Debate on the Origin of Life

Joel Achenbach writes for the Washington Post. He has a humor column in the Post’s Sunday magazine, and he has a blog that is mostly humorous. So when I saw that he was writing on the origin of life I expected a satirical look at inteligent design. It was in fact a serious article mostly about Robert Hazen a scientist that is looking for the first chemicals or cells that might be classified as life in the geothermal vents deep under the sea.

Perhaps life didn’t begin at the surface of the Earth, they say, but rather deep beneath the sea around a hydrothermal vent. Such geysers form along mid-ocean ridges, spewing hot water into a dark, cold, pressurized realm that teems with bizarre organisms, like giant clams and 6-foot tube worms. The ventists say the disequilibrium between the hot and cold water is a natural driver of interesting chemical reactions. This would be a good place to cook up organic molecules from which life could emerge and evolve, they say. Moreover, the deep hydrothermal environment would have been protected from harsh ultraviolet sunlight and the meteor bombardments common at the surface of the young Earth.

Turns out that this is far from a settled question and there is a very active debate. At times it has been a very nasty debate. Hazen has described it all in a new book. In addition to informing people about this fascinating research, he is also trying to show that science is a human enterprise in hope that it will make science more accessible to nonscientists.

I fear that this example is not the best to choose, because the great success of the scienitific enterprise is that debates do get resolved, and this one is not yet settled. Science is about a set of rules about how to argue and how to collect data so that people can convince one and another that there is a correct answer. The debates can be pretty unruly until a critcal mass of high quality data can be collected.

If I were trying to show a interesting scientific debate, I would want to choose an example where there was a great disagreement and then new data was obtained from experiments or observations that clearly demonstrated that one side was right. This would be a great example of just what science is.

The problem that scientists have in explaining what we do is that once there is agreement that the correct answer has been found no one talks about the debate anymore.

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One Response to “Debate on the Origin of Life”

  1. Check out “1491” by Charles Mann. Although it falls under the categories of archeology and anthropology, more in the social sciences than in the more “basic” sciences that I was educated in, the process of scholarly debate is well depicted. This book describes how the Americas may not have been the sparsely populated wilderness that Europeans thought they had “discovered” but may indeed have had more people who were killed off by smallpox shortly after first contact. The old way of thinking is contrasted with the new scholarship, and a still-active debate is described in the last chapter. This really is what the process of science is about, as well as a fascinating story of how civilizations die.

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