Is the origin of life different from evolution?

I heard it said recently that "Evolution" and "Origin of life" are two separate issues. I know that this is a falsehood, and I'll discuss in a moment how and why it is not true. But first, I checked around with a few people that I know and love, and found out that some of them assumed this was true. I think it is something that has been said enough times that if you are not personally engaged in the research or just don't think about it enough, you can easily assume that this is what the experts say. But they don't.

It is possible that there is a nefarious force working here. And I'm talking about the "A-word." If the evolution of species is one thing, and the origin off life is another thing, then we could, potentially, focus on evolution in, say, high school biology classes, and just ignore the whole origin of life bit. Let people think that god started life and perhaps set up a few (Darwinian) rules (theistic evolution). Etc.

But that is not actually how it works, and the best way to think about this is to ask the following question: "Just what do you think evolution is?"

Possible answers would be "Evolution is natural selection," or "Evolution is the diversification of species," or "Evolution is change organic change over time" and so on. These are all correct, of course. But if evolution is any two or more of these things, then it is not one of these things, exclusively. And, if evolution is both diversification and natural selection, then it is a concept that includes some very very different things. So, if you think "Origin of Life" is not evolution because it is somehow different from any one specific aspect of evolution (like natural selection) then you are being unfair to Origin of Life by treating its different-ness as an excuse for excluding it. Shame on you.

It seems that one argument is that the Origin of Life is not evolution because evolution is natural selection, diversification of species, and so on, and none of those things could have happened without life already existing, and it does not really exist at the moment of origin. This, however, is not correct for two reasons. The first (and probably most important) reason is that we don't know what the origin if life was like. So, to characterize it as an instant when some stuff goes from being not-life to being life is fantasy. You don't know that this is how it happened, so you can't use this made-up trait of the origin of life to say that it is not evolution. The second reason is a bit more tenuous; Most models for the origin of life are very Darwinian. Most have some selection going on, most have some diversification going on, and all, by necessity and definition, have change over time going on. And, it is organic change, because the stuff of life before the primordial animation was organic stuff.

The origin of life is part of evolutionary biology.

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There was 5 minutes I'll never get back...

By STARSKEPTIC (not verified) on 28 Jun 2011 #permalink

I've wondered at times if people grappling with the Origin question focus mistakenly on small-scale systems, imagining that the first "living" thing must have been single-celled.

I picture a homeostatic system starting out large, a collection of continent-sized or ocean-sized repetitive processes, the period of which might be decades or even millennia, gradually refining down and spinning off smaller and quicker subsystems until an extremely localized system begins producing little membrane-enclosed blobs that evolve into cells.

It seems to me that you could have large-scale self-stabilizing, self-sustaining systems that we wouldn't recognize as "life," but that served as life's precursor, and so deserve some of the title. The conserving of processes that bolster or refine the internal organization of the system ... you could only think of that as evolution, even if no "life" yet existed.

That's 5 minutes I'm glad I invested.

I'm one of those that isolated OOL from Evolution, and yet, I can see how organic material could form, but not necessarily be considered life, because, e.g. it doesn't reproduce. But conditions on earth could have created vast quantities of various forms of organic material, and eventually, with the right conditions, some characteristic is naturally selected, and voila', a piece of organic material actually reproduces.

So I just change my viewpoint ever so slightly.

I think it is still valid to separate - even if only to counter creationist who argue that because we cannot demonstrate the origin of live therefore evolution must be wrong.
We know how evolution - common descent with modification and speciation through natural selection works. That mechanism is well understood. Therefore we have a theory at hand that is testable.
We have on the other hand very little to go by how cells developed and were able to divide.
Lots of ideas, only hypothesis and very few approaches to test how a COHN came to make a biological entity called the first cell or any of the mechanism of how all the parts that make a cell came into being and then combined to a new entity with never before existing abilities.
So just for practical reasons I think we should keep those two separate for now.

I've often heard it said that abiogenesis is not evolution and thus cannot be discussed in the same breath or forum. While that distinction has made me uncomfortable, I'm not a biologist, so I defer to the experts on this question.

Reading blogs such as this one and PZMyers' has given me more insights into the complexities of biological systems and into the sorts of ways that complexities emerge. All the refutations of the "irreducible complexity" nonsense describe systems that became more complex and acquired new functions. We can stick a stake in the ground at DNA and its machinery and at cycles such as Krebs' and say "Here we certainly have life." Whether what came before is defined as life is irrelevant; what's interesting to me is how those structures and processes emergedâand that is the abiogenesis question.

