Ideas, rants and raves, with emphasis on Science, Politics, Personal Growth and Finance

Interesting overview of origin-of-life research – scientific process in action

Posted by The Lukester on December 16, 2005

The recent article at Panda’s Thumb references a list of interesting articles in the November issue of Public Library of Science (PLoS) Biology. Among them is a very nice overview of the current state of abiogenesis, or origin-of-life research, “Jump-Starting a Cellular World: Investigating the Origin of Life, from Soup to Networks” (it’s a .pdf so expect a long download over a slow connection).

I’ve always been drawn to origin-of-life research, ever since I first read about Oparin and (the independent researcher) Haldane’s theories of a “primordial soup”. To me there is something – dare I say it – miraculous about quasi-random processes, fueled by various forms of energy, self-organizing themselves into self-replicating biological system.

(As an aside, I first learned about these ideas in a Human Biology 101 at San Francisco State in the 80’s. The teacher of that class – in a bizarre retroactive twist – was Dr. Dean Kenyon, a co-author of “Of Pandas and People,” that nefarious tomb of pseudo-scientific creationist propaganda-babble. I would like to take this moment to thank Dr. Kenyon for inspiring me later to become an enthusiastic “evolutionist”. This in spite of – or perhaps because of – his attempts to teach the “alternative explanation” in class.)

Returning to the point of this post, this accessible article explores various theories of abiogenesis, from the early “primordial soup” theory through a proto-RNA replication replication, and how those theories interact with other research on early geological evolution (for example, the amount of hydrogen in an early atmosphere impacts how likely a particular theory is valid. Discoveries of ocean vents has played a big part as well). While the information itself is fascinating, I noticed one aspect inherent in the article that was probably not purposely included: It gives a wonderful perspective on the scientific process itself.

Creationists like to dismiss evolutionary theory by pointing out “problems”. Yet this scientific article very candidly discusses various “problems” with some of the theories of abiogenesis, and the context is of the progress of understanding, NOT debunking an idea because a “problem” was found, or “your side lost my side won, neener neener neener!” The so-called “problems” in the mentioned in the article don’t “disprove” a particular theory, but challenge scientists to defend or modify their theories and – most importantly – gather additional facts (facts are completely lacking in ID “research”). In real science, “problems” (I keep putting it in quotes because it can be such a loaded word in this context) move the body of understanding forward. In creation science (CS) – or ID as they like to call it now – it’s the opposite; a “problem,” no matter how obscure, is “proof” that the original theory is deeply flawed and their theory is right. This is rather ironic, since ID/CS has absolutely no facts and no theory; scientists can’t point to “problems” with ID because, well, with no facts there ain’t no problems!


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