‘Focus’ Magazine on the ‘Dawn of Life’

There’s an interesting item over at Atheism Sucks at http://atheismsucks.blogspot.com/2008/03/john-horgan-in-beginning.html on an article the science journalist John Horgan wrote some time ago on the problems of current theories on the origin of life.  Five years ago in 2003 the British popular science magazine, Focus, also did a feature on the origin of life by their writer, Robert Matthews. This covered the famous Miller-Urey experiment, various extremophiles such as Deinococcus radiodurans, a bacterium discovered in 1956 by the American microbiologist Arthur Anderson that can survive levels of radiation that will kill a human instantly, and four of the major figures in the discussion of the origin of life. These were Anaximander, who considered that life had spontaneously emerged from mud to produce fish, and then every other creature when the fish moved onto dry land; Leeuwenhoek for his discovery of microscopic creatures, confirmed by Hooke; Louis Pasteur, for proving that spontanous generation did not occur and that disease was caused by germs passing from organism to organism; and Oswald Avery, Colin MacLeod and Maclyn McCarty. The article credited Avery, MacLeod and McCarty for showing in 1944 at the Rockefeller Institute in New York that ‘a simple molecule called deoxyribonucleic acid – or DNA – found in the nucleus of living cells is the key to life’ for carrying the genetic instructions for organisms to reproduce themselves. 1 This is quite remarkable, given the way that Crick and Watson’s work on DNA is usually mentioned to the exclusion of all the other researchers. It also included a brief interview with Graham Cairns-Smith, one of the foremost researchers on the origin of life. It also briefly discussed Dr. Freeman Dyson’s theory that life evolved twice. It also included a brief overview of ‘seven of the most popular theories currently being debated’ – the RNA world, primordial soup, life from clay, PNA theory, hydrothermal vents, panspermia and Creationism. These overviews were just a paragraph long, though the piece on the Miller-Urey experiment, ‘A Landmark Experiment’, ran over four pages. 2

The Miller-Urey Experiment

The article was certainly not pessimistic about the possibility of discovering the origin of life. While it stated that ‘as a demonstration of how to create life, Miller’s experiment could be dismissed as a heroic failure’ it considered that ‘its real significance lies not in results, but in its approach. For millennia the solution to the mystery of the origin of life seemed beyond reach. It was Miller who brought it into the lab – a nd began one of humanity’s most exciting scientific quests.’ 3 Nevertheless, the feature noted the same problems with the theories as John Horgan. Although Time magazine declared when Miller and Urey’s results were published in Science in 1953 that ‘If the apparatus had been as big as the ocean, and if it had worked for a million years instead of one week, it might have created something like the first living molecule’, the results were not nearly as good as was believed. 4

The article notes that while the experiment did create six types of amino acid, only two – glycine and alanine – had any known relevance. As for amino acides, while they’re life’s building blocks, by the 1950s they were, as merely constituents of proteins, far from ‘living molecules’ and had lost their status as the master molecules of life to DNA. Specifically, they were not self-replicating, a key feature of any ‘living molecule’. Miller did not produce any DNA, nor even the A, C, G and T nucleotides. ‘As Miller himself acknowledged, the chemicals produced were as far from life as a pile of bricks is from being a humming metropolis.’ 5 Instead of the reducing atmosphere of hydrogen, methane and ammonia, astronomers instead theorised that the atmosphere on the early Earth was probably composed of nitrogen, carbon dioxide and water. Any methane and ammonia was probably destroyed by the light of the primordial sun. ‘When Miller and others ran the experiment with this chemically neutral mix, they only produced traces of glycine, the simplest amino acid.’ 6

