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The Contender
Con (against)
8 Points

Life Originally Arose via. Abiogenesis

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Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 11/26/2014 Category: Science
Updated: 2 years ago Status: Post Voting Period
Viewed: 2,094 times Debate No: 65561
Debate Rounds (4)
Comments (18)
Votes (2)




This debate challenge is the arranged debate made with Joepalscak. I would like to make a late apology for a previous debate we held which I forfeited all my rounds.[] The same will most certainly not be occurring again.

Full Resolution:
"Biological life on Earth originally arose via. abiogenesis"

In this debate I will be proposing that an organism that would have been capable of evolving through evolution via. natural selection would have arisen from purely chemical origins, and indeed is the explanation existing in the first place on Earth.

Abiogenesis: The hypothesis of life arising from abiotic chemical origins
Life: Systems that can self-replicate and evolve via. natural selection

Round 1: Acceptance, Definitions
Round 2: Opening arguments & rebuttals
Round 3: Arguments & Rebuttals
Round 4: Rebuttals & Conclusion (No new arguments)

Message me if you wish for any changes in the format, definitions etc.


I want to thank Envisage for inviting me to participate in this debate. The answer to the question of the origin of life provides a fundamental foundation to every worldview and therefore the question of the origin of life is an important question to consider at the deepest level. After all, if the worldview through which we filter and process our experiences is wrong, then it follows that many of the conclusions we reach will also be wrong. I am honored to be a participant and it is my prayer that all those interested in carefully exploring this question will earnestly follow the debate!


Semiotic language:
A system of symbolic communication that manifests code, syntax, and semantics (note: such a system will invariably also manifest pragmatics. I have chosen to leave pragmatics out of the relevant terminology here simply to maintain sharper clarity and focus).

1. A general theory of signs and symbolism, usually divided into the branches of pragmatics, semantics, and syntax.
2. A general philosophical theory of signs and symbols that deals especially with their function in languages and comprises syntax, semantics and pragmatics.

A system of signals or symbols for communication.

The study of the rules for the formation of grammatical sentences in a language.

the study of the meaning of words and phrases.

The idea that is represented by a word, phrase, etc.

Notice the abstract, immaterial nature of every single component of semiotic language.

There is no single agreed upon definition of what life is. Pro's definition, while straightforward, ignores many features which distinguish life from non-life. It is critical that I note here in the definition section that every entity that can unambiguously said to be (or have been at one time) "alive" has a genome. A genome is critical and indispensable to life.
Debate Round No. 1


What is life

Note the definition I provided was:

“Systems that can self-replicate and evolve via. natural selection”

This is important because it is such a system which is proposed to continue rather automatically via. evolutionary processes established in the theory of evolution to produce the structures and diversity present in life today.

Con contests this definition stating that a genome is required, which seems to be a fair objection. My arguments will argue for such a system to form, as good arguments can be made that a type of ‘genome’ is one of few ways within our current natural laws to proceed via. the cumulative, consistent autocatalytic processes which allow for sophisticated systems such as life today to emerge.

As such, the elements of a genome which I will argue to be accessible via. abiogenesis will be one that possesses memory capability, template, and imperfect replication ability. All three of these capabilities lay the backbone of what is required of a genome which can undergo evolution via. natural selection.

Note, this system is unlike even the simplest of cell systems that are extant today, and abiogenesis in this debate will not address their formation. However, such a system must necessarily be capable of producing life we have today.

Thermodynamic Inevitability

Before addressing the question of ‘did’ life form abiotically comes the question of ‘why’ did life form abiotically if it did. Is there a drive, or particular natural process which makes such a system favourable.

The first consideration is that state of the early Earth if life never formed, what would the environment then have been like? The atmosphere was thick in cyanides, methane, carbon dioxide etc.[1] and bathed in concentrated UV and visible light these are all energy-dense, low entropy states, and hence under ‘thermodynamic stress’, it is always favourable for the system to move to a higher-entropy state (e.g. a UV light photon reemitted as multiple infrared photons). This is the driving force for every process that occurs in the universe, the entropy must overall tend to increase and hence states to achieve this are naturally explored.[2-4]

Given this, the Earth without life was under significant ‘thermodynamic stress’, and this is where life comes in. Life is very good at ‘relieving’ this thermodynamic stress, it is hence thermodynamically driven. Much like the pressure exerted by a lake behind a hydroelectric dam is a ‘system that wants to tend towards equilibrium’, such is the state of the chemistry and energy on Earth. Anything that provides a pathway for a system to run down to equilibrium will be rapidly exploited and utilized by the system, which in the dam example could be a crack within the walls of the dam, and on Earth a new pathway for these molecules and photons to reach higher entropic states.[5]

Autocatalytic Origin of Life

Model of Life
At its most basic level, life can be modelled as a type of self-propagating process. Life takes in raw materials in the form of ‘food’, which the cell uses to create additional imperfect copies of itself. See the figure below:

There are three key things one must note about this schematic:

i. The ‘food’ sources are of low entropy

ii. Total entropy of the environment increases at each stage via. heat release & mitosis

iii. The system is autocatalytic, as the product itself can particulate in each cycle

Because the system is autocatalytic, if all other factors are irrelevant then the system will continue to multiply at an exponential rate. This repeats itself over and over until you have 4,8,16,32 etc.. So long as there is food in the system, the cells will replicate indefinitely, and it is partially for this reason why life is so stubborn, since it constantly replaces itself at an exponential rate. Moreover life has the ability to evolve over generations which allows life to achieve versatility over a variety of conditions.


To demonstrate how nature can produce such a system as life, first basic chemistry needs to be considered. In chemistry we like to stick things together, and addition-type chemical reactions are very common in synthetic chemistry and natural chemistry, one famous example is the synthesis of ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen.

