Friday, July 11, 2008

OOL and evolution part 2

Here’s another blogger who is arguing that our current understanding of the mechanisms behind biological evolution encompass the origin of life. To be fair, like Myers and Natzke, Mike’s main point is not to concede the OOL ground to those expounding a religious explanation.
My view, and one of the reasons that I created this blog, is that there is nothing more to be gained by arguing scientific questions with those whose intent is to bring religious ideas into scientific discussions. The existence of God is simply not a question that can be debated scientifically. To put it bluntly, no rational argument can support the pro God viewpoint. I believe it is better to discuss areas of scientific enquiry without accommodating religious viewpoints. I do not mean that non-rational ideas shouldn’t be publicly debated, and I enjoy and am a regular poster on such admirable websites as Pharyngula and However I think that by involving religious viewpoints on scientific subjects where no strong scientific consensus exists leads to distortion of the dialogue. So, to put it simply, no religion in scientific discussion, no science in church, and anything goes in the public arena.

With regard to the OOL, there are numerous alternative scientific hypotheses in play which so far appear fairly equally plausible given the current evidence, so this is clearly not a situation where science knows the answer. That’s not a bad thing! All my personal favourite areas of scientific research are these questions at the boundary of our scientific understanding. I hasten to add I’m very confident that we will one day have a convincing and widely accepted scientific explanation of OOL.

Mike makes much of the difficulty in defining life, however this is not a good argument for claiming that the OOL is unamenable to a more definite scientific explanation; after all, perhaps a strong explanation of the OOL will lead to a better definition of life.

I think that a better approach may be to see the OOL as the origin of information. Admittedly, information itself is extremely difficult to define. However so is electricity, but we still know a lot about it.
The one single quality which seems to be unarguably a property only applicable to living systems, is information (I exclude the sense in which it is used by physicists).

It is clear that information can arise from randomness, given life – this is the basis of natural selection. The question is how did the process begin? Or, what was the first message, the garbling of which gave NS something to act on? This is the question various research groups are trying to answer, there is an answer, and we will find it.

cell signalling breakthroughs in the ancient world

I favour the viewpoint that life is best thought of as a phenomenon that incorporates the flow of energy and the flow of information. I suspect that significant key breakthroughs in biological evolution are tied to the appearance of new mechanisms that markedly increase the flow of information (whether genomic or other), thanks to the bootstrapping of natural selection. One of these breakthroughs is undeniably the appearance of multicellular life forms, so it is interesting to note that genomic sequencing of choanoflagellates, the organisms suspected by many to be a link between proto and metazoans shows they have more and better cell signalling proteins than other micro-organisms.
In fact they seem to have a wider repertoire of signalling proteins than anything else, the question is: why? “we don’t have a clue” stated one of the researchers, with refreshing honesty.
Sounds like the start of some great research.

Hadean life

Pinpointing when in earths history life began has been a big challenge for science. Naturally the further back you go, the scarcer the evidence becomes. At the moment the general agreement is that microfossils found in ancient rocks, together with other clues, like the banded iron formations, are proof of that life was established here on earth by around 3.5 billion years ago, but more equivocal evidence has suggested that the beginning may be yet earlier. However it is usually thought that the late heavy bombardment that tails off around 3.8 billion years ago imposes a limit on the antiquity of life’s origin. Interesting then, that recent research on to isotopic carbon ratios in ancient Australian rocks indicates that some kind of biological process may have been at work up to 4.25 billion tears ago. Living organisms concentrate the lighter isotope of carbon, and we aren’t aware of any other natural processes that do this to any significant extent, so the presence of high levels of C12 in the carbon inclusions found in these ancient zircon deposits is curious to say the least.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Origin debate on Pharyngula

Discussion currently at Pharyngula where PZ Myers complains about those who "get out of trying to answer the question of where life came from by simply saying that that isn't evolution."
His view? It is. I disagree: we have agood understanding now of how the mechanisms whereby biological evolution works. I don't think the same can be aid of abiogenesis/OOL. Thats what makes it so fun to conjecture about.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Book Reviews: Margulis + Dawkins

Couple of quick book reviews. I read recently that Lyn Margulis, whose influential work on the origin of cell organelles won her the Nobel prize, currently enjoys a reputation as something of a maverick in evolutionary biology circles. Well I like mavericks so I grabbed one of her recent books, Dazzle gradually, hoping for some paradigm toppling insights. I’m sorry to say I was disappointed. In fact I’m astonished that such a well respected scientist could be associated with such tosh. I’ll be honest and say I was unable to read a single page to completion. It is undeniable that Margulis has a Nobel prize whereas I don’t even have a PhD, mind you, so does Kary Mullis and he’s bananas, although he writes more entertainingly than Margulis. That’s not saying much; Vogon poetry is probably more entertaining than the pile of tripe that is Dazzle gradually. And if you aren’t familiar with the Vogons and their poetry, I suggest you read The Hitchhikers guide to the galaxy by Douglas Adams. Now that’s a book.
On a brighter note, at the same time I picked up Unweaving the Rainbow by Richard Dawkins. I was enthralled many years ago by Dawkins first book, The Selfish Gene but found The Blind Watchmaker a bit heavy going so hadn’t read much else since. UTR however is a gem; peppered with insightful quotes, entertaining anecdotes and snatches of poetry it is an shining example of how good scientific writing can be. I recall someone saying that reading Dawkins made them feel more intelligent. UTR certainly has this effect and I think that’s a testament to the quality of the writing.
Some years ago I tried to write a book myself because no one else seemed to be writing about the things that interested me. Well Dawkins is, and it looks like there’s a whole lot of other people that are interested as well.

Lunar time capsule

Its possible perfectly preserved remnants of the early earth may be waiting for us to discover on the moon. What evolutionary biologist wouldn’t give their eye teeth for such a sample, perhaps containing traces of ancestral life forms. Admittedly it seems unlikely much would remain after the solar wind, cosmic rays and meteorite bombardments but if a large enough piece was driven deep beneath the lunar surface, who knows?

Fractal universe?

I’m ambivalent about fractality; much is made of fractal patterns in nature without any suggestion as to why this might be significant. Now new evidence indicating that the universe itself may be fractal will undoubtedly lead to yet more vague speculation as to why these patterns are so ubiquitous. My own view is sometimes there isn’t a deeper reason. Fractality may be like chirality (left/right handedness), a property observed in all sorts of 3D objects from molecules and galaxies. No one suggests that chirality is a hint of some deep principle. Or perhaps they do, it wouldn’t surprise me.

Neanderthal nerds

Recently discovered artefacts show English Neanderthals were high tech for their time.
The Neanderthals generally get a pretty raw deal in the media and public discourse - Heavy browed retards that were out competed or even exterminated by our more nimble-minded ancestors. However a more nuanced picture has been emerging and the time may come when we will admit that, once again, we have allowed our innate urge to trumpet our superiority over others to cloud our judgement. Neanderthals were extremely well adapted to their environment and had developed the beginnings of material culture before the young upstart H Sapiens; it may be sheer fluke that we survived while our Neanderthal brothers and sisters did not.