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So, What Really Drives Origin-of-Life Research?

Denyse O'Leary


Whether a field is considered “science” or “pseudoscience” now often depends principally on its relationship to naturalist ideology, not on whether it advances our understanding. What exactly have speculations about the multiverse contributed to science, for example? Today, in fact, evidence-based and reality-based thinking are seen not as tools or guides but as obstacles to the quest to make the multiverse real, at least in our minds — possibly the only place it ever can be real.
Science-Fictions-square.gifOrigin-of-life research provides another classic illustration. Our survey of the field has turned up crowds of conflicting theories churning a largely disputed fact base. Crowds of conflicting theories is a bad sign in itself; when a science is advancing our knowledge, disagreements becomes sharper perhaps, but narrower. OOL research offers occasional new understandings here and there — and so did the practice of alchemy. That is because, happily, we can often learn something even when on the wrong track. But until we are on the right track, we cannot develop a large, organized program of evidence-based knowledge.
Sometimes, we refuse to admit we are on the wrong track because of a heavy emotional investment. Just such an investment drives current OOL research: the need to disprove design. As cosmologist Paul Davies explains,

Many investigators feel uneasy about stating in public that the origin of life is a mystery, even though behind closed doors they freely admit that they are baffled. There seems to be two reasons for their unease. Firstly, they feel it opens the door to religious fundamentalists and their god-of-the-gaps pseudo-explanations. Secondly, they worry that a frank admission of ignorance will undermine funding, especially for the search for life in space.1

Well, continuing failure can undermine funding too.
The alchemists slowly began to change their goals: They began to meet nature on her own terms. What they then learned about the elements and their real interrelationships proved far more valuable than what they had given up, though the nature of their choice prevented any such prior knowledge.
What if origin-of-life researchers did something similar? Quit looking for the hidden law or the magic zap. If it is design, fine, how does the design work? For the record, there can be design without creation. Philosopher of science Del Ratzsch offers,

For instance, suppose that we finally discover that life can arise spontaneously but only under exactly one set of conditions. One must begin with 4003.6 gallons of eight specific, absolutely pure chemicals, exactly proportioned down to the molecule. The mixture must then be sealed into a large, light green Tupperware container with one sterile copy of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Do that, and life develops spontaneously by natural means (catalyzed by the precise surface characteristics of “Sgt. Pepper”). Its development, subsequent reproductions and characteristics are completely according to normal natural laws. And life in this case was not directly specially created. But those initial conditions involve interjection of deliberate intent and design with a vengeance.2

For now, life goes on. A decade ago, Harvard University announced that it was spending a million dollars annually to find the origin of life. Their hope was succinctly expressed by Harvard chemist David Liu, “that we will be able to reduce this to a very simple series of logical events.”
Carl Woese and Gunter Wachterhauser have been more realistic and less sanguine:

In one sense the origin of life problem today remains what it was in the time of Darwin — one of the great unsolved riddles of science. Yet we have made progress. Through theoretical scrutiny and experimental effort since the nineteen-twenties many of the early naive assumptions have fallen or are falling aside — and there now exist alternative theories. In short, while we do not have a solution, we now have an inkling of the magnitude of the problem.

And Stanley Miller, of the Miller-Urey experiment? He too has gone on record saying, “Origin of life has turned out to be much more difficult than I, and most other people, envisioned.” with science writer Dennis Horgan adding in 2011, “Pssst! Don’t tell the creationists, but scientists don’t have a clue how life began.” These are the kinds of things people say when they have spent a great deal of time, energy, and money with no discernible result. It is depressing indeed if a major concern is, “What will the creationists say?”
Some advocate a complete rethink. Others offer more guesses. Still others, mindful of their heritage, inform us that “Charles Darwin Really Did Have Advanced Ideas About the Origin of Life.” As if anyone should care much at this point whether a man who was prudent enough to step around the mess ages ago had advanced ideas about it or not.
If all the mutually contradictory, sketchily supported theses offered over the last 150 years are naturalism’s best efforts, then surely this is the most reasonable conclusion: There is no convincing, perhaps no believable, scientifc evidence for a merely natural origin of life. Can information theory help us here, as it can with evidence-based cosmology?
(1) Paul Davies, The Origin of Life (London: Penguin Books, 2003), p. xxiv.
(2) Del Ratzsch, “Design, Chance & Theistic Evolution,” in William A. Dembski, ed., Mere Creation: Science, Faith & Intelligent Design (Downers Grove IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), p. 291
Editor’s note: Here are links to the whole “Science Fictions Origin of Life” series.
Photo credit: Timo Newton-Syms/Flickr.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she has published two books on the topic: Faith@Science and By Design or by Chance? She has written for publications such as The Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail, and Canadian Living. She is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist'€™s Case for the Existence of the Soul. She received her degree in honors English language and literature.