It has gone 'live' this morning.
I must insist that I am not as old as I look. The camera added at least 20 years, and I have a mirror to prove it!
Abstract and IntroductionThis was a piece I wrote 17 years ago for the Australian web journal "No Answers in Genesis."
In an Answers in Genesis web article titled "Hydrothermal origin of life?" Jonathan Sarfati manages to write three pages about a single five page original peer reviewed paper "Elongation of Oligopeptides in a Simulated Submarine Hydrothermal System" published in the magazine Science by Imai et al. (1999), and to make over seventeen errors of fact, emphasis or interpretation. What is sad is that it will take a longer paper than either of the preceding to point out the errors made by Sarfati. This is why very few scientists would bother to reply. Not bad, even for a fanatical creationist. Sarfati titles his piece, 'Hydrothermal origin of life?' but it barely speaks to this topic at all, since he excludes most of the existing literature. For the convenience of the reader we will follow the same headings as used by Sarfati.
'Some Japanese researchers have claimed to prove that life could have arisen in a submarine hydrothermal vent'.Two errors and one questionable word use in just one short sentence! First, not all of the research group were from Japan. Second, nowhere in the refereed article Imai et al. (1999) was there the assertion that their paper proved that life originated in hydrothermal environments [one of the research team did make a similar statement in a newspaper interview given to Elaine Lies of Reuters news service, but more on that later]. And one must wonder why Sarfati was so insistent on the presumed ethnicity of the research team, so much so that he overlooked that André Brack is French. I could have overlooked this had Sarfati not reiterated that the researchers were non-westerners in his fourth paragraph which he opens with -
'Five researchers in Nagaoka, Japan, claimed to have simulated such conditions in a flow reactor'.Again we see that Sarfati presses his concern with ethnicity and continues the pejorative use of the word 'claimed'. I would say to anyone who might seek to defend Sarfati by pointing out that the research was conducted in Japan, why then did Sarfati not say, 'An international team of scientists working in Japan...'? In the same pejorative manner, Sarfati continues to use quotation marks in what can only be a rhetorical effort to detract from the content of the Imai et al. (1999) paper.
'High temperatures would degrade any complex molecules over the alleged geological time.'While it is possible that Sarfati could be referring to Lazcano and Miller (1996), who estimated that the existence of hydrothermal systems in the early Archean could limit the time available for the origin of life to approximately a ten million year interval, Sarfati is clearly not referring to Imai et al. (1999). There is no sense that 'alleged geological time' is invoked by the refereed paper, but the fact that the Imai et al. (1999) paper is clear evidence that this was not the case and that Lazcano and Miller must also modify their position, should be obvious to even a naive reader. So just for openers we can reject Sarfati as a careful or competent reader. Before we are off the first page, barely beyond his abstract, we see that Sarfati cannot read the list of authors, or their professional affiliations, rhetorically uses pejorative language, and fails to understand the basic facts of the article under his examination. The news release Sarfati later quotes also clearly identified Brack as French, precluding the defence that Sarfati was confused by other sources.
' ...such an organism could barely repair DNA damage, could no longer fine-tune the ability of its remaining genes, would lack the ability to digest complex compounds, and would need a comprehensive supply of organic nutrients in its environment.'What strikes me as amusing is that, apart from the fact that DNA is not considered a likely feature of the first organisms (Nelson et al. 2000, Nesbit and Sleep 2001) and that the phrase 'could no longer fine-tune the ability of its remaining genes' is nonsensical, this is an excellent description of the theoretical first organisms which are proposed to be very simple Chemohetrotrophs (Lazcano and Miller 1996, Dyall and Johnson 2000). I think we can score this as two and a half errors.
'The idea is that the heat can help synthesize polymers...'.Energy in the form of heat in the absence of high pressure will indeed prove to be largely destructive. 
