"Origins of life: A redefinition" by Deaddog

Brian D Harper (bharper@postbox.acs.ohio-state.edu)
Tue, 17 Nov 1998 14:44:35 -0500

In my discussions with Kevin over the meaning of abiogenesis
I promised to post something written by Andrew Ellington
(Deaddog) for t.o several years ago. Since this piece is,
I believe, of general interest I decided to post it separately.
Caution for those with gentle ears, there is a bit of
foul language here and there.

========begin Deaddog=======================
From: Deaddog <adelling@ucs.indiana.edu>
Newsgroups: talk.origins
Subject: Origins of life: A redefinition
Date: 8 Mar 1996 04:23:26 GMT
Organization: Evolv-o-tron
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It is a good sign that one of the current battlegrounds for talk.
origins is abiogenesis. What this really means is that Creationists
have largely given up on trying to argue against macroevolution,
and have had to retrench in an area where knowledge is still
sufficiently nebulous that non-naturalistic interpretations can
be advanced without fear of immediate contradiction. The
insipid argument that we are not related to / descended from the
common ancestor of simians plays well enough to the same jolly
crowd that also provides fodder for tracing disease alleles, but
cannot pass serious muster amongst those who know which side
their military-industrial complex is buttered on.

Here's a riddle: what do Buchanan and Qaddafi have in common?
They both don't want you to know about evolutionary biology.

But I will depart from form and argue that we should be most
careful in pressing our gains.

Evolution is a fact. Abiogenesis is not. Despite the fact that it is
at best intellectually cowardly and at worst a reanimation of
vitalism, evolution and abiogenesis should be separated. We can
happily teach evolution in the schools, back up our teaching with
a grab-bag of supporting evidence that ranges from rocks to
macaques, and thoroughly embarrass any school board, legislature,
or appellate court that dares say 'boo.' Evolution rules, OK.

At some point abiogenesis will rule. But right now we cannot
point to a single mechanism that defines the origin of life. In my
opinion, this is what distinguishes abiogenesis from evolution:
there is not only a great deal of evidence for evolution, but a
framework to interpret that evidence. There is a great deal of
evidence for abiogenesis as well, but the framework in which
that evidence can / should be interpreted is still in its formative
stages. This makes it easy for Creationists to throw stones at
abiogeneticists and prebiotic chemists. But in a spirit of true
Brotherhood and Light and Goodness, we welcome these stones
because it means they are no longer being launched at you, our
evolutionary biologist brethren. Yea verily you still deny us,
the bastard fruit of your naturalistic loins, but we know that
some day we will pass electricity through some gas, produce
a squirming little cell-like thingy, and join you in your pantheon.
Bruised and scorned but unbowed, we patiently await our Darwin.


In any case, in the meantime we should beware false prophets.
If we don't know how abiogenesis truly occurred, then why should
we bother to argue strenuously for it? At best we can provide
comfort for those who already agree with us, but for the most part
they don't need it. At worst we tie the fact and theory of evolution
to a bloated, blackened albatross that we'll have to pitch over the
side in two or three experiments anyway.

Consider: over the past 30 years or so abiogenesis has gone from
being an examination of how proteins could have spontaneously
formed in aqueous solution to an examination of how a hypercycle
might have arisen to an examination of how ribozymes could have
evolved to an examination of how pre-ribozymes could have
evolved to an examination of how complex chemical mixtures could
have given rise to stable chemical cycles (yes, gang, in my opinion
most of the arguments that are going on in the RNA world threads
were outdated two incarnations ago). I sure as shit don't want to
have to defend Fox's or Woese's ideas of origins, and I'll bet that the
young Turks that dance on my grave won't want to defend mine,
either. So why bother? It's virtually never covered in high
schools (I lucked out massively; my biology teacher had a mega-
cool book on abiogenesis tucked away on his shelves), nor need it
be. By the time folks get to college if they can't deal with having
naturalism in their science courses they should be summarily
flunked anyway. Funding for the subject is virtually non-existant,
so it's not like we have to lobby the NIH to prevent cutbacks.

