August 14, 2005


Project on the origins of life launched: Harvard joining debate on evolution (Gareth Cook, August 14, 2005, Boston Globe)

Harvard University is launching a broad initiative to discover how life began, joining an ambitious scientific assault on age-old questions that are central to the debate over the theory of evolution.

The Harvard project, which is likely to start with about $1 million annually from the university, will bring together scientists from fields as disparate as astronomy and biology, to understand how life emerged from the chemical soup of early Earth, and how this might have happened on distant planets.

Known as the ''Origins of Life in the Universe Initiative," the project is still in its early stages, and fund-raising has not begun, the scientists said. [...]

Yet even understanding the path to life on Earth is daunting. Researchers have sketched out a version of the story that begins 4 billion years ago, when Earth was a hot, young planet, with no oxygen to breathe. Evolution forms the basis of modern biology.

Still, there are many points in the story of life's origins in which there is a mystifying leap that has escaped explanation. One of the first is the appearance of complex organic molecules, such as those that form membranes around cells; these are the building blocks of life.

Every high school student learns of the 1953 Miller-Urey experiment: A flask, containing elements of the early Earth's atmosphere, was jolted with electricity, like bolts of lightening. This simple setup created a wealth of organic molecules, but since, the prevailing view of the makeup of the early atmosphere has changed, and the experiment doesn't work well with the new recipe.

Some researchers have suggested that organic molecules could have been carried to Earth in the icy core of comets, or that life began near the intense heat of deep sea vents, an environment that drives unusual reactions.

But on the third floor of Harvard's Engineering Sciences Laboratory, a chemist, Scot Martin, has pursued a different theory. He believes that ultraviolet light from the sun, shining down on tiny mineral crystals floating near the surface of the early ocean, may have generated organic compounds.

In his flask, he has shown that molecules of bicarbonate, common in the early ocean, attach themselves to a mineral called sphalerite. When the ultraviolet light hits the sphalerite, it sets off a chain of events that makes the bicarbonate more reactive, and that leads to a wide range of organic compounds in Martin's flask.

''I was elated," said Martin, a professor of environmental chemistry at Harvard who only recently became involved in origins-of-life research. ''This area as a whole is drawing more interest."

Even with Martin's and others' work, though, there remains another profound and unsolved problem in the story of life's development: how the environments with just the right chemicals might have come to be.

For example, chemists have long wondered how the early Earth environment could have produced large amounts of a sugar known as ribose, a building block of RNA, a molecule that carries genetic information and that is crucial to life on Earth.

Last year, Benner published a paper in Science finding that a common mineral, borate, could collect ribose, concentrating it in the environment. Benner has been studying how minerals may have played other roles as well, helping to create special environments where the key ingredients of life could have come together and formed larger structures.

One of the biggest puzzles is discovering a way that the natural chemistry of the early Earth could lead to the building of structures, such as cells, that can evolve.

Scientists have long known that, under the right conditions, molecules called fatty acids come together and form membranes, like the skin of a water balloon. Over the past few years, a Harvard scientist, Jack Szostak, has made important progress in understanding how a process like this may have led to the first cell. In a paper in the journal Science, he has shown that a clay common on the early Earth, called montmorillonite, speeds this process by serving as a scaffold.

The Szostak team has also built on the work of other scientists, who have shown that the same clay can help the formation of RNA, thought to be a precursor to the DNA that now serves as life's instruction book. Szostak showed that when fatty acids and RNA were mixed with the clay, these balloons formed with RNA trapped inside. A process like this, Szostak said, may have led to the first cell.

Szostak, who is an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and a researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital, is also part of the push across traditional academic boundaries. He depends, for example, on the work of chemists, who can tell him what chemical building blocks may have been available. Andrew Knoll, another member of the Harvard initiative, built his career as a specialist on Earth's most ancient fossils, but now finds himself a part of the team deciding where the Opportunity rover travels on the Martian surface.

And Sasselov is an astrophysicist who is a specialist in finding planets around other stars, and in creating models of their makeup, yet he is organizing the Harvard effort to explore some of the most fundamental questions in biology.

