Darwin Blogs on Origin of Life

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Posted on January 14, 2009 in Origin of Life

He may not blog himself, but Darwin has disciples who blog for him.  There’s bound to be a lot of blogging this year with Darwin’s 200th birthday next month and the 150th anniversary of the Origin of Species this November.  Science began a blog called Origins with some entries from their Jan 8 issue.  Two of them deal with a subject about which Darwin had very little to say: the origin of life.
    Carl Zimmer’s piece on the origin of life was made publicly available online from the January 8 issue of Science.1  He spent a few paragraphs reviewing Darwin’s rare comments about the origin of life (warm little pond and all), then dove into the pond to look around.
    Zimmer treated the origin of life optimistically with very little mention of intractable problems like homochirality, salt, competing cross-reactions, concentration of essential parts, and the origin of genetic information.  To Zimmer, life from chemistry comes in two easily-bridged steps, each demonstrated in the lab.  Of course, everything happens completely naturally via unguided processes – a requirement to get the Darwin imprimatur.
    First step: acquire lots of amino acids in a Miller-type lightning storm.  We know that Miller used the wrong atmosphere, and nothing happens in the presence of nitrogen and carbon dioxide, but there’s a workaround, he claimed.  The harmful nitrogen compounds that, unfortunately, form when the atmosphere is made more credible, can be soaked up by “buffering chemicals.”  Or, the necessary building blocks could have come special delivery by meteorites or around hydrothermal vents.  Whatever; “Raw materials were not an issue,” he reassured his readers.
    Then, you make RNA.  The old simple way (building the bases and sugars separately, joining them and adding phosphate), was too hard.  He found John Sutherland [U of Manchester] willing to suggest a more circuitous reaction pathway.  Sutherland hasn’t succeeded yet, but promised Zimmer “We’ve got the molecules in our sights.”  They might have even formed in warm little ponds, just like Darwin imagined.
    From there, it’s not a big conceptual leap to Step Two in Zimmer’s scenario: “The cell.”  Here he went to Harvard Medical School where Jack Szostak has cooked up a primitive cell membrane that is not a death trap (see the 04/11/2006 entry and the 01/17/2002 commentary).  Szostak claims his membrane lets the food in but keeps the RNA from leaking out (see 09/03/2004 for his earlier work).  All that’s needed are some hot and cold cycles, and presto – a living cell is within sight.  “Now Szostak is running experiments to bring his protocells closer to life,” Zimmer wrote.  “He is developing new forms of RNA that may be able to replicate longer molecules faster.  For him, the true test of his experiments will be whether his protocells not only grow and reproduce, but evolve.”  Once that happens, Darwin will take over from there.
Fox News) even claimed “Life As We Know It Nearly Created in Lab.”  The triumphant article began, “Some chemical reactions occurred about 4 billion years agoperhaps in a primordial tidal soup or maybe with help of volcanoes or possibly at the bottom of the sea or between the mica sheets – to create biology.”  That’s a lot of maybes.  In fact, Zimmer’s brief article used the word might nine times, could 15 times, may three times and emerged five times.

1.  Carl Zimmer, “On the Origin of Life on the Earth,” Science, 9 January 2009: Vol. 323. no. 5911, pp. 198-199, DOI: 10.1126/science.323.5911.198.
2.  Tracey Lincoln and Gerald Joyce, “Self-Sustained Replication of an RNA Enzyme,” Science, Published Online January 8, 2009, Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1167856.

