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Monday, February 22, 2010

Mobile goal posts.

In my many years of blogging I have- from time to time- had an argument or two with people trying to convince me that evolution is bogus. Needless to say they have not been successful, but the arguments have nevertheless been soul-sucking exercises in mental torture.

A common theme that has emerged in these discussions has been a sort of challenge. That challenge boils down to: "If your science is so awesome, then make life in a laboratory! And if you can't then evolution must be wrong because god did it! QED, bitches!" I probably don't have to point out that the logic underlying this challenge is absolutely stoopid. We don't have to be able to manufacture something in order to be able to fairly claim to understand it- we understand the tides, for example, and yet to the best of my knowledge have yet to manufacture a planet and a moon of a sufficient size to produce similar phenomena. Yet, still, we know how they work. Regardless however, this continues to be thrown into the teeth of pro-science folks everywhere as a valid argument. I suppose it seemed like a safe tactic, given that producing life in the laboratory must be a very, very difficult thing. And, indeed, it is.

But we're getting closer.

Very, very, much closer, in fact.

I am referring to recent news that researchers at the Scripps Research Institute have managed to synthetically produce self-replicating molecules that undergo Darwinian evolution:

“There’s nothing in biology in this system: no proteins, no cells, no biological matter. We just provide them with the building blocks,” said molecular biologist Gerald Joyce of the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego.

“They’re just molecules, so they do what they do until they run out of substrate. And this will go for ever – it’s an immortal molecule, if you like,” he told a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Diego.

Since he and colleague Tracey Lincoln first succeeded in creating this artificial genetic system that can undergo self-sustained replication and evolution last year, the molecules have changed dramatically as they evolve better and better solutions.

The researchers began with ribozymes known to occur naturally, and put these in a growth medium, heated them and allowed the ribozymes to replicate until they had exhausted their fuel – usually within an hour.

The team then extracted a random subset, and put them in a new medium: ribozymes then competed with each other to consume as much of the medium as possible.

Eventually more successful ribozymes came to dominate the culture, and as the process continued, the ribozymes – undergoing evolution - grew in complexity, blindly finding solutions that made them more successful.

“The key thing is it replicates itself, and passes information from parent to progeny down the line,” Joyce told Cosmos Online.

Now, the researchers in question are not claiming to have produced life yet, and indeed that's a fair point, but what they have done is produced- in the lab- the precursor to modern life. Indeed, they have produced something that probably looks very much like what eventually gave rise to DNA. It reproduces, it evolves, and it's entirely synthetic. And that's pretty awesome news.

So will we stop hearing challenges now to make life in the lab? Nah. I doubt it. The goal posts will just move. Once we have life, they'll say make a cell. When we do that, they'll say make a multicellular life form. When we do that, they'll say make a big animal. And when we do that, they'll say make a smart animal. And if we ever manage that- grappling with the serious ethical issues it will entail- they'll probably still claim that we couldn't make a soul. Which is fine, since souls don't exist anyway.

The funny thing about moving the goal posts is that after a while you end up with nowhere else to go and no room for your god. Maybe it would be better to just make peace with science a little sooner, eh?

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Blogger Marf said...

As far as I'm concerned, the actual goal post for evolution is explaining how life changes over generations, and why there's such a variety of life. And evolution has scored.

It is not evolution's job to explain how the first life came to be; that's in the realm of abiogenesis. And that's a whole different set of theories.

Friday, February 26, 2010 4:49:00 PM  

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