Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Wanted: a simple explanation of abiogenesis

On the right, science. On the left, incredulity.

On Sun, Nov 6, 2016, I awoke to find this email in my American Atheists mailbox, from a gentleman writing from India:

Dear Sir, 
Good day to you.
I would like to reintroduce myself as an independent researcher in philosophy and modern science. I gratefully acknowledge your previous evidence-based reply that helped me a lot to improve my critical thinking skills. 
Being an open-minded, unbiased researcher, it is my pleasure to share one of my concerns- as expressed below, hoping a satisfactory explanation: 
When we talk about consciousness, we all know that consciousness is the result of certain evolutionary arrangement of atoms. How can a specific 'collection of atoms' in the universe alone  'think', 'aware' and 'reason' about even 'its' own existence while all the sub-atomic particles in the universe are governed by the same laws of physics? 
I mean, what is the logical and rational plausibility of our assumption that physical objects (obviously they are made up of atoms and atoms don't have any self-awareness and consciousness) , for example, a rock ( or any inorganic, non-living matter of choice ) of certain mass (Kg), when subjected to blind, unconscious, unplanned and unintelligent evolutionary forces of magnitude of certain Newtons (N) for trillion, trillion, trillions of years or even infinite time , the original rock will become 'self-aware' in such a way that now the rock is able to 'think', 'aware', and 'reason' about even 'its' own existence and 'its' surroundings, able to grasp the laws of physics, mathematics, able to involve in logical reasoning, able to draw logical conclusions, able to feel sense of justice, sense of purpose and sense of existence, able to involve in rational thinking, able to feel pain and sorrow etc.?

Is there any logical fallacy in looking beyond the theory of abiogenesis?

Appreciate your kind feedback.
Please ignore and forgive me if this e-mail is an offence.

Thanks and regards,
F---- V----- P----------,
Electrical Engineer,
When I read his question -- 
I mean, what is the logical and rational plausibility of our assumption that physical objects... when subjected to blind evolutionary forces... will become 'self-aware'?
-- I was tempted to write in reply, simply, "1.0", reflecting the 100% plausibility of the emergence of consciousness from non-living precursors, in light of the evidence of the physical world around us and the conscious being (myself) typing in response. I decided in the end to give him a less trivial reply. 

For your reading pleasure, here is my Sunday morning armchair musing on abiogenesis, and the emergence of thinky out of rocky, and all that jazz. 

