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Imagining “Abiogenesis”: Crick, Watson, and Franklin

Neil Thomas
Photo source: Science Museum, London / Science and Society Picture Library, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

Editor’s note: We are delighted to present a series by Neil Thomas, Reader Emeritus at the University of Durham, “Why Words Matter: Sense and Nonsense in Science.” This is the fifth article in the series. Find the full series so far here. Professor Thomas’s recent book is Taking Leave of Darwin: A Longtime Agnostic Discovers the Case for Design (Discovery Institute Press).

I wrote here yesterday about the Miller-Urey experiment at the University of Chicago in 1953 as an effort to investigate the possibility of spontaneous generation. To be fair to both distinguished collaborators, Stanley Miller and Harold Urey, this was no desperate shot in the dark to bolster materialist thinking. They had clearly done all the requisite preparation for their task. Miller and Urey (a later recipient of the Nobel Prize) theorized that if the conditions prevailing on primeval Earth were reproduced in laboratory conditions, such conditions might prove conducive to a chemical synthesis of living material. 

To Produce Life

To abbreviate a long, more complex short, they caused an electric spark to pass through a mixture of methane, hydrogen, ammonia, and water to simulate the kind of energy which might have come from thunderstorms on the ancient Earth. The resulting liquid turned out to contain amino acids which, though not living molecules themselves, are the building blocks of proteins, essential to the construction of life.1 However, the complete chemical pathway hoped for by many was not to materialize. In fact, the unlikelihood of such a materialization was underscored in the very same year that the Miller-Urey experiment took place when Francis Crick, James Watson, and Rosalind Franklin succeeded in identifying the famous double helix of DNA. Their discovery revealed, amongst other things, that even if amino acids could somehow be induced to form proteins, this would still not be enough to produce life. 

Despite over-optimistic press hype in the 1950s, which came to include inter alia fulsome eulogizing by Carl Sagan, it has in more recent decades been all but conceded that life is unlikely to form at random from the so-called “prebiotic” substrate on which scientists had previously pinned so much hope.  To be sure, there are some biologists, such as Richard Dawkins, who still pin their faith in ideas which have resulted only in blankly negative experimental results.2 Some notions, it appears, will never completely die for some, despite having been put to the scientific sword on numerous occasions — as long of course as they hold out the promise of a strictly materialist explanation of reality.

Next, “Frankenstein and His Offspring.”

Notes

  1. Inside human cells, coded messages in the DNA are translated by RNA into working molecules of protein, which is responsible for life’s functions.
  2. “Organic molecules, some of them of the same general type as are normally only found in living things, have spontaneously assembled themselves in these flasks. Neither DNA nor RNA has appeared, but the building blocks of these large molecules, called purines and pyrimidines, have. So have the building blocks of proteins, amino acids. The missing link for this class of theories is still the origin of replication. The building   blocks haven’t come together to form a self-replicating chain like RNA. Maybe one day they will.”  (Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, London: Penguin, 1986, p. 43)

Neil Thomas

Neil Thomas is a Reader Emeritus in the University of Durham, England and a longtime member of the British Rationalist Association. He studied Classical Studies and European Languages at the universities of Oxford, Munich and Cardiff before taking up his post in the German section of the School of European Languages and Literatures at Durham University in 1976. There his teaching involved a broad spectrum of specialisms including Germanic philology, medieval literature, the literature and philosophy of the Enlightenment and modern German history and literature. He also taught modules on the propagandist use of the German language used both by the Nazis and by the functionaries of the old German Democratic Republic. He published over 40 articles in a number of refereed journals and a half dozen single-authored books, the last of which were Reading the Nibelungenlied (1995), Diu Crone and the Medieval Arthurian Cycle (2002) and Wirnt von Gravenberg's 'Wigalois'. Intertextuality and Interpretation (2005). He also edited a number of volumes including Myth and its Legacy in European Literature (1996) and German Studies at the Millennium (1999). He was the British Brach President of the International Arthurian Society (2002-5) and remains a member of a number of learned societies.

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amino acidsbiologyCarl SaganDNAdouble helixearly EarthFrancis CrickHarold UreyJames WatsonmaterialismMiller-Urey experimentNobel Prizeorigin of lifeproteinsRichard DawkinsRosalind FranklinStanley MillerUniversity of ChicagoWhy Words Matter: Sense and Nonsense in Science (series)