The ‘Double Origin’ Theory

The ‘double origin’ theory for the emergence of life, as formulated by Freeman Dyson, suggests that the first lifeforms were protein-like molecules, which gradually evolved more sophisticated metabolisms, passing on their abilities to other proteins using enzymes as a primitive form of genetics. Later, more sophisticated genetic molecules like DNA emerged that were able to reproduce their traits much more accurately, but still lacked sophisticated metabolisms. However, eventually the proteins and the genetic molecules fused in a symbiotic relationship that produced life forms with a sophisticated metabolism and genetics. However, Dyson admits ‘that his ‘double origin’ theory is a highly speculative one, but scientists concede that today’s cells do show combinations of simpler life-forms’. 7 Thus, the paragraph on the ‘Primordial Soup’ concluded that ‘while teh primordial soup expected on the early Earth can create some of the most basic building blocks for life, it seems incapable of generating the crucial self-replicating molecules like DNA.’ 8

The RNA World

Most of the other theories discussed also had serious flaws. The RNA world, proposed in the 1980s, after it was discovered that RNA could act as catalyst and not just a carrier of genetic information, considers that the earliest life forms were naked genes of RNA. However, the article noted that while RNA can be persuaded to evolve new abilities, such as limited self-replication and the ability to link amino acids together, it so far has not demonstrated itself able to replicate itself completely as required for life on Earth. 9

Life from Clay

Graham Cairns-Smith’s own theory was that life was originally based on chemicals more robust than DNA, such as the clay mineral, kaolite. In this view, the first genes were defects in the crystal structure of these clays that were passed on to successive generations of crystals as they formed. However, there is no experimental evidence, according to the article, that clays really can replicate in this way. 10

Interestingly, the brief interview with Cairns-Smith suggests that the distinction drawn by some opponents of Intelligent Design between the origin of life and Darwinism is not accepted by all scientists. While Darwin himself did not discuss the origin of life, but merely speculated in a letter to a friend in 1871 that it may have occurred ‘in some warm little pond, with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, light, heat, electricity present’, Cairns-Smith himself stated that the process involved Natural Selection. 11 In answer to the question ‘What is your advice to anyone thinking of entering this area of research?’, Cairns-Smith answered ‘Oh, to forget about the chemistry of life as it is now and look creatively for the simplest real chemical systems that can evolve through natural selection, whatever they are made of.’ 12 It thus appears from Cairns-Smiths comments that however different the process of the origin of life may be from the evolution of living organisms, it is still held to be the product of Natural Selection.

The PNA World

The PNA theory arose from the work of Peter Nielsen of the University of Copenhagen in 1991. Nielsen used computers to design a molecule – Peptide Nucleic Acid, or PNA – that had the both the structure of DNA and the chemical abilities of proteins. He was intending to use it for cancer therapy, but its combination of the genetic quality of DNA and the resilience of proteins appealed to scientists struggling to discover the compounds that would have been suitable for the origin of life on Earth. PNA does share with DNA some limited capability for self-replication, but nothing on the scale of DNA. 13

Hydrothermal Vents

Regarding the origin of life around hydrothermal vents, while these do have iron sulphide, which performs a key process in living organisms by linking up amino acids, the extreme heat inside the vents, which exceeds 300 degrees Celsius, rapidly tears apart amino acids and DNA. Nevertheless, William Martin and his colleagues at the University of Dusseldorf in 2003 suggested that key reactions may still occur in cavities inside iron sulphide cells in the vents. 14

Panspermia

The paragraph on panspermia – the theory that life was seeded on Earth by comets and meteors from elsewhere in the cosmos –  noted that it was first proposed by Victorian scientists, and that its supporters included Francis Crick and Fred Hoyle. Its propnents argued that the discovery of amino acides in meteorites and bacteria high up in the Earth’s atmosphere support the theory. However, although this solved the problem of the origin of life on Earth, it was considered to be a ‘cop-out’ by many scientists because it pushed the problem away into deep space. 15

Creationism

As for Creationism, the article merely stated that it was ‘the oldest theory for the origin of life – and the simplest to explain: God did it.’ 16

