A Romp Into Theories of the Cradle of Life

As a non-scientist who appreciates how science works let's take a look through this recent New York Times article summarizing the proceedings of a gathering of two dozen chemists, geologists, biologists, planetary scientists and physicists who pondered "where and what Eden might have been." Here's the article.

Theologians basically believe an ancient pre-scientific set of canonized texts written by superstitious agency detectors. That's simply not good enough. They believe because they were raised in a Christian culture by Christian parents, for the most part, and that's it. Then they seek data that confirms what they want to believe. When the data isn't there they claim that what they believe is compatible with everything else that they believe, and will basically demand that the skeptic prove their belief is impossible. If the skeptic cannot prove their belief is impossible, they can go on their merry delusional way. But who in their right mind won't see something as improbable until we can show it as impossible? Such a baffling thought. But that's belief for you.

A Romp Into Theories of the Cradle of Life

TEMPE, Ariz. — We’re not in the Garden of Eden anymore.

Darwin speculated that life began in a warm pond on the primordial Earth. Lately other scientists have suggested that the magic joining of molecules that could go on replicating might have happened in an undersea hot spring, on another planet or inside an asteroid. Some astronomers wonder if it could be happening right now underneath the ice of Europa or in the methane seas of Titan.
This is how science works. First construct a hypothesis, then test it. Use what we've learned to construct another one, and so on, through conjectures and guesses.
Two dozen chemists, geologists, biologists, planetary scientists and physicists gathered here recently to ponder where and what Eden might have been. Over a long weekend they plastered the screen in their conference room with intricate chemical diagrams through which electrons bounced in a series of interactions like marbles rattling up and down and over bridges through one of those child’s toys, transferring energy, taking care of the business of nascent life. The names of elements and molecules tripped off chemists’ tongues as if they were the eccentric relatives who show up at Thanksgiving every year.
Again, this is science. It's a puzzle. This is how they work puzzles.
They charted the fall of meteorites and the rise of oxygen on the early Earth and evidence in old rocks that life was here as long as 3.5 billion years ago. The planet is only a billion years older, but estimates vary on when it became habitable.
Again, this is science.
In front of a 2,400-member audience one night they debated the definition of life — “anything highly statistically improbable, but in a particular direction,” in the words of Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist at Oxford. Or, they wondered if it could be defined at all in the absence of a second example to the Earth’s biosphere — a web of interdependence all based on DNA.

Hence the quest for extraterrestrial examples is more than a sentimental use of NASA’s dollars. “Let’s go look for it,” said Chris McKay, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Laboratory in Mountain View, Calif., who is involved with the Mars Science Laboratory, which will be launched in November.
Again this is how science proceeds. Throw out some definitions and test things.
The rapid appearance of complex life in some accounts — “like Athena springing from the head of Zeus,” in the words of Dr. McKay — has rekindled interest recently in a theory fancied by Francis Crick, one of the discoverers of the double helix, that life originated elsewhere and floated here through space. These days the favorite candidate for such an extraterrestrial cradle is Mars, which was once a water world. Perhaps, some think, its microbes hitched a ride to Earth on asteroids — unless, of course, the microbes went the other way and what’s to be found on Mars are the dead remains of long-lost cousins of Earth.
If this hypothesis isn't confirmed science tests a different one based on the results of the previous one.
“We’ve crashed more space probes on Mars than anywhere else — it’s that interesting,” Dr. McKay said.
Testing hypotheses. That's science.
The conference was sponsored by the Origins Project at Arizona State University in an effort to get people together who don’t normally talk to each other, said Lawrence Krauss, a physicist who helped organize the meeting.
We need more science funding and less from the Templeton Grant fund. What has Templeton given us compared to real science? Nothing useful.
Talk is indeed hard across disciplines and geological ages. John Sutherland, a biochemist at Cambridge University in England, said geologists and astronomers were more interested in talking and speculating about the origin of life than chemists were, even though it is basically a problem of “nitty-gritty chemistry.”
Sometimes money talks. Chemists might have other things to do with their time that make them money. That's why we need more science funding.
The reason, he explained, is that “chemists know how hard it is.”
Christians will see it as hard and say "God did it." But if that's what they do science would never have discovered the heliocentric view of the universe or a vaccine for Tuberculosis, or that water pollution in modern cities kills people. There is a great book called The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson that shows how a scientist discovered why people were dying in London, England.
The modern version of the Garden of Eden goes by the name of RNA world, after the molecule ribonucleic acid, which plays Robin to DNA’s Batman today, but is now thought have preceded it on the biological scene. RNA is more versatile, being able not only to store information, like DNA, but also to use that information to catalyze reactions, a job now performed by proteins. That solved a sort of chicken-and-egg problem about which ability came first into the world. The answer is that RNA could be both.
One must run a lot of hypotheses past the testing mill. The harder the problem the more time consuming it is. But if science cannot solve this a god explanation won't either.
“If you want to think of it that way, life is a very simple process,” said Sidney Altman, who shared a Nobel Prize in 1989 for showing that RNA had these dual abilities. “It uses energy, it sustains itself and it replicates.”
Sounds good! Let's hope this is the hypothesis that proves correct upon testing. If not, science learns when conjectures like this are falsified by the results and it move on to the next hypothesis.
One lesson of the meeting was how finicky are the chemical reactions needed for carrying out these simple-sounding functions. “There might be a reason why amino acids and nucleotides are the way they are,” Dr. Krauss said. What looks complicated to us might not look so complicated to a piece of a carbon molecule awaiting integration into life’s dance. “Complexity is in the eye of the beholder,” said Dr. Sutherland, who after 10 years of trying different recipes succeeded in synthesizing one of the four nucleotides that make up RNA in a jar in his lab.
Here is some information that was derived from continual testing in the lab. That's science!
With the right mixture and conditions, complicated-looking molecules can assemble themselves without help. “When everything is in the pot,” he said, “the chemistry to make RNA is easier.”

