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The Mystery of Bach’s Genius? Solved! It’s All in the Ink

David Klinghoffer

J.S. Bach wrote his musical scores with iron gall ink, which was in standard use in Europe at the time. The ingredients include tannic acid from oak galls, a hypertrophy growing on the sides of oak trees, and gum arabic, from the sap of the acacia tree. Imagine if a musicologist claimed that the mystery was fast being solved of how Bach composed music of such towering genius, since a “relatively simple combination of naturally occurring substances offers a plausible route to the building blocks” of the ink he used.
Provided with a pot of ink, how did he then arrange the notes in the right order? Don’t bother us with such trivial details! What are you, some kind of creationist?
As an explanation of musical genius, this would be bewilderingly silly. Yet it’s the basic summary of a genre of breathless news items about the origins of life on earth, a staple of science journalism and, its symbiotic twin, peer-reviewed “origins” research. The basis of life is information carried in genetic molecules like DNA — notes arranged in the right order — but the hypothesized existence of raw ingredients in the ancient earth, the stuff the ink is made of, is regularly assumed to be just about all you need to explain how life’s music was composed.
Thus Science Daily reports on a paper in Nature Chemistry under the headline, “Study Builds on Plausible Scenario for Origin of Life on Earth”:

A relatively simple combination of naturally occurring sugars and amino acids offers a plausible route to the building blocks of life….The study shows how the precursors to RNA could have formed on Earth before any life existed….
Biological molecules, such as RNA and proteins, can exist in either a natural or unnatural form, called enantiomers. By studying the chemical reactions carefully, the research team found that it was possible to generate only the natural form of the necessary RNA precursors by including simple amino acids.

It’s always so “relatively simple,” isn’t it? In these stories, it is.
Another ingredient of gall ink, ferrous sulfate, is derived from iron which in turn is known occasionally to fall to earth in meteorites. And hey what do you know, so do more building blocks of life. “Building blocks of DNA found in meteorites from space,” reads the headline on MSNBC. Right, it’s the familiar life-from-outer-space origins scenario:

The components of DNA have now been confirmed to exist in extraterrestrial meteorites, researchers announced.
A different team of scientists also discovered a number of molecules linked with a vital ancient biological process, adding weight to the idea that the earliest forms of life on Earth may have been made up in part from materials delivered to Earth from space.

The building blocks in this case are nucleobases, which in DNA form the nucleotides that, arranged in pairs, give physical expression to life’s alphabetic language.
This mystery of how life began is indeed fast being resolved. It pretty much tumbled out of the sky like rain, or grew on trees. Easy! Now go away, you bloody creationists. Stop bothering us with your petty fundamentalist doubts.

David Klinghoffer

Senior Fellow and Editor, Evolution News
David Klinghoffer is a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute and the editor of Evolution News & Science Today, the daily voice of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture, reporting on intelligent design, evolution, and the intersection of science and culture. Klinghoffer is also the author of six books, a former senior editor and literary editor at National Review magazine, and has written for the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Seattle Times, Commentary, and other publications. Born in Santa Monica, California, he graduated from Brown University in 1987 with an A.B. magna cum laude in comparative literature and religious studies. David lives near Seattle, Washington, with his wife and children.