This reaction is exothermic, yet does not readily occur at ambient conditions, despite having a thermodynamic drive to do so, even elevated conditions (high temperatures & pressures) only perform this reaction slowly. This and a great variety of reactions are enormously accelerated by introducing a catalyst that regenerates itself at the end of each cycle. In the Haber process, the rate of ammonia formation is accelerated to commercially profitable levels with the use of a metallic catalyst. Implementing a catalyst generally reduces the temperature and increases the rate of formation of the end product. This is accomplished by lowering the ‘activation barriers’ that prevented the chemical reactions occurring at room temperature (see figure below).[6]

Such processes are rather life like, as life itself is essentially a type of ‘catalyst’, converting high energy molecules such as glucose and oxygen into lower energy molecules such as CO2 and water with an increase of entropy. The biggest difference is that they do not self-reproduce. A catalytic system such as this will inevitably ‘burn itself out’ due to catalyst poisoning without a source to regenerate the catalyst.

Autocatalysis is a special case of catalysis where the product itself is identical to the catalyst (see figure below). We have the same thermodynamic drives to produce the product, but now the reaction is self-sustaining and self-accelerating! Any decreases in the concentration of catalyst, through loss or contamination, are negated by the new catalyst being produced at an increasing rate with each cycle. Moreover the reaction occurs at an ever accelerating rate as the catalyst that originally accelerated the reaction is present in ever higher quantities, effectively a ‘runaway reaction’.[6]

Here we have a system that is very much life-like. It reproduces itself and is resistant to external effects. A good autocatalytic process will likely continue ad infinitum until the concentration of input reagents exhausts, which is never if there is a continuous source of these. Autocatalysis systems are well-known in chemistry and is close to a system that could be classified as rudimentary ‘life’.[6]

These systems are already present in nature, in abundance. For life all we need is the same system that templates itself. The templating process is catalytic, as it would catalyse the formation of polymeric bonds (such as in DNA/RNA oligomer formation), and hence would be thermodynamically driven, and also would be autocatalytic, as the templating process also directs the formation of itself, moreover templates are not perfect, and hence have an adaptive mechanism available within it which allows for a cycle that can increase in sophistication with each cycle.

This is very thermodynamically favourable, and any process that can accomplish these steps would very quickly become established and adaptive, and very conceivably lead to live as we know it today.There exist many OOL theories that can fill this step, the most heavily researched is the RNA-World hypothesis, largely due to its obvious abiotic fulfilment of the aforementioned templating process which would lead to an adaptive autocatalytic system, but there are many others.[7]

Abiotic Synthesis of RNA

I am not necessarily defending the RNA World hypothesis, as yet simpler base systems would work just as well, with RNA and by extension DNA being a later evolution. However, simple pyrimidine nucleotides have been synthesized under conditions thought to occur during the Early earth [8,9], these include the use of very plausible simple early earth feedstock molecules (many are released geothermal). The reaction is robust over differing pH conditions, which significantly reduces the amount of 'luck' required to make these nucleotides.

Polynucleotide Formation
Given the nucleotide bases, oligomers and polymers are formed by the coupling of multiple monomers into a linear chain. These are known to form abiotically via. inorganic clays (the clay acting as a catalyst) which were likely present on the early Earth [14]. These chains are largely random in the order the amino acids are in.

These RNA strange duplicate using nothing but heat, which was in abundance at the time due to the geology of the Earth at the time, and is a process frequently used today in the polymerase chain reaction (albeit with better catalysts) to amplify RNA strands. Furthermore, these RNA strands can fold on itself to form three dimensional structures, similar to the structures we see in proteins, and can perform many of the functions that protein enzymes perform today.

What is interesting is that very long polymers and 'tarred' impurities, which is basically the 'gunk' you get if you heat a mixture of chemicals too hot and too long, these impurities naturally remain as a solid phase, and do not significantly pariticipate what occurs within the solution phase. [12-14]

Ribozyme catalysis
Ribozymes of just 200 bp have been shown to be capable of the complete autocatalytic process I have described. Of course we have not addressed the search-space of all possible configurations of RNA that would be active in self-replication, but only a minor rate of activity is required to drive reproduction to self-sustaining levels. [10] Moreover ribozymes capable of replicating strands longer than itself and evolving have been demonstrated.[11]


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Origin of life (OOL) science is an historical science which seeks to determine the cause of an event that happened in the past; an event which, at least to this point, has not been duplicated. In order to determine the most reasonable cause of the origin of life at this time, we must examine the clues that are available to us and allow them to lead us where they will. Archaeology and forensic science are examples of other historical sciences and they provide an excellent template for OOL science. In both archaeology and forensics, there is one primary question of interest: was the effect in question the result of natural or deliberate causation? In order to determine the cause, it is crucial that we allow the evidence to lead us where it leads us. No historical science can provide a reliable inference to the best explanation unless we follow this dictum.

In this debate, pro has assumed the burden of persuading us that the evidence establishes natural causation; to wit, "abiogenesis happened." It is up to me to establish that his conclusion is not warranted, given the evidence. Indeed, I will show that the evidence decisively renders natural causation as an unreasonable conclusion, and, though it is not strictly necessary according to the terms of this debate, that the evidence does establish deliberate action (intelligent agency) as the only reasonable cause.

My case will focus on, but not be limited to, two primary lines of evidence:

1). The semiotic information systems that undergird all life
2). The mathematical realities against natural causation

Each of these lines of evidence is, by itself, powerful testimony in favor of intelligent causation and against natural causation. Taken together, they constitute a case that is as strong as any historical conclusion can possibly be.

In this opening statement, I provide a brief overview of the evidence:


Francis Crick, who with James Watson first elucidated the DNA double helix structure, recognized that the three dimensional proteins which do the jobs of keeping all living systems alive, are prescribed by a semiotic information system - the DNA/RNA protein synthesis system. Crick's insight became know as the "Sequence Hypothesis," [1]. As Crick puts it, his hypothesis, "in its simplest form assumes that the specificity of a nucleic acid is expressed solely by the sequence of its bases, and that this sequence is a code for the amino acid sequence of a particular protein." [1]

The explanatory power of the sequence hypothesis has played a major role in unlocking our understanding of the genome (to the extent that we understand it) and of the pivotal role of information in all living systems.

