Hugh Ross and I made this observation as we spent time recently among some of the most distinguished scholars in the origin-of-life ranks at the combined 12th International Conference on the Origin of Life and the 9th ISSOL (International Society for the Study of the Origin of Life) meeting at the University of California, San Diego.
To our surprise, attendance was low and presentations were few, despite the attractive venue, the infrequency of these gatherings (once every three years), and vigorous attempts to draw international participation. We couldn’t help but notice the absence of young, up-and-coming researchers. Most of the attendees were veteran origins-of-life researchers, though we did see a few graduate students supported by NSCORT (NASA Specialized Center of Research and Training) in exobiology.
Through the week of the conference, we noted an air of frustration and pessimism, even a hint of despair or desperation. The realization seems to have dawned that 45 years of research into the origins of life has led to a dead end. The same old intractable problems—if not more—still exist, with no resolution in sight.
By 9:30 A.M. on the first day of the meeting, participants conceded that the most likely atmosphere for primitive earth (CO 2 + N 2 + H2O) will not support spontaneous synthesis of organic molecules.1 Given that the chemistry of Earth’s early atmosphere thwarts rather than supports production of life-essential molecules, researchers have begun to look elsewhere for the right kind of gas (rich in hydrogen and absent in oxygen). Some hold out hope that such gas was exhaled from volcanoes, with volcanic lightning as the source of energy to synthesize the essential molecules. However, on the afternoon of the first day, John Delano of NSCORT-NY and University of Albany (SUNY), reported that “volatiles” (gases) released from volcanoes as ancient as 4 billion years were identical to those exhaled today.2
Since Earth conditions consistently defy a naturalistic origin of life, researchers turned their hopes toward Mars. Early in Mars’ history, the planet was warm and wet. However, as Michael Carr of the U.S. Geological Survey reported, geological evidence and modeling studies indicate that warm early Mars rapidly transformed into cold arid Mars about 3.8 billion years ago. This change occurred right after the period of heavy bombardment, during which impacts would have effectively “sterilized” Mars, eliminating it as a candidate for the origin of life.3
Some researchers look to interstellar dust in the proto-solar system as the source of life-essential molecules. Their hope is fanned by discovery of some building blocks of molecules in nearby early-stage solar systems.4 However, no nucleotides or sugars have been found. Nor has the problem of left-handed amino acids been solved.
One may wonder what keeps origin-of-life research alive. NASA’s recent focus on the search for extraterrestrial life has artificially bolstered it for the time being, shifting from an earth-based scenario to one based elsewhere in the solar system or beyond. NASA will keep the die-hards funded for a while, but accumulating data make this possibility more and more remote. It seems that the die-hards’ search reflects only a zealous commitment to a non-supernatural explanation for the origin of life. A more detailed account of the San Diego meeting is slated to appear in an upcoming issue of Facts for Faith. For now a meeting overview may be seen on our web site (www.reasons.org).