by Denyse O'Leary
Recently, I provided a backgrounder on why origin of life is such a difficult problem, which includes a timeline of quotations.
Recently, mathematician David Berlinski has reviewed a number of origin of life theories, identifying the problems with them.
He begins with the earliest work in the early nineteenth century, the synthesis of urea, which showed that, contrary to widespread supposition at that time, organic materials can be synthesized. Many hastily assumed that the problem of the origin of life might then not be very difficult after all.
In a letter written to his friend, Sir Joseph Hooker, several decades after WÃ¶hlerâ€™s announcement, Charles Darwin allowed himself to speculate. Invoking â€œa warm little pondâ€ bubbling up in the dim inaccessible past, Darwin imagined that given â€œammonia and phosphoric salts, light, heat, electricity, etc. present,â€ the spontaneous generation of a â€œprotein compoundâ€ might follow, with this compound â€œready to undergo still more complex changesâ€ and so begin Darwinian evolution itself.
Moving on through the sixty-year span of the work of Oparin, Haldane, and Miller, he pauses to note that the conditions that Stanley Miller assumed to exist for his famous experiment are strongly questioned now:
Until recently, the chemically unforthcoming nature of the early atmosphere remained an embarrassing secret among evolutionary biologists, like an uncle known privately to dress in womenâ€™s underwear; if biologists were disposed in public to acknowledge the facts, they did so by remarking that every family has one. This has now changed. The issue has come to seem troubling. A recent paper in Science has suggested that previous conjectures about the pre-biotic atmosphere were seriously in error. A few researchers have argued that a reducing atmosphere is not, after all, quite so important to pre-biotic synthesis as previously imagined.
In all this, Miller himself has maintained a far more unyielding and honest perspective. "Either you have a reducing atmosphere," he has written bluntly, "or youâ€™re not going to have the organic compounds required for life."
Berlinski also comments on current theories:
1967 and following - RNA world: Could RNA have come before DNA, and functioned as the original genetic code? "It is perfectly true that every part of the modern cell carries some faint traces of the past. But these molecular traces are only hints. By contrast, to everyone who has studied it, the ribozyme has appeared to be an authentic relic, a solid and palpable souvenir from the pre-biotic past. Its discovery prompted even Francis Crick to the admission that he, too, wished he had been clever enough to look for such relics before they became known." But he quickly disabuses the reader that RNA turned out to be the obvious answer:
The odds, then, are daunting; and when considered realistically, they are even worse than this already alarming account might suggest. The discovery of a single molecule with the power to initiate replication would hardly be sufficient to establish replication. What template would it replicate against? We need, in other words, at least two, causing the odds of their joint discovery to increase from 1 in 10 to the 60 to 1 in 10 to the 120. Those two sequences would have been needed in roughly the same place. And at the same time. And organized in such a way as to favor base pairing. And somehow held in place. And buffered against competing reactions. And productive enough so that their duplicates would not at once vanish in the soundless sea.
Recent experiments In recent decades, the trend has been to try to do experiments that replicate the origin of life, and Horoaki Suga has dome some intriguing work. But Berlinski notes that the ability of the experimenter to select the desired results creates a problem because nature is supposed to be blind as to results:
In Suga's experiment, there was no sign that the execution of chemical routines fell under the control of a molecular administration, and no sign, either, that the missing molecular administration had anything to do with executive chemical routines. The missing molecular administrator was, in fact, Suga himself, as his own account reveals. The relevant features of the experiment, he writes, "allow[ed] us to select active RNA molecules with selectivity toward a desired amino acid" (emphasis added). Thereafter, it was Suga and his collaborators who "applied stringent conditions" to the experiment, undertook "selective amplification of the self-modifying RNA molecules," and "screened" vigorously for "self-aminoacylation activity" (emphasis added throughout).
As a result, he notes, origin of life specialists have turned to a Darwinian approach, the belief that if enough mistakes are made by nature, eventually one will c ome out right, through natural selection. Of that, he says,
It was no doubt out of considerations like these that, in coming up against what he called the "dark side of molecular biology," Carl Woese was concerned to urge upon the biological community the benefits of "an all-out Darwinian perspective." But the difficulty with "an all-out Darwinian perspective" is that it entails an all-out Darwinian impediment: notably, the assignment of a degree of foresight to a Darwinian process that the process could not possibly possess.
He also notes the frequent use of those odd tenses that are the favorites of Darwinists recounting a speculative history, "would have" and "must have." As in "such-and-such must have created a selective advantage."
(Note: My personal faves in tortured tenses are not origin of life hypotheses but speculative "evolutionary psychology" histories of early man, as in, for example, "Pleistocene man would have wanted to kill his rival's kids so that he could have his own and spread his selfish genes." Of course, it is just as likely that Pleistocene man had not yet guessed how babies get started, in which case he had no basis for distinguishing among the mob of kids running and shrieking around the campfire. And if his selfish genes knew better than he did, they must have been equipped with little brains or something ... )
Berlinski notes in his conclusion that
... a number of biologists have lately reported a weakening of their commitment to the RNA world altogether, and a desire to look elsewhere for an explanation of the emergence of life on earth. "It's part of a quiet paradigm revolution going on in biology," the biophysicist Harold Morowitz put it in an interview in New Scientist, "in which the radical randomness of Darwinism is being replaced by a much more scientific law-regulated emergence of life."
He concludes by saying that while our knowledge of early conditions and the basics of the cell has immeasurably improved, we ar still far from a viable origin of life theory.
These are only some brief notes from Berlinski's essay; to get the sense of the state of OOL research, you should read the whole thing.
Toronto-based Canadian journalist Denyse O'Leary (www.designorchance.com) is the author of the multiple award-winning By Design or by Chance? (Augsburg Fortress 2004), an overview of the intelligent design controversy. She was named CBA Canada's Recommended Author of the Year in 2005 and is co-author, with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of the forthcoming The Spiritual Brain (Harper 2007).
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