February 12, 2012 | David F. Coppedge

OOL for Landlubbers

No part of the universal evolutionary scenario gets more overhauls than the origin of life.  Some say it began in the sea, some on the land.  Some say it began at the bottom of the sea; others say that is the worst place for life to get going.  The latest idea favors freshwater hot springs on land.

Since Oparin and Miller, the majority of evolutionists have suggested life began in the ocean.  Some of the most vocal evolutionists, in fact, place the incubator at the bottom of the sea in volcanic vents.  Here’s the latest reversal.  “New evidence challenges the widespread view that it all kicked off in the oceans, around deep-sea hydrothermal vents, New Scientist said, regarding a new paper by Mulkidjanian et al. on PNAS.1  “Instead, hot springs on land, similar to the ‘warm little pond’ favoured by Charles Darwin, may be a better fit for the cradle of life.”  The new notion would have a detrimental affect on astrobiology: “The controversial new theory suggests the search for extraterrestrial life must go beyond a hunt for alien oceans.”  So “While Darwin’s warm little ponds appear to be coming back in vogue,” landlubber reporter Colin Barras spoke of “endless speculation” and “conventional wisdom” in the origin-of-life (OOL) field.  He also mentioned the serious problems of ocean-first theories, such as salt, but corresponding difficulties of land-first theories, such as UV radiation.

One of the proponents of land-first OOL is Nobelist Jack Szostak of Harvard.  PhysOrg reported him speaking to a packed crowd at Harvard in a series called, “Evolution Matters.”  Regarding the origin of life (his own field), Szostak clearly bluffed over major difficulties by alleging they have “simple, even elegant solutions.”  For instance, he pointed to RNA enzymes his lab designed, saying that their “sloppiness” was a virtue – it even solved two “intractable” problems at once (their tendency to cling, and their structural difference from RNA’s in cells.   “Among other findings, Szostak and colleagues have shown that cell-like vesicles are relatively easy to create from fatty acid molecules suspended in water,” Barras stated warmly.  “He has also shown that vesicles divide naturally when passed through a smaller pore, and explored other possible methods of early cell division.”

But that’s little different than what children see with their soap-bubble wands – a far cry from cell division as we observe it.    He needs to explain how cell division became “extremely precise” to allow accurate replication of genetic information in daughter cells.  PhysOrg tells how at Whitehead Institute, Komimi Kiyomitsu used his “keen powers of observation” to identify the machinery that keeps chromosomes “aligned perfectly” at the dividing cell’s axis.  One of the machines is dynein, attached to the cortex of the cell membrane, that “acts as a winch to pull on the spindle pole.”  The winching action separates the chromosomes so that each daughter cell gets a precise copy of the genetic material.  “The process of mitosis is extremely precise; when it comes to manipulating DNA, cells verge on being obsessive and with good reason,” PhysOrg reported.  “Gaining or losing a chromosome during cell division can lead to cell death, developmental disorders, or cancer.”  If Szostak believes the origin of mitosis was a cinch, he needs to explain the cell’s winch, inch by inch along the unguided evolutionary pathway from fat bubbles to true cells able to replicate their genetic material accurately enough to avoid error catastrophe, which would quench any incipient life.

1.  Mulkidjanian, Koonin et al., “Origin of first cells at terrestrial, anoxic geothermal fields,”  PNAS, February 13, 2012, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1117774109.

Szostak would flinch at the following suggestion: we need to add a new meaning to “hopeful monster.”  That was Goldschmidt’s old metaphor for evolution that progresses by giant leaps, or saltations – such as a dinosaur laying an egg and a bird hatching out.  Every once in awhile the notion returns, most notably with Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge with their “punctuated equilibria” theory.  Szostak is following that tradition with his simplistic notions of the origin of life.  He knows full well the difficulties getting from bubble to cell, from OOL to Joule.  He wants to keep salt out of his Gamble’s Primordial Soup, but leaps saltationally from fatbubbles to machine-laden, information-rich, automated factories.  Not only does he believe in hopeful monsters, he is one.  The speech he gave at Harvard for “Evolution Matters” was not only a monstrosity of bluffing, it’s a pack of hopeful lies only a monster would deliver.


Exercise:  List all the examples of suggestion, glittering generalities, and euphemism in the Abstract of the PNAS paper.



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