January 8, 2006

NO KNOWN KNOWNS:

The Origin of Life? All in a Day's Work: For Some Scientists, It's a Race to the Start (Joel Achenbach, January 8, 2006, Washington Post)

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth. And He said: Let there be Chemistry.

And he looked upon the Chemistry and He saw that it was good. And then He said: Wait, we need more carbon. Also more water. Tap is fine.

Soon there was something new upon the waters of the Earth, this thing called Life. It oozed, multiplied, diversified. It learned to swim, crawl, even fly. Eventually a new form of life appeared, a creature large of brain, compulsively inquisitive, with an obsession for asking the really big, hairy, gnarly questions, such as: Where did I come from?

That's when things got really complicated.

There is a tendency to think of science as a series of established facts and consensual theories -- "a bunch of things we know, to be memorized," in the words of Robert Hazen, the science popularizer and researcher into the origin of life.

What Hazen will tell you is that science is actually a very human enterprise. It's full of unknowns and uncertainties, of raging controversies, of passions and prejudices. Of all the great unknowns, the origin of life is particularly daunting. Direct evidence of the origin is essentially nonexistent: It happened too long ago, in too subtle a way. There's no fossil of the First Microbe. If there were, some skeptical scientist would surely raise a ruckus, saying: That's just a blob of mud.

The field has attracted people with strong personalities. They argue. They grumble. They snipe. Their debates are much more intense, and more grounded in the rules of science, than the much-hyped debate about evolution and intelligent design.

They are wrestling with basic questions: What is life, exactly? Does it always require liquid water and those long Tinkertoy carbon molecules? Does life require a cell? Did life begin with a hereditary molecule or with some kind of metabolic chemical reaction? Where did life begin on Earth? Was there a single moment that could be described as the "origin of life," or did life sort of creep into existence gradually?

All that is very much in play. In the words of George Cody, an origin-of-life researcher, "No one knows anything about the origin of life."


The mistake lies in thinking that "knowing" is important: faith suffices for everyone.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 8, 2006 8:54 AM
Comments

"The mistake lies in thinking that "knowing" is important: faith suffices for everyone."

Why do you find scientific exploration so objectionable, or even a mistake? It can easily co-exist with religious faith, as indeed it does for many scientists.

If you believe God created nature, then exploring and understanding the complexities of God's creation can provide endless delight.

Posted by: creeper at January 8, 2006 11:18 AM

Creeper (nice name, BTW),

What in OJ's blog gives you the idea that he's against against "scientific exploration?"

Being against the creation of "markets in human flesh" ($tem $ell research) and creating life only to destroy it (harvestation of Fetuses) isn't anti-exploration any more than one would be against funding Menegle's experiments against Jews in the camps (some say valuable data was collected).

Maybe I shouldn't speak for OJ, but my view is that we would argue against the "religion" of scientism (for lack of a better word), which is a long way from open-ended and open-minded research.

When society has replaced the men in black robes with the men in white smocks, it isn't a step forward. Further, when such men lack grounding in the belief in their fallibility, it is possible to argue that it is a step back.

Posted by: Bruno at January 8, 2006 11:49 AM

I think that OJ is making a broader point: all there is is faith.

Posted by: David Cohen at January 8, 2006 12:27 PM

Bruno,

"What in OJ's blog gives you the idea that he's against against "scientific exploration?""

His quote "The mistake lies in thinking that "knowing" is important: faith suffices for everyone.", for one; there are also other reasons that I'd prefer not to go into right now.

"When society has replaced the men in black robes with the men in white smocks, it isn't a step forward."

It hasn't; both have their place. Orrin will gladly tell you that religiosity is near-universal, so what's the worry about the "men in black robes" being replaced?

Posted by: creeper at January 8, 2006 1:30 PM

Orrin,

could you please define "faith" in the sense in which you meant it in your post above?

Posted by: creeper at January 8, 2006 1:36 PM

Mr. Cohen;

I'd say OJ's claim that not onl are scientific theories simply ideological (as opposed to descriptions of reality of varying accuracy), but that scientific observations themselves are subjective. Those would seem to constitute rather fundamental attacks on the scientific endeavor, far more than simply opposing a few specfic initiatives such as stem cells.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at January 8, 2006 2:43 PM

Bruno,
That's exactly the difference between science and religion -- knowledge of one's own fallibility is the entire basis of the practice of science. And of the limitations of the enterprise -- no scientist is going to pretend to be providing every kind of purpose and comfort to humanity, the way religion does. That's what makes science a step forward. It knows what it can do (explain how things work physically) and it can prove that it's the best way to do it.

Posted by: David at January 8, 2006 3:46 PM

David:

It knows what it can do (explain how things work physically) and it can prove that it's the best way to do it.

That's a pluperfect statement of a religious faith that has no rational foundation.

Posted by: oj at January 8, 2006 4:21 PM

AOG:

To the contrary, I approve of the endeavor.

Posted by: oj at January 8, 2006 4:23 PM

creeper;

The problem is that the men in black robes are right.

Posted by: oj at January 8, 2006 4:37 PM

Orrin,

Which men in black robes, on what subject, and how do you know?

Posted by: creeper at January 8, 2006 6:01 PM

Clergy. About God and Man. Faith.

Posted by: oj at January 8, 2006 6:07 PM

You can of course freely believe that clergy is right about God and Man, which is hardly a controversial statement, but why do you say there is a problem?

Posted by: creeper at January 8, 2006 6:24 PM

Because of the attempt to replace them with men in white smocks.

Posted by: oj at January 8, 2006 6:29 PM

creeper:

Did your mother raise you solely by asking you questions?

Posted by: Peter B at January 8, 2006 7:24 PM

Peter,

No.

Posted by: creeper at January 8, 2006 7:41 PM

Orrin,

Who do you think is attempting to replace the clergy with scientists on the subject of God and Man, and how? As far as I can see, the clergy can pronounce freely on God and Man - just not science. Perhaps you're thinking of the failed attempt to replace the men in white smocks with men in black robes that we recently witnessed in Dover, PA.

Posted by: creeper at January 8, 2006 7:51 PM

creeper:

Yes, that's a good example. The faith of the smocked does not belong in public schools.

Your statement that the clergy aren't entitled to pronounce on science is exquisitely revealing.

This is all just about your desire to establish your own faith.

Posted by: oj at January 8, 2006 8:18 PM
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