The world of no good

wanna have a fun life, travel, and see different cultures.

Friday, August 14, 2009

From Chemistry to Biology

Amongst the most famous debates in current pop-science groups is undoubtedly the debate of "how did life come about? Was it thru natural happenstance or thru miraculous/supernatural intervention" - the debate between unguided evolution vs. intelligent design. After following this debate for quite a few years (a lot of PZ Myers, Dawkins, Bertrand Russell for the evolutionary perspective, and the discovery institute,... for the ID point of view), I have one strong statement to make, the intelligent design community is intellectually empty. They do have a philosophical point - it is "logically possible" that some supernatural force created everything, but the community that espouses this view is rampant with miscreants and liars. In my opinion, even the "biggest" proponents (read, Ken Ham, Michael Behe, ...) of this "theory" consistently fabricate data, and misinform the clueless public. This is my biggest concern! While there might be some philosophical merit to the proposal, just the way they go about doing it shows one thing - even they themselves aren't truly convinced by the evidence, and need to resort to cheap, and ultimately unproductive, tactics like lying and making up data. (see the "Creation Museum" pictures to see how ludicrous some of this population is.)

On a related note, a subject that I have found fascinating in recent times is that of "Abiogenesis". The branch of scientific inquiry that studies the origin of biological life, i.e., how did life (in the biological sense of the word) ever come about from a point when there was no life?

Evolutionary theories (in the Darwinian mould) talk about biological evolution as a result of Natural Selection - that is Nature (and natural conditions) acts as a filter, and repeated filtering over mutations results in evolution of new species. However, what's key for biological evolution is the pre-existence of life. That is: speciation is only possible, in a Darwinian framework, when a previous more "primitive" life is already present. In short, Darwinian evolutionary theories have nothing to say about how life came to be - or how life ever started - they just account for how species evolved.

I recently saw a video lecture by Professor Robert Hazen (Carnegie Institution and George Mason University) on the topic of Abiogenesis. It was a lot of fun, and really stirred the love for physical and organic chemistry that I had in high-school.

I present below a gist of his talk. I refer you to the actual 1hr 9min talk video for a more elaborate discussion.

His talk's main point was that for biology to have developed from chemistry, there must have been at least the four steps in the pic below. Darwinian natural selection is only possible after the "biomolecules" or "building blocks of life", i.e., amino acids, sugars..., were created from the chemical conditions that existed on earth before life; followed by steps 2 and 3.

A cool experiment that showed that step one is replicable is one by Miller and colleagues in the early 1950's. They had a lab experiment where the apparatus mimicked the conditions of the "pre-life earth". The apparatus tried to recreate the presence of water, air, the right temperature and pressure, and finally, the chemicals that were there before life came about. What they found was that leaving the set-up as such for some time automatically leads to the creation of the basic building blocks (amino acids, sugars...)

So, step 1 is essentially solved. We understand it. The answer is kinda known. We know for sure that we can recreate step 1 without any "outside/supernatural" intervention, just by recreating the original conditions of the earth. This is clearly a replicable process.

Steps 2 and 3 are still being understood. We have good leads with step 2 - some important minerals might be aiding in the selection of the right building blocks. But, step 3 is still in the conception stage. There are apparently some good theoretical ideas, but there's no good experimental support for these proposal.

Again, step 4 has some excellent experimental support. And of course it has received massive support from evolutionary biological findings in the last 150 years since Darwin's days (and from some work even before that, of course).

So, to put it concisely, the work that really needs to be done and is being pursued right now in the small field of Abiogenesis is between steps 2 & 3.

And finally, why bother talking about all this when I started with the discussion of evolutionary biology vs. intelligent design. Simple, I love the conclusions of the talk. Very simple, and basic, yet the god-mongers amongst us don't necessarily see it.


Blogger dan said...

Hey Karthik,

I liked this post. The origin of life, a classic question. Here's two things you might think are interesting:

1) About a year ago I watched a video of a talk given by one of the lawyers who argued (for science?) in the Dover School Board case. The looked at documents produced by a group that was a proponent of ID, produced some of the earliest writings, and tried to represent the defendents (the Dover School board) in the case. The group (or its members) had all been members of a Creationist groups immediately before, and had literally taken their old documents and done a find-replace of "creation" for "intelligent design" and "creator" for "designer". Everything else was the same.

Here's a link:

Does it prove that all ID proponents are intellectually bankrupt? Not really, but it definitely demonstrates that some of them are. A crazy story.

2) Speaking of crazy stories, here's another one. I've always thought that the jump from organic compounds to cells was a little crazy. A few years ago I came across a book called "The Origins of Life" by Freeman Dyson (famous princeton physicist). I don't know how well received it was, or what people think of this idea these days, but essentially, his idea was that life started twice. There were two kinds of organized, replicating molecular systems that emerged, and that eventually they symbiosed into one. One of them was a cell-like structure which accumulated materials and replicated by splitting, and one was a DNA-like string of which replicated by copying. Why these structures would emerge, I cannot say. But it made for an interesting train ride to Delaware one afternoon, and you might want to check it out.

9:30 PM  
Blogger karthik durvasula said...

Hey Dan,

Thanks for the refs. Yes, I do remember the Dover school board case. It was funny. But, apparently, that was not an isolated incident. Many boards that are adopting a pro-ID view seem to be doing a cut-and-replace from old creationist manifestos/books.

How can there ever be a "debate" of any sort, if there is so much dishonesty!

As for the original intellectual debate, I see it as a waste of time, honestly. People are not going to change their views. My only problem is, at least use legitimate arguments with genuine data to support ur arguments, not fabrications!

Thanks for the second link, too. I should read that book. It sounds interesting!

8:52 AM  

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