No, let the nay-sayers stick their tongues out at us and go "nyah,
nyah." Stanley Miller and Jim Ferris and Alan Schwartz and
Leslie Orgel and Gerry Joyce and others, even Deaddogs, will go on
their merry ways, cooking up new and interesting ways to produce
life. When they do, great, then we can grasp said tongues, rip them
from the gaping maws of the fools who thought bogus statistical
treatments had jackshit to do with chemistry, and nail them to
their foreheads as a warning sign for all future members of the
Know-Nothing party. Let the Creationists dig their own graves,
here and now. If you have to argue with them at all, make them
make predictions about what is impossible -- not in generalities,
but in specifics. And then sit back and wait for those predictions
to fall like flies.

All the RNA world arguments really tell us is that it is all even more
complex than we originally thought. We're separated from origins
not only by a long string of ancestors, but by at least one, and
possibly more, *major* changes in metabolism. Not just pathway
replacement, but likely wholescale catalytic re-organization. We
can't even begin to imagine what RNA-based life was truly like (my
own publications about what is was 'sort of' like to the contrary). So
what makes us think that we can extrapolate beyond that boundary
back to an even more outre event: the transition from prebiotic
chemistry to self-replication?

No, all we can really do is try to engineer life again. We'll eventually
get the knack. Actually, in my opinion we're most hampered by the
same paradigm that the C'ists are trying to foist off on us: that early
life looked anything at all like modern life. That's why they're dead
set on us taking up the cudgel for abiogenesis: because in the way
they have defined it there is *no fucking way* that it could have
happened. Assinine comparisons to 747's aside, you have to
seriously ask yourself why we're not even close to creating life under
something approximating prebiotic conditions. There are three
choices: (1) Oh for fuck's sake, molecular biology itself is only a few
years old, what do you expect for one of the central riddles of
biology? We're too young and stupid to have the answer yet. (2)
Well, actually we have all the tools but everyone is so busy
sequencing the genome and using up all 26^3 three letter
combinations for gene names that we haven't really given it as
much thought or effort as we probably should have. (3) We're not
thinking about it right. We need to make a leap, to think
*differently,* to find what in retrospect will be the head-slapping,
obvious answer.

I choose (3). And to convince yourself that this is truly a
possibility, think back to the early 1800's: what prevented
naturalists from understanding organic evolution? Nothing but
their own education. I submit that if we were to put Stephen J.
Gould in the trunk of a DeLorean and accelerate it to 75 mph then
he would be able to convince the Royal Society of the fact and
theory of evolution using only materials available at the time.
As, I imagine, Darwin did [author's aside: what a mega-frood he
must have been! It boggles, it boggles.].

Abiogenesis has to be something really, really different for
it to be both simple and vital. We have to learn more about
Zabotinski reactions and their prebiotic counterparts rather than
selecting ribozymes from random mixtures. The latter is good
biotechnology and good PR, but is essentially jerking off in terms of
abiogenesis. There was never a warm pond with 10^18 sequences
of length 220 in it. We can keep saying there was to keep the wolves
at bay (and because in all honesty we really don't know), but it
probably didn't happen that way. Which leads us to the more
interesting question of trying to figure out how it did happen. And
the happy thing about this question is that everyone can contribute,
from the lowliest snot-ragged undergraduate, to that acme of
academic life, the assistant professor.

We've heard from our friends the Creationists: God or Crick or
some combination thereof did it. Fine, you can now continue with
your finger-painting or whatever it is that you occupy your
recreation periods with when the Thorazine wears off. In the
meantime, it would be nice to really try to think *differently*
about this subject, rather than just deepening the rut with one
foot whilst twisting about the spike on the other.

So quit defending the RNA world, you howlers. If it can't defend
itself it should be left to die on the vine, a useful idea that paved the
way to other useful ideas.
============end deaddog====================================
Brian Harper
Associate Professor
Applied Mechanics
The Ohio State University

"He who establishes his arguments
by noise and command shows that
reason is weak" -- Montaigne