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A reply to the always thoughtful Henry Racette’s recent post.
I used to be impressed with the Carl Saganesque notion that billions and billions (insert “stars,” “years,” “galaxies,” whatever) means that anything can come into being and that theories of simple abiotic origins of life are probably right. I don’t (can’t) believe that anymore. Rolling a pair of dice a few billion times does not alter the probability of rolling a 13.
Around 70 years ago, the Miller-Urey experiment generated amino acids from an electric charge in a container of water, hydrogen ammonia, and methane. From this result, we were taught in our basic biology textbooks that science was thus already on the verge of recreating the accident that created life on earth. (In that same era, we were also urged to expect the replacement of the creaky markets and democratic institutions with central planning done by experts because … science.)
A coherent, confident worldview came into being in which even that which science could not explain would be explained in short order, so we should act as if it already did.
In the seven decades since those amino acids appeared in a flask, nobody has abiotically created even a single protein, much less a system that replicates proteins. While the science of finding abiotic origins has stalled, our understanding of living structures has become vastly more complex and makes the lightning strike in the primordial ooze model even less satisfying.
The orthodox model of natural selection plus random mutation is becoming almost tiresome because of its limitations. A marvelous presentation of the disarray of biological science and the challenges to Darwinian orthodoxy can be found in this informative, must-read article: Do we need a new theory of evolution?
It is not that natural selection does not work. The problem is that it is overrated as an explanatory hypothesis if we ask, “Who will survive?” Answer: “The Fittest!” And if we ask, “How can we identify The Fittest?” Answer: “They are the ones who survive.” Thanks a pantload, Nostradamus.
And I have never been comfortable with point mutation as the author of speciation. I enjoyed Stephen Jay Gould’s explorations (such as Goldberg’s notion of a “hopeful monster”) of the topic of traits that were unlikely to be aided by natural selection if gradually presented to the court of natural selection (feathers, for example). Therefore larger, more complete leaps are logically necessary, leaps unlikely to be the result of random point mutations. The fact that the fossil record seems to include long periods of stable systems followed by rather sudden change is generally not consonant with a gradualist paradigm. How did those entirely new forms emerge? The fact that they did not die off does not explain how they came to be here in the first place.
Not to sound like Ian Malcolm, but more than just “life always finding a way.” I will speculate that many living things have a built-in capacity for giving rise to novel forms (e.g., the Senegal bichir) while others appear to be end-points with no further destiny. Environmental challenges call forth that which was always potentially there (I lost both Aristotle and Darwin on that one, but I am undeterred…) and such changes are coordinated across interrelated adaptable species. Maybe too much focus on species instead of ecosystems is a conceptual limitation, maybe influences of change are mutual.
None of this requires a theological explanation (though a sense of wonder is never a bad thing spiritually or intellectually) but it does require an admission that our understanding of life’s nature and origins is nowhere as complete as some would have us believe and perhaps less compelling than it once was. And that saying “billions and billions” grounds or even is an explanation for the nature and origin of life is somehow so very 1970s.Published in