May 25 2009

RNA World

The origins of life on earth remains a daunting scientific challenge. The difficulty is in trying to find evidence to infer what chemical reactions took place billions of years ago. There may ultimately be no way to settle the issue, but that does not mean the question cannot be addressed scientifically.

Of course, the enemies of science (creationists and their ilk) exploit this fact to argue that science cannot understand life origins, and therefore we must invoke supernatural explanations. They often further confuse the question of life origins with evolution – the subsequent change in life over time.

Despite the claims of creationists, there actually is a rigorous scientific discipline exploring questions surrounding the first stirrings of life on earth. Recently researchers took an important, if incremental, step in understanding how non-life became life.

Powner, Gerland, and Sutherland published a paper in which they explore how RNA (ribonucleic acid) could have arisen on the early Earth.

For background, the question that is being addressed is how chemical processes alone could have given rise to a system that could reproduce itself – a system we call life. By purely chemical processes this means we cannot invoke enzymes to catalyze reactions or any process associated even with the simplest cells – just the chemical themselves floating around in the “primordial soup”, or perhaps drying on clay beds or some other plausible early Earth environment.

One of the leading contenders for the first self-replicating molecule is RNA, which still serves as a fundamental basis for the genetics of life. Many viruses, for example, use only RNA. RNA is like a single-strand version of DNA, and even moderns plants and animals still use RNA as part of the genetic cycle – shuffling information from the DNA to the protein factories in the cells, for example.

Once you have a strand of RNA you are a long way toward creating life. You still need the other components of a simple cell – the RNA has to direct proteins to manufacture themselves and other proteins. But that is a subject of other research. This current research focusses just on how you get to RNA itself.

The problem with the RNA hypothesis of life origins is that we don’t know how the chemical reactions necessary to make RNA could happen spontaneously – without the infrastructure of life already in place. From the recent article:

In particular, although there has been some success demonstrating that ‘activated’ ribonucleotides can polymerize to form RNA, it is far fromobvious howsuch ribonucleotides could have formed from their constituent parts (ribose and nucleobases). Ribose is difficult to form selectively, and the addition of nucleobases to ribose is inefficient in the case of purines10 and does not occur at all in the case of the canonical pyrimidines.

In other words, we don’t know how some of the reactions necessary to make RNA could happen. What the researchers set out to do was explore possible chemical pathways that could spontaneously lead to RNA in “prebiotically plausible conditions.” They did not set out to determine what did happen 4 billion years ago on Earth, but what could have happened. Part of the point of this research is to remove the objection from the RNA hypothesis that it is no possible or plausible.

Their results were encouraging. Here is their conclusion:

Our findings suggest that the prebiotic synthesis of activated pyrimidine nucleotides should be viewed as predisposed30. This predisposition would have allowed the synthesis to operate on the early Earth under geochemical conditions suitable for the assembly sequence. Although the issue of temporally separated supplies of glycolaldehyde and glyceraldehyde remains a problem, a number of situations could have arisen that would result in the conditions of heating and progressive dehydration followed by cooling, rehydration and ultraviolet irradiation.

The chemical details are spelled out in the paper, for those who are interested (there is no link to the full paper, as you need a subscription to download it, but I will give the full reference below).

What this all means is that it is plausible that RNA could have arisen in a prebiotic environment  – without the machinery of life already in place.

Researchers are slowly putting the pieces of life origins together – mainly by exploring what plausibly could have happened. The argument from creationists that life arising from non-life is not possible was never credible – it was nothing more than confusing unexplained with unexplainable. They would have thrown up their hands and given up on this question, so that they could just assume a supernatural explanation.

But dogged scientists see unexplained not as an excuse to give up, but as a challenge. While there is still a long way to go, they are making progress in answering one of the toughest scientific questions out there – what chemical reactions led to life on Earth.

Reference:
Matthew W. Powner, Beatrice Gerland & John D. Sutherland; Synthesis of activated pyrimidine ribonucleotides in prebiotically plausible conditions. Vol 459| 14 May 2009| doi:10.1038/nature08013

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90 responses so far

90 Responses to “RNA World”

  1. Davidon 25 May 2009 at 11:34 am

    I was REALY excited when this bit of news came out. I guess I was waiting for it for a long time. Yet I’m still a little confused about why this is not a definitive demonstration of abiogenesis. Is it because the RNA they made can’t synthesize proteins? Is it unable to replicate? If somebody could just explain to me why this is not the cover page of google instead of Ida, I would be thankful.

  2. [...] Even if you’re only a mild science junkie, you’ve probably heard that brave researchers have plumbed the unknown (instead of giving up and saying “goddidit”) and have begun towards an understanding of abiogenesis. A nice explanation of this research is given on Neurologica. [...]

  3. artfulDon 25 May 2009 at 12:05 pm

    Check this related research out as well:
    Fundamental Mechanism For Cell Organization Discovered
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/05/090521141204.htm#

  4. pecon 25 May 2009 at 6:43 pm

    “They would have thrown up their hands and given up on this question, so that they could just assume a supernatural explanation.”

    When did people who believe in god become the ENEMIES OF SCIENCE? That is bizarre. And saying that life can’t be generated by non-life doesn’t mean giving up and not trying to understand; it just means we don’t expect the answer to be mechanistic. If we believe the universe is alive, that doesn’t mean we don’t try to understand it. It is, or was, common for scientists to say they were trying to understand God’s mind.

    “You will hardly find one among the profounder sort of scientific minds without a peculiar religious feeling of his own . . . .His religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection.”

    - Albert Einstein

    If Einstein were around today he would probably be an advocate for Intelligent Design. And of course you would be calling him an ignorant idiot.

  5. artfulDon 25 May 2009 at 7:01 pm

    pec, if you’d like to see that quote discussed in a different context, check this out:
    http://www.eclipse.co.uk/thoughts/einstein.htm

  6. Doctor Evidenceon 25 May 2009 at 7:22 pm

    too bad the Intelligent Designer didn’t see fit to do this:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m2YUARGwfpk
    at 37:00

    that would have settled the matter.

  7. HHCon 25 May 2009 at 7:57 pm

    pec, Memorial Day is not adopt a scientist day. Albert Einstein was a German-born Jewish physicist (1879-1955). He lived during the time period of the formation of American Creationism. This Evangelical Christian movement and Intelligent Design is independent and unrelated to his philosophical statements about the world.

  8. artfulDon 25 May 2009 at 8:10 pm

    HHC, you seem to know as little about Einstein’s philosophies as does pec.