Imagine the lack of awareness behind the belief that if you can duplicate the origins of life on Earth in a lab you'll have shown that it wasn't a product of intelligent design.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 14, 2005 9:44 AM

OJ, it is also a massive delusion to think that Christianity / intelligent design are the opponents of science, that science has had to struggle continuously against religious opposition in order to develop.

According to Rodney Stark's summary of much current historical opinion regarding the development of science, Christian belief about creation was necessary for science to exist. "Christianity depicted God as a rational, responsive, dependable, and omnipotent being and the universe has his personal creation, thus having a rational, lawful, stable structure, awaiting human comprehension ... In contrast with the dominant relgious and philosophical doctines in the non-Christian world, Christians developed science because they believed it could be done and should be done."

I recommend Rodney Stark's well-documented and well-reviewed "For the Glory of God" for more detail.

Posted by: L. Rogers at August 14, 2005 10:42 AM

Just to be clear, there isn't anyone from Harvard quoted in the article as saying anything about intelligent design except the author of the article, who apparently needed a hook of controversy to place the article. Oh, and the guy who expressed some surprise that the fact that even Harvard scientists don't know how to make life meant only God could do it.

Posted by: Charlie (Colorado) at August 14, 2005 10:43 AM


Yes, the reason science is a Western phenomenon is because we believe in an orderly Creation whose secrets we'll be able to discover.

Posted by: oj at August 14, 2005 10:52 AM


I concede the point that they may recognize it's a massive attempt to prove intelligent design.

Posted by: oj at August 14, 2005 10:54 AM

exactly how is the concept of intelligent design in conflict with the theory of evolution again? this is the "oakland" of all the current issues bemoaned by the christian right.

Posted by: lonbud at August 14, 2005 12:56 PM


When the Darwinists were winning the argument the Church pretended there was no conflict. Now the Darwinists are losing so they pretend there's none and the Church has rescinded its ill-considered concession.

Posted by: oj at August 14, 2005 1:14 PM

Just out of curiosity OJ about your use of the term intelligent design. Do you agree with the actual ID theories of Behe etc.? Or are you using it in a more general sense?

Posted by: carter at August 14, 2005 1:53 PM

oj's using it in the general sense that the lonbuds of this world are herd animals, and you can drive them wherever you want to, as long as you're stubborn enough. Now about that communication problem we're having with Osama on the other thread...

Posted by: joe shropshire at August 14, 2005 2:11 PM


No. I'm a Creationist. Where Darwinists say Nature and IDers say an intelligence, I say God. None is a science.

Posted by: oj at August 14, 2005 2:39 PM

Just wondering, thanks.

Posted by: carter at August 14, 2005 2:44 PM

C'est tres amusant. But that is not real money in the scientific research game. Its a PR stunt.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at August 14, 2005 11:59 PM

P.S. my bet is that they cannot get over the chirality barrier.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at August 15, 2005 12:00 AM

there is no need superimpose a mirror image on anything; all life is a mirror.

oj: of course god created the universe. why does that conflict with evolution, again?

Posted by: lonbud at August 15, 2005 1:13 AM


Ask Harry.

Posted by: oj at August 15, 2005 1:18 AM

The chirality problem is deeper than mirror images. Most organic molecules are biologically active only in their dextro form. Thermal processes produce racemic mixtures and there is no thermal process that will sort dextro from levulo forms.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at August 15, 2005 1:54 AM


When were the Darwinists winning, and how do you think they are losing now?

Posted by: creeper at August 15, 2005 8:35 PM

They were winning when they forced their way into public classrooms, Inherit the Wind presented a warped view of the Scopes trial, folks believed in peppered moths, and the Vatican yielded to them--and they're losing now that they're being tossed from classrooms, the moths have been debunked, the Vatican acknowledges it was in error and not only is the public discourse openly dubious about Darwinism but even the President is a skeptic. It's not the type of thing aqnyone would even have polled on thirty or forty years ago, but the fact that the theory is at 13% and people feel no pressure to hide their contempt for it demonstrates that it has crested.