DNA employs four specific chemical bases, abbreviated A,C,G,T (When translated to RNA, T is swapped out for U). These bases comprise the code of biological information. It is the specificity of the sequence of the bases, as Crick noted, which prescribes specific AA sequences. Just as specific sequences of English letters prescribe specific words, constituting the semantics of our language, so too, the specificity of base sequences prescribing specific AA sequences constitutes the semantics of biological information. These sequences must be read as a contiguous string of "codons," or "triplets" (groups of three bases); the rules of biological grammar - the syntax.

The nucleotide and codon syntax of DNA language has no physical explanation. All nucleotides are bound with the same 3'5' phosphodiester bonds. The codon table is arbitrary and formal, not determined by physics and chemistry. As I noted in round 1, every aspect of semiotic language is abstract and immaterial. So it is with biological information. Material symbols are employed, whether they are nucleotide bases, alphabetical characters, 0's and 1's (as in machine code), or semaphore flags, but they are employed to convey abstract messages. Abstract realities are only produced by minds with the express intention of producing those abstract realities. Natural processes have never been observed to deal in symbolic meaning. Natural processes are governed by deterministic laws, not arbitrary rules. Pro has the unenviable task of demonstrating that the rule based abstract semiotic information which makes all life possible has arisen via strictly natural processes. I wish him luck!


Clearly, any coherent causal account for the origin of life must explain the origin of the semiotic information systems that make life possible. Most, if not all proposed abiogenesis scenarios provide no such explanation. Rather, these scenarios seek purely physical pathways to the highly specified chemical arrangements of life. Setting aside the information requirements for the moment, let us closely examine just what the champions of abiogenesis are up against:

*Sir Fred Hoyle calculated the chance chemical formation of a single cell bacterium to be 1 in 10^40,000.
*a single protein of average length (300 AAs) represents one sequence among 10^390.
*there are only 10^65 atoms in our galaxy and only 10^80 elementary particles in the known universe.

Given only the above information, the mathematical odds against a specific linear chain of AAs capable of folding into a functional three dimensional protein forming purely by chance is many orders of magnitude smaller than the odds of randomly selecting a specific atom from our galaxy. In other words, the chance occurrence of such an event is so wildly improbable that it cannot be seriously entertained as a scientific possibility.

Of course, this is not the entire story. There are other factors. For example, it is crucial to get a handle on the ratio of functional sequences to non functional sequences. If every chain of 300 AAs will yield a functional protein, the problem of finding a functional chain at random completely disappears. A few decades ago, Robert Sauer conducted experiments which led to the estimate that for a short protein of 92 AAs, the ratio of functional sequences to non-functional sequences was 1 in 10^63 [2]. This estimate was roughly in agreement with the work of information scientist Hubert Yockey's estimates of 1 in 10^90 for a protein 100 AAs long. Later work by Douglas Axe (1 in 10^77 for a protein 150 AA long)[4] reveals similar improbabilities.

All of these estimates fall orders of magnitude below any reasonable level this side of "essentially impossible." Thus, it appears that the chance formation of a string of AAs that could produce a chain capable of folding into even a single modest protein has such a vanishingly small probability of occurring that it is far more reasonable to assume that it never happened. Life - even the simplest single cell organism - requires many proteins.

But there is more: While there are only 20 biologically relevant AAs, there are many more non-biologically relevant AAs. AAs in protein chains must be bound by peptide bonds, but other bonds are every bit as likely. Moreover, every amino acid can assume one of two forms. In nature, both forms are roughly equally represented. This is know as a "racemic," or, right-handed and left-handed mixture, but biologically relevant AAs must be completely homochiral (the left-handed form). A single non biologically relevant AA (or any other chemical for that matter), or a single right-handed AA, or a single bond other than a peptide bond, renders a chain of any length biologically worthless. The realities of interfering cross reactions, correct bonding, and the homochiral requirement, pile orders of magnitudes upon orders of magnitudes against the already infinitesimal chance formation of any biologically relevant chain.

Without even considering the informational requirements of life, the math alone provides decisive testimony against abiogenesis. It is incumbent upon pro to give us good evidential reason to believe that the probability of abiogenesis rises far, far above the level of operationally impossible.


The reality is that we have no idea how life first arose from aimless, inanimate matter. We can only infer what happened from the clues available to us. Before the Sequence Hypothesis, all of the available relevant clues seemed to be of a physical nature. But from the SH forward, we have come to realize that not only is DNA biological information, it is the most efficient[5 ] and advanced[6 ] information storage and processing system we have ever encountered. This constitutes evidence. Hard evidence which must be dealt with.

Pro is committed to insisting that natural processes are responsible for the origin of life. This is fine, but pro must deal with the hard evidence of the information of life as well as the mathematical evidence against abiogenesis. Pro's opening argument presents scenarios which attempt to mitigate the mathematical problem. In my rebuttal round, when I examine his arguments in detail, I will reveal why theses attempts fail. Finally, I will note that pro's opening argument completely ignores biological information.

[1] "On Protein Synthesis," Crick, 1958
[2] "Functionally accepted substitutions in Two Alpha Helical Regions of Lambda Repressor," Reidaar-Olson and Sauer
[3] "On the Information Content of Cytochrome C," Yockey
[4] "Estimating the Prevalence of Protein Sequences Adapting Functional Enzyme Folds," Axe
[6] a single line of genetic text can contain multiple independent messages. Bill Gates has noted that DNA is like computer software, but far more advanced than anything we have created
Debate Round No. 2


Semiotic Information
Con’s argument is essentially this:

  1. 1. Life contains semiotic information
  2. 2. Semiotic information is impossible via. natural processes
  3. C. Life is impossible via natural processes

Con probably has his own formulation of this, but this is essentially contains all the content of Con’s opening round and his desired conclusion. I will tackle these assumptions independantly.

Life contains semiotic information
By far the biggest problem here lies in the definitions Con has provided for “Semantics” & “Meaning”:

the study of the meaning of words and phrases

The idea that is represented by a word, phrase, etc.”

