Comparing 50 Years

When it comes to the topic of abiogenesis, I am neither a denier nor a cheerleader.  That is, I don’t deny the earth spawned life and argue it is so improbable that it did not occur. I don’t think we know enough to make such negative claims.  But neither do I buy into the notion that abiogenesis research has been making great progress over the years and solutions are right around the corner.  I’ve heard that unfulfilled promise for too long now not be to be jaded.  Personally, I think scientists are about as baffled about the origin as life as they were in 1953.  What does this all mean?  I don’t know.

Nevertheless, periodically you will come across cheerleaders who will hold up this study or that study as something that is supposed to be ground-breaking or as something that demonstrates the progress that is being made.  My response is not to criticize, but to withhold judgment and wait to see if anything comes out of this study or that study.  So I’ve been doing a lot of waiting.  Anyway, if you don’t have the expertise to judge such claims, simply step back and survey the big picture.  Go back to 1953 and again contrast a known field of scientific success (akin to using a positive control) with abiogenesis research over the years.

Since both dramatic findings were laid in the lap of the scientific community at the same time, it would be instructive to compare their respective track records of success.

An easy way to compare them is to take advantage of the fact that 2003 was the 50th anniversary of both papers, as human beings love to celebrate milestones.

An internet search with ‘Francis Crick 50th’ retrieved dozens of sites celebrating the 50th anniversary of Watson and Crick’s paper [1].  Various universities, science organizations, and museums had web pages to educate the public about the importance of this scientific discovery.  Even the New York Times [2], Time magazine [3] and Nature [4] itself got in on the party, where Time accurately noted this discovery “transformed science, medicine and much of modern life.”   In fact, in January 2003 the British Royal Mint issued a £2 coin depicting the double helix to commemorate Watson and Crick’s discovery [5].

If Watson and Crick’s paper was celebrated with the equivalent of Fourth of July parades and fireworks, the 50th anniversary of Stanley Miller’s paper was received more like National Ice Cream Day [6] – hardly anyone noticed, except a few with a vested interest. A couple of quiet lectures were given, but no flashy web pages from leading scientific organizations or universities and no mass media celebration.  The journal Science did publish a three-page essay written by Jeffrey Bada and Antonio Lazcano celebrating Miller’s paper [7], but the bulk of their short paper simply recounts how Miller got his paper published rather than document a track record of scientific success spawned by the paper.

The reason for the relative silence is simple – there is no substantive track record of success to write about or celebrate.  For example, the March 3, 1998 issue of Trends in Ecology and Evolution contained a report on a NASA-sponsored workshop called “Evolution: A Molecular Point of View.”  Many of the big names in origins research were present and a lot of interesting points of view were discussed.  What should interest us is that the author of the article noted:

Sherwood Chang opened the program with the cautious reminder that any canonical scenario for the stepwise progression toward the origin of life is still a ‘convenient fiction.’  That is, we have almost no data to support the historical transitions from chemical evolution to prebiotic monomers, polymers, replicating enzymes, and finally cells. [8]

In 1999, physicist Paul Davies published his book, The Fifth Miracle, where he explored the origin of life. He observed:

Many investigators feel uneasy stating in public that the origin of life is a mystery, even though behind closed doors they admit they are baffled. There seem to be two reasons for their unease.  First, they feel it opens the door to religious fundamentalists and their god-of-the-gaps pseudo-explanations.  Second, they worry that a frank admission of ignorance will undermine funding, especially for the search for life in space. [9]

In 2002, scientists from the European Space Agency commented:

Speculations and experiments concerning the origin of life have led to no clear conclusions, despite a hundred years of effort by eminent scientists. How self-sustaining assemblies of nucleic acids, proteins and fats came into existence remains as inexplicable as ever. Space research may break through a log-jam of ideas by identifying the likely chemical precursors that flavoured the primeval soup. [10]

About the same time, Robert Roy Britt, the senior science writer for Space.com, reported the same assessment from other scientists:

“Nobody understands the origin of life,” said Ken Nealson, a geobiologist at the University of Southern California. “If they say they do, they are probably trying to fool you.”  Nealson and the other scientists converged at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore to discuss the fledgling field of astrobiology. They argued a little about how to conduct the search and whether life might be rare or common in the universe. However, they agreed on several things: They don’t know how life might commence elsewhere, or whether it ever has, or what it might thrive on.  [11]

While Miller’s work has inspired many experiments that attempt to address some aspect of abiogenesis and how it could have happened, the success of such science comes no where near the level of progress that was inspired by Watson and Crick’s discovery.

Everyone should be able to agree on that point.

1.         As just some examples, consider the following pages accessed on 1/15/2005: Double Helix at 50 (http://scilib.ucsd.edu/bml/dna.htm); Celebrating 50 Years of DNA (http://www.dna50.org/); Exhibit: The Genomic Revolution (http://www.amnh.org /exhibitions/genomics_0home/index.html ); DNA: The Code of Life (http://library.thinkquest.org/20465/DNAstruct.html).

2.         A Revolution at 50 (http://www.nytimes.com/indexes/2003/02/25/health/genetics/)

3.         Time Celebrates 50th Anniversary of Discovery of DNA (http://www.time.com/time/press_releases/article/0,8599,420985,00.html)

4.         Double Helix: 50 Years of DNA (http://www.nature.com/nature/dna50/)

5.         Double Helix Coin. 2003. Science 300: 577.

6.         National Ice Cream Day was established by Ronald Reagan and is to be celebrated every third Sunday in July. See: http://www.idfa.org/facts/icmonth/page1.cfm

7.         Bada, J and Lazcano, A. 2003. Prebiotic Soup—Revisiting the Miller Experiment Science 300:745-726.

8.         March 3, 1998 issue of Trends in Ecology and Evolution

9.         Davies, P. 1999. The Fifth Miracle: The Search for the Origin and Meaning of Life. Simon & Schuster; New York.

10.       European Space Agency, 11 Sep 2002; http://sci.esa.int/content/doc/a1/1953_-01.htm; last accessed 5/11/03.  The report is also commented on Brig Klyce’s interesting web page, Cosmic Ancestry: http://www.panspermia.org/whatsne29.htm

11.       Brit, RR. 2002. The Search for the Scum of the Universe http://www.alaska-channel.com/blog/news/ShowArticle.asp?Id=9&num=192&nav=d

Advertisements

2 responses to “Comparing 50 Years

  1. I’m afraid I’m a denier of abiogenesis, at least abiogenesis of life as we know it. There may be simpler kinds of life, that do not require an interdependent relationship of, and a large variety of, complex molecules that do not occur naturally, as life as we know it does.

    For our kind of life, my emotional reaction to the idea of abiogenesis is one of profound incredulousness. Someone may as well tell me that pocket watches could come about without intelligent design.

    I realize that my emotional reaction is not necessarily rational. But it seems rational to me at this time.

  2. I have mixed feelings about abiogenesis. I definitely have trouble swallowing the notion that it was sheer dumb luck. If there is a designer then I have much less trouble with it.

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 )

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s