by Jennifer Kabbany
Students across America are taught an origin of life story that goes a little something like this: billions of years ago, energy from the sun, lightning, and Earth’s heat combined with the planet’s early atmosphere of hydrogen, methane and other gases, creating chemical reactions that formed molecules in a primordial soup that eventually produced a cell, in other words, life.
But one prominent professor argues that that simplistic explanation is not only unproven, it’s highly improbable.
Professor James Tour, a synthetic organic chemist at Rice University who is widely considered one of America’s leading experts in nanotechnology and nanoengineering, said that current research into the origins of life fails to explain not only the formation of the first cell, but the parts that make up the cell, such as carbohydrates, proteins and nucleic acids such as RNA and DNA.
Tour, who is also a professor of materials science at the private, Houston-based institution, has become over the last five years the leading critic of origins of life research, pointing out that there is not one precise scientific explanation or illustration of how RNA or a single protein was formed by chance, let alone a whole cell, within Earth’s primordial soup.
In effect, the origin of life has not been explained, despite all the claims in K-12 textbooks, simplistic news headlines, and even among those with PhDs, Tour said.
“This is how far the misunderstanding has gone, even science professors — even biology professors — think that … we understand the ways to build life. We do not,” Tour said in one of many videos on YouTube that feature his take on the subject.
“None of the homochiral molecules have been made ab initio under prebiotic-like conditions,” he said, referring to current research into the origins of life.
In other words, even scientists working in a lab with all the right equipment and right ingredients have not been able to build a cell, so therefore how could it have happened over hundreds of millions of years in a vast primordial ocean, he said.
“We remain clueless,” Tour told The College Fix.
While Tour is a Messianic Jew, he never uses the word “God” when he challenges atheist scholars on this topic. Instead, he said, he focuses solely on their lack of evidence, insufficient explanations, and inability to replicate or reproduce their hypotheses.
“There have been many people who have tried, in origin of life research, to make the chemical building blocks for life,” Tour said in a video. “… Using prebiotic environment, it’s never been successful for homochiral syntheses.”
“The chemicals needed for life are more than just carbon and water,” the professor said. “One needs the amino acids. The amino acids then have to hook together to form proteins. It’s not easy to get amino acids to hook together. One can get very small amounts if you just add a catalyst to it, but the yields are extremely low. There are many activation steps that are needed to get this sufficiently.”
“In nature, in biology, once you have life this is all done with nature’s little machines called enzymes,” he said. “But what we are talking about is prebiotic, long before enzymes themselves are made. And the enzymes themself are made out of the amino acids in proteins.”
“Then, after we have the amino acids, we have to have the carbohydrates, then you have to hook the carbohydrates together. The carbohydrate hooking together pattern is extremely complex.”
He points out that with just one simple carbohydrate, d-mannose, six units of that can be hooked together in over one trillion different combinations, and only one combination will work. But wait, there’s more, he said, pointing out that next comes the lipids, but not just any lipids, they must have two tails to be stable enough to help form the cell.
“How is that done in a prebiotic system? Nobody knows,” Tour said.
The video is one of dozens across YouTube that feature the scholar making the argument in a variety of different ways, whether being interviewed, giving a lecture, or discussing the issue with fellow scholars.
In fact, last year Tour launched his own YouTube channel. It’s focused on science and faith, and includes interviews of various scientists hailing from various fields.
Tour, on his website, points out that he does not want to be labeled as an intelligent design proponent: “I do not know how to use science to prove intelligent design although some others might.”
But he has written at length about the origin of life issue, stating on his website that it “is clear, chemists and biologists are clueless.”
Tour said that privately, many science colleagues admit to him that he is right. But others surely disagree with him, including one of the top origin of life researchers in the world, University of Glasgow chemist Lee Cronin, whom Tour met with in a video posted on YouTube earlier this year.
Asked what he would say to his critics in the science field, Tour told The College Fix he would say: “Look at the scientific critiques that I have published. Where am I incorrect? Engage with me.”
Taking on this topic can be deemed as controversial in a world in which academics who question the scientific status quo are often mocked, shunned and protested. Asked to describe the pushback he has received for being something of a whistleblower on the origins of life debate, Tour said “history will prove me correct.”
“We are nowhere close to an understanding of life’s origin,” the professor told The Fix.
Watch the interview:
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Jennifer Kabbany is editor of The College Fix. She previously worked as a daily newspaper reporter and columnist for a decade in Southern California, and prior to that held editorial positions at The Weekly Standard, Washington Times and FrontPageMagazine.