In a previous essay where I partially explored the God-of-the-Gaps argument, , I also noted that origin-of-life researcher George Cody was quoted as saying "No one knows anything about the origin of life." This moment of candor is consistent with what Paul Davies wrote in his book, The 5th Miracle: "Many investigators feel uneasy stating in public that the origin of life is a mystery, even though behind closed doors they admit they are baffled." Before we explore why it is that origin-of-life researchers feel the need to hide their bafflement from the public, it would be useful to demonstrate the truth of Davies observation with a recent paper by Eugene Koonin (HT to Paul Nelson ).
Koonin recently authored a paper entitled, The cosmological model of eternal inflation and the transition from chance to biological evolution in the history of life. Itai Yanai, from Harvard University, describes the model as follows:
In this work, Eugene Koonin estimates the probability of arriving at a system capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution and comes to a cosmologically small number. With such an improbable event at hand, Koonin turns to a cosmological perspective in order to grasp its feasibility. He cites recent work in cosmology that highlights the vastness of the universe, where any series of events is necessarily played out an infinite number of times. This so-called "many-worlds in one" model essentially reconceives any chance event as a necessary one, where its (absolute) abundance is proportional to its chance of occurring.
Eric Bapteste, from UniversitÃ© Pierre et Marie Curie, summarizes it likewise:
"¦.. he is in fact introducing a model from which teleology could be entirely absent to justify that, if everything with a low probability is possible somewhere, even though it has a low probability in a given universe, providing a high enough number of universes, everything -including the oddest phenomena- becomes necessary somewhere. Then, complex structures for replication have to emerge. By chance, we happened to be in the "right" type of universe where this very emergence took place, says Koonin. It is just maths: the initial paradox can be solved by an axiom: it had to be so or we would not be here to tell.
I should point out that Eugene Koonin is a major-league biologist who has published extensively on evolution. So why is it that a leading scientist like Koonin has felt the need to offer up such a radical model to explain the origin-of-life, a model that attempts to justify abiogenesis with the ultimate non-teleological expression of "it just happened?"
Well, let me quote Koonin at length as he offers a sobering summary of the state of abiogenesis research 50+ years after Stanley Miller's famous experiment:
The origin(s) of replication and translation (hereinafter OORT) is qualitatively different from other problems in evolutionary biology and might be viewed as the hardest problem in all of biology. As soon as sufficiently fast and accurate genome replication emerges, biological evolution takes off. I use this general term to include Darwinian natural selection along with other major evolutionary mechanisms, such as fixation of neutral mutations that provide material for subsequent adaptation , exaptation of "spandrels" (features that originally emerge as evolutionary by-products but are subsequently utilized for new functions) , and duplication of genome regions followed by mutational and functional diversification . All these processes that, together, comprise biological evolution become possible and, actually, inevitable once and only once efficient replication of the genetic material is established.
The crucial question, then, is how was the minimal complexity attained that is required to achieve the threshold replication fidelity. In even the simplest modern systems, such as RNA viruses with the replication fidelity of only ~10-3, replication is catalyzed by a complex protein replicase; even disregarding accessory subunits present in most replicases, the main catalytic subunit is a protein that consists of at least 300 amino acids . The replicase, of course, is produced by translation of the respective mRNA which is mediated by a tremendously complex molecular machinery. Hence the first paradox of OORT: to attain the minimal complexity required for a biological system to start on the path of biological evolution, a system of a far greater complexity, i.e., a highly evolved one, appears to be required. How such a system could evolve, is a puzzle that defeats conventional evolutionary thinking.
The commonly considered solution is the RNA world scenario, i.e., the notion that replication evolved before translation such that the earliest stage of life's evolution was a versatile community of replicating RNA molecules [21-23]. A central element of the RNA world is a replicase consisting of RNA. The RNA world concept is supported by the experimental discovery of diverse catalytic activities of ribozymes (catalytic RNAs) [24-27]. However, all the advances of ribozymology notwithstanding, the prospects of a bona fide ribozyme replicase remain dim as the ribozymes designed for that purposes are capable, at best, of the addition of ~10 nucleotides to a oligonucleotide primer, at a very slow rate and with fidelity at least an order magnitude below that required for the replication of relatively long RNA molecules [28,29]. As recently noticed by one of the leading RNA world explorers, "Despite valiant efforts,…it appears unlikely that this particular polymerase enzyme will ever be evolved to the point that it can copy RNA molecules as long as itself (~200 nucleotides)" . Of course, it remains possible "“ and this is, indeed, the belief in the RNA world community "“ that other ribozymes are eventually evolved to that level; however, the evidence is lacking.