Conclusion: Materialist Solutions of the Origin of Life Problematic

Thus, while the article certainly wasn’t as pessimistic about the possibility of discovering a materialist solution to the origin of life, it was clear that all the scientific theories presented had major flaws. The mention of Creationism alongside the materialist scientific theories is interesting. It’s clear that the article wasn’t written from a Creationist standpoint, and broadly supported the search for a materialist solution to the problem of the origin of life. Nevertheless, it seems extremely unlikely to me that many science magazines would ever have even mentioned Creationism as a solution at the time, even if merely for the sake of completeness, because of the threat that it is held to present to materialist science, which is construed and presented as genuine science in opposition to non-materialist approaches. It might have been because Creationism has, until very recently, been very much a minority point of view in Britain, though one that has been vigorously attacked over the past decades by Richard Dawkins, amongst others. With the growth of interest in Intelligent Design since the 1980s, I do wonder if Creationism would now be mentioned without an explicit condemnation, even in passing, in a British popular science magazine.

Notes

1. Robert Matthews, ‘History of Pondering Life’s Origins’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 39.

2. Matthews, ‘A Landmark Experiment’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, pp. 38-41.

3. Matthews, ‘A Landmark Experiment’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 41.

4. Matthews, ‘A Landmark Experiment’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 40.

5. Matthews, ‘A Landmark Experiment’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, pp. 40-41.

6. Matthews, ‘A Landmark Experiment’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 41.

7. Matthews, ‘Has Life Originated More than Once on Earth?’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 41.

8. Matthews, ‘How Did Life Get Started – Seven of the Most Popular Theories Currently being Debated’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 42.

9. Matthews, ‘How Did Life Get Started – Seven of the Most Popular Theories Currently being Debated’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 42.

10. Matthews, ‘How Did Life Get Started – Seven of the Most Popular Theories Currently being Debated’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 42.

11. Matthews, ‘Meet the Origin of Life Expert’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 41.

12. Matthews, ‘Meet the Origin of Life Expert’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 41.

13. Matthews, ‘How Did Life Get Started – Seven of the Most Popular Theories Currently being Debated’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 42.

14. Matthews, ‘How Did Life Get Started – Seven of the Most Popular Theories Currently being Debated’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 43.

15. Matthews, ‘How Did Life Get Started – Seven of the Most Popular Theories Currently being Debated’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 43.

16. Matthews, ‘How Did Life Get Started – Seven of the Most Popular Theories Currently being Debated’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 43.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

16 Responses to “‘Focus’ Magazine on the ‘Dawn of Life’”

  1. Ilíon Says:

    BeastRhetorical… With the growth of interest in Intelligent Design since the 1980s, I do wonder if Creationism would now be mentioned without an explicit condemnation, even in passing, in a British popular science magazine.

    Uh. No.

  2. beastrabban Says:

    That’s exactly the impression I have, Ilion.

  3. Feyd Says:

    Interesting Beast, from my point of view the arguments against ID have been getting stronger these past few years. Its not an area I’ve paid much attention to as IMO the available evidence favours evolution.

    Are you saying the support for ID / Creationism has been growing within accademia or were you talking about Great Britain at large?

  4. beastrabban Says:

    Hi Feyd – no, I don’t think support for ID or Creationism has been growing in British academia, but it does seem to be growing in Britain at large. There was an article in the Guardian or Independent a few months ago which remarked that British universities were becoming alarmed at the increasing number of students turning up who believed in Creationism or ID. One zoology professor remarked that 1/3 of the students who enrolled in the course believed in ID or Creationism, and one of the universities in the north of England now runs courses for its students against ID and Creationism.

  5. beastrabban Says:

    Regarding the issue of abiogenesis, Feyd, my guess is that even if it is scientifically proven, this need not invalidate a natural theology based on the evolutionary process and biochemistry. John Maynard Smith notes that the fundamental laws of physics determines the way the proteins fold that govern the development of individual organisms. If that’s the case, and the universe is uniquely fine tuned for life, then the specific determination of the types of biochemistry used by organisms strongly suggests to me that, whatever the actual process of the development of life and species, as one scientist has remarked ‘we were truly meant to be here.’