Let’s first dispense with the latest fluff by Gerald Joyce.  His intelligently-designed RNA system has nothing to do with the origin of life.  A scientist wrote in and said that all he achieved was a joining (ligation) reaction, not a replication reaction.  Ligation is very common and normal for RNA chemistry.  Joyce just joined two short RNA molecules together; he did not replicate them.  To achieve anything relevant for life, Joyce would need to form (by chance) an RNA molecule 100 bases long or longer that could act as a template for its “antisense” copy, which in turn could be a template for its antisense copy that would replicate the original molecule.  Ligation is “mere chemistry,” our observer wrote.  Joyce’s experiment required intelligent input with a contrived environment (a beaker).  He interfered in ways a natural environment could not and would not, inserting his own “Goal-directed behavior, which includes the urge to have offspring – in short, a kind of awareness,” he said.  It is clear such things “are not related to the atomic world and its laws.”
    Joyce’s new RNA molecule also contributes nothing to explaining the origin of the genetic code.  It is useless and fragile without an intelligently-guided, artificial environment, and a role in a complex system like a living cell.  It performs no function.  It can’t do “any totally new tricks,” Joyce admitted.  Now read that Fox News article and stand aghast at the hubris of the reporter – “The ‘creatures’ – wait, we can’t call them that! – evolved, with some ‘species’ winning out.”  Wow, now we even evolved a little Malthus.  The molecules are battling it out for scarce resources.  Where did self-awareness sneak in?
    Speaking of winning out, you can’t win an intellectual game with a cheater.  How does Carl Zimmer and Science cheat?  Let us count the ways.  First, they withhold essential information.  They gloss over the falsifying difficulties and show-stoppers (see 07/11/2002 for 21 of them) that render their tall tales worthless.  A comparison of the 01/26/2008 and 02/15/2007 entries (to say nothing of our online book) reveals something of the magnitude of the problems.
    Second, they insulate themselves from critics.  Put them in the ring with a knowledgeable critic of origin-of-life studies and they would drop dead from fear before the first blow.  Instead, with their muscly critics safely tied up and gagged in the trailer, the wimps sweep the audience off their feet with a very artificial, one-sided circus act showing off their strength.  They call this the “scientific consensus.”
    Third, they associate their nonsense with Darwin to give it some kind of credibility.  Of course, they have to keep blowing hot air into the Darwin balloon to keep it from sagging, otherwise the public might laugh.  Darwin had nothing to contribute about the origin of life other than bald speculation.  Zimmer resurrects his corpse: “And if Darwin was alive today, he might well be willing to write a lot more about how life began.”  Big deal.  Words are cheap.  Facts of nature are recalcitrant.
    Fourth, and worst of all, they changed the rules of scientific engagement.  Now, speculation is the “in” thing – the wilder the better.  Historian of science Frederick Gregory (U of Florida) once investigated late 18th-century science contests and noted the insistence on verifiable evidence.  Typically, these contests would say something like, “Do not offer hypotheses; support your answer with FACTS.”  The early evolutionary speculations by Lamarck, Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus, and Robert Chambers were harshly criticized by the scientists of the day because of the speculative nature of their proposals.  What few seem to realize is that the Darwinian Revolution was largely a coup by those who wanted more freedom to speculate and still remain in the science club.  Darwin elevated the status of hypothesis in science, facts and evidence be hanged.
    Some leading philosophers of the day saw what Darwin was doing to science yet welcomed it (01/15/2004 commentary).  Others, like Adam Sedgwick (Darwin’s geology teacher), saw it and were outraged: “You have deserted the true method of induction!” he exclaimed in a scathing review of The Origin.  Scientists were for the most part not impressed with Darwin’s “science.”  Natural selection was largely dismissed for decades.  Where Darwin succeeded the most was in persuading his contemporaries, with his rhetoric and charm, to accept the general idea of evolution.  His scientific argument was like a Texas longhorn; a point here, a point there, and a lot of bull in between.  He made the concept of evolution, though, seem scientific – a fallacy of glittering generalities.
    As a result, Darwin invited the Starving Storytellers into the Science Lab and became their patron saint (12/22/2003 commentary).  Out went the harsh requirements for facts and induction; in came the imaginative tales.  You cannot carry on a scientific discussion with someone who makes up a story to bandage every falsifying wound (05/30/2008).
    Oh, but you say, they have all kinds of lab evidence for their leaky fatbubbles (09/03/2004) and RNA worlds (07/11/2002).  No, they don’t.  Facts are just props for the story.  The story always comes first.  This is just another manifestation of their cheating.  They take their intelligently-designed apparati at multimillion-dollar academic institutions and presume to tell us that it says something about what time and chance did in an unobservable past.  They say, “it might have happened this way.”  Look how many times Zimmer resorted to the phrase “might have.”  No respectable scientist should stand for this coulda-woulda-shoulda form of science.  Science is supposed to stand for empirically-verifiable, observable, repeatable evidence, if anything.  Once you open the door to speculation, pigs can fly (1/26/2008) while you wish upon a star (12/05/2008).  So what if it keeps scientists busy?  Think alchemy.
    Did it grab your attention that such claims are self-refuting anyway?  If I design an experiment with my mind that attempts to prove that chance and necessity were responsible for my origin, then I have abandoned science and envisioned a world of meaningless contingency just like that of the pagans.  What did I just do to my “scientific explanation”?  I have attributed scientific explanation to chance!  Talk about shooting oneself in the foot.
    What a crazy, mixed-up world we live in.  The smart people we elevate as the knowledgeable ones (“scientists”) have let their hero Charlie undermine the whole basis for science, and yet they exalt him as the greatest scientist of all time.  In the 18th and 19th centuries, riding on the wave of Newton’s triumph of the discovery of natural laws (a very complex and controversial issue in philosophy of science), scientists felt compelled to find natural laws everywhere.  The new science of biology (formerly called natural history), was long thought to be too complex.  Natural historians felt resigned to stamp collecting and description.  Biology resisted all attempts to explain with reference to laws of nature.  Well Darwin found one.  John Herschel called it the “Law of Higgledy-Piggledy.”  It’s essentially the negation of law.  Darwin published his natural law, and it was – chance!  Great.  Now we can explain anything with reference to this simple principle Richard Dawkins ecstatically described in Expelled as the most “magnificently elegant, stunningly elegant” law in all of science: Stuff Happens (09/15/2008).


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