Monday, September 1, 2008

3. The sacred mysteries of the prebiotic soup

The primarily religious nature of the search for the origin of life can also be demonstrated by the way it is treated in media: We are told, for example, that knowing how life originated will tell us something important about ourselves.

Actually, that is not very likely. The outstanding mysteries about ourselves would not be much impacted if we happened to know how life first took shape, soon after our planet cooled - whether or not design played any role.

Meanwhile, every other week, breathless stories announce that life began with RNA, clay, silicon, pyrites, hydrothermal vents, borax, peptides, viroids, greedy molecules and prebiotic soups, hot and cold, find eager readers. The hunt for primitive life on exoplanets (planets orbiting stars other than our sun) as well as on Mars and the Galilean moon Europa is another favorite chronicle.

As is the rule with such faith quests, success eludes, but failure never discourages. In fact, failure is often covered as if it were success. Finding perchlorate on Mars (which would interfere with the development of life) is treated as valuable new information about the origin of life.

As in an Eastern religion, the door is open even as it is shut, and if you express skepticism, you will be rebuked and told to contemplate the mystery of the advance of science more deeply, until you begin to actually see the door as open.

Religions also tend to adopt an unusual style of language, because their deepest key concepts are difficult to transmit using mundane language. With the Jews, it's ancient Hebrew, with Islam, it's ancient Arabic, with Catholicism, it is late Roman Latin. Science writing around religiously driven issues like origin of life is no exception to this rule. It makes use of a peculiar language - a language of calculated imprecision. Because there is no single, widely accepted account of the origin of life, science writers hedge stories with qualifiers like "may have,""might have," "would have," and "could have."

The same tendency, of course, may be observed in stories about the origin of humanity. A source once informed me that "Neanderthal man would not have known where babies come from."

I accidentally broke the spell by asking rudely "Well, did he or didn't he know where babies come from?" The answer to my plain question was, alas, a plain answer: "We don't know" - which put a dead stop to further speculation. And spoiled all the fun too, I should add. Well, I knew better next time. I merely conveyed the impression that I was deeply impressed by all the profundity on display.

There are conventions of silence in religion as well as conventions of speech, and the popular science media are no exception here either. For example, when the glut of speculations around the origin of life is treated as evidence of progress that inspires hope for this "active research area.," non-specialist readers may assume that the progress is akin to the war on cancer. But that analogy is misleading. An advance against breast cancer does not diminish the war on lung cancer, and may indeed help it. However, a finding that advances one origin of life theory must necessarily diminish a contradictory one. There is an overall gain in knowledge of primitive life forms, to be sure, but the gain to origin of life studies itself is uncertain, especially when the previously slighted theory is supported by the next advance in knowledge. However, devout silence is kept on this point, and each new theory is presented as an advance on the last.

Next: So should the established religion seeking the origin of life be disestablished?