The second paradox of OORT pertains to the origin of the translation system from within the RNA world via a Darwinian evolutionary process: until the translation system produces functional proteins, there is no obvious selective advantage to the evolution of any parts of this elaborate (even in its most primitive form) molecular machine. Conceptually, this paradox is closely related to the general problem of the evolution of complex systems that was first recognized by Darwin in his famous discussion of the evolution of the eye . The solution sketched by Darwin centered around the evolutionary refinement of a primitive version of the function of the complex organ; subsequently, the importance of the exaptation route for the evolution of complex systems has been realized . However, origin of translation resists both lines of reasoning. Primitive translation in a protein-free system is conceivable as an intermediate stage of evolution (see below) but this does not resolve the paradox because, even for that form of translation to function, the core components must have been in place already. Speculative scenarios have been developed on the basis of the idea that even short peptides could provide selective advantage to an evolving system in the RNA world by stabilizing RNA molecules, affecting their conformations or enhancing their catalytic activities [31-33] (see Ref.  for an attempt of a synthesis on this direction in the study of translation origins). These ideas are compatible with observed effects of peptides on ribozyme activity  but none of the scenarios is complete or supported by any specific evidence, and all include reactions without precedent in modern biological or model systems.
All this is not to suggest that OORT is a problem of "irreducible complexity" and that the systems of replication and translation could not emerge by means of biological evolution. It remains possible that a compelling evolutionary scenario is eventually developed and, perhaps, validated experimentally. However, it is clear that OORT is not just the hardest problem in all of evolutionary biology but one that is qualitatively distinct from the rest. For all other problems, the basis of biological evolution, genome replication, is in place but, in the case of OORT, the emergence of this mechanism itself is the explanandum. Thus, it is of interest to consider radically different scenarios for OORT.
The summary is quite good at many levels. Right now, I will content myself in noting that Koonin has forcefully made a point I have long argued "“ the evidence for evolution is NOT evidence for abiogenesis (and this takes us back to that promissory note I discussed in my essay linked to at the top of this posting). I can also point out that Itai Yanai echoes Koonin's pessimistic assessment in his review:
The context of this article is framed by the current lack of a complete and plausible scenario for the origin of life. Koonin specifically addresses the front-runner model, that of the RNA-world, where self-replicating RNA molecules precede a translation system. He notes that in addition to the difficulties involved in achieving such a system is the paradox of attaining a translation system through Darwinian selection. That this is indeed a bona-fide paradox is appreciated by the fact that, without a shortage effort, a plausible scenario for translation evolution has not been proposed to date. There have been other models for the origin of life, including the ground-breaking Lipid-world model advanced by SegrÃ¨, Lancet and colleagues (reviewed in EMBO Reports (2000), 1(3), 217"“222), but despite much ingenuity and effort, it is fair to say that all origin of life models suffer from astoundingly low probabilities of actually occurring.
Eric Bapteste still holds out hope for conventional speculations, but nevertheless concedes the following important point:
Deeply, I agree with Koonin that explaining the origin of replication cycles in general challenges any sort of thinking based on natural selection and goes beyond the classical evolutionary theory, in the sense that Darwinian evolution needs replication to happen and evolutionists need replication cycles (and descent) to reason. Explaining the origin/cause of the phenomenon of replication is thus a big problem.
I do not bring all this to your attention to score cheap "pro-ID" points at the expense of abiogenesis researchers, as I think ID proponents can extract only minimal mileage from the failure of abiogenesis. I bring this up because it is important that we understand the true state of affairs with regard to current abiogenesis research, as such bafflement should not be concealed behind closed doors.
To say that "No one knows anything about the origin of life" is not spin; it's just how things are.