It seems likely that some form of sorting algorithm was at work; whether it was evolutionary would depend on whether the systems being sorted could reproduce and inherit characteristics. (A sorting algorithm can be as simple as a lake freezing: slow molecules stick to the roof; faster ones don't.) Once there is proper inheritance, it can fairly be called life, but the precursors are likely to contain formidable systems.

I look forward to reading more discussions on the processes that preceded that stake in the ground, as well as where that stake ought to be.

By Timberwoof (not verified) on 28 Jun 2011 #permalink

I always wondered why OOL and Evolution were kept separate. They make more sense (to me) as a continuum.

Not being a biologist, chemist or a philosopher of biology; I often wondered at how "life" could be defined so precisely that OOL and evolution could be separated. Was there one origin? Where there fits and starts, life and non-life in "waves" before the process of living finally moved on towards the diversification of life that we observe?

Is there a "threshhold" of life that we can mark with certainty? Or is non-life to life a gradient, such as light frequencies; is there a mark we can place on the spectrum of light that defines the difference between indigo and blue? Is there a generation of green warblers, or a definable characteristic that delineates one species from the next? Isn't life more of a gradient than a set of distinct species? If philosophers of science can delineate what set of characteristics separate life from non-life, then perhaps there would be a way to say "Abiogenesis is on this side of the mark, and evolution is on the other, Darwin, you may proceed!"

Back when I was learning evolution on, I phrased your very question, and was shot down.

Thanks Greg. Make's me think of the similar question: "Just what do you think the Origin of Life is?"

As a biology teacher, I defer to Peter above. Yet, I teach them both--first the origin of life (with lots of "once there was self replication, you have evolution" sprinkled in), then really in depth evolution--it keeps the creationists at bay a bit. (They aren't sure where to interrupt)

So wait... are you saying the origin of life is part of evolutionary biology, which I agree with, or are you saying that it is literally part of the definition of evolution by natural selection?

Either way I'm okay with, I'm just curious on what you're saying exactly, because when I think about the origin of organic molecules, I really don't think of that as a part of evolution, because it seems more chemical than biological.

Excuse me if I sound a bit ignorant, I'm still learning quite a lot about the field.

No, it isn't.
Abiogenesis is abiogenesis, and evolution is evolution.
We have a theory of evolution, but it can't explain abiogenesis. We don't have a proper theory of abiogenesis. Evolutionary Biology journals and professionals don't usually deal with abiogenesis.
The falsehood is not a falsehood.

Yup, 5 minutes wasted.

The big difference is that biological evolution is solid science whereas origin of life studies are currently highly speculative.

"Ordinary" biology is about organisms with DNA/RNA-based heredity. We understand reasonably well the evolutionary mechanisms. With OOL it's clear selection would be occurring, but on what?

So we talk about "evolution" in biology meaning something specific (with DNA/RNA etc.). We don't include other sorts of evolution, such as the evolution of an active volcano, the evolution of a main sequence star, the evolution of the medical retractor, and we don't feel the need to exclude them explicitly either.

One problem with OOL discussion is defining "Life", or even agreeing what is alive, not alive, or more alive than something else. Virus, prion, parasite, symbiont; ants nest; fire, tornado; etc.

The most common definitions biologists use as a "rule of thumb" are "DNA + RNA + Protein", "something that undergoes evolution" and "moves, responds, excretes, reproduces, etc". None of these fit everything that could be considered "alive", and all of them include things that are not.

IMHO OOL can be sub-divided into "Origin of Life that includes Humans" and "Origins of other Life"; computer simulation, robotics, and other planets.

It is clear that after abiogenesis, you have evolution by natural selection. Therefore OOL is relevant to evolution by natural selection. This seems to be your point, and I would agree with it.

However, before OOL, there may or may not be evolution by natural selection - Larmarkian evolution by acquired characteristics, random drift, etc are all possible alternatives. Can evolutionary biology include the evolution of things not alive? Probably not.

(also, it took you 5 minutes to read? Wow, slow readers...)

You say:

we don't know what the origin if life was like

How, then, can you say that it is evolution?

I'd say, maybe it was, and maybe it wasn't.

Ditto what Peter said.

We have a distinction because we transverse from a well understood and studied area to one that still needs a lot of work.

Also, I have a problem with your most important point: "The first (and probably most important) reason is that we don't know what the origin if life was like."

