Recently I went to a public library to do some work, and I saw a book featured on top of a reference desk titled Life on Other Planets (by Rhonda Lucas Donald, Watts Library, 2003). The title page featured little green men with big alien bug-eyes, the kind of picture you might see on some nutty UFO website. The book and its display were clearly aimed at students — perhaps junior high or high school-aged. Fun and silly pictures don’t bother me if they get kids interested in reading about science. The problem here was that when I opened the book, what I found was not science, but science-fiction.
Where Does Your Information Come From?
The second page of the first chapter of Life on Other Planets, in large letters, reads:
A Recipe for Life
For life on Earth to exist, you need at least three things:
1. organic molecules
(Rhonda Lucas Donald, Life on Other Planets, pg. 6 (Watts Library, 2003), emphasis in original.)
While that statement may be technically correct, it’s kind of like saying, “For a computer to exist, you need at least three things: wires, microprocessors, and electricity.” Some parts are harder to obtain than others, but even if you get all the parts necessary for a computer in the same box (rather than just these mere three necessary components), you’re still not remotely close to having a computer.
One extremely important component that is missing from our “recipe” for a computer also happens to be a key component of all life: information. As origin of life theorist Bernd-Olaf Kuppers said in his book Information and the Origin of Life, “The problem of the origin of life is clearly basically equivalent to the problem of the origin of biological information.” Somehow, that key ingredient of life’s recipe was left off the list in Life on Other Planets. Might that be because experience teaches that the sort of information we find in life — complex and specified information — has only one real common source: intelligent agency?
It’s So Much Easier to Make Life When You Don’t Have to Worry About Information
Life on Other Planets went downhill from there. A few pages later it stated, “Put some common interstellar chemicals in a cold chamber with no air, zap it with radiation, and bing, you’ve got a protocell–a primitive cell membrane common to all life.” (pg. 11) Aside from the fact that “bing” isn’t much of a descriptive scientific term that tells the reader anything, the problem here is that such protocells are non-metabolic, i.e. they don’t exhibit metabolic biological growth, and they also don’t function like real cell membranes. As Campbell’s Biology states:
One of the earliest episodes in the evolution of life may have been the formation of a membrane that could enclose a solution of different composition from the surrounding solution, while still permitting the selective uptake of nutrients and elimination of waste products. This ability of the cell to discriminate in its chemical exchanges with the environment is fundamental to life, and it is the plasma membrane that makes this selectivity possible.
(Campbell’s Biology, 4th Ed., pg. 140)
Can the “protocells” that are “binged” into existence by zapping carbonaceous material with radiation successfully discriminate between helpful and harmful chemicals, a property of cell membranes that is “fundamental to life”? No.
These protocells are as dumb as a soap bubble, literally. To get cell membranes that can discriminate between death-giving and life-giving substances, you need — you guessed it — information.
Little Green Men
The final chapter of Life on Other Planets is titled “Little Green Men” and it discusses, as we might expect, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project. According to the book, “Scientists busy with SETI …. believe that there may be intelligent civilizations in the universe … [T]o find evidence of them … they listen for signals from such civilizations…” (pg. 49) In other words, SETI researchers are trying to find “signals” that imply an “intelligent” source. Hmmm…
Life on Other Planets is correct in indicating that for SETI researchers, information is a key indicator of intelligent design. But if SETI can find signals that indicate an intelligent cause, why can’t we use the same reasoning within biology? Somehow, the book manages to avoid addressing that question.
Don’t You Know the Dewey Decimal System?
One of my all-time favorite movies is the cult classic UHF, starring Weird Al Yankovich, where a character called “Conan the Librarian” threatens library patrons with the question, “Don’t You Know the Dewey Decimal System?” Perhaps the folks at this library could have used a little prodding from Conan:
Despite the patent overstatements and blatantly false oversimplifications of origin of life research in this book, the Dewey Decimal call number for Life on Other Planets was 576.8 or “Life Sciences, Genetics and Evolution.” In my view, if you’re going to market these kinds of false speculations to kids, better forewarn them by classifying the book in the 800s — fiction.