    From the reference I cited earlier:

    Einstein as an agnostic

    “I see only with deep regret that God punishes so many of His children for their numerous stupidities, for which only He Himself can be held responsible; in my opinion, only His nonexistence could excuse Him.”
    Letter to Edgar Meyer, a colleague, January 2, 1915 Source: Robert Schulmann

    “My position concerning God is that of an agnostic. I am convinced that a vivid consciousness of the primary importance of moral principles for the betterment and ennoblement of life does not need the idea of a law-giver, especially a law-giver who works on the basis of reward and punishment.”
    Letter to M. Berkowitz, October 25, 1950; Einstein Archive 59-215

  9. [...] a quieter development in abiogenesis research may have made a giant step toward understanding how life on earth got started. Steve Novella writes: The chemical details are spelled out in the paper, for those who are [...]

  10. HHCon 25 May 2009 at 9:12 pm

    artfulD, Einstein’s heritage was Jewish and he escaped from Nazi Germany. He raised monies in America for the Jewish community. Being an agnostic and having a Jewish heritage does not conflict with conscience.

  11. artfulDon 25 May 2009 at 9:34 pm

    So what’s with the inference he was influenced by American creationism?

  12. HHCon 25 May 2009 at 10:09 pm

    artfulD, There is no inference that he was influenced by American creationism.

  13. artfulDon 25 May 2009 at 10:36 pm

    Ok, that would have conflicted with my conscience.

  14. Doctor Evidenceon 26 May 2009 at 1:05 am

    “One might cynically suppose that it is there not for heuristic and explanatory reasons but as a way to confer legitimacy upon natural theology and teleology.”

    http://www.talkdesign.org/faqs/theftovertoil/theftovertoil.html

  15. eiskrystalon 26 May 2009 at 3:51 am

    Pec, if the idea of an intelligent designer doesn’t end the discussion then why are the scientists doing all the work and the IDers sitting in their comfy-chairs and poo pooing everything they can and saying ‘I can’t understand how this could happen so i’m not going to believe it’

    If there is a god, it will be the scientists who find it. The others will simply have big butts and bruised knees.

  16. SteveAon 26 May 2009 at 7:11 am

    “When did people who believe in god become the ENEMIES OF SCIENCE?”

    A straw man, Pec.

    Dr Steve specifically referred to ‘creationists’:

    “The argument from creationists that life arising from non-life is not possible was never credible – it was nothing more than confusing unexplained with unexplainable. They would have thrown up their hands and given up on this question, so that they could just assume a supernatural explanation.”

    Not all people who believe in a deity are creationists.

    Also, in a previous thread you said that Richard Dawkins had claimed to explain the origins of life in one of his books. I asked for a reference. I’m still waiting…

  17. pecon 26 May 2009 at 9:56 am

    “My position concerning God is that of an agnostic. I am convinced that a vivid consciousness of the primary importance of moral principles for the betterment and ennoblement of life does not need the idea of a law-giver, especially a law-giver who works on the basis of reward and punishment.”

    By “agnostic” he didn’t mean someone who doesn’t know or care if there is a god. He was the kind of agnostic I am — assuming the universe is infinitely intelligent but not presuming to be able to comprehend it. People who think they understand God are claiming to be SMARTER than God, which is absurd. Einstein was smart enough to know the he was human and could not know everything.

    Unlike Dawkins or our all-knowing atheist blog author here.

  18. Karl Withakayon 26 May 2009 at 11:02 am

    “If Einstein were around today he would probably be an advocate for Intelligent Design. And of course you would be calling him an ignorant idiot”

    How convenient for pec that Einstein is not alive today to disappoint her.

    Actually if Einstein were alive today, he’d be fit for a guest spot on Futurama as a brain in a jar, because the rest of him was cremated and scattered.

  19. Steven Novellaon 26 May 2009 at 12:33 pm

    Einstein was pretty clear that he did not believe in a personal god. When he referred to god he was referring to the elegance of the universe.

    The recently unveiled letter by Einstein later is life is also revealing. Einstein wrote: (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/24668015/)

    “the word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish.”

    “For me,” he added, “the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions.”

    That sounds like something Dawkins might have written. In light of what we know about Einstein it is absurd to think that he would have been pro-ID. It is also pointless.

    Despite pec’s persistent straw man assumptions and inability to incorporate any new information into her ideological opinions – I am on record as being an agnostic in the sense that T H Huxley meant the term – the question of god is an inherently unknowable notion.

  20. pecon 26 May 2009 at 12:52 pm

    “Einstein was pretty clear that he did not believe in a personal god.”

    Yes I know that. He believed in God as the infinitely intelligent universe, rather than as a person. It would be silly to think of God as a person anyway, if by “person” we mean a human-like creature. I agree with you completely that the god concept is inherently unknowable. But that does NOT mean we should therefore assume the universe is dead and mindless. That is NOT what Einstein believed. He was not a materialist.

    Anyone who, like Einstein, believes the universe is infinitely intelligent is by definition a believer in Intelligent Design. That’s because all ID says is that the universe is intelligent, and therefore the origin and evolution life would be expected, not an improbably accident. Einstein would have to agree with that.

    Of course we don’t have to believe something just because Einstein believed it — he was a genius in physics, not in philosophy or theology. My point was that it makes no sense at all to think people who believe in god or are in some religious can’t be scientific. It is wrong to think that supernatural beliefs are the enemy of science.

    “Supernatural” doesn’t mean outside of nature, since nothing can be outside of something that is infinite. It refers to intelligence that exists on a higher level than the world we perceive with our senses. It is currently not understood by science, although physicists generally agree that there are higher order dimensions. They just have no idea what those dimensions mean or what they might be like.

    There is an infinite universe of questions ahead of us. You can make up your mind now that it’s a dead and mindless universe. But not all scientists believe that, and I’m sure many would agree with Einstein that nature is infinitely more intelligent than we are.

  21. pecon 26 May 2009 at 12:58 pm

    [Brooke said Einstein believed that "there is some kind of intelligence working its way through nature. But it is certainly not a conventional Christian or Judaic religious view."]

    Well no, I don’t think I ever said Einstein had a conventional Christian or Jewish religious view! I don’t either! It’s real easy to win arguments against literal bible-believers, but that is not what Intelligent Design is about. Einstein’s opinions on religion would fit perfectly with Intelligent Design, and would be completely at odds with Dawkins’ ideas.

  22. HHCon 26 May 2009 at 2:30 pm

    Einstein’s beliefs are most adaptable to the Secular Jewish Humanistic Movement. Intelligent design is not ascribable to this movement today.

  23. artfulDon 26 May 2009 at 3:06 pm

    Einstein’s opinions on religion were the diametric opposite to those of the religionists behind the Intelligent Design movement.

