Wednesday, January 21, 2009

On the Origin of Life

I recently had a discussion on an article published in Science on the Origin of Life. While it is a little unfortunate, some of you, my readers, won't be able to read the original article unless you're signing on from a university campus. Here is the link if you can use it.

The article is very well written and very persuasive. It describes steps that are being taken in artificially creating life. Its tone is positive and hopeful, believing the breakthrough is just around the corner. The argument goes something like this: "Life as we know it is way to hard to have come about on its own. It must have worked its way up from RNA based life. And RNA is really hard to make, so it must have worked its way up from something else (lets call it 'PNA'). So, therefore, we think we're close to being able to assemble RNA. And we know that RNA can replicate itself spontaneously. And once it can do that, badaboom, we've got life." [Author's note: this is heavily satirized; please read the original article if you can].

All satire aside, I think the case for artificial life is drastically overstated.

Since there's no other acceptable theory (i.e. Theogenesis, Panspermia aren't allowed), we can pretty much speculate wildly and no one can say that it's unreasonable. We just have to be more reasonable than your totally unreasonable competition. RNA life seems likely when you compare it to existing life. And since even RNA can't be easily formed, we can entertain theories of PNA. We invent a new life form (RNA-based life), which we have never observed or have any evidence exists and then because they're so implausible, we invent a new biological molecule (PNA) which we've never observed or have any evidence exists. We've come to inventing two orders of new, unobservable things we just need to have faith in. It strikes me as ironic that this is mostly done out of a motivation to eliminate faith.

There is a computer image of what looks like a double helix assembling inside a membrane. On first glance, it's not artsy; I thought it was some sort of model. I read the caption. "Researchers at Harvard are trying to make simple life forms, shown here in a computer image." "Shown here"? You don't show molecular biology in anything but an artist's conception. But the caption and the art style makes it seem like they're showing the actual work.

There's too much bruhaa and not enough science (I'd like to read the papers they refer to). The author makes it seem like a simple 1,2,3 process, but my guess is that each step requires entirely different conditions, materials and special tinkering to make work. If it were simple, it's have been done by somebody (or discovered) sometime in the last two centuries.

That being said, I don't discourage the research in principle (though I think that curing TB might aid humanity more). I'd like to see people try to make life. And I don't doubt we will be successful at creating an artificial cell, and that in the near future. I am very skeptical of our being able to create an artificial cell under anything like natural circumstances.

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