So we don't know, but we get to call it evolution, despite not knowing? You sort of have a self-refuting argument there.

Most people talk about evolution in terms of organismal evolution. At least I would make that generalization. So when we take it before something can be called an "organism", something we don't understand yet and don't have a well formed theory about, I do believe it is acceptable to take it outside the bounds of the term "evolution" precisely BECAUSE we don't know.

By https://www.go… (not verified) on 29 Jun 2011 #permalink

Evolutionary biology is a hugely active field of biology research. I have lots of colleagues who study it day in and day out, and none of them study the origin of Life. Evolution is something that is still going on and can be studied today. Since the origin of life could have happened under conditions where evolution by natural selection did not happen, I see them as separable areas of inquiry.

Certainly the problem of how life originated belongs to the field of evolutionary biology, since any solution to it must mesh with evolution. Whether it will remain part of that field, in the hopeful case that we start to gain some knowledge of how it happened, will depend on what that knowledge is. It might start a whole new field.

So one regard in which the origin of life is not part of evolution is that we know a lot about evolution. And we know not much about the origin of life.

The way is see it is, origin of life is chemistry. Since you only need 4 elements to create simplest form of RNA. As the simplest life forms become more advanced it moves into biology.

For a long time we did not know squat about how molecules actually interacted inside cells, even though we could tell that they were interacting. That did not make molecular interactions not cellular biology.

I think it is the idea that the origin of life is at the "edge" of life (chronologically) that makes it seem like something that could be cut off, but that is a bit of a fallacy. For all we know, the process of the origin of life is a life-like process that happens in a truncated or altered form all the time in living systems.

And politically speaking, it is exactly because appeasers sometimes want to give away the origin of life (that was the reference to the A-word) that it is good do include it by default rather than exclude it because it could be seen as part of the ultimate "gap". (gap is a dogwhistle)

Knowledge through science is just that. Our dividing it into fields is somewhat arbitrary. Many studies in evolution now involve chemistry, not originally part of the field.
So in a way it is just a dumb question of definition. We have shown that we can make incredible strides understanding the process of evolution, taking as starting the obvious fact that life came about.
Eventually the complete canvas will take in both abiogenesis and what happened afterwards. However for the moment the techniques and kinds of studies done in the two fields are rather different, so from a practical point of view there is no problem having them in separate folders for the moment.

Furthermore there is a good political reason. We already have enough problem making religious whackos understand the science of evolution. If we lump the two together with their twisted logic they are going to claim that if we don't understand how life came about we have nothing to say.

Thank you, Greg, for adding some critical thinking to OOL and evolution.
It does seem reasonable to me to consider evolutionary biology (RNA/DNA chemistry) as a subset of a broader scheme of 'evolutionary chemical processes,' of which the RNA/DNA 'life' would be the most easily recognizable to us.

I think that there are two fundamental near-fallacies that are assumed by most people:

1.)"'Life' is some magical essence imparted somewhere along the way."
'Life' is an arbitrarily defined term to recognize certain emergent characteristics of a replicating chemical system. This explains the difficulties that some may have when defining a virus or prion as living.
We see the same human problems with concepts when dealing with the matter of 'consciousness.'
'Consciousness' is not a magical essence imparted at some phase in brain evolution. It, also, is an arbitrarily defined term of certain properties of brain function that can also be found along a spectrum of characteristics.

2.)"Novel emergent characteristics, e.g. 'life, consciousness,' are goal directed, pre-determined or created."
Novel emergent characteristics that come about in increasingly complex systems are not goal directed, pre-determined or created.
Even in goal directed activities, like watchmaking, there are no novel emergent characteristics. Every emergent characteristic, like time-telling, is a reproduction of a previously reproduceable trait.

I'm not saying that it's not possible for a novel emergent characteristic to be planned, invented or conceptualized, just that I've never been aware of one. I'm also aware that much of what I'm claiming is dependent upon a definition of a 'novel emergent characteristic.' Nevertheless, I feel that it is important to rework the framework from a basic level in order to provide a productive conceptualization. Evolution provides a theoretical framework that explains emergent characteristics.

I understand how some might claim that the fallacies claimed above are not real quotes, and may even be considered straw men.
It is my unsupported belief that many educated people, e.g. the Catholic Church, believe exactly in the quotes above, and as such, point to a direct failure in the teaching of science at its most fundamental level.

