This post will review 2 of the major difficulties faced by studies in naturalistic abiogenesis (undesigned origin of life).
- Its primary assumption is supported by no experimental evidence
No experimental evidence
Those arguing that naturalistic abiogenesis is the best explanation--or the most promising avenue of research--for the origin of life must assume that naturalistic abiogenesis is possible. If it isn't possible, none of the other arguments are going to matter.
Many hypotheses have been put forward, but none have found support through experimental evidence. No conditions--whether intelligently designed by scientists or naturally occurring--have ever been observed to yield life from non-life. Belief in life coming from non-life is supported by exactly the same amount of experimental evidence as belief in unicorns.
In any other scientific discipline, a hypothesis that is not supported by evidence would not be considered a leading theory.
It is, of course, possible to test a naturalistic hypothesis through methodological naturalism, and withhold judgment until compelling evidence is available. A scientist employing this method could not truly claim to believe in naturalistic abiogenesis (due to the absence of experimental evidence), but can still rationally continue to run tests by exercising faith in methodological naturalism (because it has been a useful experimental technique in the past). Furthermore, each time a hypothesis is designed, tested, and fails to produce results, one could genuinely call this progress in the OOL field.
Another common approach seen in OOL discussions is not methodological naturalism (a means of conducting an experiment), but metaphysical naturalism, a non-scientific philosophical worldview. Any argument for naturalistic abiogenesis which presupposes metaphysical naturalism is circular. Those taking this approach can claim to believe in naturalistic abiogenesis, but that belief would be based on something other than evidence.
If a naturalistic means for the origin of life were discovered, would this resolve the question of the origin of life on this earth? No. (though this wouldn't stop less-scrupulous individuals from making millions on books which proclaimed "God is dead" to less-discerning audiences).
Even after discovering a naturalistic means for life to originate (which we haven't done--see above), one would still have to argue that the naturalistic mechanism in question was the mechanism by which life originated (as opposed to design or some other, as yet undiscovered naturalistic process). The argument from probability would still have to be faced.
Doug Axe famously argued that the sequence space for protein folds is too vast for successful innovation by chance, indicating through extensive testing that only approx. 1 in 10^78 possible DNA variations is viable.
The odds of a DNA strand generating 1 successful protein fold through random accident are prohibitively low, let alone a full DNA sequence (even for a simple single-celled organism) producing many functional proteins. And this comes even before the problem, already noted by NigelJ, that for continuation of life, this miraculous strand of information must also self-replicate.
Let's use a more accessible example: computer code. Let's consider a very, very simple computer function, which is made up of code containing just 1,000 characters. These 1,000 characters could be arranged 4.02 × 10^2567 different ways, almost all of which would be gibberish. A miniscule portion of these combinations would actually compile, and only a fraction of those which compiled would actually produce a functional program.
If we encounter:
- A working, 1,000 character computer function AND
- A machine spitting out random combinations of those 1,000 characters
While it is possible the computer function resulted from the machine's random process, we would rationally conclude that this code--like all other computer programs we've ever encountered--came from a programmer (or a program designed by a programmer, if we want to be picky), not from the wildly improbable random combinations.
Thus, even if there were a naturalistic process that transformed non-life into life, the level of design in DNA--far more complex than any computer program--would still provide a formidable obstacle to a rational belief in naturalistic abiogenesis.
Does Dave Farina have a point when he points to a tremendous amount of OOL research publications that seem to indicate that we are NOT clueless?
Clueless is a harsh term. We aren't clueless about how cells function or how they replicate. But it is that very knowledge of cells that demonstrates the canyon-sized-gaps in hypotheses of naturalistic abiogenesis.
Is James Tour correct when he dismisses all these publications as "hyped"?
Hype sells, and there is indeed plenty of it. But there also appear to be methodologically consistent scientists working on the OOL problem along the lines described in paragraph 4 of the "no experimental evidence" section. Any time they test a hypothesis and find it doesn't work, that is progress in the Edison sense--we've ruled out another possibility. It is my observation that such disciplined scientific inquiry gets much less attention than those who make sensational claims in order to turn a tidy profit.
What are examples of major (and perhaps unsurmountable) obstacles that OOL research is facing right now?
Naturalistic abiogenesis is supported by 0 experimental evidence, which evidence (if obtained) would only be an entrance fee to compete with teleological arguments.
The teleological argument from biological specified complexity is an argument for an intelligent mind behind the creation of life, and is a formidable objection to chance-based hypotheses.
- Re the claim that there is no experimental evidence for a Creator, please see one counterexample (of many) in my work here. A detailed discussion of this matter goes well beyond the OP here, and would be best suited to a separate question.
- There is overwhelming experimental evidence of living entities spawning life in new living entities. There is no experimental evidence of non-living matter spawning life in new living entities. Thus, when faced with the question Where did X life form come from? the null hypothesis is "something alive".
Identifying the characteristics of that "something alive" is outside the scope of this post. Those seeking to review more detailed teleological arguments for God's existence (since that's not really the focus of the OP here) are encouraged to review the existing teleological questions on this site, or post a fresh question on the matter if the existing questions are inadequate.