Food for thought #3

[Several stories of how life could have developed from non-life saw the light of day in the early search for the origin of life. Added as explanation of what follows here–MG] Darwin contributed to this tradition of imaginative origin-of-life storytelling in an 1871 letter to Joseph Hooker:
It is often said that all the conditions for the first production of a living organism are now present, which could ever have been present.— But if (& oh what a big if) we could conceive in some warm little pond with all sorts of ammonia & phosphoric salts,—light, heat, electricity &c present, that a protein compound was chemically formed, ready to undergo still more complex changes, at the present day such matter would be instantly devoured, or absorbed, which would not have been the case before living creatures were formed.5
Met by such imaginative yarn-spinning it is surely reasonable to ask, what does experimental science actually tell us about the origin of life, fanciful storytelling aside? Part of the answer is that, for a time, experimental science seemed to offer tentative support for the idea that life could emerge spontaneously from very humble source material. The ancient Chinese found evidence that aphids could spontaneously generate from bamboo. Documents from ancient India reference the spontaneous generation of flies from dirt. And the Babylonians concluded that canal mud could generate worms. No less a thinker than Aristotle concurred, seeing no reason to doubt these ancient testimonials.
Later, in the Renaissance, the Flemish chemist and physician Jan van Helmont wrote instructions about how to get mice to emerge from pots containing moist seeds and dirty rags.6
But how all this could be remained a mystery. The discovery of Micro-organisms began to cast doubt on the idea that life regularly and easily sprang from non-life. And eventually the French Academy promised a reward to the one who could solve the puzzle. Louis Pasteur got the prize after showing with an ingenious experiment that living organisms—and specifically in his case, microorganisms—do not form spontaneously. Experiments in the decades that followed confirmed his findings. It was soon conventional wisdom: In the normal course of things, only life begets life.7
The hope of finding experimental evidence for the spontaneous formation of life has, however, not been abandoned. It was now clear that life from non-life is not part of the usual course of things, but perhaps it did belong to the realm of the unusual and long ago, and perhaps this possibility could be demonstrated in the lab. The biochemist Alexander Oparin’s 1924 Russian-language work The Origin of Life offered a partially testable hypothesis for how this might have happened. And John Haldane, apparently unaware of Oparin’s Russian-language work, offered a similar proposal in English in 1929. A generation later, in 1953, Stanley Miller put their ideas to the test.
A picture of Miller’s equipment (see Figure 1.3) has been featured in practically every biology textbook since then. The public has been led to believe that thanks to Miller’s experiment, the problem of the origin of life has largely been solved, at least in broad outline. The 1960 declaration of famous paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson in the journal Science is representative.
“The consensus is that life did arise naturally from the nonliving and that even the first living things were not specially created,” he wrote. “The conclusion has, indeed, really become inescapable, for the first steps in that process have already been repeated in several laboratories.”8
But here too I came to see that what the school textbooks and the cheerleaders for scientific materialism claimed in public was quite different from what the scientific specialists were saying among themselves. From time to time I would encounter an article or book by some respected scientist in the field expressing the discouraging lack of progress. These confessions came not weeks or months after Miller’s experiment but years and decades later.

Richard Goldschmidt, The Material Basis of Evolution (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1940),438.

Stephen J. Gould, “The Return of Hopeful Monsters,” Natural History 86 (1979): 22–30.

Casey Luskin, “Darwinian Evolution Gets Left Behind,” Evolution News & Science Today, November 1, 2012, accessed November 13, 2017,…/darwinian_evolu065911.html.

Graham Budd, quoted in John Whitfield, “Biological Theory: Postmodern Evolution,” Nature 455 (2008): 281–284, doi:10.1038/455281a.

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