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Saturday, March 24, 2007

Questions of Scale and the Uncertain Origins of Life

Someone left last month's Wired at the gym, in which a variety of scientists and science journalists took on Big Unanswered Questions. Then there was Gregg Easterbrook, assigned to the question, "Where did life come from?" His review of the classic abiogenesis experiments starts off almost as if he doesn't have an ax to grind:

Famously, in 1952 Harold Urey and Stanley Miller mixed the elements thought to exist in Earth’s primordial atmosphere, exposed them to electricity to simulate lightning, and found that amino acids self-assembled in the researchers’ test tubes. Amino acids are essential to life. [Link in original.]
You might think, hey, that's pretty cool! And pretty neutral so far, even if he doesn't mention that followers-on have managed to synthesize all the protein-forming amino acids in the lab. But pretty soon, Easterbrook is reminding us what those smarty-pants scientists didn't do, as if he were writing a Conservapedia entry with slightly above-average balance:

[Easterbrook, continuing directly:] But the ones in the 1952 experiment did not come to life. Building-block compounds have been shown to result from many natural processes; they even float in huge clouds in space. But no test has given any indication of how they begin to live - or how, in early tentative forms, they could have resisted being frozen or fried by Earth’s harsh prehistoric conditions.
The thing Easterbrook might have noted, in a universe where he wasn't a hack, is that the "natural experiment" on Earth played out on a vastly greater scale. I'm too lazy to look up how much primordial soup Urey, Miller, and other researchers in the area sought to make (*), but let's assume for a realistic figure something on the order of a cubic meter (perhaps a lot less — that's a thousand liters, after all), allowed to stew for a relatively short time — on the order of weeks or years at most. Earth's oceans, meanwhile, have a volume on the order of a billion (10^9) cubic kilometers, or about 10^18 cubic meters. So imagine a quintillion versions of these experiments running simultaneously and interacting with each other. Moreover, nature ran its "experiment" for hundreds of millions of years.

So, while it's technically conjecture to say so, if you can get some building blocks of life to self-assemble in a relatively limited experiment, it doesn't seem like a huge stretch of the imagination to think that scaling up the experiment by 20 or more orders of magnitude would get results that might actually impress an Easterbrook. Easterbrook, instead, chooses to preach to the Intelligent Design (sic) choir (**):

Did God or some other higher being create life? Did it begin on another world, to be transported later to ours? Until such time as a wholly natural origin of life is found, these questions have power. We’re improbable, we’re here, and we have no idea why. Or how.
The question of the nature of our origin is interesting, no doubt, but how does appeal to a designer help answer them? If you're going to push the 'why' question back beyond the ability of essential chemicals to form themselves, why shouldn't the action of the designer be subject to question?

Moreover, if Easterbrook and/or the ID'ers were in some ways correct, one might imagine they might be disappointed to discover that we're The Sims 25 running on a really big computer.

(*) Interested readers may consult the intertubes for additional information.

(**) Unusually abundant in the Wired readership?!

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Blogger Unknown said...

excellent point! good use of scale to implicate complexity.

Saturday, March 24, 2007 4:27:00 PM  
Blogger TDEC said...

Hm, I wish I had more time to research this point, but going by the quotes you use I am not convinced that Easterbrook is an advocate of intelligent design. I would very much like to see a more elaborate post on this topic - right now, from reading this, I feel like either Easterbrook or the reader is being short-changed, which may not be the case. More please? With a bit more nuance?

Tuesday, March 27, 2007 7:58:00 AM  
Blogger Tom Bozzo said...

TDEC, Easterbrook has written favorably on ID elsewhere. (For discussion of other Easterbrook science-religion collisions, see also Kieran Healy here, PZ Myers here, and Chad Orzel here.) To his partial credit, Easterbrook is a reformed global warming denialist, though he can't resist poking fun at Al Gore.

In the Wired piece, Easterbrook doesn't go as far as, "Intelligent design is a sophisticated theory now being argued out in the nation's top universities" (at Beliefnet), but his closing is dense with ID themes. Suggesting that "some other higher being" might be the creator, and (disingenuously) that the lack of a complete scientific theory is tantamount to scientists having "no idea" about the origins of life, is not good science journalism.

I apologize for short-changing the Total Drek readership (pending any follow-up postings), but don't think I've unfairly represented Easterbrook's views.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007 1:15:00 PM  
Blogger TDEC said...

Thanks - elaboration much appreciated.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007 11:18:00 AM  

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