November 6, 2008 | David F. Coppedge

Serving Up Life on the Rocks with a Twist

We’ve heard theories life arose in a primeval soup, around hot deep-sea vents, around volcanoes and other hot spots; why would anyone consider the origin of life in ice?  A scientist in Spain has suggested life may have started in ice.  The title to the Science Daily write-up finds this to be the ultimate divination: “Could Life Have Started In Lump Of Ice?  Very Cold Ice Films In Laboratory Reveal Mysteries Of Universe.”
    Julyan Cartwright, a researcher in Spain, has taken beautiful pictures of ice structures.  Colleagues have been impressed.  Beautiful or not, what does ice have to do with life except for sharing two letters of the alphabet?  The article diverged briefly onto a discussion of thin films for industrial applications, then came back to the L-word.  Ice films on dust particles may be abundant in space.  Ice has water, which is necessary for life.  But even more strange, ice can “look” biological.  Shapes that resemble worms and palm leaves can emerge from amorphous ice if it quick-freezes onto rock under certain conditions.
    After first cautioning scientists not to conclude from these shapes that they are evidence of life, Cartwright then proposed a connection anyway:

On the other hand the existence of lifelike biomimetic structures in ice suggests that nature may well have copied physics.  It is even possible that while ice is too cold to support most life as we know it, it may have provided a suitable internal environment for prebiotic life to have emerged.
    “It is clear that biology does use physics,” said Cartwright.  “Indeed, how could it not do?  So we shouldn’t be surprised to see that sometimes biological structures clearly make use of simple physical principles.  Then, going back in time, it seems reasonable to posit that when life first emerged, it would have been using as a container something much simpler than today’s cell membrane, probably some sort of simple vesicle of the sort found in soap bubbles.  This sort of vesicle can be found in abiotic systems today, both in hot conditions, in the chemistry associated with ‘black smokers’ on the sea floor, which is currently favoured as a possible origin of life, but also in the chemistry of sea ice.”

The article ended by calling this an “intriguing idea” that the European Science Foundation should explore further.  “This may provide a new twist to the idea that life arrived from space,” it said.  “It may be that the precursors of life came from space, but that the actual carbon based biochemistry of all organisms on Earth evolved on this planet.”

We may have to go for “Stupid Evolution Quote of the Day” at this rate.  Look cross-eyed if you have heard anything dumber in the last week from a scientist.  How do we dumb thee?  Let us count the ways.

  1. Miracles:  The article uses the emerge-ncy miracle word all over the place.  Give physics “a suitable environment for prebiotic life to have emerged,” and scientists can study “when life first emerged.”
  2. Find the ID:  The article said that “nature may well have copied physics.”  And you thought physics was natural.  Apparently not; physics is now the designer, and nature needs to copy it.  In biomimetics, scientists copy life’s designs.  Here, they have turned it inside out: “On the other hand the existence of lifelike biomimetic structures in ice suggests that nature may well have copied physics.”  Check out the self-referential fallacy.
  3. Ana-logic:  Shapes in amorphous life looks like worms and palm trees, they tell us.  Well obviously, then, since ice and biology both use physics, the ancestors of palm trees and worms must have emerged from the physical shapes in ice.  This is a non-sequitur wrapped in an analogy.
  4. Icy gloss:  To consider vesicles in ice and soap bubbles as containers for prebiotic life is a flamboyant generality that sidesteps the problem of active transport.  Containers, you recall, are death traps to prebiotic molecules unless the happy molecules can be protected and the angry ones kept out (01/17/2002, 04/11/2006). 
  5. Blind faith:  The article uses could and may seven times.  Is this science?  We have thirty seconds; tell us what you know.
  6. Lukewarm ideas:  Vesicles may have formed at hot black smokers, we are told, and they may have formed in ice, too.  Take your pick.  Don’t you remember your physics?  Ice floats.  How is the ice container going to get to the black smoker at the bottom of the sea, or vice versa?  But then, when the ice container touches the hot water, guess what?  Entropy.  If biology uses physics, as you say, this could be a problem.

These and other fallacies easily earn this story the SEQOTW prize.  We are told that Cartwright’s fantasies put “a new twist to the idea” that life arrived from space or by some other physical process without design.  It must be a blast being an astrobiologist in Europe.  You get to dance The Twist, play Twister, and sip your Darwine Twister cocktail.  Simultaneously.

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