The highly esteemed Franklin M. Harold is the author of a newly-published book: In Search of Cell History: The Evolution of Life’s Building Blocks, University of Chicago Press (2014). According to the publisher, this book investigates the full scope of cellular history. The content is broad and includes the relationship between cells and genes; the status of the universal tree of life with its three stems and viral outliers; and the controversies surrounding the last universal common ancestor. Extensive discussion is provided of the evolution of cellular organization and the fossil evidence for the earliest life on earth. The publisher explains:
“In Search of Cell History shows us just how far we have come in understanding cell evolution—and the evolution of life in general—and how far we still have to go.”
A review of the book appeared recently in Nature. The author is David Deamer of the University of California, Santa Cruz, who appears to give an outstanding assessment.
“Franklin Harold’s In Search of Cell History is a wonderful book. Harold has for 60 years been an intelligent and clear-minded researcher and observer in the fields of cell and molecular biology. His book is a loving distillation of connections within the incredible diversity of life in the biosphere, framing one of biology’s most important remaining questions: how did life begin?” (p.302)
Yet Deamer’s endorsement is not unqualified. He writes:
“I do have a quibble. Harold argues that, notwithstanding the vast literature, progress has gone little beyond the findings of Soviet biochemist Alexander Oparin and British polymath J. B. S. Haldane more than 80 years ago, when they independently argued that Louis Pasteur’s dictum ‘All life from life’ was wrong. Oparin and Haldane theorized that life may have emerged on a sterile prebiotic Earth through a series of chemical and physical processes. I confess to being more optimistic than Harold. There has been extraordinary progress in understanding the principles by which life works at the molecular level, and that can be applied to the question of how life begins. Over the past eight decades, it has become clear that the basic molecules of life can be synthesized through well-understood chemical reactions.”
I want to suggest that what is a “quibble” to Deamer is actually a fundamental difference of opinion between these two scientists. Harold thinks that little progress has been made in 80 years of research, whereas Deamer thinks that “Over the past eight decades, it has become clear that the basic molecules of life can be synthesized through well-understood chemical reactions.” Furthermore, Deamer writes:
“we know how to encapsulate all those reactions in lipid compartments that mimic cell membranes, and several pioneering laboratories are taking the first steps towards fabricating microscopic systems of molecules that display the fundamental properties of life.”
These differences of judgment are not minor. They are not quibbles. Nor are they the result of ignorance, for Deamer acknowledges that Harold writes about all the research topics Deamer considers important. Yet, Harold claims that “little progress” has been made in 80 years whereas Deamer says “it seems that we have made considerable progress after all”. We should note that these two contrasting views have been with us for some time, but the Deamer stance gets far more attention because of media hype.
Deamer himself has authored a book on the origin of life (OOL) and a review appeared in Nature authored by Robert Shapiro. Deamer made the case for dramatic progress. But Shapiro picked up a caution to make the point that progress has been very limited:
“Because we can get reactions to work in the controlled conditions of a laboratory, he cautions, it does not follow that similar ones occurred on prebiotic Earth. We might overlook something that becomes apparent when we try to reproduce the reactions in a natural setting. This provocative insight explains why the origin-of-life field has been short on progress over the past half century, whereas molecular biology has flourished.”
(Robert Shapiro, “Life’s beginnings,” Nature, 476, 30-31 (August 4, 2011)).
For further comment, go here.
In a more sober moment of reflection, the New Scientist acknowledged that solutions to the problems elude us. This is how an editorial starts, dated 15 August 2014:
“How did early Earth’s inert matter give rise to its teeming life today? That’s one of the biggest questions in science – and has long been one of the hardest to answer. We’ve known for 60 years that life’s most basic building blocks can form spontaneously, given the right conditions. But how did they assemble into complex organisms? Hard evidence to help us answer that question is lacking.”
As has been pointed out repeatedly, the missing element in the thinking of most researchers is information. They think the solution can be found via physics and chemistry, but this has been an unproductive paradigm. Deamer and his colleagues are not converging on a solution, but going round and round in a circle: they are trapped in their materialistic silo. Information is not, and cannot be, emergent from ‘chance and necessity’, but it is a fundamental quality of the world around us and independent of the laws of the material world. This is why design-based thinking is essential for asking the right questions and finding the routes that will deliver answers.
Origin of life: The first spark
Nature, 514, 302–303 (16 October 2014) | doi:10.1038/514302a
First paragraph: Franklin Harold’s In Search of Cell History is a wonderful book. Harold has for 60 years been an intelligent and clear-minded researcher and observer in the fields of cell and molecular biology. His book is a loving distillation of connections within the incredible diversity of life in the biosphere, framing one of biology’s most important remaining questions: how did life begin?