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Origin of Life

Nick Matzke wrote an excellent update on what we know about the Origin of Life:

Here is a short list of things we have discovered or confirmed in the last 50 years or so pertaining to the origin of life. In my opinion all of these points have reached high enough confidence that they are unlikely to change much with future discoveries, and our confidence in them does not depend in uncertainties in the remaining unanswered questions.

I agree with him that, in confrontations with Creationists, we should not secede the origin of life to then (i.e.., “evolution only covers what happens once Life already exists). When I teach BIO101, I always cover the current ideas about the Origin of Life, and Nick’s post will be helpful for me next time to get my lecture up to date (and perhaps give it as “supplemental reading” to the students).


  1. #1 Winawer
    July 13, 2008

    There’s a difference between giving questions about the origin of life over to the creationists and saying that it is the province of a different part of the field of biology than evolutionary biology. After all, it is not just “legalistic hair-splitting” (as Nick says) to point out that evolutionary theorists have to stop *somewhere*, unless they plan on folding all of chemistry and physics into evolutionary theory. Nick keeps pushing back the goalposts by saying that more and more things are an evolutionary process, but I don’t relish the idea of having to explain the Big Bang to do evolutionary work.

    It’s also not “hair-splitting” to note that evolution as a theory does not require a coherent OOL theory *at all* to operate. It is enough that life, at some time in the past, came into existence for evolution to be applied.

    Having said that, OOL questions are closely related to evolutionary theory and clearly the line between them is blurry and subject to reappraisal. But I’m wary of attempts to start throwing everything into evolutionary theory just because we want to take a talking point away from the creationists.

  2. #2 Coturnix
    July 13, 2008

    I agree that the two are related yet separate and that the border between the two fields (just like borders between any two fields these days) is getting fuzzier. But they are both parts of Biology and should be taught in BIO101, no matter how many Creationists one may expect to face in the classroom.

  3. #3 Winawer
    July 13, 2008

    But they are both parts of Biology and should be taught in BIO101, no matter how many Creationists one may expect to face in the classroom.

    Huh…are there any credible biologists who says that OOL *shouldn’t* be taught in a biology class? That would surprise the hell out of me, I have to admit.

  4. #4 Coturnix
    July 13, 2008

    OOL is rarely taught in BIO101 (high school or community college level), and if a teacher is nervous about evolution, OOL is certainly not going to get covered. I cover it in detail.

  5. #5 Dr. Kate
    July 13, 2008

    While I definitely agree that we should not omit a discussion of the origin of life in a Bio 101 class, I also agree with Winawer that we really need to make sure it’s clear that the theory of evolution really doesn’t (at least directly) explain how life came about.

    I know this is obvious, but one of the big “arguments” the creationists use to “disprove” evolution is arguing about the validity of the Urey-Miller experiments, which patently have nothing to do with evolution. And yet, every time I see a rebuttal of this particular “argument”, the author seems to focus on the usefulness of the experiment even though it might not be directly representative of the actual process–there is almost never even a cursory statement that arguing that evolution is “false” because of Urey-Miller is like arguing that Einstein’s theory of gravitation is false because Rutherford thought electrons orbited in distinct planes.

  6. #6 Dr. Kate
    July 13, 2008

    Of course, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t address the issue. Obviously if the creationists have a problem with evolution, they also have a problem with scientific explanations for the origin of life, and their “arguments” about that also need to be addressed.

    But it’s one of my biggest frustrations that there is so much scientific illiteracy (everywhere), and I think we need to be vigilant in using our arguments correctly.

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