote Checkmark-3 points
Used the most reliable sources:--Vote Checkmark2 points
Total points awarded:03 
Reasons for voting decision: Pro backed himself into a corner initially by setting the standard of improbability at 10^-16. In contrast, "statistical significance" can be achieved at 0.01. He also completely screwed himself by saying in the rules that only science can be used. It means you can only refer to empirical evidence, so not creationism. That's why Con could say we know abiogenesis happened at least once.
Vote Placed by Man-is-good 6 years ago
Agreed with before the debate:--Vote Checkmark0 points
Agreed with after the debate:--Vote Checkmark0 points
Who had better conduct:-Vote Checkmark-1 point
Had better spelling and grammar:--Vote Checkmark1 point
Made more convincing arguments:-Vote Checkmark-3 points
Used the most reliable sources:-Vote Checkmark-2 points
Total points awarded:06 
Reasons for voting decision: Summary: After skimming over the debate, it is clear that Con won. Pro makes a major mistake in attacking a narrowly-defined RNA theory, which Con showed to an extent that other, newer theories helped to resolve some of the theory's issues, as well as demonstrating newer research that nullified Pro's claims. Note that the resolution was very hard for Pro to prove. Con also gave a more in-depth case and was apparently consistent (see wiploc's comment, such as Pro's varying view intelligent design
Vote Placed by ConservativePolitico 6 years ago
Agreed with before the debate:--Vote Checkmark0 points
Agreed with after the debate:--Vote Checkmark0 points
Who had better conduct:--Vote Checkmark1 point
Had better spelling and grammar:--Vote Checkmark1 point
Made more convincing arguments:-Vote Checkmark-3 points
Used the most reliable sources:--Vote Checkmark2 points
Total points awarded:03 
Reasons for voting decision: Pro never satisfied the burden of proof and failed to prove that the resolution is true. Con had great arguments right from the start which kept Pro grasping for rebukes and handily won.
Vote Placed by wiploc 6 years ago
Agreed with before the debate:--Vote Checkmark0 points
Agreed with after the debate:--Vote Checkmark0 points
Who had better conduct:-Vote Checkmark-1 point
Had better spelling and grammar:--Vote Checkmark1 point
Made more convincing arguments:-Vote Checkmark-3 points
Used the most reliable sources:--Vote Checkmark2 points
Total points awarded:04 
Reasons for voting decision: RFD in comments.
Vote Placed by Greyparrot 6 years ago
Agreed with before the debate:-Vote Checkmark-0 points
Agreed with after the debate:-Vote Checkmark-0 points
Who had better conduct:--Vote Checkmark1 point
Had better spelling and grammar:--Vote Checkmark1 point
Made more convincing arguments:-Vote Checkmark-3 points
Used the most reliable sources:--Vote Checkmark2 points
Total points awarded:03 
Reasons for voting decision: This was kind of a foolish resoulution. There is clearly not enough data to even remotely calculate the improbabilities given that Abiogenesis is POSSIBLE. (similar to "is it probable that life exists outside our galaxy") Default win for con for poor resolution and almost impossible task for Pro to prove Abiogenesis is Impossible.
Vote Placed by 16kadams 6 years ago
Agreed with before the debate:Vote Checkmark--0 points
Agreed with after the debate:--Vote Checkmark0 points
Who had better conduct:--Vote Checkmark1 point
Had better spelling and grammar:--Vote Checkmark1 point
Made more convincing arguments:-Vote Checkmark-3 points
Used the most reliable sources:-Vote Checkmark-2 points
Total points awarded:05 
Reasons for voting decision: Con had a more in depth analysis on the subject and used more sources, as well as reliable ones. Both seemed to have a firm grasp on what they where saying. But con had good beginning arguments that where never fully dealt with, he also used evolution and other widely accepted theories to his advantage, Also the BOP for pro was unfulfilled. Con proved abiogenesis was probable and logical. Con won the debate.