    The essentially metaphorical description of the universe as incomparably intelligent is not anywhere close to a religious opinion that the universe is run by a comparatively ignorant prototypical human, which then created at least one form of life on earth in its image.

  24. pecon 26 May 2009 at 3:17 pm

    “The essentially metaphorical description of the universe as incomparably intelligent is not anywhere close to a religious opinion that the universe is run by a comparatively ignorant prototypical human, which then created at least one form of life on earth in its image.”

    That is NOT what Intelligent Design theory says! It doesn’t say ANYTHING AT ALL about the hypothetical designer, or about any specific religion. It just says it looks like the universe is intelligent and that we would expect life to originate and evolve in an intelligent universe.

    Dawkins says the origin of life was extremely improbable, as you would expect in a non-living, mindless universe.

    Einstein believed in an intelligent universe, which was his conception of god. That is entirely in accordance with Intelligent Design theory, and entirely at odds with Dawkins.

  25. pecon 26 May 2009 at 3:24 pm

    “Einstein’s beliefs are most adaptable to the Secular Jewish Humanistic Movement. Intelligent design is not ascribable to this movement today.”

    Belief in an intelligent universe has nothing to do with Secular Judaism, which says nothing about god or universal intelligence. Secular humanists are likely to be atheists.

    “In view of such harmony in the cosmos which I, with my limited human mind, am able to recognize, there are yet people who say there is no God. But what really makes me angry is that they quote me for the support of such views.”

  26. HHCon 26 May 2009 at 5:21 pm

    In light of the fact that Einstein was offered the first Presidential post of Israel, he would most likely be writing letters like this one if he were alive today:
    H.E. AmbassadorSir John Sawers, KCMG
    Permanent Representative of Great Britain to the United Nations

    Dear Mr. Ambassador:
    I deeply appreciate the commitment to democracy and equality your nation displayed by helping to secure Israel’s invitation to join the UN Western European and Others Group in New York. As you know, Israel remains excluded in other key UN bodies around the world, such as the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Until Israel achieves full participation at the UN, it will sadly remain a second-class citizen.
    We urge Great Britain to persevere in its efforts to grant Israel permanent membership in WEOG, with the full rights enjoyed by every other country at the UN, as promised by the UN Charter’s equality guarantee.

  27. artfulDon 26 May 2009 at 6:06 pm

    He more likely would be asking Israel itself to get the orthodox jews and their extralegal settlements removed from Palestinian enclaves.

  28. artfulDon 26 May 2009 at 7:32 pm

    Pec, if ID is merely being offered as an option, why advocate a version of “science” be taught that nevertheless shows life forms cobbled together by a supreme being limited to trial and error as the creative process?
    Because if the hypothetical designer was really all that supremo, the job should have been done a hell of a lot better.

  29. artfulDon 26 May 2009 at 7:36 pm

    (The above was written in anticipation of pec’s response to a previous comment.)

  30. HHCon 26 May 2009 at 9:32 pm

    artfulD, Its very unlikely what you suggest . Einstein was concerned about the Jewish settlement of Israel. Militarily, he was a scientist who wrote President Roosevelt about the use of atomic warfare during WWII.

  31. artfulDon 27 May 2009 at 12:17 am

    HHC,
    Perhaps I have reason to know who and what Einstein was a bit more than you, having spent some time at Los Alamos as a direct consequence of his ideation. Long before you were born, it would seem.

  32. sonicon 27 May 2009 at 4:30 am

    David-
    I would guess the reason this is not on top of Ida is that Ida includes a pretty picture and can be made to be about people.

    The reason that this is not a demonstration of abiogenesis is that we can be fairly certain that RNA does not come to life. A simple experiment would involve taking an ant and crushing it. The remaining blot contains all the chemistry in a form that the chemists can only dream of producing. We could ask- when will these chemicals come to life?

    What we know from science- what we can say from actual experiment- is that life comes only from life. While this seems to upset people and can certainly be disproved (as any good science can be) it is the experimentally validated answer.

    Some scientists would like to find a different answer. This is an excellent field for research, as it seems the possibilities are nearly limitless, and the underlying hypothesis (life came about in some way we have yet to know) is certainly unfalsifiable.

    Some chemists and scientists who place their philosophy before actual experimental result claim that life ‘must have’ come some other way. But this can not be falsified and has never been demonstated in all the millions of attempts to do so.

    It is easy to make fun of people who trust the actual experimental evidence that is the basis of science and taunt them with undemonstrated, undisprovable theories.

    Continue the research, but be careful not to determine the answer before it is found, and stop claiming that there is a better scientific answer than the one provided by experiment.

  33. daedalus2uon 27 May 2009 at 9:23 am

    No sonic, a scientific explanation has to encompass all relevant reliable data. It is certainly true that “life came about in some way we have yet to know.”

    There has been no experimental observation of “life coming from non-life” (depending on how the terms are defined). However we know that the Earth and Universe have a finite lifetime, and at one time in the past there was no life because the physical environment was incapable of supporting it (for example when the Earth was molten after the formation of the moon).

    If there is life present now, and there was no life at some time in the past, there must have been a transition when “life came from non-life”. That conclusion is not in doubt (barring things like time travel which in the reference frame of the past would appear to be spontaneous generation as the future object poofed into existence in the past and which is itself a violation of the “no life from non-life” heuristic).

    We don’t need to observe the actual appearance of “life from non-life” to know that it must have occurred. The details of how it occurred are unknown. That it did occur is essentially certain.

    There is no experimental evidence of “life coming from non-life”, but it is equally true that there is no experimental evidence that “life cannot come from non-life.” Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Only a few potential chemical reactions and pathways that might lead to precursors which could over geological time lead to still other chemical species that could eventually lead to self-replicating chemical structures which we would recognize as “life” have been looked at.

    It is disingenuous to use a lack of observation of one type of event (lack of observation of life from non-life in the lab) to argue for an event which has also never been observed (God made life from non-life) (I am not saying that is your argument).

  34. pecon 27 May 2009 at 9:38 am

    “What we know from science- what we can say from actual experiment- is that life comes only from life. While this seems to upset people and can certainly be disproved (as any good science can be) it is the experimentally validated answer.”

    “Some scientists would like to find a different answer. This is an excellent field for research, as it seems the possibilities are nearly limitless, and the underlying hypothesis (life came about in some way we have yet to know) is certainly unfalsifiable.”

    Yes the very foundation of contemporary materialism — that life can be generated by non-living matter — can’t be falsified and is without any scientific evidence.

    So why do you all believe in that hypothesis, and why do you have so much contempt for anyone who suggests a different hypothesis?

  35. sethvon 27 May 2009 at 1:18 pm

    “So why do you all believe in that hypothesis, and why do you have so much contempt for anyone who suggests a different hypothesis?”

    Because people who claim that “life can’t come from non-life” are either being disingenuous or don’t understand what they’re saying. Does anybody actually believe that life as we know it here on earth has existed eternally? What you actually mean is something like “life can’t come from non-life without help from a mind”, which implies that you think scientists have exhausted every other possible explanation (or you’re simply asserting it).

  36. artfulDon 27 May 2009 at 1:19 pm

    There is such a thing as logical falsification. “Life comes only from life” doesn’t need to be disproved if it hasn’t been proved to begin with.

  37. pecon 27 May 2009 at 2:38 pm

    “Life can come from non-life” doesn’t need to be disproved if it hasn’t been proved to begin with.

  38. pecon 27 May 2009 at 2:42 pm

    In a living universe, the origin and evolution of life on earth would be expected, normal, natural, predictable — instead of a bizarre series of accidents as claimed by Dawkins.

    And Einstein would have had to agree with the Intelligent Design hypothesis. He saw the universe as infinite Mind, and Mind is alive and conscious.

  39. HHCon 27 May 2009 at 4:15 pm

    pec, Based on your ideas you may like to read up on Kabbalah.
    I’m sure you could carry on a great discussion with Madonna.

  40. artfulDon 27 May 2009 at 5:46 pm

    Saying life CAN come from something is not the same as saying it ONLY does so. The first is an hypothesis, the second likely a fool’s assertion.

    Like pec saying that since Einstein saw the universe as infinite mind (which is not what he said, but what pec wants to read), he saw something alive and conscious. But this comes down to a fool’s assertion that Einstein must have been a fool as well.

  41. pecon 27 May 2009 at 7:19 pm

    “pec, Based on your ideas you may like to read up on Kabbalah.
    I’m sure you could carry on a great discussion with Madonna.”

    So your reasoning is that Kabbalah has been debunked by the fact that Madonna is interested in it?

    There is nothing unusual about my ideas — your idea, that life originated through some haphazard mythical process — is unusual. It is also unproven, unsupported by any evidence whatsoever, and makes no sense. But you love it because it allows you to be an atheist and to look down contemptuously at most of humanity. Including Einstein.

  42. pecon 27 May 2009 at 7:23 pm

    “Saying life CAN come from something is not the same as saying it ONLY does so. The first is an hypothesis, the second likely a fool’s assertion.”

    Is it a fool’s assertion to say that life must have assembled itself by accident out of non-living chemicals? That is the foundation of your philosophy, even though you have no evidence for it. You can always say it will just take a little longer, and no one can prove you wrong. Your beliefs are grounded in faith, not science.

  43. sethvon 27 May 2009 at 8:22 pm

    pec, You haven’t really addressed what daedalus2u said above. At some point in the past there was no life on earth and now there is*. This is a result not a hypothesis. A hypothesis is needed to explain this result.

    Scientists conjecture that since nothing more than non-living chemicals are present in single-celled organisms today, the first such organism could have arisen from the material available in the early earth via natural processes. Many of them are hard at work to find a hypothesis for how this happened.

    You on the other hand simply assert that “life can’t arise from non-life” and that Albert Einstein is spinning in his grave whenever people disagree with his (posthumously formed) opinion that Intelligent Design is correct. And of course your evidence that only a mind could create life from non-living chemicals is that no human mind has yet succeeded in doing so.

    * Certainly science supports this view, since the earth wasn’t present for most of the history of the universe. What I don’t understand is why creationists bring this up when none of them believe that life on earth has existed eternally either.

  44. artfulDon 27 May 2009 at 8:23 pm

    “Must have” can reflect an informed opinion based on a testable process, a large part of which involves eliminating less probable or even possible alternatives. Thus formed, it’s an assertion based on reason rather than foolish hope or desire.

    “Must have” can be faith based as well, reliant on a superstitious preconception that ignores alternatives as a condition of that superstition.

    Universe as infinite mind, alive and conscious, a fool’s errand as its purpose. Yeah, that’ll work.

  45. artfulDon 27 May 2009 at 8:30 pm

    On the other hand, the “at one time there was no life on earth and now there is” assertion can serve the faithful as much or more than it might the faithless.

  46. tmac57on 27 May 2009 at 8:45 pm

    pec- “Is it a fool’s assertion to say that life must have assembled itself by accident out of non-living chemicals?”
    First, I don’t think that all scientists would assert that life “must” have occured in any particular way. Some may, but they are probably exceptions. But as far as current living entities are concerned, the *constituents* of them ARE made of non-living materials as far as anyone has been able to discern . No one has yet found anything that could be described as a “life force” in anything that as a whole would be considered alive. So it does not seem out of the realm of possibility that the earliest life form might have originated by chance through a series of interactions of non-living materials.
    If there were a lottery held with all humans on earth having one chance to win, (about 1 in 6.8 billion) and you won it, that would seem miraculous, but then someone had to. Now ,think of the nearly infinite chemical interaction that have occured in a universe of over 70 sextillion stars, and who knows how many planets, during the last 15 billion years.That’s a hell of a lot of chances for something to happen by ‘mere’ chance.

  47. sethvon 27 May 2009 at 8:57 pm

    “On the other hand, the “at one time there was no life on earth and now there is” assertion can serve the faithful as much or more than it might the faithless.”

    That’s why it boggles my mind that they claim “life can’t come from non-life”, unless they’re leaving something out (which I think is the case) or just coming up with an objection ad hoc.

    Anyway, I don’t think it helps them out all that much since life that is made up of only chemicals is directly observable and known to exist, whereas minds that don’t possess a body yet manage to assemble matter into living things are mere speculation.

  48. artfulDon 27 May 2009 at 9:14 pm

    Actually the forces that make up life are all over the place, such as in molecular structures. These structures are inert only in the sense that they haven’t discovered or been forced to discover a way or necessity to make their own choices. Looked at from that perspective, the odds that what we describe as life could and would have arisen without some creative assistance come close to a certainty.
    Looking at the universe as a whole, it’s my opinion that the odds that life has always been with us somewhere are also to a virtual certainty. That’s subject to logical falsification, of course.

  49. sonicon 28 May 2009 at 3:51 am

    daedalus2u-
    This is the only situation that I know of that it is ‘scientific’ to assume the experimental evidence is false and to accuse anyone who supports the notion that science is done by experiment as ‘unscientific’. Can you name another?

    Have you ever read the ‘delayed choice quantum eraser’?
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delayed_choice_quantum_eraser

    “A variation of this experiment, delayed choice quantum eraser, allows the decision whether to measure or destroy the “which path” information to be delayed until after the entangled particle partner (the one going through the slits) has either interfered with itself or not. Doing so appears to have the bizarre effect of determining the outcome of an event after it has already occurred.”

