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Oparin: He Got It All Wrong, but He’s a Hero Anyway

Alexander_Oparin.jpgIn a Retrospective piece in Nature, Tony Hyman and Cliff Brangwynne “celebrate the first book to plausibly suggest how life began” (emphasis added). Aleksandr Oparin’s book The Origin of Life (1936) was “an enormous contribution to our understanding of life’s improbable beginnings,” they say. His book “played a seminal part in the formulation of our modern ideas of life’s conception.” It represents “a towering achievement” with a “profound influence, ” says this eulogy that is almost embarrassing in its over-the-top gushiness.
Yet Oparin was wrong about almost everything. A closer look at his “achievements” as described by Hyman and Brangwynne reveals a comedy of errors:

  • He personified inanimate nature by arguing that conditions on the early earth “nurtured the synthesis of amino acids and their assembly into protocells.”
  • He thought the early earth’s atmosphere was reducing. It wasn’t.
  • “He posited that, with time and a supply of energy such as lightning or geothermal activity, these simple components would form the complex building blocks of life.
  • His view portraying the cell in “physicochemical terms” has been largely replaced by “a reductionist molecular-biology approach, with a DNA-centric viewpoint.”
  • Oparin apparently stated, “DNA is the end product of metabolism and the nucleus is the dustbin of the cell.” Wrong and wrong!
  • “Today, the primary legacy of The Origin of Life is the Miller-Urey experiment,” which is also wrong (wrong atmosphere and many other problems).
  • Oparin’s “complex coacervates,” the centerpiece of his theory, are forgotten today. “This hypothesis of colloidal assembly has largely been displaced by other concepts of life’s origins.”
  • “Interestingly, later in life, Oparin himself expressed regret at having focused on colloids instead of liposomes.”

In addition, it’s hard to see how Oparin as a human being (let alone error-prone scientist) could be admired today:

  • He was a part of Red October: “Oparin graduated from Moscow State University in 1917, the year of Russia’s October Revolution, and his ideas were forged within that radical context.
  • His theory was Communist-inspired: He explains, for instance, that the question of life’s origin “was always the focal point of a sharp philosophical struggle which reflected the underlying struggle of social classes.” Science is not supposed to be forged by a political ideology.
  • Oparin was an honored scientist under the brutal dictators Lenin and Stalin.
  • He was discredited by his own country: “He was later forced to resign from the secretaryship of the academy of science….”
  • He supported pseudoscience: “…because he, along with the rest of the country’s scientific establishment, had supported the discredited agricultural pseudoscientist Trofim Lysenko.” Lysenko’s pseudoscience was not just ordinary pseudoscience. It led to the deaths of tens of millions of people by starvation.

As a prominent Soviet scientist with the full backing of the state, Oparin’s thinking was rooted and framed in the Marxist philosophy that the origin of life is “merely one step in the course of its historical development”.

Against this embarrassing backdrop, Hyman and Brangwynne had their work cut out for them to make him a saint. In view of this, they use the post-Stalin Soviet Union itself to resurrect him. “Oparin was later forgiven and, in 1979, shortly before his death, received the Lomonosov Gold Medal from the Soviet science academy for outstanding achievement in the natural sciences,” they say. “His book retained a small but dedicated following.” By then (1953), of course, the world was focused on Stanley Miller and Harold Urey, who left Oparin behind as a historical footnote, even though Miller referenced Oparin in their paper.
Another tactic used by Hyman and Brangwynne to praise Oparin is very strange. It’s like “living fossil in amber meets Haeckel’s biogenetic law in an RNA World.” Let them explain themselves:

However, current cell and molecular biology provides a new perspective on the feasibility of life beginning from liquid-like macromolecular assemblies, suggesting that Oparin might have been more correct than he thought. Many macromolecules have weak multivalent interactions with other macromolecules, which means they have several sites at which interaction can occur. RNA itself is a flexible, extended, dynamic molecular chain; the interactions between it and other molecules are typically numerous and weak. These properties are sufficient for macromolecules to self-assemble into liquid-phase droplets, like Oparin’s coacervates. Recent work on RNA compartmentalization and catalysis in liquid droplets provides additional support for Oparin’s concept of primitive protocells in a primordial ‘RNA world’….
Like the ancient mitochondrial organisms found in each of our cells, intracellular RNA droplets could reflect a still more ancient lineage in the assembly of complex cellular structure. Oparin’s coacervates may still be alive and well, safe within our cells, like flies in life’s evolving amber.

One thing is clear. If a proponent of intelligent design honored somebody who was this wrong with an equivalent level of ecstasy, the media would never let us hear the end of it — even if the somebody was NOT a willing accomplice to a totalitarian dictatorship that killed millions of people.
So what’s the real reason Oparin gets honors for being wrong about everything?

Oparin belongs in the pantheon of the twentieth century’s greatest scientists for providing a foundation for understanding early molecular evolution. He believed that natural selection had “completely wiped off the face of the Earth all the intermediate forms of organization of primary colloidal systems and of the simplest living things. ” Three-quarters of a century before Oparin, Charles Darwin noted that such primitive life forms would be a poor match for contemporary, highly evolved ones. But Darwin also wrote that relatively less-evolved species — “anomalous forms … living fossils” — often come down through the ages, against all the odds.

That’s why. For making Darwin look good, Aleksandr Oparin’s sins are pardoned, and he is elevated to sainthood for providing an imaginary path for materialism, against all the odds.

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