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Priestley Medalist George Whitesides on Origin of Life

These are excerpts from the cover story of the March 26, 2007 issue of Chemical and Engineering Times dealing with the origin of life. Read the whole article at the link provided.

Revolutions In Chemistry
Priestley Medalist George M. Whitesides’ address

cowcells

The Cell and the Nature of Life. I believe that understanding the cell is ultimately a question of chemistry and that chemists are, in principle, best qualified to solve it. The cell is a bag­a bag containing smaller bags and helpfully organizing spaghetti – ­filled with a Jell-O of reacting chemicals and somehow able to replicate itself. Yes, it is important to know the individual reactions that make the cell what it is, but the bigger problem is understanding why life -the cell­- is dynamically stable as a strongly interconnected network of reactions, organized in space and time in ways we do not grasp.

Although we presently have no theory to explain this kind of system, understanding the kinetics of systems of coupled reactions is the kind of thing that chemists and chemical engineers are -­in principle- ­uniquely qualified to do.

The Origin of Life. This problem is one of the big ones in science. It begins to place life, and us, in the universe. Most chemists believe, as do I, that life emerged spontaneously from mixtures of molecules in the prebiotic Earth.

How? I have no idea. Perhaps it was by the spontaneous emergence of “simple” autocatalytic cycles and then by their combination. On the basis of all the chemistry that I know, it seems to me astonishingly improbable. The idea of an RNA world is a good hint, but it is so far removed in its complexity from dilute solutions of mixtures of simple molecules in a hot, reducing ocean under a high pressure of CO2 that I don’t know how to connect the two.

We need a really good new idea. That idea would, of course, start us down the path toward systems that evolve autonomously­ – a revolution indeed.

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14 Responses to Priestley Medalist George Whitesides on Origin of Life

  1. The cell is a bag a bag containing smaller bags and helpfully organizing spaghetti – filled with a Jell-O of reacting chemicals and somehow able to replicate itself.

    That is the best way to think about the cell if you want to live in denial about abiogenesis. Abiogenesis never happened and never will.

  2. George M. Whiteside:

    Peer Review. The peer review system, especially in a time of financial drought, is between conservative and Luddite. It filters out all the bad ideas, most of the new good ones, and all of the really unusual ones. There is, of course, an alternative to this “intolerance” for new ideas, to use Kuhn’s term: If chemistry wishes to welcome new ideas, the peer review system can express that wish.

    Well said.

  3. Most chemists believe, as do I, that life emerged spontaneously from mixtures of molecules in the prebiotic Earth.

    How? I have no idea.

    Isn’t this the sort of thing Richard Dawkins is talking about when he defines “faith” as “belief without evidence”? I mean, why do “most chemists believe…that life emerged spontaneously” if there is no evidence as to how that can happen?

  4. Slashdot ( http://science.slashdot.org/ar.....31/1919214 ) is crying because 48% of Americans believe evolution is unsupported by evidence. Well, I wonder why.

    I think it would be a good idea for posters here to post on Slashdot.org too as /. have huge readership, even if most of them are ignorant about what they are talking about. Point them back to this site at least.

  5. Robo, “48% of Americans believe evolution is unsupported by evidence” To some extent, to an important extent, you have misquoted the article. The article asked, “Is evolution well-supported by evidence” I would agree witht the 48% that neo-Darwinian evolution is not well supported by evidence. I would certainly not suggest that “common-descent” evolution is “unsupported” by evidence. I would even dare to suggest in this community that there is some evidence supporting a neo-Darwinian model. There’s a lot of contrary evidence, but there is some evidenciary support for neo-Darwinian evolution.

  6. “The cell is a bag­a bag containing smaller bags and helpfully organizing spaghetti – ­filled with a Jell-O of reacting chemicals and somehow able to replicate itself.”

    An explanation perfectly at home in the last century. I’m glad the cell has nothing to do with information processing – then it would be complicated.

    “Most chemists believe, as do I, that life emerged spontaneously from mixtures of molecules in the prebiotic Earth.”

    Another ode to materialism (yawn). Golly why can’t we figured this stuff out? ID is supposed to be the science-stopper right??

  7. At least Dr. Whiteside has a degree of intellectual honesty: if he does not know something, he admits it. More than I can say for these super-duper doctorates who hand-wave and dance their way past gaping questions like the origin of life.

    Best regards,
    apollo230

  8. “How? I have no idea. Perhaps it was…seems to me astonishingly improbable”

    Of course, perhaps it was little green panspermiacs that did it.

    A totally useless statement as science but very enlightening as to the true nature of materialist blind faith “science”. It may be patently absurd but that doesn’t even matter to them!

    Once again I’m reminded that materialist scientists, “…take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubsantiated just-so stories…” – Richard Lewontin

    There we see it. It does not matter how “patently absurd” it gets as long as it remains unadulterated materialism.

    Because of their raving, irrational god-angst, these people have lost their bearings with reality.

  9. “The Origin of Life. Most chemists believe, as do I, that life emerged spontaneously from mixtures of molecules in the prebiotic Earth.
    How? I have no idea. On the basis of all the chemistry that I know, it seems to me astonishingly improbable. We need a really good new idea. That idea would, of course, start us down the path toward systems that evolve autonomously—a revolution indeed.

    The Cell and the Nature of Life. The cell is a bag—a bag containing smaller bags and helpfully organizing spaghetti—filled with a Jell-O of reacting chemicals and somehow able to replicate itself. The problem is understanding why life — the cell — is dynamically stable as a strongly interconnected network of reactions, organized in space and time in ways we do not grasp. We presently have no theory to explain this kind of system.”

    Hey guys, you say you have no idea, or current theory. You believe by faith that there was no Intelligent Designer involved. That sounds like religion to me. Evidence, we want evidence not just blind faith.

  10. The Origin of Life. This problem is one of the big ones in science. … Most chemists believe, as do I … How? I have no idea.”

    This is a “statement of faith”, a religious statement. Let this be understood, and all is well with science.

  11. “Most chemists believe, as do I, that life emerged spontaneously from mixtures of molecules in the prebiotic Earth. How? I have no idea.”

    That says it all. Religion masquerading as science.

    Obviously being a “scientist” is no guarantee against being a fool.

  12. “Most chemists believe, as do I, that life emerged spontaneously from mixtures of molecules in the prebiotic Earth. How? I have no idea.”

    Well, you can’t fault the guy for being honest!

  13. How about for irrationality?

  14. Ilion is no longer with us. His first comment here included the rather grandiose claim that he is certain he can show us modern evolutionary theory is false. His subsequent comments have been large on claims and short on substance. We wish him luck and await his Nobel prize for disproving ToE but won’t be holding our collective breath in the interim.

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