Con is going to have a hard time demonstrating that the systems of life contain “ideas” in any objective manner. Words and strings only have “meaning” to us because we attach concepts to these words, or “labels”, however such a thing is absent in life, since there is nothing to have a “concept” in life. To life the string AAAAA has just as much “meaning” as TAGTC etc. since these strings do not convey ideas. It is very true that life has mechanisms by which polypeptide chains can be mapped onto genetic strings to give a corresponding polypeptide, and subsequent mechanisms yield proteins, but that is no closer to establishing an “idea” represented since polypeptides can be mapped onto *any* random section of DNA in life.

Also, if we take all the words I have typed here, they are simply letters on a screen, and do not inherently “contain” any meaning or semiotic information. They only represent semiotic information to another conscious agent who share the same understanding of semantics, etc. with an application of those to these string of words on the screen. The most Con hope to demonstrate is that life contains strings, which map onto corresponding codons, which lead to polypeptide and hence protein synthesis. You can *describe* such a system with labels such as “code, syntax, semiotics”, but we would not be talking about an objective “property” of the system.

One crucial difference between DNA and language as we know it is that while random strings in the English language convey no utility, the same is not the case for DNA. The reasoning for this is that DNA is first and foremost a molecule, and the very presence of nucleotides allows for all sorts of interactions to take place, such as hydrogen bonding, dipole-dipole interactions etc.[15] The exact same applies to any random string of amino acids in a polypeptide, each of which will have its own set of chemical properties, of which catalysis can be included etc. Ergo virtually any random string of amino acids has “meaning” in the superficial chemical sense.

Semiotic information is impossible via. natural processes
I have yet to see Con to seriously attempt to affirm this assumption. Con has only asserted there is “no physical explanation”, and I presume his assertion that it is “abstract and immaterial” is supposed to support this conclusion. However we can attach concepts to anything we like, which themselves would be “abstract and immaterial”. For example a knife is sharp, where “sharpness” is not a physical entity in itself, it’s just a description for a state of affairs. It would be dubious to say the least to argue that a knife cannot be sharp due to natural processes because “sharpness” is abstract and immaterial. Con seems to be advocating for some Platonic “essence” of semiotic information (which I argued is already a question-begging concept) but has not demonstrated this is the case.

Natural Explanation
I have already argued how evolving systems can arise in my opening, so our spectrum of explanations are significantly more powerful than otherwise expected. We are not limited to “chance”.

First, there is no reason to expect that the existing codon mechanism is irreducible, and numerous hypotheses exist for reducing the existing system into a doublet and further still to a singlet system, where amino acids are “encoded” by just a single nucleotide.[16] While singlet encoding system would have performed nowhere near as a triplet system, it would have a tremendous advantage over an no system at all since it opens a whole new dimension of controlled versatile organic structures.

Moreover, such systems would not necessarily have required the transcriptional element of protein systems ubiquitous today, and would have been accessible from such an RNA world. The evolution of doublet, and then triplet systems from singlet systems is easy to envisage, since it allows for differentiation of significantly more amino acids than a singlet (4 acids) or a doublet (16 acids) systems.[16,17] Moreover while today’s systems are highly specific (formal), an ancestral version of it does not need to be, as ambiguous systems still allow for an incremental “jump” from no coding system to the highly specific system we see today. An ambiguous system is better than no system.

There are important reasons to believe this really happened. First is the ribozyme, which facilitates the important translation process, is approximately 60% RNA by weight and functions much like a ribozyme.[18] The second piece is the transfer RNA, which maps amino acids onto the genome. Such structures are also entirely RNA based. Thus the two most crucial structures for polypeptide synthesis are already (and unusually) largely RNA-based, and hence easily accessible from an RNA-only environment. Unlike virtually all other ubiquitous structures, these primitive systems are not based on polypeptides.[19]

Transfer RNA[19]

Ribosome [18]

Mathematical Arguments

Con’s entire set of arguments here is based on the “prosecutor’s fallacy”.[21]

Look at your social security number or telephone number and one will realise the chances of them obtaining THAT number are astonishingly small. We could also extend this to my opponent’s existence. For Joepalscak to exist a specific sperm would have to meet a specific egg, generation after generation. Not to mention the environmental facts of the parent’s meeting and copulating at just the right time. No matter which way you work the numbers, the chances are going to be infinitesimally small. However nobody makes the claim your social security number, or Joepalscak’s existence is anything but the result of chance, simply because we are not “privileging the result”.

The reason this counter-intuitive observation is made is because it assumes only one result is assumed to be meaningful, and made in ignorance of all the possible ways in which viable results can arise. Moreover we aren’t limited to chance in evolution, as structures that arise from self-organisational processes such as life are more favoured over others.[20]

Hence, the statistics for a chance formation of a bacterium are irrelevant, since it is a system favoured by thermodynamics and self-organisation. Similarly Con’s protein calculations can be dismissed out of hand as it assumes only a specific sequence of amino acids is functional. We already know there is tremendous plasticity in the amino acid sequences of proteins, a cursory search of one of the most highly conserved proteins ubiquitous in life, the cytochrome C protein is 100 AA long, and has a massive ~40 amino acid variation (40%) between human and yeast cytochrome C, one of the most important structures in life today.[22]

For Con’s arguments to work, he actually needs to actually address the search-space of all possible amino acid sequences that would work, factor in the non-random aspect of nature and then come to an answer. I wish Con the best of luck with that!

Con makes numerous claims about amino acids. First we can rule most of these irrelevant as they are evolutionary issues, rather than ones of abiogenesis. Secondly I don’t know how Con can make the claim “AAs in protein chains must be bound by peptide bonds, but other bonds are every bit as likely.” Since peptide bonds (-CONH-) are essentially the only covalent bonds that can form between amines & carboxylic acids at ambient conditions.[23] Other reactions overcoming large unfavourable energy barriers, and hence generally do not happen.

If Con wants to propose alternative chemistry occurs with basic amino acids then he is welcome to present it (he has only asserted it, not supported it).

