Readers will recall that I (O’Leary for News) have been recommending Suzan Mazur’s recent book, The Origin of Life Circus, an indepth look at what is and isn’t working in origin of life research.
Much recommended is her interview with Paul Davies’ collaborator at Arizona State University, physicist Sara Walker, who emphasizes the need to address the information aspect of life. Walker politely dismisses claim that maybe life and non-life aren’t much different, and says,
Yes, I like to think about life in terms of information flows and how information is being processed. And because information is so widely distributed in biological systems, I think there’s merit to the idea of autocatalytic sets. Living systems are systems, and we really need to have a systems approach to the origin of life. You can’t just start with a single molecule. That’s why I like the metabolism-first viewpoint because it really is about how systems act and evolve collectively.
Walker has made this type of point before, and it is a welcome change from the usual: Maybe if we throw enough models at the origin of life… some of them will stick?
She also takes the risk of siding with those (Carl Woese included) who are negative about the Darwinian interpretation of evolution. Woese, perhaps the greatest 20th century biologist, the one who first identified the Archaea, regretted not overthrowing Darwin.
Suzan Mazur: How do you define evolution? You say “the concept of evolution itself may be in need of revision” and cite Carl Woese and Nigel Goldenfeld. What do you mean by evolution being in need of revision?
Sara Walker: I was thinking about Woese’s idea about early life being dominated by horizontal gene transfer, and that life was much more of a collective evolutionary process. It’s much harder, however, to get your head around the concept of a loose collection, a network evolving. Conceptually, the RNA world is much easier because we can keep imposing the idea of the Darwinian paradigm of an RNA replicator with vertical descent.
In short, RNA world was popular because it was Darwinian, not because it was well-founded.
Anyone familiar with pop science writing will recognize the phenomenon: Any given concept is invested with a certain sacred energy—for writers and readers— if Darwin either thought about it or could have imagined it or it fits in with something he thought.
This kind of thing would normally be thought of as religion but apparently the PR firm decided it was better marketed as science. Anyway…
Suzan Mazur: But you do think the concept of evolution is in need of revision.
Sara Walker: Yes. I think there are a lot of phenomena in evolution we haven’t investigated in as much depth as the standard genetic evolution paradigm.
It gets better. If you do not buy the book, you are missing the best parts.
Incidentally, science writer John Horgan’s recent defense of our right to disagree with experts nonetheless ruled out any serious criticism of the sort that Woese and Walker offer:
… he lists “evolution by natural selection” as one of the things that scientists have gotten “right, once and for all.”
This illustrates the seriousness of the problem. Horgan is reasonably skeptical—as all journalists should be—of establishment claims.
Except when it comes to Darwin.Then suddenly, the blinkers go on. The lights go out.
One must wish Walker well in her efforts to deal with this perennial thought blocker.
See also: Suzan Mazur interviews senior NASA origin of life scientist – It was stormy, and we aren’t talking weather here
RNA world would work if only life were simpler
Follow UD News at Twitter!