Monday, September 1, 2008

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

Virtually every culture has either a creation story or a cycles of time story - sometimes both. Creation stories ground a religion. They explain how we relate to the reality around us. To an outsider, they explain much about a society's beliefs and values.

Consider just one little incident in one creation story, to see what I mean. In Genesis 2 in the Bible, God creates Eve, as follows:
18 The LORD God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him."

19 Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. 20 So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds of the air and all the beasts of the field.

But for Adam no suitable helper was found. 21 So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man's ribs and closed up the place with flesh. 22 Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.

23 The man said,
"This is now bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called 'woman, '
for she was taken out of man."

24 For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.

25 The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.
Now, many books have been written about this passage, to which literature I have neither the intention nor the qualifications to add. But one could make a list of at least a dozen key items of information the passage tells us about the traditional Judaeo-Christian view of women. Imagine, for example, if Eve had been presented as one of the animals Adam named. Or if Adam had been presented as one of the animals that Eve named ...

Origins stories tell us much more than how the storytellers think we got started. They tell us the nature of the universe in which we could get started in that way.

For millennia, people thought that life could generate spontaneously. There seemed little point in studying the ultimate origin of life because life was always regenerating itself in each spring's mud. One could study it on the ground, so to speak. But when scientists tried doing that, they discovered that spontaneous generation did not really happen. Life, we realized, is always passed on from living cell to living cell. Indeed, the cell came to be recognized as the fundamental unit of biological life.

So the question became "How did the first cells originate?" The good news is that the problem is specific enough to enable science research. The bad news is that life got started about 4.5 billion years ago, soon after the planet cooled, under conditions we don't really know.

But there is more. Current research, as we have seen, tags the project with a critical qualification: As David Liu candidly explained, the question is not, how did cells originate, but how did they originate "with no divine intervention." In other words, how can we tell a creation story that does not include God? So origin of life is not only a religious quest, it is the quest of a very specific religion - secular humanism or possibly scientism. And that matters.

More bad news: A new religion without God cannot be grounded very easily, it turns out. Origin of life is a fiendishly difficult problem. Had cells been simple jellylike units, as early embryologists thought, the solution might have been straightforward, akin to discovering how snowflakes form. But as physicist Paul Davies who chronicles origin of life research explains, "The living cell is best thought of as a supercomputer - an information processing and replicating system of astonishing complexity." (2002) In that case, its origin may be equally complex, and for that reason alone unrecoverable. But investigators never want to think that, so they don't.

Indeed, the nature of the problem is often misrepresented to the public - not, I suspect, from dishonesty but from a simple unwillingness on the part of the spokespersons for origin of life research to contemplate the depth of the problem themselves. As Dembski and Wells put it in The Design of Life,
... when in times past people invoked the action of an intelligence to explain eclipses or the motion of planets, it was in ignorance of the relevant astronomical facts underlying these phenomena. We find ourselves in a radically different situation with regard to life's origin: By knowing the relevant facts of biochemistry and molecular biology, we are in a position to assess how difficult it is for the chemical building blocks of life to arise and then arrange themselves into the information-rich structures required for cellular life. So long as design hypotheses are based on knowledge rather than ignorance, they are scientifically legitimate. (p. 255)
Well, they would be scientifically legitimate except for one thing. The quest is at heart a religious one, as researcher Liu made clear - a creation story "with no divine intervention" at the heart of its universe without design?

Suppose it becomes broadly apparent to all reasonable observers that cosmic or divine - or at least intelligent - direction is required for life to originate. What will current origin of life researchers do? They will probably declare the problem unsolved or unsolvable, and demand more money to continue to research a way that life can originate in this or some other universe "with no divine intervention."

Then the question becomes, is theirs a project of public interest or merely sectarian interest? If the latter, why should it be pursued with any public funding at all? I will return to that question.

Next: 3. The sacred mysteries of the prebiotic soup