If you visit Eugene Koonin’s lab at the NCBI — that’s Dr. Koonin standing just to the right of the woman in the red sweater — brush up on your Russian. Many of the most prolific scientists in comparative genomics work in Koonin’s group, hail from Russia, and love the Big Questions, such as the origin of life.
In a new, open access paper, Koonin argues that the problem of the origin of life may under current scenarios be intractable:
Despite considerable experimental and theoretical effort, no compelling scenarios currently exist for the origin of replication and translation, the key processes that together comprise the core of biological systems and the apparent pre-requisite of biological evolution. The RNA World concept might offer the best chance for the resolution of this conundrum but so far cannot adequately account for the emergence of an efficient RNA replicase or the translation system.
Is design implicated? Hang on, not yet:
All this is not to suggest that OORT [origins of replication and translation] is a problem of “irreducible complexity” and that the systems of replication and translation could not emerge by means of biological evolution. It remains possible that a compelling evolutionary scenario is eventually developed and, perhaps, validated experimentally. However, it is clear that OORT is not just the hardest problem in all of evolutionary biology but one that is qualitatively distinct from the rest. For all other problems, the basis of biological evolution, genome replication, is in place but, in the case of OORT, the emergence of this mechanism itself is the explanandum. Thus, it is of interest to consider radically different scenarios for OORT.
Koonin’s solution? Open your Epicurus, and read along with me. Make the number of trials (i.e., chances) REALLY big. Developing what he calls the “many worlds in one” (MWO) hypothesis, Koonin argues that what looks unlikely — the de novo origin of self-replicating biological systems — is bound to happen:
The MWO version of the cosmological model of eternal inflation could suggest a way out of this conundrum because, in an infinite multiverse with a finite number of distinct macroscopic histories (each repeated an infinite number of times), emergence of even highly complex systems by chance is not just possible but inevitable.
Because such emergence is guaranteed mathematically (never mind the messy chemical details, folks, just focus on the large numbers — you’re bound to win the lottery if you buy enough tickets), there’s no need for the design hypothesis:
A final comment on “irreducible complexity” and “intelligent design”. By showing that highly complex systems, actually, can emerge by chance and, moreover, are inevitable, if extremely rare, in the universe, the present model sidesteps the issue of irreducibility and leaves no room whatsoever for any form of intelligent design.
As this paper and the reviewers’ comments are open access, here’s something fun to try. Download the whole fascinating exchange, and search on “ID” and “intelligent design.” This paper continues a trend I noted some time ago, namely, that scientists don’t listen to federal judges (thank goodness) or the pronunciamentos of national science organizations. Rather, they alight on any interesting question, kick it around, and let the results fall where they may.
And thus the future of open inquiry is assured.