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For the Origin of Life, on Earth or Elsewhere, "Ingredients and Conditions" Aren't Enough

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You carefully set out the implements and ingredients on the kitchen counter. Two cans of tuna, bag of egg noodles, block of Cheddar cheese, onion, frozen green peas, condensed cream of mushroom soup, can of sliced mushrooms, a cup of potato chips (for the topping).

Lined up at the ready, a mixing bowl, baking pan, and a pot with water for the noodles. Also a can opener, a grater for the cheese, colander for the pasta, cutting board and knife to chop the onion. Set one burner to high, and the oven to 425 degrees F.

Your family is hungry, but everything is in place! The easy-to-follow recipe gives a prep time of 15 minutes, and 20 more to cook. Of course that's approximate.

Now sit back and relax. How long before these items assemble themselves into a tuna casserole? Pour yourself a glass of wine and watch what happens.

Oh, you're concerned that the stuff has no means of coming together physically? Well, as days pass and you continue to stare intently at your unassembled casserole, perhaps that promised Seattle mega-earthquake comes along and jostles things around.

The cheese collides with the grater. A tuna can knocks into the can opener. The water sloshes in its pot and some gets on the unopened bag of pasta. Throw in a few aftershocks for good measure.

Ridiculous? No more so than stories that are a regular feature of science news that expect incomparably greater wonders to follow automatically when the "ingredients" of life, or some of them, appear to be in place -- whether on a distant, Earth-like exoplanet or on the early Earth itself. This week's pairing comes from NASA and Nature.

NASA reports the discovery of a new world, Kepler-452b some 1,400 light years away, that is seemingly Earth-like in key respects, orbiting in the "habitable zone" around a star like our sun. From Science Daily:

"We can think of Kepler-452b as an older, bigger cousin to Earth, providing an opportunity to understand and reflect upon Earth's evolving environment," said Jon Jenkins, Kepler data analysis lead at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, who led the team that discovered Kepler-452b. "It's awe-inspiring to consider that this planet has spent 6 billion years in the habitable zone of its star; longer than Earth. That's substantial opportunity for life to arise, should all the necessary ingredients and conditions for life exist on this planet." [Emphasis added.]

Meanwhile on Earth, we're told that the origin of complex life from simpler forms must be even more of a snap than previously assumed. Earlier theorizing said it required a generous infusion of oxygen in the early seas. Now that addition must be seen as more modest. Again, from Science Daily:

If oxygen was a driver of the early evolution of animals, only a slight bump in oxygen levels facilitated it, according to a multi-institutional research team that includes a Virginia Tech geoscientist.

The discovery, published in the journal Nature, calls into question the long held theory that a dramatic change in oxygen levels might have been responsible for the appearance of complicated life forms like whales, sharks, and squids evolving from less complicated life forms, such as microorganisms, algae, and sponges.

The researchers discovered oxygen levels rose in the water and atmosphere, but at lower levels than was thought necessary to trigger life changes.

"We suggest that about 635 million to 542 million years ago, Earth passed some low, but critical, threshold in oxygenation for animals," said Benjamin Gill, an assistant professor of geoscience in the College of Science. "That threshold was in the range of a 10 to 40 percent increase, and was the second time in Earth's history that oxygen levels significantly rose."

Do you follow the logic? If oxygen was "a driver of the early evolution of animals," then only a "slight bump" was needed since that's all that was available.

We've said many times before that whether on our planet or any other, "ingredients and conditions" fall wildly short of being enough to explain the development of life from non-life, or complex from simple.

ENV observed recently:

Visualize an exoplanet far away: dynamic, comfortable, yet lifeless. It has water, plate tectonics, volcanoes, an atmosphere and all the ingredients for life -- but no life. What would be the primary factor distinguishing it from Earth? A new paper in PLOS Biology suggests that its chief drawback, all things being equal, would be a lack of complex specified information.

As for the oxygen idea, that's hopeless. It isn't merely oxygen, but information, that's needed. From our post "Cambrian Animals? Just Add Oxygen":

Once again, we see Darwinists dodging the main problem with the Cambrian explosion: the sudden appearance of biological information necessary to build tissues, organs, limbs, eyes, systems, and body plans. This is the focus of most of Part II of Stephen Meyer's book Darwin's Doubt. Mystically, they imagine animals as eager to evolve but, like racehorses at the gates, held back by environmental barriers.

Actually, that tuna casserole stands a better chance than either of these notions -- expecting life based on "ingredients and conditions" -- since at least the recipe is known. Identifying the ingredients and lining them up in a working kitchen is different from knowing how they're supposed to come together. If life has a recipe, we are utterly ignorant of what that might be, otherwise we would have sparked life ourselves in a laboratory by now.

Your casserole is a complex structure, in the sense of being an unlikely assemblage, but it is also specified or functional. (The function is to serve as a tasty and nutritious meal, more so than the unprepared ingredients.) So too with the structures of life, which in addition give evidence of irreducible complexity.

If you're hungry now, do you think it's only a matter of time before the table can be set and the food served? With these science news items, that is the level of absurdity we're talking about.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle.