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Atlantic, on origin of life: First, admit we have a problem

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That doesn’t mean we will get somewhere; it means we could possibly get somewhere.

From the Atlantic, on an OOL meeting in Japan:

“To kick off the meeting, I’m going to do the only thing I can reasonably do, which is ask the dumbest scientific questions I can think of: Did life originate more than once 4 billion years ago? Do we know for sure that origins of life events aren’t happening today, on the Earth? If life’s origin was a process that took tens of millions of years, how can we hope to repeat that process in an experiment? And what do we even mean when we say that something is “alive”?

Not only are these all good questions, but the only result of not facing them is: Maybe if we throw enough models at the origin of life… some of them will stick?

Is that how we want to do science?

One by one I step through my naïve list, and after each item the response from the group is “good question, we don’t know!” By the end of the session I feel like I’ve endured a kind of scientific catharsis: I may be ignorant, but I guess I’m not stupid. A colleague tells me that it’s refreshing to see someone unafraid to stick their neck out.

But doesn’t the fact that asking these questions means sticking one’s neck out tell us a good deal about the stagnation of the discipline? So, what really drives origin-of-life research?

The truth is that the question of life’s origins is about as vexing a problem as science has ever faced. Ask a hundred random scientists to tell you how they think life originated and you will probably get a hundred slightly different answers. To compound matters, technology keeps opening new doors out of which new questions spill. More.

A friend puts it like this: The first step is admitting we have a problem.

Now, here’s another question, one that has sometimes helped in other areas: Are there answers to the question that we fear might be correct but we are afraid to face? Why? Addressing issues of that kind often clears the way for a realistic look at options, instead of just more trivial theories.

See also: origin of life, the skinny

Hat tip: Bioethics.com

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2 Replies to “Atlantic, on origin of life: First, admit we have a problem

  1. 1
    Mapou says:

    My take on this is that materialism is a religion of fear. They fear their enemy (mostly Christians) and they fear other materialists (some questions are taboo).

  2. 2
    aarceng says:

    Or to quote further from the article;
    Altogether the past half-century has seen a bewildering array of findings that speak to life’s origins not as something weird, but as something just about unavoidable. The discovery of hydrothermal systems spewing chemical feedstock in the depth of the oceans is a great example. Revolutions in genomics and proteomics have revealed a whole new map of life, illuminating core pieces of life’s function and evolution during the past 4 billion years. And across fields as diverse as physics and economics we’ve seen the emergence of, well, emergence—a spontaneous generation of order, or process, or behavior, that can occur from the interaction of many simpler players, be they molecules or birds in a flock.

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