Monday, September 1, 2008

1. Origin of life - the Genesis of a new religion?

I first became interested in origin of life while helping to develop a textbook chapter on the subject a couple of years ago. It struck me as a classic "cold case," like the identity of Jack the Ripper. Interesting, sure, but ultimately unresolvable.

In August 2005, Harvard University announced a multidisciplinary project to discover the origin of life (OoL), complete with $1 million annual funding and top-flight facilities.

"My expectation is that we will be able to reduce this to a very simple series of logical events that could have taken place with no divine intervention," Harvard chemistry professor David R. Liu told media. Yet descriptives such as "daunting," "mystifying," and "profound and unsolved problem" festooned the Boston Globe's in-depth report, casting an unexpected shadow across Dr. Liu's optimism. Why?

Well, for one thing, science has been here before. In 1877, embryologist Ernst Haeckel said of his own origins theory, "With this single argument the mystery of the universe is explained, the Deity is annulled and a new era of infinite knowledge is ushered in." Much has been learned since Haeckel's day, but not the origin of life. The sheer enormity of the question is much clearer now than then, so the authors and pioneers of the new faith, far from marching through the desert to the Promised Land, are still stuck on the first verse - like a poet who can't find a rhyme for "silver."

Next: 2. Was origin of life ever mainly a science quest in the first place?