'The presence of copper ions seems to have prevented the hydrolysis of tetraglycine. The tetraglycine therefore reentered the reaction region and further reacted with a glycine, producing a diglycine, a triglycine, or a diketopiperazine molecule when the amount of tetraglycine becomes sufficient.'This is significant because Sarfati continues his misrepresentation of the experiment's results by noting that -
'...the product with the highest yield was the cyclic dimer, diketopiperazine, which peaked at about 1% yield, then dropped.'What really happened was that about five minutes into the experiment which produced hexaglycine, diketopipazine peaked at about 1% and was about to begin to be consumed by the production of hexaglycine. From about five to nine minutes into the experiment, sharp drops in the amounts of diketopipazine and diglycine are observed at the same time as hexaglycine is first detectable. The amount of reactants naturally continues to decline as they are consumed in the production of the larger molecules, particularly hexaglycine. At the end of the data collection period reported, thirty minutes, there is so little remaining glycine that the reaction is effectively halted. Had the researchers continuously supplied additional glycine, I'm certain that, based on the chemistry involved, there would have been continued production of the observed oligopeptides.
'Man has been asking "what is life" for thousands of years. But the real question is where did life begin,' Matsuno told reporters. 'For 10 years, underwater hydrothermal vents have been thought to be the place where life began and we were able to prove it.'The entire Reuters article is available here.
' ...based on evolutionary faith... 'which is merely an attempt by Sarfati to falsely portray science as a 'religion'.’ A simple explanation for Matsuno's enthusiasm, based on my personal experiences with scientists, is that lab bench scientists and theoreticians typically exaggerate the significance of their work in the popular press as it facilitates (they imagine) their future funding prospects. Another contributing factor is that one really can't get away with that kind of grandstanding in the scientific literature, as scientific reviewers, unlike news reporters, are selected for their relevant expertise in a given area. And so, the opportunity to wildly expand the scope and significance of one's research under the questioning and encouragement of a reporter can be overwhelming. Finally, Matsuno, a physicist, may truly feel that his statement is correct in the light of his research. The exact boundary between complex chemistry and the origin of life is after all more philosophical than physical.
'Also, any glycine produced would be subject to oxidative degradation in an oxygenic atmosphere.'First, there is no issue with the generation of glycine; the abiogenic production of amino acids has been established back to the first spark chamber experiments of Miller (1953) and Miller/Urey (1959), and many additional reaction mechanisms since then as referenced above. Second, there is strong data that the early Earth had a reducing, or minimally, an anoxic atmosphere so that 'oxidative degradation' could not occur (Hunten 1993, Kasting 1993, Kump et al. 2001 among others. For a contrasting opinion see Ohmoto 1997, and for a direct counter argument to Ohmoto see Holland 1999. For a biochemical study see Des Marais 2000, and for some further theoretical considerations see Dismukes, et al. 2001, Lasaga, and Ohmoto 2002). Further, even had there been a merely anoxic atmosphere, and ocean for that matter, reductive reservoirs would be at least as common as they are today in hydrothermal systems. Why, imagine that! Even today with an Earth oxidised by billions of years of photosynthesis, hydrothermal systems are strongly reducing to neutral. Sarfati suggests in a footnote that the -
'The "strongest evidence" for an anoxic ancient earth atmosphere is that we know chemical evolution took place, and this would have been impossible with oxygen present!'And he gives two references from the 1970s (one which he did not even read in the original) which use this line of argument, (for a more recent exploration of this reasoning see Hill, 1998). Oddly, Sarfati calls this a use of circular logic. There are two points to be made here; first there is ample direct evidence for a reducing to anoxic Hadean and Early Archean which Sarfati must be aware of (the reader need only consult the references offered above) and second, this is not an example of circular logic. Finally, there is no such thing as an 'oxygenic atmosphere' although one could read Noll et al. 1997 for a discussion of the UV production of ozone on extra-terrestrial ices. Indeed, this ozone leads us to Sarfati's next blunder.