Dr. Sutherland’s results were hailed as a triumph for the RNA world idea, but there is much work to be done, said Steve Benner, who constructs artificial DNA at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution, in Florida. Nobody knows whether Dr. Sutherland’s recipe would work on the early Earth, he said. Moreover, even if RNA did appear naturally, the odds that it would happen in the right sequence to drive Darwinian evolution seem small.
So on they go for more testing and conjectures.
“Other than that,” Dr. Benner said, “the RNA world is a great idea for origin of life.”
So let's see what a different scientist can come up with. Sometimes this means changing what they previously know about the early earth, other times scientists might have to start over. Or, they could look to this taking place elsewhere in the universe and see how a meteor might crash and do the trick.
Some others, including astronomers and geologists, have another view of biological inevitability. Life is a natural consequence of geology, said Everett Shock, a geophysicist at Arizona State. “Most of what life is doing is using chemical energy,” Dr. Shock said, and that energy is available in places like undersea volcanic vents where life, he calculated, acts as a catalyst to dissipate heat from the Earth. In what he called “a sweet deal,” life releases energy rather than consuming it, making it easy from a thermodynamic standpoint. “Biosynthesis is profitable — it has to be; they live there,” said Dr. Shock, referring to microbes in undersea vents.
See how complicated this is? Different scientists in different areas of expertise must all come together to figure out the best we can say about the origin of life.
Some scientists say we won’t really understand life until we can make it ourselves.On the last day of the conference, J. Craig Venter, the genome decoding entrepreneur and president of the J. Craig Venter Institute, described his adventures trying to create an organism with a computer for a parent.Using mail-order snippets of DNA, Dr. Venter and his colleagues stitched together the million-letter genetic code of a bacterium of a goat parasite last year and inserted it into another bacterium’s cell, where it took over, churning out blue-stained copies of itself. Dr. Venter advertised his genome as the wave of future migration to the stars. Send a kit of chemicals and a digitized genome across space. “We’ll create panspermia if it didn’t already exist,” he said.
Another avenue of scientific research! This is how science is done, and it's hard labor intensive stuff that isn't properly funded.
The new genome included what Dr. Venter called a watermark. Along with the names of the researchers were three quotations, from the author James Joyce; Robert Oppenheimer, who directed the building of the atomic bomb; and the Caltech physicist Richard Feynman: “What I cannot build, I do not understand.”
Probably not strictly true but why not attempt to do it anyway?
When the news came out, last year, Dr. Venter said, the James Joyce estate called up and threatened to sue, claiming that Joyce’s copyright had been violated. To date there has been no lawsuit. Then Caltech called up and complained that Dr. Venter’s genome was misquoting Feynman. The institute sent a photograph of an old blackboard on which Feynman had written, “What I cannot create, I do not understand.”
Lawyers!? Damn them. Piranhas all. ;-)


Skeptic magazine has a lead article on The Origin of Life.

Richard Carrier writes on the origin of life as can read here.