By mark cettie (not verified) on 29 Jun 2011 #permalink

What I accept about the world is not determined by other people's politics.

I was thinking about that last part: we frequently scold creationists for asking what evolution says about the origins of life. They're asking in their limited vocabulary, what are the scientific theories of abiogenesis? It's a fair question. Given how much we do know about evolution, genetics, and biochemistry, the answer to that question is, unfortunately, embarrassing. When we scold those who ask that question, in whatever form, we sound like the nuns at Catholic school when asked who made God. It seems to me that the best answer is the completely honest one: we don't know very much, but people smarter than I are working on it.

By Timberwoof (not verified) on 29 Jun 2011 #permalink

Nick Matzke wrote about this issue in Panda's Thumb a few years ago, agreeing with Greg:

I was surprised about how much we do know about OOL. The piece is worth bookmarking for this quote alone:

"The verse âAnd God said, let the NA precursors link together into a short noncoding kinetically favored chain and pseudoreplicate approximately statistically after their kindâ just doesnât have the same ring to it."

I think the study of OoL starts as an exercise in pure chemistry, dances its way through biochem and microbio, before finally landing in evolutionary biology. Oh, and the whole time you need a good basis in geology and physics. And throw in some climatology for good measure.

Now, the study of evolution is already a cross-disciplinary field, but OoL introduces so many new problems, all of which are so difficult and which are different from those normally facing the study of evolution that it's a field in its own right.

Just one example; in order to study OoL, we have to determine the character of the environment of the Earth in its infancy. Normally, when determining the character of the environment, one just studies the animal. Its characteristics tell you about the environment, and you can do isotope studies to determine whether it drank fresh or salt water, for example. But OoL flips the problem on its head because you have to figure out what the environment was like before you can posit models for how life arose within it. Everything's bass-ackwards.

By Surgoshan (not verified) on 29 Jun 2011 #permalink

The origin of life and evolution can be likened to a spark and fire. There are three truths about that analogy:

1) The first is necessary for the second to occur.

2) The first could have happened in several ways, all unproven. Something started it, we don't know what because the source was likely consumed. (Life could form from chemical abiogenesis, panspermia which still needs a cause, etc. In the case of fire, flint and steel, lightning, chemical ignition, heat, etc.)

3) Once the spark or spark of life occurred, only fuel for the fire was needed, not new sparks, and eventually the fire will spread as far as the fuel will allow.

Of course, the rabidly religious will feebly argue that "creation needs a creator", which is a crock. Does every forest fire or house fire start by arson? No, nor does life need a prime mover.


I appreciate the significance of using the term 'abiogenesis', but can't help but feel that it implies that there was a sharp dichotomy between life and non-life.
It seems, that drawing inferences from what we know about biochemistry and evolution, that there was probably no simple or single organism or event that - even if a complete and thorough observation occurred - that we would unequivocally agree to as the "abiogenesis to biological life event."

As such, I would much prefer the toiletting of abiogenesis, altogether.

By mark cettie (not verified) on 29 Jun 2011 #permalink

Knowledge through science is just that. Our dividing it into fields is somewhat arbitrary.

That's largely true, but there is an immediate and pragmatic thing going on here. People who object somewhat to evolution can be appeased by "giving them" origins (and human evolutoin in some cases). The separation of Origins of Life and all other evolution facilitates that.

<>Many studies in evolution now involve chemistry, not originally part of the field.

Not only that, but sticking with the creationism issue, many of the objections to biological evolution made by creations are purely objections to physics or chemistry. Paleontologists do NOT date their finds any more than surgeons make their scalpels (it happens, but it is rare).

There was some chemistry and physics happening which produced the first successful self replicating molecule. Some call this abiogenesis.

This self replicating molecule occasionally made mistakes producing variants with slightly different properties. Some variants had more success here, others there, and the rest is history. The core definition of evolution is "a change in gene frequency of a population over time." If we are not too picky about what genes are, we can say that evolution started as soon as the first successful self replicating molecule made a mistake.

By first successful self replicating molecule, I mean the common ancestor of all living things. Life should not be used as a noun, but only as an adjective, as in "living things". I violate this rule all the time, however.

Was the first successful self replicating molecule alive? I don't have a strong opinion. Was it the beginning of evolution? I think so.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 29 Jun 2011 #permalink

However for the moment the techniques and kinds of studies done in the two fields are rather different, so from a practical point of view there is no problem having them in separate folders for the moment.