Dear F----: 
Excellent to hear from you. I'll copy you from my personal email account, so our conversation doesn't clutter up my official inbox.  
Let me address out two points I see in your message that create a lot of confusion. 
The first objection I have has to do with your analogy likening the emergence of consciousness to a rock manifesting the ability to think. This is an error of analogy, akin to an error in understanding what is meant BY abiogenesis, and indeed, by consciousness.  
No theory of abiogenesis posits that a solid solitary object (such as: a rock!) would within its own geological lifetime undergo such physical changes that allow it eventually to think, while also retaining its identity AS a rock. 
Abiogeneis as it is currently conceived is not a local phenomenon that occurs WITHIN an ecology -- today you have no life, and tomorrow, there it is, there is life, isolated and localized within, and somehow separate from, the ecology. Rather, abiogeneis is a process that occurs over geological timescales, and in a manner distributed throughout systems that span an entire ecology. Further, it is conceived of as an incremental process, with manifold different simultaneous instantiations.  
The popular image of abiogenesis as having to do with a puddle of slime on a rocky shore, as isolated in its reaction space as a glass beaker in a lab, is wildly misleading. Although there needs to be a certain degree of concentration of reagents and stock materials, and a certain patterning to the encounters different chemical (and eventually, biological!) materials undergo, this does not bear comparison to the slime puddle image. Things are altogether more dynamic, and take place at scales that are at the same time much smaller (microscopic clay templating! RNA self-catalysis!) and much larger (ocean depth gradients of iron- and sulfur-bearing isoclines! or, according to a different model, iuron- and sulfur-bearing surface deposits such as those surrounding ocean floor vents).  
In other words, I fear that your metaphor of abiogenesis operates at the wrong levels of scale, and with the wrong impression of dynamism. 
The other point I'd wish to address briefly, in response to your kind invitation, has to do with your presentation of the concept of "consciousness." This, like abiogenesis, is a complicated subject which is sometimes disfavored by limiting metaphors. 
You write:  
now the rock is able to 'think', 'aware', and 'reason' about even 'its' own existence and 'its' surroundings, able to grasp the laws of physics, mathematics, able to involve in logical reasoning, able to draw logical conclusions, able to feel sense of justice, sense of purpose and sense of existence, able to involve in rational thinking, able to feel pain and sorrow etc.?
This, on its surface, sounds like a plainly ludicrous proposition. But I'd never describe consciousness in this manner. Instead, I might translate your description this way:
the original rock may be subjected to the processes of weathering and erosion, such that it is reduced to sediment. The minerals and chemicals which constituted that rock are now available to circulate in the (aqueous, likely) ecosystem, where they may be involved in chemical reactions we believe to be preliminary to the abiotic formation of biological monomers, such as carbon fixation, chemical reduction, or (to give a more complex example), pyramidine formation.  
Over time, an ecology which has produced biological monomers, may enter into a state of conditions conducive to the formation of biological polymers, some of which are self-catalyzing. The abiogenesis really heats up then!
An ecology which features concentrations of self-catalyzing biological polymers may give rise to autocatalytic chemical networks and structures such as micelles and vesicles. These molecular-scale phenomena may interact and form more complex structures and systems, which we begin to recognize as rudimentary "proto-life."  
Over eons of chemical, and then biological, and then ecological, evolution, this proto-life may develop adaptive systems which "record" life experience, in the form of chemical changes in the cell, or taxic changes in behavior, or changes in genetic expression, or charge potential changes in nerve cells. As this system of record-keeping (memory, you could call it) becomes more sophisticated, the organism benefits from the ability to predict appropriate behavior for future conditions which resemble past conditions it has a record of. This is a significant part of what we call learning.   
The organism continues to become more sophisticated. But keep in mind, we aren't talking here about a single individual. We are speaking in evolutionary terms, so this change takes place over countless generations, across the somatic instances of countless individuals.  
Eventually, the learning/memory systems of the organism become so sophisticated, and recursive, and powerful, that the organism is able to model future potential behavior! This does bear comparison to the way that a computer program using patterns of charge distribution in an electronic system, to model the world of a computer game. We don't think there's anything magical about that, do we? Likewise, the pattern of charge distribution in the nervous system of the organism, are able to run a model of the world. And this model may contain sub-programs we can label as "thinking", "awareness", "reasoning about its own existence and its surroundings", "pondering the the laws of physics", "mulling over maths", "fiddling about with logical reasoning", "the drawing of conclusions", "the sense of justice", "a sense of purpose" , "a sense of existence", and "the experience of pain and sorrow."  
All of these thoughts and feelings are 1) simply patterns of charge distribution changing across the vastly complex representational network of a nervous system, and 2) amazing. 
Voila! From rock to mind. Now, I am kidding, of course. But I hope that my "translation" of your description of the origin of consciousness, even as briefly as I describe it, is enough to make the point I intend -- namely, that while there is so much that we have yet to measure, verify, and truly understand about the way life emerges from non-life, and how mind emerges from minerals, the nature of the mystery isn't, any longer, metaphysical, if we come to terms with the vast scales of complexity involved in a naturalistic explanation.  
Seen from a distance, the complexity of the naturalistic explanation may look supernatural. But we don't have to keep our distance. We can zoom in, get our hands and minds dirty, and engage with data, and models, and articles and animations and questions and answers, and so on, through the technology of information and communication which frees us from the backwaters of our ignorance as separate individuals. (That internet -- she's amazing.) 
Thank you for the stimulating questions; these were fun things to think about on a Sunday morning here in New England. 
With warm regards from Boston, 
Zachary "the Thinking Rock" Bos
Massachusetts State Director for American Atheists
To the extent that we atheists want to have our materialist apologetics in order, I think it would be useful to have a "best practices" way of responding to questions like, ah, but, rocks can't think, can they.

Do you have any suggestions for concise and accessible explanations of abiogenesis, of the sort we could share with persons like this Indian engineer when they have questions about the plausibility of that theory? I'd love to know what you recommend. (How great if there was a really brilliant YouTube animation going through this stuff... )

The graphic above, interestingly enough, comes from the blog of a Christian defending creationism as a plausible theory.

(Authored by Zachary Bos. Cross-posted from the Atheology blog.)