  6. airtightnoodle Says:

    Interesting read…a few comments…

    “The article credited Avery, MacLeod and McCarty for showing in 1944 at the Rockefeller Institute in New York that ‘a simple molecule called deoxyribonucleic acid – or DNA – found in the nucleus of living cells is the key to life’ for carrying the genetic instructions for organisms to reproduce themselves. 1 This is quite remarkable, given the way that Crick and Watson’s work on DNA is usually mentioned to the exclusion of all the other researchers.”

    Not really that remarkable, in my opinion. Scientists knew of DNA well before Watson and Crick came along. Avery’s experiments (whose results were backed up a few years later by the experiments done by Hershey and Chase) showed that DNA (not proteisn) is what passes on hereditary information. Watson and Crick, about a decade later, showed HOW DNA passes on that information. Any decent high school biology book mentions all of the above experiments, as well as the one done prior to Avery by Frederick Griffith.

    “The article notes that while the experiment did create six types of amino acid, only two – glycine and alanine – had any known relevance.”

    The amino acids produced were mostly alanine and glycine, but as many as 13 different amino acids could have been produced (oddly, if you try researching the experiment online you will come across all sorts of results–some saying 7 amino acids were created, some 13, some 6, some 4…at least this is what I came across). The main “problem” with the amino acids that were produced is that they were a mixture of L and D amino acids (some left-handed, some right-handed). In living organisms, they exist solely in the L form.

    “As for amino acides, while they’re life’s building blocks, by the 1950s they were, as merely constituents of proteins, far from ‘living molecules’ and had lost their status as the master molecules of life to DNA.”

    “Mere constituents of proteins”? You can try to reduce the importance of the experiment all you want by pointing out that by the 1950s scientists knew proteins weren’t what make up genes, but that doesn’t make them any less important in reality. Try living without them. Besides, they are still closely linked to the all-important DNA…that is what DNA is ultimately for, you know. It has the coded information for putting those amino acids together to make proteins.

    As far as DNA (and RNA) does, later experiments did show that both these nucleic acids can be produced in similar experiments (though using a reducing atmosphere, if I recall correctly).

    “it so far has not demonstrated itself able to replicate itself completely as required for life on Earth. ”

    Not really sure what you mean about RNA not being able to replicate itself…it does so in certain viruses. Negative-sense viruses must have their genome copied by an RNA polymerase or transcriptase to form positive-sense RNA (similar to DNA replication).

    Clay theory is, by the way, widely discredited presently.

    “However, although this solved the problem of the origin of life on Earth, it was considered to be a ‘cop-out’ by many scientists because it pushed the problem away into deep space.”

    It’s not a cop-out. It could very well be how life originated on Earth. THAT is the question it would answer. Of course, it does bring up another question: how did amino acids, etc, come to be in meteorites? If you want to know better (in my opinion) objections to panspermia, consider the following: Space is a damaging environment for life, as it would be exposed to radiation, cosmic rays and stellar winds. Also, life as we know it requires carbon, nitrogen and oxygen to exist at certain densities and temperatures for the chemical reactions between them to occur. These conditions are not thought to be widespread in the universe.

    “Conclusion: Materialist Solutions of the Origin of Life Problematic”

    Well of course. We’re talking about things that occurred millions and billions of years ago.

    “Thus, while the article certainly wasn’t as pessimistic about the possibility of discovering a materialist solution to the origin of life, it was clear that all the scientific theories presented had major flaws.”

    I wouldn’t say that to be true of all of them. Some do seem to have major flaws, and some have been discredited for the time-being by the majority of scientists. Others have more questions that have yet to be answered. Plus, since this is article is a few years old, there is more research, there are more theories, etc, available now.

    I do rather agree with your previous comment on March 17:
    Regarding the issue of abiogenesis, Feyd, my guess is that even if it is scientifically proven, this need not invalidate a natural theology based on the evolutionary process and biochemistry. John Maynard Smith notes that the fundamental laws of physics determines the way the proteins fold that govern the development of individual organisms. If that’s the case, and the universe is uniquely fine tuned for life, then the specific determination of the types of biochemistry used by organisms strongly suggests to me that, whatever the actual process of the development of life and species, as one scientist has remarked ‘we were truly meant to be here.’