That is a bit of an overstatement. With respect to theory (where my modest involvement has been) there is no dividing line whatsoever. With respect to research on many of the molecular aspects, there is total overlap. In fact, I'm not too sure what areas or distinct.

Furthermore there is a good political reason. We already have enough problem making religious whackos understand the science of evolution.

Moderate creationists want us to keep them separate because they are willing to accomodate evolutionists. Accomodationist evolutionists are willing to give theistic creationists origins, if they don't happen to have that as their research area.

Sorry, no.

It's a little like saying that perpetual motion machines dont work except in certain cases.

I agree with G.L on this. Darwin knew there had to be a mechanism for heritability of traits, however not having that knowledge didn't make the search for those mechanisms fall outside the field of evolution

By astrosmash (not verified) on 29 Jun 2011 #permalink

It sort of gets into the question of 'When does blue become red?' I know what 'blue' looks like, and I know what 'red' looks like, but placed on a continuum, I cannot tell you the point where blue is finally red. Same with molecules and life.

Marion, that article makes the very mistake I refer to above. "Evolution" is nothing. There is nothing called "evolution" that can be defined adequately other than as a word that does a lot of work. "Evolutionary theory" is NOT A THEORY. It is multiple theories. The term "evolutionary theory" refers to several different things. The way Mayr defines Darwin (using Darwin, so this is not especially derived) "Evolutionary Theory" consists of five different theories, one of which is: "All life on earth descended from a single, original, primordial form that arose eons ago."

How is the study off the origin of life not this? It is.

The About piece (and many other people) have accidentally and generally unintentionally limited what they call "evolution" to natural selection and speciation.

The usual claim isn't that ""Evolution" and "Origin of life" are two separate issues" but IIRC that OOL isn't a concern for whether evolution is true or not. That is, the claim is that OOL is "different from evolution". Many examples of the latter is given here already.

This is of course how processes appear all the time, and how theories on them works.

We don't need to know how mass comes about to use and test general relativity. Initial and/or boundary conditions are given, not predicted by the theory when it is applied. Conversely, some of the mechanisms of relativity do pertain for how mass comes about. (Say, by the Higgs mechanism.)

Not a biologist but I don't see how evolution as process is different from all other processes we see. Some mechanisms, say selection, could and would be at work during OOL. That the stake is pushed down at OOL is also given here already, but AFAIU the main qualitative difference is that cells have heritable genomes so obey population genetics while OOL started pre-genome and the definition of evolution fails.

OOL is evolutionary mechanisms but not evolution proper. (Or at least, not yet.)

The inclusive theory usage of biologists (same theory of evolution, added mechanisms) differ from the exclusive theory usage of physicists (new mechanisms of gravity means new theory), which makes the picture more diffuse. Yet they both concern processes so those stakes can be pushed down anyway. (I.e. sooner or later you hit pure prebiotic chemistry.)

Evolution and OOL are biology theories so biologists can choose how to portray them. However they _are_ theories, and others may also choose as long as it is a viable characterization.

By Torbjörn Lars… (not verified) on 29 Jun 2011 #permalink

It is multiple theories.

Then it doesn't work, because you can't define it and test it rigorously. I think you are claiming that the area of evolutionary mechanisms in biology have several theories. Yes, of course.

But if you claim up front that OOL is evolution you are begging the question.

By Torbjörn Lars… (not verified) on 29 Jun 2011 #permalink

Torbjörn, I think you are correct about the usual meaning of the distinction.

Then it doesn't work, because you can't define it and test it rigorously. I think you are claiming that the area of evolutionary mechanisms in biology have several theories. Yes, of course.

Yes, that is what I'm stating that Mayr claimed.

I've read an awful lot of speculation about the genesis of the first replicating molecules that led to biogenisis described as very Darwinian, natural-selection-ish processes. I can't really conceive of a "poof!" moment when chemistry changed to biology. Even though I don't see viruses as being "alive", for example, (I think of them as genetic toxins), I don't see some bright line that must be crossed when natural selection results in chemistry getting ever more complicated, and even producing life.

@Torbjörn Larsson #37:
Evolution and OOL are biology theories so biologists can choose how to portray them. However they _are_ theories,


Evolution is something that happens in the world of life. (Populations vary in their hereditable traits.) A theory of evolution is either (1) an explanation of features of the variety of life by reference to evolution or (2) an explanation of how evolution happens, for example, by reference to "random variation" or "natural selection". (A "theory of X" is not identical with X. Compare: flight, which is something that things do, and a theory of flight, which explains how things fly.)

