After “clarification”, a false narrative is still false

I’m not an origin of life researcher. I’m not really a biochemist, either, though I have enough background to muddle through talks and papers on the topic. I do go to quite a few origin of life talks, and read the papers, because I’m interested and because the talks are frequently presented at some of the conferences I go to, such as Evolution and AbSciCon (Astrobiology Science Conference).

There’s a formula to scientific papers and talks, though it’s not always strictly adhered to. The classic formulation is Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion: what did we test, how did we test it, what did we find, and what does it mean. A good Introduction includes some background on the question, explaining what is already known and, crucially, what isn’t. For origin of life work, this usually includes a statement to the effect that we really don’t know how life began. Because we don’t.

So I was surprised to see David Klinghoffer, a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute, say that the mystery of life’s origin is “widely unacknowledged by origin-of-life researchers.”

I shouldn’t have been surprised. Attributing misconduct to those who disagree with him is part of Mr. Klinghoffer’s modus operandi, for example when he recently tried to imply that there was something nefarious about an unflattering review of Michael Behe’s new book. I replied with some examples of what origin of life researchers actually say:

and so on, concluding (snarkily, I’ll admit)

To his credit, Klinghoffer quickly admitted that his tweet, and the post to which it referred, went a bit too far:

Fine: for clarity, I should have added a few words. It is the nature, the severity of the mystery of how life began, not the mere present lack of certainty, that is unacknowledged. [emphasis in original]

The problem is that that’s not true, either. I’m not a big fan of playing ‘gotcha’ when someone makes an unfortunate choice of words (though I’m not entirely above it, either). That’s not the issue here. The issue is that the entire narrative that Klinghoffer is constructing is false.

Klinghoffer, I think it’s fair to say, is implying not only that origin of life researchers fail to acknowledge the difficulty of understanding how life originated, but that they are doing so intentionallydishonestly. Except it’s not really an implication, it’s a direct accusation:

It is really a matter of professional malpractice.

Neither of those things is true, but let’s just deal with the first part of the accusation, that origin of life researchers fail to acknowledge the difficulty of the problem. I’m not sure how Klinghoffer interpreted “one of the fundamental mysteries of the universe” as trivializing the problem, but motivated reasoning can do wonders. Here are some other origin of life researchers failing to acknowledge “the nature, the severity of the mystery of how life began” [emphasis added in all cases]:

The origin of life is one of the most fundamental, but also one of the most difficult problems in science. —Hordijk, W.; Hein, J.; Steel, M. 2010. Autocatalytic sets and the origin of life. Entropy 12, 1733-1742.

Of the many open questions surrounding how life emerges from non-life, perhaps the most challenging is the vast gulf between complex chemistry and the simplest biology: even the smallest mycoplasma is immeasurably more complex than any chemical reaction network we might engineer in the laboratory with current technology. —Walker, SI & Davies PCW. 2013. The algorithmic origins of life. J. R. Soc. Interface

The origins and evolution of life (both on Earth and off of Earth) is one of the biggest mysteries in modern science. —Jia, TZ & Kuruma, Y. 2019. Recent advances in origins of life research by biophysicists in Japan. Challenges 10, 28.

The origin of life (OOL) problem remains one of the more challenging scientific questions of all time. —Pross, A & Pascal, R. 2013. The origin of life: what we know, what we can know and what we will never know. Open Biol.

When, where, and how did life on Earth originate? These questions on the origin of life are among the biggest unsolved problems in natural science. —Kitadi, N & Maruyama, S. 2018. Origins of building blocks of life: A review. Geosci. Front. 9, 1117-1153.

I could go on and on in this vein. These are not exceptional, cherry-picked examples; they are absolutely typical of the field. In the talks I’ve attended, and in conversations with origin of life researchers, I have never once heard anyone say that the origin of life was solved, nearly solved, or an easy problem. I should note that science journalists do often misrepresent origins of life research, but Klinghoffer’s accusation of dishonesty was specifically aimed at the researchers themselves.

The mystery of life’s origin is not “widely unacknowledged” by origin of life researchers. The “nature, the severity” of the mystery is not widely unacknowledged. The entire narrative is false. Unlike Klinghoffer himself, I won’t imply dishonesty when misunderstanding suffices. And it does suffice, in part because Klinghoffer is getting his misinformation from a stunningly disingenuous talk by James Tour, leading him to make laughably oblivious claims such as “The field hasn’t advanced an inch in 60-plus years.” Anyone who can believe that is completely disconnected from the actual research that has been, and is being, done in this field.


  1. rjdownard says

    Another nifty summary from you (I’ll have to check to make sure the relevant works are in my TIP data field). “Origins or Bust” is the go-to option among anti-evolutionists (its how they avoid thinking about Volvox or therapsids or why we have such a clutter of ALUs in our genome). It’s also relevant that anti-evolutionists aren’t caught doing abiogenesis research. They merely kibbitz from the sideline, trawling for authority quotes rather than dealing with the data.

    Speaking of which, in his most recent foray into abiogensis snarking, it’s my understanding that James Tour claims Sutherland’s work is flawed in part because of the supposed difficulty in generating the chemical chain component cyanoacetyline prebiotically. Given that it appears to show up in the universe naturally, including in Titan’s atmosphere, is Tour out on a limb here, or has my reading of him got skewed?


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