    Well said.

    Ciao!

  7. Feyd Says:

    Very interesting comments airtightnoodle!

    Beast,
    Yep I agree the fine tuning of the fundamental laws of physics is a strong argument for a creator. I offered to debate the point recently on Richard Dawkins .net – predictably there was no interest!

  8. beastrabban Says:

    Hi Airtightnoodle, and thanks for the comments and the info. I’m afraid I don’t have your knowledge of biology, and my impressions of the history of research into DNA is taken very much from popular science books and literature. These concentrate very much on Crick and Watson, though I do remember that in an episode of the X Files many, many years ago now Scully mentioned the germ plasm theory of heredity. It was a bizarre to find a bit of hard science coming from a show based very much on the fringe, conspiracy, paranormal and ufological countercultures.

    As for the clay theory of the origin of life, I was surprised to find that that theory was severely challenged, though I didn’t realise that it had been entirely discredited. I can remember when it was first advanced in the 1980s, with discussion of it on British popular science programmes like Tomorrow’s World and Don’t Ask Me . Like a lot of theories about space and the cosmos, there’s a strong ‘gosh-wow’ element there which gets, or got, media attention, but unless you keep an eye on the scientific debates there’s little popular coverage of its demise. Certainly the hard SF writer Gregory Benford puts it forward as the origin for some of the alien beings he created in his ‘Galactic Centre’ novels in the late 80s and early 90s.

    Now I am strongly inclined towards ID, but my background is in theo-evolution. I think a strong case could be made for the existence of God from conventional evolution. I hope to produce such an argument in due course, and would appreciate your insightful comments and constructive criticisms if and when I do.

  9. beastrabban Says:

    Hi Feyd – I think the Fine Tuning Argument is a very strong indication indeed of the existence of God, and am not surprised the atheists of the Dawkins Forum really didn’t want to debate you on that one.

  10. Pierre Says:

    Yo Beast, seeing as it’s easter, the passion of christ was on tv. I was listening to the torture part while I was inside, and I was thinking, and to cut a few thoughts short, I wondered how many other people tried to do what Jesus did and never got a religion started, especially around his time(I happen to remember reading that there were alot of people proclaiming that they were messiah during Jesus time) I ask because it’s said sometimes that Jesus was just a guy people blew out of proportion or a bunch of other things, but they involve Jesus fabricating Christianity or in some way contributing to its fabrication. If Jesus was the only one of all these attempts to accomplish anything, that would make him somewhat unique. I suppose it would add to the evidence from prophecies and historical reliability, but to seal off one side of inquiry it would be interesting to note just how many people through history tried to start a world religion, and accomplished it(not many? Perhaps notable/unnotable attempts). I thought it may be an interesting article.

    Oh, I suppose I should say Happy Easter! too =p

  11. Wakefield Tolbert Says:

    BR this was fascinating to the point of now keeping us all busy writing (!)—but unfortunately just out of reach of most of my abilities to analyze.

    Like Tantalus, I’ll reach for the grapes anyhow before declaring them sour.
    (or was that not Aesop’s fox??)

    Was not going into this. Except for a couple of notes on some definitional issues here:

    So I had to blog it over.

    http://wakepedia.blogspot.com/2008/03/beastrabban-discusses-dawn-of-life.html

  12. beastrabban Says:

    Happy Easter, Pierre, and thanks for the idea. I’ve actually no idea how many people have tried to start a religion throughout history, though someone did once calculate c. 1986 that there were about 100 people around claiming to be Christ. A lot of these people only had a handful of followers, while others have become quite significant religions.

    Regarding Christ’s claims to be the Messiah, while they were very definitely rooted in scripture, they were very different from the other messianic claimants at the time. He wasn’t a Gnostic preacher, like Simon Magus, nor did He lead a military revolt like that of Bar Kochba. Neither of those claimed to be the literal Son of God, or was credited with rising from the dead. From that standpoint, Jesus is very much unique.