The fact there are other available amino acids to what is ubiquitous in life is not an argument against abiogenesis, especially since chance is clearly not the only mechanism that exists. Furthermore, Con merely asserts that “A single non biologically relevant AA” renders a chain of any length worthless, but does nothing to substantiate this. Moreover homochirality has a thermodynamic drive to arise in systems, with autocatalytic systems (such as that of life) capable of chiral amplification, which resolves near-racemic mixtures to near homochirality.[24]

Furthermore, a racemic mixture contains both left and right handed molecules, each of which will have a kinetic bias towards reacting with one isomer over another, which leads to a positive-feedback bias on sequential reactions. For example take the following simple system:

The chirality of menthol here has a directing effect on which isomer of mandelic acid it reacts with. The same principle of chiral resolution applies to amino acids in peptide chains and a plethora of other optical resolution mechanisms exist in nature.[25,26]

Con would need to demonstrate either there is no “drive” to form these structures, or demonstrate there is no mechanism by which these structures can arise. He has failed to even attempt to do either.


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I begin my analysis of Pro's opening arguments with two general observations:

*Pro offers us several possible abiogenesis scenarios. It cannot be stressed enough that as origin of life proposals, these scenarios are hypothetical. They are not emperical. In other words, these scenarios are speculation. Pure speculation.

*Furthermore, pro's scenarios all rely on the primary assumption that life can emerge from simpler precursors.

To be sure, pro does bring an element of scientific fact into his various scenarios. Nonetheless, his speculations go well beyond the facts and his primary assumption has no basis beyond a desire that it be so. Indeed, that life has arisen from simpler precursors is the very thing that pro needs to convince us of. To simply assume it, reduces his argument to pure tautology: Life has arisen from simpler precursors because life has arisen from simpler precursors!

Mixing some scientific fact with a heavy dose of speculation and wishful assumptions can be the stuff of good science fiction. It can even suggest fruitful avenues of research. But pro must separate speculation from evidence. The place to look for evidence concerning the origin of life is life itself. Pro postulates that life used to be something other than life and immediately sets out to discover what that "something" might be. He does not consider the evidence from life.

Pro claims that life is thermodynamically inevitable, stating that the prebiotic earth,

" was under significant thermodynamic stress and this is where life comes in. Life is very good at relieving this thermodynamic stress."

But it does not ipso facto follow that therefore life "inevitably" arose. I have a relative who is under constant economic stress and money is very good at relieving economic stress. It does not follow that therefore money will inevitably arise in my relative's life to relieve that stress. And money is already in existence!

Living systems are themselves highly organized and therefore represent low entropy states, so why is life so good at relieving thermodynamic stress? Because of the work that living systems accomplish. And how is this work accomplished? It is accomplished by a myriad of molecular machines which in turn are made up of proteins and protein complexes, which are prescribed by biological information! Without machines to do the work, living systems do not relieve thermodynamic stress, and unless information to build those machines is already present, no machines emerge. The fundamental question remains: where did the information come from?

Pro suggests that so-called self organization (autocatalysis) provides a natural pathway to life. But biological information is possible specifically because the sequences of bases - the very sequences which prescribe the proteins - are not affected by (indeed, are free from) so-called self organization [7]. Pro declares that natural autocatalytic processes are rather life like, but as he himself notes,

" Life takes in raw materials in the form of food, which the cell uses to create additional imperfect copies of itself."

Indeed life takes in raw materials and processes those materials for a myriad of functions which include reproduction. But again, this processing requires a vast ensemble of molecular machines; molecular machines which, incidentally, work with each other in a coordinated fashion. No molecular machinery exists in any non-biological autocatalytic process.

The cell is the indivisible unit of life. Theoretical and experimental work on the minimal complexity required to sustain the simplest possible living organism suggests a lower bound of 250-400 genes with their associated proteins [8,9].

Sophisticated machines, such as are found in all living systems do not arise spontaneously in nature, nor do the proteins which comprise these machines. Needless to say, complex networks of machines integrated into sophisticated holistic networks responding to and coordinated with one another by extensive communication systems do not arise spontaneously in nature either[10]. Yet such networks characterize every single living cell. Nothing simpler than a single cell has ever been demonstrated to be alive. In his opening statement, pro claims that,

"the elements of a genome which I will argue to be accessible via. abiogenesis will be one that possesses memory capability, template, and imperfect replication ability."

Well yes, but there is also the fundamental matter of the cybernetic reality of life's organization and information properties. How are these realities accessible via abiogenesis? On this crucial question, pro is absolutely silent. Pro goes on to concede:

"Note, this system is unlike even the simplest of cell systems that are extant today, and abiogenesis in this debate will not address their formation. However, such a system must necessarily be capable of producing life we have today."

Pro is correct to point out that his hypothetical system is nothing like life today, or for that matter, any life we know of. As I have pointed out, the simplest known life manifests advanced cybernetic properties; indeed, even single cell life represents the most advanced cybernetic system we have ever encountered [11]. To understand just how far removed pro's hypothetical system is from what a living system is, watch these fascinating animated videos:

In a perfect world I would have have been able to present a video on a single cell organism, and perhaps such a video exists, but I was unable to find one. Nonetheless, each of the above three videos serve to bring home the high levels of purpose, function, bona fide organization and cybernetic properties that characterize every living cell. Yockey's observation hits the nail on the head:

"More than any other characteristic, computational linear digital algorithms distinguish life from non-life"[12].

Even the simplest known life will:

*delineate itself from its environment; realize the production and maintenance of membrane equivalent for selective absorption of nutrients, excretion of wastes, and overcoming osmotic and toxic gradients.
*store and pass along to its progeny Prescriptive Information needed for organization; provide steering, control, regulation and management for usable energy derivation and for needed metabolite production and function; operate a semiotic material symbol system using messenger molecules.
*capture, transduce, store, call up when needed, and carefully utilize energy for formal, useful work.
*actively self-replicate and eventually reproduce, not just passively polymerize or crystallize; pass along the know-how for homeostatic metabolism and reproduction into progeny.
*self monitor and self repair its constantly deteriorating matrix of bioinstruction, retention/transmission, and its architecture.
*productively react to environmental stimuli in an efficacious manner that is supportive of survival, development, growth, and reproduction.
*possess relative phenotypic stability, yet sufficient genetic variability to allow for adaptation.
*be capable of dying.

Even if we generously grant pro his prebiotic "system," there is a huge gulf between it and anything that can be classified as life. If pro want to convince us that life has arisen by abiogenesis, he is going to have bridge that gulf for us.


here pro glowing cites work by Sutherland et al. Let's take a peek behind the curtain: To achieve their results, the team used pH manipulation, phosphate buffers and irradiation all at the correct times and amounts; they exercised careful selection of the precursors, control of competing reactions by pH selection, and a phenomenally high phosphate concentration.

What is on display here but massive infusions of intelligent design?!

The same is true when it comes to rybozyme engineering and many other origin of life efforts: it is often the case that the extent to which positive results can be claimed is very close to the extent of deliberate experimenter manipulation (in other words, intelligent design) required to achieve those results. Origin of Life research never delivers any purely naturalistic pathway to life. To the contrary, these efforts constantly reaffirm the necessity for the deliberate, active hand of intelligence.


Pro is content to seek natural processes which might produce randomly ordered amino acid chains. But proteins are formed by specifically ordered, not randomly ordered chains. In my opening round, I pointed to several studies which estimate the ratio of functional AA sequences to non-functional sequences (I note that Pro has challenged this and will respond to his challenges in my next round). The dominance of non functional sequences in sequence space clearly points to the inadequacy of random sequences and the absolute necessity of specific sequences.

Throughout his presentation, pro fails to address the origin of the information of life, but this is exactly what needs to be addressed.

[7] "Calculation of the Probability of Spontaneous Biogenesis by Information Theory," Yockey, Journal of Theoretical Biology, 1977

[8] "Seeking Life's Bare Genetic Necessities," E. Pennisi, Science, 1996

[9] "Gene Set for Cellular Life Derived by Comparison of Complete Bacterial Genomes," A. Mushegian and E. Koonin, Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences, 1996

[10] Note that a single emperical example of molecular machines or even a single protein arising by purely natural processes would defeat my case.

[11] "What is ProtoBioCybernetics?," Abel, 2011

[12] "Origin of Life on Earth and Shannon's Theory of Communication," Yockey, 2000

[13] "The Birth of Protocells," Abel 2011
Debate Round No. 3


Envisage forfeited this round.


( pro's closing argument can be found in comment #7)

"You absolutely need a code"
Jacques Monod

My thanks to pro for a spirited debate on a crucial topic. By prior agreement, I will not be addressing pro's final round.

There is no kind way to put this: we see on display in pro's rebuttal round a toxic blend of blind faith mixed with misinformation and demonstrable falsehood. I cannot possibly address everything, so I have selected a few examples. I use the abbreviation, "P:" to denote "pro said."

P: "there is no reason to expect that the existing codon mechanism is irreducible"

Let us analyze the audacity of this claim:

*there is not a shred of evidence that doublet or singlet codons have ever existed.
*by pro's own admission, a doublet codon would dramatically reduce the pool of existing amino acids by 25% (from 20 to 15 with one necessary stop codon).
*allowing for maximum AA retention requires the complete elimination of redundancy. T the more we learn, the more critical and prominent the role of redundancy becomes[15,16].
*Given that most proteins require AA chains of several hundred, consider the catastrophic effect on the number of proteins that would be lost by a doublet codon system. By way of analogy, remove any 6 letters from the english alphabet and consider how many paragraphs would be lost.
*all living systems employ the standard triplet codon, nothing less.
*The laws of information theory make it absolute that any pre-existing code has to have been at least as complex as the current code [17]. Codes are not and cannot be built bottom up.

Here and elsewhere, pro relies on a prebiotic natural selection, but NS presupposes self replication systems. Von Neumann has shown that any system capable of self replication would require subsystems functionally equivalent to the processing systems of extant cells [18]. Prior to function, there is nothing to select. As Dobzhansky noted, 'Prebiotic NS is a contradiction in terms"

P: "I don't know how Con can make the claim "AAs in protein chains must be bound by peptide bonds, but other bonds are every bit as likely." Since peptide bonds (-CONH-) are essentially the only covalent bonds that can form between amines & carboxylic acids at ambient conditions."
Pro is confused here. He is really talking about amide bonds. Peptide bonds are a kind of amide bond, but they are not the only kind. However, they are the only biologically relevant kind. All kinds of amide bonds - peptide and non-peptide - are equally possible. My point stands.

P: " a cursory search of one of the most highly conserved proteins ubiquitous in life, the cytochrome C protein is 100 AA long, and has a massive ~40 amino acid variation (40%)"

Pro wants us to be impressed by 40%, but this figure can only be the product of either pure ignorance or pure deceit. With 20 AAs possible at each of 100 positions, allowing for 40 substitutions means that only 1 in 10^128 (rounded down) sequences will result in cytochrome C! There's still plenty of room for all the functional chains an organism could want and Yockey's functional chain estimate of 1 in 10^90 remains safe. Ironically, Yockey derived his estimate directly from his studies of cytochrome C![3]

P: "Con makes numerous claims about amino acids. First we can rule most of these irrelevant as they are evolutionary issues"

Obviously false. Amino acids are indispensable to life.

P: " Moreover homochirality has a thermodynamic drive to arise in systems"

homochirality in natural processes remains purely hypothetical.

P: " We are not limited to "chance".

But pro offers chains of random polymers as a starting point. This does indeed return him to a "chance" search!

P: "Con"s entire set of arguments here is based on the "prosecutor"s fallacy"

Noting that highly improbable events happen all the time, pro offers 3 examples: a SS#, a phone #, and me (resulting from pregnancy), he adds:

However nobody makes the claim your social security number, or Joepalscak"s existence is anything but the result of chance, simply because we are not "privileging the result".

Note that in all three of his examples, the context demands an inevitable result. So why do we "privilege" the result of a particular AA chain? It is true that sheer complexity by itself does not demand privilege, but specified complexity does[19]! Consider pro's telephone # analogy. Most telephone numbers are randomly assigned. However, businesses will typically request and receive a deliberately customized number. I am a caterer. If my phone number were C-A-T-E-R-E-R-J-O-E, would you have excellent reason to believe that this number is a "privileged" result as opposed to a chance result? Similarly, the probability of any random chain several hundred AAs in length ever emerging in nature is by itself vanishingly small. Unlike pro's examples, the context of nature does not guarantee the emergence of a single instance. But when we further consider that each of the AAs in the chain must all come from a defined subset comprising less than 10% of all AAs, that they must all exhibit left handed chirality, that they all must be bound exclusively by peptide bonds, and that a primary protein structure results, specified complexity is on clear display.

Pro's confessed aim in this debate is to propose a possible "proto life." His entire presentation comes from the realm of the hypothetical. He confidently assures us that "cumulative, sophisticated systems" can emerge in nature, that autocatalytic processes are "rather life like," that ribozymes are ribozomes waiting to happen and so forth. He assures us that these kinds of things are favored by nature. But if this is true, we surely should have discovered at least one unambiguous example of a "proto life" by now. An empirical example would go a long way to elevating pro's case. He does not provide us with any and it is glaringly obvious why not.

Pro consistently offers simple deterministic redundant processes as explanations for the most advanced cybernetic systems we have ever encountered. It simply does not add up. It simply does not work.

Most origin of life research is grounded in a belief in abiogenesis, dedicated to proposing how it might have happened. To date, abiogenesis remains elusive. Indeed, the only consistent result that has arisen out the extensive OOL enterprise is that time and again even the most modest triumphs that show any promise towards life require extensive steering of events, careful selection of conditions, establishing and arranging the actualization of targets, repeated purifying processes; in short, massive infusions of intelligent design! Certainly not the stuff of natural processes.

OOL researchers are free to speculate all they wish, but their speculation is rooted in an entirely unproven assumption. Empirical reality points in the opposite direction.

Life has never been shown to be the result of a seamless process of successive, "inevitable" natural states. Rather, life is clearly distinguished from the natural world, and it is distinguished specifically by its cybernetic and information properties. Pro has never touched either of these distinguishing characteristics. There are good reasons for this. For cybernetic systems and information systems to come into existence, certain attributes are required: planning, problem solving, bona fide organization (as opposed to mere self-ordering), deliberate steering of events toward functional target results, to name a few. None of these attributes are available to nature. They are exclusive to intelligent agents.

The information of life is objectively real. It has led us into levels of understanding not possible before the sequence hypothesis. It is enshrined in textbooks[20]. It is the stuff of college degrees[21]. It drives exciting new fields of research[22]. It is axiomatic in today's scientific literature that information lies at the foundation of life.

In this debate I have presented peer reviewed citations to support the following:
*the information of life is semiotic
*life is cybernetic
*any pre existing genetic code has to have been at least as complex as the current one
*any system capable of self replication must contain subsystems comparable to those of living systems today.
*even the simplest life form likely requires at least 250-400 genes with their associated proteins and systems.

Pro, on the other hand, has steadfastly refused to deal with this fundamental reality of life. He has exhibited a failure to understand his own citations, as I have documented in the cases of peptide bonds and cytochrome C. Indeed, upon examination, virtually all of his citations unabashedly employ the same language of speculation that runs throughout his presentation here.

Pro is free to believe what he wishes, but the hypothetical "things" he proposes fall well short of the simplest possible life form. Based on everything we know to be true, the only cause capable of producing what life really is - cybernetic information based systems - is intelligent agency. No known natural processes are capable of producing anything we can describe as being alive.



[17] Shannon's Channel Capacity Theorem

[18] "Theory of Self-reproducing Automata," Von Neumann, 1966.

[19] a term first coined by Leslie Orgel, rigorously and extensively developed by mathematician Bill Dembski

[20] excerpt from the standard college textbook, Molecular Biology of the Cell: "Living Cells, like computers, deal in information...All living cells on earth, without any known exception, store their hereditary information in the form of...DNA"

[21] many schools now offer degrees in bioinformatics

[22] the research field of bioinformatics is actually a mature field by now, being almost as old as the Sequence Hypothesis
Debate Round No. 4
18 comments have been posted on this debate. Showing 1 through 10 records.
Posted by whiteflame 2 years ago
RFD (Pt. 1)

Full disclosure: I was asked to vote by Envisage, and, as a result of both my line of work and the views I have that stem from it, I am a proponent of a theory of abiogenesis myself.

This was a really intriguing debate with a lot of good points made by both sides. That said, this RFD is actually built off of two points of tension that are strung throughout the debate, and as such won't require me to cover every point in the debate... which is good, because there is enough for me to cover in great detail here that I could spend 10 pages doing it. If either of you would like to ask me about my perception of specific points I don't cover here, I'm still willing.

Before I get into those two points, I'll address an overarching issue.

Burdens. I see analysis from Con as to what Pro's burdens are, and pretty much everything is heaped on him. I actually don't see a full argument in Con's case for intelligent agency, but he's right that he doesn't need one given the burdens that he's set here. He tells me that it's Pro's burden to show that abiogenesis happened. Not that the components of life could have formed, not that there's selection for life is thermodynamically favored, but that life could exist in a form that was formed from abiogenesis. Honestly, I found this to be a bit overmuch of a burden, since this debate could have been framed more as a discussion of what the most likely mechanism was by which life came to start on this planet. That does require a bit of push and pull regarding other theories. However, I don't see that argument from Pro. So I'm forced to abide by Con's burdens analysis.

That said, let's get into the points.
Posted by whiteflame 2 years ago
(Pt. 2)

There's a lot of tension over likelihood. This probably should have been more important, and it would have made a big impact if not for one particular missing piece (I'll get to it shortly). As it stands, the point on thermodynamics is really only persuasive to me in that it provides for the persistence of life, rather than providing the inertia by which that life is formed. If this debate were about whether Pro had provided adequate information to make me believe that abiogenesis is possible with the given mechanisms we know, then this debate easily goes to him. I feel that the mechanisms are here, and they're sufficiently described and explained, for the inception of a life form of his description from chemical components. But that doesn't satisfy his burden.

Those words, "of his description", are what really factor heavily into this decision, and the main reason for that is that we have an evolving (pun intended) definition of life that is coming out of Con over the course of this debate. There is a question of what form an organization of chemicals needs to take before it can reasonably satisfy the definition of life. Pro's definition from R1 is attacked by Con at multiple times (though not as directly as it could have been) for assuming that life can take that form without providing any examples of life that has taken that form.
Posted by whiteflame 2 years ago
(Pt. 3)

That's not to say that I'm particularly happy with Con's definition, which starts in R1 and expands very heavily in R3. Personally, I wouldn't have accepted the idea that having a genome is what defines life. Prion disease has really thrown a wrench into our definition of what is and is not life, and there's a very real question to be asked about whether the first organisms on the planet had anything that can be considered truly genomic. After all, the presence of a genome is essential in large part because of the ability to eventually produce protein, so could not the first organisms have been some amalgamation of proteins that simply catalyzed the formation of other proteins? Admittedly, I'm less enthused by this argument myself, but it is an available point of argumentation that I would have bought as a reason to reject Con's framework. This would have made a good example of a simplistic organism that avoids much of Pro's analysis and doesn't even require the RNA world theory to be true.

Still, I'm forced to accept the genomic component as Pro does. And I'm forced to consider Con's expanded definition R3, which provides a set of detailed processes that need to go into any life form that exists today. I have a very hard time accepting these personally, but they don't get response from Pro in R4. As these are coming out as required aspects for life (as far as we know) so late in the debate, I'm only considering these insofar as they set a standard that I'm looking for Pro to meet by showing that ribozymes can function to produce these capabilities. I get some of them, but not all.

That's not instantly deadly to Pro's case. Instead, the bigger problem is encapsulated in this quote from Con's R4:

"we surely should have discovered at least one unambiguous example of a "proto life" by now. An empirical example would go a long way to elevating pro's case."
Posted by whiteflame 2 years ago
(Pt. 4)

This problem isn't terribly hard to respond to. Pro could have argued that proto-life, like practically every life form that's ever existed on this planet, simply couldn't compete with the advent of more complex life forms, and that we have to focus on likelihoods if we plan on getting anywhere in the discussion of what life was like early on in this planet's history, though that would have required rebutting Con's burdens analysis as well. Pro could have argued that proto-life does exist, and does satisfy Con's need for a genome " they're called viruses, viroids, and satellites. Many of these use simple and complex ribozymes to procure a wide variety of functionalities that would otherwise be lost to them without the presence of the requisite enzymes. This doesn't even require a discussion of whether these are life; their similarities to life may be sufficient to make the comparison.

But I don't get those examples. What I'm left with is a case of likelihood, and with Con directing the parameters for what Pro is required to do in order to win this debate, I have a hard time finding a sufficient reason to vote Pro. The lapses in support, and the dropped points I've sketched out here, really do make me question whether Pro has met the burden he needed to in order to take down this debate. Under Con's perception of what's required for life, the components Pro proves could exist aren't enough, and that seems the most plausible standard to go with (despite my own discrepancies with it). Since that question remains strongly on my mind by the end of the debate, I end up voting Con.

I do have a couple of points regarding certain arguments that were given that played secondary roles in the debate.
Posted by whiteflame 2 years ago
(Pt. 5)

On the Cytochrome C argument, while I appreciate the selection, it is basically the most diverse enzyme that exists. It's very much an example of cherry-picking, especially by comparison to enzymes like RNA polymerase, which are so highly conserved that even viruses with massive mutation rates can't endure alterations to it.

Generally, I'm not impressed with the probabilities provided in R2 by Con. I understand how this point functions, but what does it mean to have that chance? If you had the initial materials in the same area, it would happen, say, 1 in 10^80 times. But every instant is a possible test, and that test could be repeated in a tremendous number of places. The number of opportunities are astronomical as well. It's not just about the number of atoms in existence, and I think there's a lot of assumptions involved in determining these likelihoods that make them difficult to determine accurately (i.e. all processes that occur are entirely random and therefore there is no reason to believe that a building molecule would direct its own completion by mechanisms it utilizes).
Posted by joepalcsak 2 years ago
Posted by Envisage 2 years ago
You too Joe! I might actually be in Denver next year for a conference so I shall let you know!
Posted by joepalcsak 2 years ago
by the way, I want you to know that my conclusion is almost completely written. I will not be analyzing your concluding statement because you do not have the same opportunity with mine. I do plan to read yours, though.

My thanks to you as well for this debate. If you ever find yourself heading to Denver for any reason, let me know. I would love to have a beer and shoot the bull with you!
Posted by Envisage 2 years ago
Alright, thanks.
Posted by joepalcsak 2 years ago
I will refer those who are following the debate (not many, I fear) to your closing argument
2 votes have been placed for this debate. Showing 1 through 2 records.
Vote Placed by GarretKadeDupre 2 years ago
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Reasons for voting decision: Pro spent too much effort arguing that proto-life can evolve and not enough arguing that true-life can. Pro didn't just fail to prove the mere plausibility of proto-life, he hardly tried to prove this hypothetical could evolve into real life. Pro also completely missed the point of Con's calculations by conflating mere complexity with specified-complexity. Best quote from Pro: ""The evolution of doublet, and then triplet systems from singlet systems is easy to envisage" (lol) Best quote from Con: "" I have a relative who is under constant economic stress and money is very good at relieving economic stress. It does not follow that therefore money will inevitably arise in my relative's life to relieve that stress." I watched one of Con's videos; it was mind-blowing, even if it wasn't as relevant to the debate as it should have been. Conduct to Con for Pro's forfeit. I absolutely despise forfeits. It happens all the time to me.
Vote Placed by whiteflame 2 years ago
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Reasons for voting decision: Given in comments. Conduct to Con for the forfeit. Arguments in the comments were read and factored into the debate.