    (I almost never use wikipedia for such things, but in this case this article isn’t bad.)

    The result of this experiment is so confounding that it seems to go against all logic. Yet we know that it is how the universe actually works. The physicists decided that they would actually go ahead and deal with the experimental evidence- even though it didn’t fit with the logic or philosophy.

    Someday biologists might do the same.
    But it is very difficult to get someone to see the illogic of holding a position when that position is very near to a deeply held philosophical/religious tenet. It is much easier to hold onto a nonfalsifiable theory.

    I think this is a major undertaking in science today. We shall see.

  50. pecon 28 May 2009 at 10:19 am

    I have explained this many times already, but have to keep starting over. The premise of Intelligent Design theory is that the universe is alive and conscious (some call it “god”), and that therefore the origin of life on earth, and elsewhere, is natural and expected. A living universe creates life naturally. This is also the premise in many aspects of alternative science.

    Unlike Dawkins, Einstein did not believe in a dead mechanical universe, and he was not an atheist. He just didn’t presume to understand God. Einstein and Dawkins had/have very different philosophies. If you are a follower of Dawkins then you have a basic disagreement with Einstein’s philosophical views.

    Living things are made out of chemicals, which are made out of molecules, which are made out of atoms, which are made out protons, neutrons, electrons, which are made out of quarks, etc., etc.

    There are many levels of organization. There is absolutely NO reason to insist the chemical level is the highest level of material organization. “New biology” says that there are higher levels of organization than chemistry. I don’t see anything bizarre or unscientific about this view.

  51. daedalus2uon 28 May 2009 at 10:26 am

    sonic, no scientist is assuming experimental evidence is false.

    The experimental evidence is that no life has been observed to be generated in the lab under conditions that have been tested in that lab. The experimental evidence is silent with respect to other conditions not tested in those labs and is silent with respect to time periods which are many orders of magnitude longer in Earth’s past.

    You are wildly extrapolating the existing evidence to make the completely unfounded assertion that life can never occur spontaneously.

    To make an analogy. If I flip a coin 10 times and don’t observe 10 heads in a row, can I conclude that 10 heads in a row can never happen? No, if I flipped the same coin 10 orders of magnitude more times, I should see 10 heads in a row millions of times.

    There are 1024 orders that 10 coin flips can occur in, one of those is 10 heads in a row. In 10^11 flips there are 10^10 sequences of 10 coins. If the coin is “fair”, 1/1024 of them will be 10 heads in a row for a total of (10^10)/1024 = 9.7x 10^6 times.

    We know that only very limited parameter space has been explored in laboratory based abiogenesis experiments. We know that on Earth many orders of magnitude larger volume is available for chemical reactions (10 L in the lab vs. 5 x 10^17 L in the top 1 meter of the Earth’s surface). We know that the time available for reactions in the Earth was at least hundreds of millions of years compared to a few weeks in the lab for another factor of 10^10 or so).

    There are many more degrees of freedom that we don’t even know about related to temperature, chemical composition, sequences of chemical reactions, and so on.

    To say that because less than 0.00000000000000000000000001% of the parameter space has been explored and no positive result has been found that such a result will never be found is nonsense and completely non-scientific.

  52. daedalus2uon 28 May 2009 at 12:26 pm

    sorry, I made a calculation error, there error. In 10^11 flips there are 10^11 -10 different strings of 10 flips for (10^11 – 10)/1024 or 9.7 x 10^7 times.

    pec, could you define the terms in your premise? If all you mean by the universe being “conscious” is that life will arise in it, then the universe being conscious is a tautology because we already know that life has occurred in it.

    If you can’t define what the terms mean, then your statement doesn’t have a meaning.

  53. artfulDon 28 May 2009 at 12:49 pm

    pec is simply saying that everything is alive, and therefor the explanation for any differences between the replicating mechanisms is always that some things are necessarily more alive than others.

    That’s the New Biology in a live nutshell.

  54. daedalus2uon 28 May 2009 at 1:03 pm

    I see, so it simply redefines “life” to make it a term without meaning.

  55. artfulDon 28 May 2009 at 1:23 pm

    For pec, “meaning” is what gives satisfaction to her particular level of curiosity. Which depends on the level of abstraction by which she organizes the questions she needs answered. That’s it in a nutcase.

  56. pecon 28 May 2009 at 1:36 pm

    “pec is simply saying that everything is alive”

    No, I said there are higher levels of organization than chemistry.

  57. tmac57on 28 May 2009 at 2:01 pm

    artfulD- Nicely done! :-)

  58. Doctor Evidenceon 28 May 2009 at 2:21 pm

    Hi Pec,
    I hate to say this, but ID is a hoax contrived partly for legal reasons.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intelligent_design

    Even worse, it is a clear lie. its just creationism wearing
    a lab coat, hoping people uncomfortable with the implications
    of natural selection will become confused with form over
    substance (whoever wears a lab coat is a scientist).
    This fakery will ‘give permission’ to people who want
    to ignore the logical implications of natural selection
    (that it doesn’t always take a watch-maker to make a watch)
    to walk thru a Tunnel of FUD (fear/uncertainty/doubt)
    about natural selection, to the other side, where they
    can then walk thru the door of creationism on their own
    (& that’s why ID doesn’t dare describe the designer
    and they don’t want to. )

    At least straight creationists are honest about their
    beliefs and not pretending to do science,
    and are not lying about their motivations.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FFhMxAsMDvk

    However, your description of ID seems different than
    what (I perceive to be) is currently meant by the
    label; you seem to be espousing a philosophy of an
    ‘intelligent universe’. This seems somewhat mystic;
    fine as a philosophy, but its not clear
    to me how this applies to methodological naturalism
    (science). Its not that such a claim is clearly wrong;
    its that it is not necessary for any scientific description.

    If you would like to add ‘alive and conscious’ as a
    scientific description of the universe, as noted by others,
    you’ll need to do things like define the terms precisely,
    generate a model which makes predictions, describe
    the mechanism by which this consciousness can occur,
    etc. It might be difficult to put this on such a scientific
    footing, since we do not have access to a control universe
    which is already known to not be conscious.

    But if you want to maintain a claim of a conscious universe
    in the philosophical realm, I don’t think people would argue
    about that too much.

    your friend, DE

  59. HHCon 28 May 2009 at 2:40 pm

    pec, As Einstein was raised in the European Jewish tradition, the paraphrased thoughts as expressed in the 404,000 dollar letter could have originated in Kabbalah. However, one should be cautioned if one pursues this avenue. Professor Saul Lieberman from the Jewish Theological Seminary said ” it is forbidden to have a course in nonsense. But the history of nonsense, that is scholarship”.

  60. artfulDon 28 May 2009 at 3:26 pm

    I see. The Jewish Theological Seminary justifies having a nonsensical belief system as an historical necessity, mandated by the collective body of Jewish religious law. And anyone whose Jewish identity has been established (by that law, if not by that person) will have inheritd that belief system through something akin to the epigenetic process – also known as the Jewish mother morphogenesis.

  61. artfulDon 28 May 2009 at 3:45 pm

    But seriously, HHC, you seem to be affirming the efficacy of what some have called Jewish memetics.

    Here’s the “historic” basis of that concept straight from your Secular Jewish Humanism curriculum:
    (http://www.humanist-rites.com/secsurv/SecularSurvival2.htm)

    “Many writers particularly use Judaism as an example for explicating the relationship between religion and memes; these include (Dawkins, 1989, P 194) and (Lynch, 1996). Although other religions and cults are not ignored, the attention to Judaism is hardly surprising. The survival of Judaism — specifically Rabbinic Judaism — is a phenomenon nearly unparalleled in history. As Dawkins notes (Dawkins, 1989; p. 194), “Some memes … do not last long in the meme pool. Popular songs and stiletto heels are examples. Others, such as the Jewish religious laws, may continue to propagate themselves for thousands of years…”

  62. HHCon 28 May 2009 at 10:35 pm

    Judaism is more than a religion, its civilization.

  63. artfulDon 28 May 2009 at 11:43 pm

    A civilization without pluralism. Oxymoronic?

  64. sonicon 29 May 2009 at 4:40 am

    daedalus2u-
    You have explained why the hypothesis is unfalsifiable.
    But any unfalsifiable hypothesis can be defended in like manner-
    “Just because nobody has ever seen a unicorn doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Think of all the times and places where nobody was watching!”

    An interesting idea

    http://discovermagazine.com/2009/may/01-the-biocentric-universe-life-creates-time-space-cosmos

    (I am not advocating this particular version of things, but it is a good example of how the data might be put together in a consistent package.)

  65. daedalus2uon 29 May 2009 at 8:32 am

    sonic, You are completely correct, just because no one has seen a unicorn is no proof that they do not exist.

    Your argument seems to be that because no one has seen life spontaneously occur from non-living components, there must be some other mechanism involved which has also never been observed.

    To me, that is like arguing that because we came across tracks and didn’t see a deer or a wildebeest or a zebra or a donkey make them that they must have been made by a unicorn which we also didn’t see even though we have no evidence that unicorns even exist. We know that chemical reactions exist and we know that there are no chemical reactions unique to life that cannot occur in non-living matter.

    There are finite possible ways that finite data can be put together. The number of different ways the universe could be put together is finite (but not small). I think there is no compelling reason to adopt some method based on human intuition which mostly evolved to deal with interacting with other humans by invoking anthropomorphic metaphors. We know that many instances of human intuition about physical reality are wrong.

  66. sethvon 29 May 2009 at 8:50 am

    sonic: “You have explained why the hypothesis is unfalsifiable.”

    But it is falsifiable in principle. Scientists could create an experiment that assembles all of the materials required for a self replicating organism into the form required for such an organism (and allowing only natural processes and materials that accurately modeled the earth when life first appeared here).

    If scientists ran the experiment and everything assembled properly, but failed to “come alive” then that would positively demonstrate that abiogenesis is false. The alternatives proposed so far don’t have any experiment (even in principle) that could disprove them, which is actually what it means to be unfalsifiable.

  67. tmac57on 29 May 2009 at 9:54 am

    sethv- “Scientists could create an experiment that assembles all of the materials required for a self replicating organism into the form required for such an organism (and allowing only natural processes and materials that accurately modeled the earth when life first appeared here).”
    This experiment is impossible based on your condition of :”that accurately modeled the earth when life first appeared here”.
    There is no way for us to know what those conditions actually were.We can only make an educated approximation.Accuracy is out of reach though.

  68. daedalus2uon 29 May 2009 at 12:28 pm

    tmac57, that we don’t know precisely what those conditions are only increases the degree of difficulty and the number of experiments that need to be done.

    We know the temperature was such that liquid water was present. That constrains the temperature from ~-50 where under high pressure and high salt loading liquid water exists to perhaps 250 C where carbon compounds are insufficiently stable to form self-replicating entities.

    We don’t know exactly what temperature conditions prevailed, but we can (in principle) test each possible one. If we do screening tests at 10 degree intervals and find that compounds that are essential to life can’t form, then we don’t need to test those conditions at a finer scale. If we don’t see positive results we can do 1 degree intervals, 0.1 and so on. We can look at temperature fluctuations; +/- 5 degrees, +/- 10 degrees, +/- 15 degrees. We may not know which conditions prevailed on early Earth, but if we test each possible one we know we have tested each one that did.

    To falsify the hypothesis all we need to do is find conditions where life does happen. There are only a finite number of possible configurations to test, once all of those possible configurations are tested the hypothesis is falsified if life is observed. The number of conditions to be tested is impractical and can’t be done except in many millions of years, but it is in principle doable (i.e. not “impossible”).

    Waiting for and expecting supernatural intervention is not something that can even in principle be under the experimenters’ control. Mundane parameters such as temperature, composition, time and energy inputs are easily controlled for, all it takes is funding and laboratory space.

  69. pecon 29 May 2009 at 2:43 pm

    “our description of ID seems different than
    what (I perceive to be) is currently meant by the
    label; you seem to be espousing a philosophy of an
    ‘intelligent universe’. This seems somewhat mystic;
    fine as a philosophy, but its not clear
    to me how this applies to methodological naturalism
    (science). ”

    ID has been over-simplified for the public, so that it appears similar to old-fashioned biblical creationism. It is actually sophisticated and scientific, if also somewhat philosophical. The question of whether the universe is dead or alive is relevant to science. The current trend in science is to assume the universe is non-living, mindless.

    People like Dawkins insist that a non-living universe can generate life, which evolves because of natural selection. He has no evidence for that view, but his arguments are convincing to many people.

    That’s because there IS evidence for natural selection, and we know from artificial selection that it can create changes in species.

    We do NOT know, however, that natural selection is responsible for the evolution of new species from older species. And we do NOT have a plausible explanation for the origin of life by random mechanistic processes.

    Science does not have to be materialist, but it has tended to become materialist in recent decades. Students are taught that the origin and evolution of life have been explained, or will be soon.

    Atheism and materialism are promoted in many science classes, even though they are philosophies not based on any scientific evidence.

    Ideas from alternative medicine that depend on a theory of life energy are scorned because life energy cannot possibly exist in a mechanistic, non-living universe.

    So promising avenues of research are blocked and minds are closed.

  70. tmac57on 29 May 2009 at 5:14 pm

    daedalus2u- Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think life came about supernaturally, but given the scenario that you described above, what if after all the ‘finite combinations’ have been tried, and did not result in life forming (assuming no errors were made), then would you then conclude that life could not have occured on earth through abiogenesis, or would you consider that maybe some other unknown factor was in play. It seems to me that the later possibility has to be considered, and at that point you would be at an impasse because as I said before I don’t think even in principle you could ever be sure what those conditions were. You might be extremely confident but certainty seems just beyond science’s grasp.

  71. artfulDon 29 May 2009 at 6:00 pm

    pec, what is the source of the life energy that you so persistently champion? What are the expectations that source has when it generates that energy? What does the source anticipate as a result?
    What does that source perhaps fear as an unexpected or inadvertent result? What danger, if any, has that force been designed to deter?

    In sum, what are the source’s purposes and goals that this life force best serves? How have they been fulfilled in ways that have caused or allowed that force and/or its source to have evolved?

    In short how does one hypothesize a life force as an operative entity without any attention to whatever “life”has empowered it? And if that force is a life unto itself, the same considerations of its purposes should be requisite for it’s conception.

  72. sethvon 29 May 2009 at 6:36 pm

    tmac57, I should have qualified “accurately modeled”. There’s no need for me to expand on that much since daedalus2u already did. With a better definition of “accurate” my argument still stands, that it’s possible in principle to find out that assembling the right material in the right configuration is inadequate for producing life.

    daedalus2u further points that even if no such experiment could be performed, it would still be possible to enumerate the possible configurations and determine that none of them were sufficient to produce life.

    Then of course if there IS a designer it could show itself and prove that it was responsible for life. That would also falsify abiogenesis.

    Now you’re asking what would happen after that if the hypothesis were falsified. At this stage, that seems like a very big “if” to me. But even if that happened, it wouldn’t turn the alternatives into scientific theories. Rather than allowing oneself to speculate at that point it might be better just to say “we don’t know”.

  73. tmac57on 29 May 2009 at 10:38 pm

    sethv- What I was disagreeing with was your statement :
    “If scientists ran the experiment and everything assembled properly, but failed to “come alive” then that would positively demonstrate that abiogenesis is false.”
    I do not believe that is possible even in principle to be SURE that every variable could have been accounted for IF the experiments fail. No matter how through the researchers think they have been, without being able to actually go back in time and see what actually happened,and what the conditions were at the time, you could never have enough certainty to say abiogenesis is impossible. Now, if some OTHER cause for the origin of life was discovered outside of the experiment testing abiogenesis, then that would be a different story.

  74. daedalus2uon 30 May 2009 at 7:55 am

    tmac57, there are only a finite number of possibilities. The Earth is finite and life occurred in a finite amount of time. In principle every possible configuration could be tested for a finite period. We don’t have the technology to do so, but in principle it could be done.

    200 years ago they didn’t have the technology to go to the moon. Were questions about the composition of the moon non-scientific because there was no technique to address them? No, in principle one could travel to the moon, take samples and do analysis, even though there was no technology to do so.

    Running planet-sized experiments millions of times over millions of years will likely never be feasible. But it still takes only finite resources to do so.

    Questions are not even wrong when they are impossible to falsify. There is plenty of science done in areas where experiments can’t be done. Einstein’s thought experiments for example and experiments in black hole physics. Doing experiments like some of the thought experiments that have been done on black holes is much farther beyond our technology than is doing abiogenesis experiments.

  75. tmac57on 30 May 2009 at 9:26 am

    d2u- This will be my last go at this question, since I suspect that we are just arguing past each other. Where I think your view about falsification of abiogenesis in this case is going off track is trying to see it as ONE big experiment. Clearly ,each set of parameters tested will be a discrete experiment that CAN be falsified. If the 1st experiment fails (hypothesis of abiogenesis thru that specific modality is falsified),then the next set is tested,and so on. Each experiment is valid science because of the possibility of falsification.
    Now, where we differ, is on the idea that scientists, having reached a point where they THINK that they have tried all possible combinations and permutations of variables,are not able to demonstrate abiogenesis, then you say it is now falsified. I say that it is still perfectly rational to assume that there is still a possibility that there is an unknown factor to consider. Your view makes the assumption that there is some way to know when you are in possession of ALL relevant information. My view is that you don’t know what you don’t know.
    I have enjoyed the debate , but I think we will have to just agree to disagree on this question for now.

  76. sethvon 30 May 2009 at 10:37 am

    tmac57, What I tried to describe is an experiment that would fail if abiogenesis could not occur (because something more than matter was required). Let’s say the end result of the experiment was a cell that is atom-for-atom identical to a known living sample. If the newly produced cell simply failed to work in spite of that fact, then that would be very powerful evidence that something more was required (the atom-for-atom requirement was just to get my point across, I don’t think that that would actually be plausible or necessary).

    If that sounds contrived, I think it’s because most of us accept that if all the material ingredients are put together in the right way that life will result. In other words we do not think abiogenesis will be falsified, which is completely different from saying that it can’t be falsified in principle.

    It sounds like maybe your main disagreement was with the enumeration method. But even if my experiment failed, it wouldn’t tell us anything about what the something more is that life requires. At that time, people would be able to legitimately say that there’s something more to life than matter but we don’t know what. I think people who make that claim at our current stage of science have something specific in mind, though.

  77. daedalus2uon 30 May 2009 at 2:25 pm

    I think we have been arguing past each other. You can do experiments that bracket the condtions which you don’t know about, this increases the number of experiments by a lot. Ultimately no matter how many experiments you do, you can’t falsify the abiogenesis is possible hypothesis.

  78. artfulDon 30 May 2009 at 2:44 pm

    Life is a choice making mechanism. The “something else” that would be required for abiogenesis would be a reason or need for your set of materials to make that initial choice, a choice that was not already “part of the program.”
    We can easily devise experiments where a combination of molecules will have a predictable reaction. Metaphorically speaking, they have fixed and limited sets of options. To make a set of materials spring into an action that can be called life, you need to add an option that has never been part of some natural combination before (or at least in that particular time and place).
    You have to offer a need that your selected set of materials will not have had without something akin to your assistance. You will have to give that emergent organism a reason to act on its own, or, in effect, a purpose.

  79. sethvon 30 May 2009 at 3:03 pm

    tmac57, After re-reading your comments I think we’re actually in agreement. I also don’t think that “life can come from non-life” is falsifiable because I think that it is a result (arbitrary redefinitions of “life” aside) not a hypothesis, but I do think “life can come from non-life only through mechanisms described by physics and chemistry” is falsifiable in principle. If you want to call abiogenesis is possible a hypothesis, then I agree that it’s unfalsifiable.

    artfulD, I have no idea what you’re talking about.

  80. artfulDon 30 May 2009 at 3:31 pm

    What I’m talking about is that you have offered no philosophical basis for the hypothesis that your experiment was to be designed to test or falsify. Why should life arise in any situation that has provided no reason for it to do so?

    Put another way, why should your proposed mechanism add a calculative function to its makeup when you have provided no initial problem that requires that function to evolve?

    You have to have some concept of how life differs from non-life before you try to “flesh” out that concept experimentally.

    So of course you have no idea what I’m talking about, as you seem to have no concept of life’s function as a choice making entity.

  81. HHCon 30 May 2009 at 5:10 pm

    Einstein’s thought experiments involving earth elevators and space elevators, lend themselves to interesting theory, but really, it’s difficult to discuss this realistically. A human would be doing back flips in an accelerating space elevator; the same person be getting very warm in a closed earth elevator and would experience boredom.

  82. HHCon 30 May 2009 at 5:21 pm

    Actually, the human in the space elevator would be cold and doing back flips. The same person on earth in an elevator would be warm and still, unless the person began fidgeting.

  83. artfulDon 30 May 2009 at 5:39 pm

    Some elevators don’t go all the way to the top.

  84. HHCon 30 May 2009 at 5:52 pm

    Mini black holes perhaps the size of a sand particle have event horizons from which you cannot drop an infinitely small particle and it would not have a boomerang effect. These thought experiments you can’t speed through.

  85. HHCon 30 May 2009 at 6:01 pm

    Actually, I can’t envision the same commentators at the Los Alamos Museum handling these concepts. Last time I checked, they were still arguing about whether the U.S. flag on display was tattered due to desert winds or atomic blasts.

  86. artfulDon 30 May 2009 at 6:01 pm

    Beware the quantum speed trap?

  87. sethvon 31 May 2009 at 8:08 am

    artfulD, I don’t think bacteria chooses to exist any more than water chooses to flow downhill, or any more than any of us chose to be born. And yes, if you want to say that bacteria is not alive I haven’t provided a philosophical basis for saying otherwise. That just seems arbitrary to me.

    And the way to determine that the result of my experiment was not alive would be by measuring something (i.e. it doesn’t reproduce when you put it in a petri dish). If the criteria was somebody’s strong feeling that there was more to life than predictable chemical reactions, that wouldn’t be worth much.

  88. artfulDon 31 May 2009 at 1:07 pm

    Bacteria doesn’t choose to exist, it exists to choose. I’m not referring to how you might detect a sign of life from your experiment, I’m talking about fashioning the experiment so that the results have a reason to act on their own rather than simply react.
    You of course will look for a chemical reaction, but you will want to produce one that reacts to stimuli through it’s own choice making apparatus. If you don’t plan for that to happen – planning being integral to any hypothesis – then you are in effect hoping for some sort of happy accident to bring your mixture of goo to life.
    Or perhaps your plan is to zap it with some motivating force, hoping somehow that force will engrain itself in the goo. Which is of course what some scientists have already attempted with electrical charges, etc. Making no more than a goo battery that seemed alive until it needed recharging.
    And that’s gets to my point here – that you have to contemplate an experiment that zaps the goo in such a way that it recharges itself when the initial zap of energy runs out. Goo that not only needs to recharge but chooses to recharge. Then you have to have some source of energy avalable that it can choose to find on it’s own without you choosing to do the recharging for it.

    As has been said before, life forms are molecular structures that have acquired the capacity to seek out and compete for energy.

    Your experiment has to contemplate a way to give your goo that capacity. The difficulty in designing such an experiment is of course enormous.

    And we haven’t even begin to consider the goo’s potential for learning from experience, discovering and acting on the need to replicate in some fashion, etc., etc.

  89. artfulDon 31 May 2009 at 7:07 pm

    Part of the confusion here might be the result of this statement in the initial post: ‘What the researchers set out to do was explore possible chemical pathways that could spontaneously lead to RNA in “prebiotically plausible conditions.” ‘

    I think the use of the word “spontaneously” misrepresents the expectations involved in this particular effort. They are clearly looking for ways that an assembly of materials will be predisposed to make a step toward a self-replication process and they don’t expect this to be spontaneous.
    In their conclusion they refer to conditions which may have facilitated such predisposition, stating: “- a number of situations could have arisen that would result in the conditions of heating and progressive dehydration followed by cooling, rehydration and ultraviolet irradiation.” This being an example of the motivating forces they understood would be needed beyond the assemblage of the right materials in the correct sequence and stages.

  90. Dave S.on 03 Jun 2009 at 9:29 pm

    “ID has been over-simplified for the public, so that it appears similar to old-fashioned biblical creationism.”

    That’s only because it is. The writings of the leading ID advocates make that clear again and again. See the Dover transcripts for many examples. The notions they use are all straight out of the Creationist playbook. They just try to hide the overtly religious bits, with rather poor overall results.

    “It is actually sophisticated and scientific, if also somewhat philosophical.”

    It’s not terribly sophisticated, and it certainly isn’t scientific, unless you re-define what you mean by scientific.

    “The question of whether the universe is dead or alive is relevant to science. The current trend in science is to assume the universe is non-living, mindless.”

    We already know parts of the universe are alive. Does the universe itself reproduce.

    “People like Dawkins insist that a non-living universe can generate life, which evolves because of natural selection. He has no evidence for that view, but his arguments are convincing to many people.”

    Sure he has. He has this universe.

    “And we do NOT have a plausible explanation for the origin of life by random mechanistic processes.”

    And do we have a plausible explanation by non-mechanistic processes?

    “Science does not have to be materialist, but it has tended to become materialist in recent decades.”

    It has to be if you actually want results. And it has been this way for a few centuries, not decades. Before that it was non-materialistic, but resultwise, we didn’t learn so much.

    “Atheism and materialism are promoted in many science classes, even though they are philosophies not based on any scientific evidence.”

    Every science class. Clearly the atomic theory of matter is atheistic and materialistic.

    “Ideas from alternative medicine that depend on a theory of life energy are scorned because life energy cannot possibly exist in a mechanistic, non-living universe.”

    No, they are scorned because their proponents are unable to provide any evidence that they actually work. Personal testimonials are the main ‘evidence’, but that’s a pretty thin gruel.

    “So promising avenues of research are blocked and minds are closed.”

    By all means let you and others like minded show us the results from using this amazing non-materialistic science. Publish in your own journals. Or do we just have to believe.

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