    Thanks for covering this blogpost, Wakefield – I’m really glad you found it worth covering. And you’re right about directed panspermia suffering from the same drawbacks as ID. Mind you, Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe effectively turned directed panspermia into a form of ID. Going through their book, Evolution from Space , you find the same arguments as ID – frontloading, the inability of micromutation to account for macromutation, and the fossile record not matching the genetic changes that supposedly gave rise to changes in creatures’ physiology. Hoyle at one point suggests that Darwinism was maintained in order to stop the pews filling up again. He makes this point despite his militant atheism – he describes Christianity as ‘enchaining the mind’. Hoyle’s and Wickramasinghe’s theory was that sentient machines from elsewhere in the multiverse created life, and controlled its evolution on Earth through a rain of supplementary genetic material from space. I very, very much doubt that many scientists found Hoyle’s arguments convincing, but he and Wickramasinghe have done much to make panspermia intellectually respectable. This is in contrast to ID, which still remains intensely controversial.

  13. airtightnoodle Says:

    Hey Beast. I’d be happy to help in any way I can. I think another good reference for you would be Kenneth Miller’s book, Finding Darwin’s God. Gosh, I refer to his book a lot online, it seems. He should be giving me commissions… 😉

  14. beastrabban Says:

    Thanks for the kind reply, Airtightnoodle. I’ve got a copy of Kenneth Miller’s book, and while I don’t agree with his comments on ID, it certainly is very, very good. Other books you might want to have a look at, which are written from the theo-evolutionist perspective are Creation, Evolution and Meaning , by Robin Attfield (Ashgate, Aldershot 2006); Roger Forster and Paul Marston, Reason, Science and Faith (Monarch, Crowborough 1999), while there are some extremely interesting and relevant essays from the theo-evolutionary perspective from Howard Van Til, Arthur Peacock, Jurgen Moltmann, Elizabeth A. Johnson, John Haught, Sally McFague, Ruth Page and Gordon D. Kaufman in God and Evolution: A Reader , edited by Mary Kathleen Cunningham (London, Routledge 2007). This last is a collection of articles on evolution, including material from the Naturalist perspective from Dawkins and Dennett. I’ve also come across a theology of evolution, God after Darwin , by John Haught, but I’m afraid I haven’t read it so I really can’t comment on its quality.

    I have, however, come across a Postmodern study of the Creationism/ Evolution debate, which, although it came concluded very firmly that evolution was incontrovertibly established, nevertheless praised the Pope’s comments about evolution and remarked on how much better it was than the views of Dawkins.

    It’d be great to have your help in presenting a case for God from the theo-evolutionist perspective, so thanks for the offer.

  15. Wakefield Tolbert Says:

    Hi Airtight! And Greetings. I took a look at your blog and found your arguments fascinating even on those quibbles I have. I am only familiar enough with the terms so won’t be arguing here. But thanks for the valuable information. I AM familiar with Kenneth Miller, a practicing Catholic who takes the tack that when someone asked him about a conflict with his faith and the “meaning of evolution” he indicated no problem at all. The problem here (and I’ve discussed this with Beast as well) is that Miller’s unique position is not widely known or promulgated by most evolutionary thinkers. More likely you’ll run into the Ruse-Dawkins-Sagan-Gould-Wilson-Weinberg advocacy (among entire groups of non-theists) that with evolution there is nothing for God to do—wither God?

    Of course they think they have the answer–in a universe of blood and gore the only God that can reign over evolution is one who is either unconcerned for His organisms or one who is sadistic–or lazy enough to let momma nature take control. So the argument goes….

  16. airtightnoodle Says:

    Thanks for the book recs, Beast. Looks like I certainly have a lot of reading to do!

    Wakefield–thanks for the kind comments. I agree that Miller’s position is not usually promulgated by evolutionary thinkers. There do seem to be a number of very vocal scientists on the atheist side of the fence who enjoy a good evolution debate. I suspect there are probably several scientists who think similar to Miller and Francis Collins but don’t find the debate as fascinating or worthwhile, and therefore are not as vocal on the issue, unfortunately.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: