March 20, 2009 | David F. Coppedge

Crystal Mysticism Invades Astrobiology

Mystical ideas about the life-giving power of crystals usually go with New Age movies and storefronts.  Science is above all that, right?  Then what is a reader supposed to think of this opening line by Leslie Mullen on Space.com?

One of the greatest mysteries about the origin of life is how the necessary ingredients consistently came together in a workable way.  On a planet full of raw chemical materials, what happy accident of nature led to the first tiny glimmer of life?

To Alexander Graham Cairns-Smith, that glimmer may owe something to the sparkle of a crystal….

Proponents of intelligent design (ID) have long argued that the specified complexity of the DNA code differs from the repetitive order of crystal structures.  Cairns-Smith (U of Glasgow) recognizes that repetitive patterned order is more common in the inorganic world than in living cells.  He knows that DNA is not repetitive.  It contains highly-specific sequences, like language.  “One of the miracles of life, to my mind, is the accuracy with which DNA gets itself replicated in the cell,” he said.  “It has to be that unbelievably accurate, otherwise we’d all die out in no time.”  So far, the evolutionist agrees with the ID position.  In the Space.com piece, though, he compared the replication of crystals with DNA replication – the basis of heredity.  Where did the genetic information in DNA come from, though?

In 1949, the Irish scientist J.D. Bernal suggested that clay minerals may have created a meeting place for life’s first molecules.  Such a scenario could explain how the randomly dispersed molecules of life managed to come together in the diffuse primordial soup.
Cairns-Smith’s idea takes Bernal’s theory a step further.  In his view, clay mineral layers not only attracted certain chemicals from the environment to their surfaces, the mineral layers also acted as the first genetic information carriers, much as the base pairs in DNA do today.

Cairns-Smith attributed the origin of genetic information to random stacks of clay crystals that were able to make copies of themselves.  Mixed-layer crystals might have acted as primitive information carriers, he proposed.

Cairns-Smith doesn’t think the clay mineral crystals were “alive” anymore than a DNA sample is thought to be alive.  Instead, by acting as the first genetic materials for early life, clay mineral crystals created a link between the worlds of inorganic and organic chemistry.
At some point, life launched free of its inorganic genetic origins – the organic substances that evolved from chemical interactions on the mineral layers became stable enough to live apart from their birthplace, and complex enough to replicate themselves into the future.
Some mineral layer combinations probably worked better than others when it came to marshalling the organic molecules that were to eventually become genetic materials.  One of his favorite contenders for life’s early mineral template is authigenic chlorite, which can create complicated shapes that resemble brussels sprouts.  Such chlorite crystals growing inside sandstone often coat the sand grains and do not block the flow of solutions within the rock – a potentially important quality for the very first evolving systems.  However, rather than one particular mineral layer sequence leading to life, Cairns-Smith thinks many different mixed layer structures might have contributed to life’s evolution.

Why has Alexander Graham Cairns-Smith rung this bell since the 1960s?  Mainly, because the other theories that focus on sugars, amino acids and RNA are too incredible.

Cairns-Smith thinks such a chain of events was improbable on the early Earth – the nucleic acid and protein system of life is too complex to have sprung outright from simple ingredients.  Even the RNA world hypothesis, which envisions RNA playing dual roles that today are carried out by DNA and proteins, is a relatively advanced and sophisticated process.

He can live with crystals – but not with an intelligent Creator.

“A simpler kind of evolution came first, and then what are now the molecules of life came to be produced in a consistent way,” says Cairns-Smith.  “Of course there was no foresight here, but as soon as an evolutionary process was underway, the world would have changed and nature would have had a new set of toys to play with.”

Space.com envisioned this vision illuminating the cosmos.  “If Cairns-Smith’s theory is correct,” Leslie Mullen ended, “then the spark of life may be shimmering on crystal surfaces throughout the universe.”

We hope you were entertained by this clown act.  This is the kind of clown act where one clown carries a 2×4.  As he turns, he whacks the other clown in the face.

In case you needed program notes, here’s what happened.  Cairns-Smith, as the fortuneteller Chlorite the Magnificent, looked into his crystal ball and saw brussels sprouts emerging from the sparkle of randomness.  He told his witless, breathless customer, Leslie Mullen, that he could visualize her emergence unfolding in the crystal, from random bits, to codes, to cells, to brussels sprouts and Space.com reporters.  As she rushed off to write this all down, he picked up his scepter to leave, put it over his shoulder, turned, and inadvertently whacked Gerald Joyce in the face with it, who had just come in to complain that Chlorite the Magnificent is a fake (02/15/2007, 11/29/2007, 07/11/2002).

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