Posted by: oj at August 15, 2005 8:51 PM

"Imagine the lack of awareness behind the belief that if you can duplicate the origins of life on Earth in a lab you'll have shown that it wasn't a product of intelligent design."

As usual, you are conflating garden-variety intelligent design and the Intelligent Designer.

A controlled lab experiment that demonstrates organic life being generated spontaneously in a simulation of conditions on Earth back when life first arose would not show that the origin of life wasn't a product of intelligent design; it would, however, show that life can arise naturally and without being designed/artificially created.

This would be problematic for IDers, since their position is that since life can not arise naturally, it must have been created/designed.

BTW, before you get all confused about this again: the intelligent design pertaining to the experiment is not the same as the intelligent design pertaining to the specific creation of organic life.

Posted by: creeper at August 15, 2005 8:53 PM

"A controlled lab experiment ... would be problematic for IDers, since their position is that since life can not arise naturally, it must have been created/designed."

Now I know you're just playing stupid.

Posted by: oj at August 15, 2005 9:05 PM

In other words, to you any controlled lab experiment is a de facto demonstration of intelligent design, which to you is nigh synonymous with Intelligent Design.

Since we do not have access to a time machine to go back and observe the primordial ooze ourselves, any further inquiry into this topic that posits that no supernatural influence was necessary to create life is simply forbidden.

Is that about the size of it?

Posted by: creeper at August 15, 2005 9:18 PM

Which is why Darwin, Mayr and the rest of the most honest minds in Darwinism have acknowledged that it isn't science and not subject to experimental proofs.

Posted by: oj at August 15, 2005 9:27 PM

Darwin and Mayr did not say that evolutionary biology is not science.

Saying something is "not a science like the other sciences" is not the same as saying something is "not a science". When you say that Timmy is "not a boy like the other boys", you are saying that he is a different kind of boy, but still a boy.

Referring to the "philosophy of biology" in the context of the philosophy of science is not classifying biology as a philosophy. "Biology" and "philosophy of biology" are not synonymous, in the same way that "science" and "philosophy of science" are not synonymous.

Posted by: creeper at August 15, 2005 9:44 PM

Like I said, Mayr was more honest than his fellows and followers.

Posted by: oj at August 15, 2005 9:47 PM

The public discourse is more dubious about literal creationism than it is about man evolving over millions of years from lower forms of life, which is the majority view.

Does allowing other theories being taught mean the theory of evolution has been "tossed" from them?

Has the Vatican officially changed its position on evolution?

That's 13% and rising, by the way. The way you're talking, that number should have gone down, not up. Then again, the way you make it sound, the fastest growing religious preference shouldn't be "none"... but it is.

Posted by: creeper at August 15, 2005 9:58 PM

"Mayr was more honest than his fellows and followers."

Maybe so, but he never said biology wasn't a science.

Posted by: creeper at August 15, 2005 10:02 PM

"not a science like the other sciences

Posted by: oj at August 15, 2005 10:18 PM

Correct: Mayr once said biology was "not a science like the other sciences" - which does not mean "not a science".

Once again: Mayr never said biology wasn't a science. Your snippet did not contradict that.

Posted by: creeper at August 15, 2005 11:17 PM

"not a science like the other sciences"

Posted by: oj at August 15, 2005 11:34 PM

... still does not mean "not a science".

If that and your willful misreading of "philosophy of biology" is all you have for your claim that Mayr said biology isn't a science, then I take it from your uncommented repetition of the phrase that you're simply conceding the point.

Posted by: creeper at August 16, 2005 2:33 AM

"not a science like the other sciences"

Posted by: oj at August 16, 2005 8:05 AM

Here endeth the lesson.

Posted by: creeper at August 16, 2005 1:23 PM

Bingo! See--you're learning. In one day you acknowledged that evolution underlies not just Darwinism but Creationism and ID and that Darwinism isn't like the other sciences.

Posted by: oj at August 16, 2005 3:59 PM