Most suppose that evolution only pertains to life. I would say that the inherent instability of matter, and the possibility of bonding and other such means of recombination of elements, makes evolution effectively inevitable.

By sleazeweazel (not verified) on 30 Jun 2011 #permalink

Well it seems to me we are all agreed that if we go back far enough in time we come to origins and how it all started. So the larger study of evolution includes origins.
It also seems this is somewhat of a political issue. I personally am not for giving god-eyed, faith-based, mind-zombies, who believe it all started because some imaginary god fairy waved a wand, any room at all.
However, there is a difference. Evolution is a matter of proven science. OOL, by its very nature is somewhat speculative (all our ideas for the moment are not even yet a theory). I am sure in time we will put all the bits together and replicate something like the beginning of life. However, it is doubtful we will ever be able to say that is exactly how it happened on the occasion (or occasions) it did.
By considering them separate fields we can argue the strength of evolution without getting into the more speculative realm of OOL.

It's death I don't get. Life is the generic quality. The Universe is alive, but contains dead things in the same manner as coccolithophores contain coccoliths.

The study of tractability, and of universal systems, received its impetus from an investigation of biological fractionation procedures. It would not have arisen from physics, which expects its theories to be couched in forms of tractable systems rather than statements of general interaction (the heart of intractability). Indeed, it might not be amiss to consider biology as the physics of intractable systems. If this is so, then far from physics swallowing up biology, the situation may well be the other way around. Our analysis of the reductionist hypothesis has thus shown the fertility of biology in generating important new insights in mathematics in the sciences --though doubtless in a way different from what was originally intended.

Robert Rosen, "On Mathematics and Biology" in _The Sprit and the
Uses of the Mathematical Sciences_, Saaty & Weyl, editors, Mcgraw-
Hill, 1969 p. 209

You cannot solve the N-body problem by reducing it to the (N-1)-body problem.


I say closely related --obviously-- but separate things. An analogy might be the relationship between the nebular hypothesis (abiogenesis) and the theory of plate tectonics (evolution).

Just as we can talk about the geological history of the Earth without particular reference to how it first formed, we can talk about the evolution of life without particular reference to how life first formed.

That doesn't mean, however, that anything goes when it comes to the question of life's origin. Only scientific hypotheses are testable and therefore of any interest, at least to thinking persons (IMHO).

So I would say the various abiogenesis hypotheses and evolutionary theory are closely related subsets of science rather that abiogenesis being a subset of evolutionary theory.

About 40 years ago I took a course called "Evolution." The professor started with stellar origin of elements, moved through abiogenesis, and into evolutionary patterns and processes. Demarcating these issues is as meaningful as drawing a line between east and west.

Let's be honest about this debate. Pretty much everyone here would agree that line dividing abiogenesis and evolution is blurry - or nonexistent. The line between the two are a matter of definition. Why is this a question for debate? Well, because there are a large group of morons out there called religious fundamentalists who continually offer up this absurdly lame argument: 'If you don't know how life began, then your theory of evolution has a BIG HOLE IN IT, so it's just theory. Nah, nah, nah..." Is is a totally asinine argument made by pathetic people, but the tactics of dealing with those pathetic people have us here, splitting hairs, in response to them. To hell with them!

I think we are mixing apples and oranges here. Evolution is a process of accumulating minor changes through the mechanism of some kind of selection (e.g. natural), while OoL is a result of a process yielding life, which probably is evolution of abiotic compounds but we don't really have the ultimate proof on that, AFAIK. Many things can evolve including life, design of cars, and yes, why not, complexity of abiotic compounds eventually creating what we call life. Hence, we can argue whether life came to be through evolution just like we can discuss whether I walked or drove to my home, but walking and/or driving are ways of getting there, not a part of being home. Neither does it mean that, if I'm walking, I'm going home. Logic 101 :)

Now that we know more about evolution, we know that there's chemical evolution, a probably RNA world, and abiogenesis. We can add those studies into the New Synthesis to form the Grand Synthesis,

I'm with Timberwoof @ 23, with the caveat that the experts do know quite a bit more than most people (being vitalists) assume. And however embarrasing our ignorance is, it's miles away from the ignorance demonstrated by thinking that intelligent design somehow solves it.

In any case, I have seen "that's a separate issue" used to cut off the question at the bud, which does give the stern-nun effect. While it's true that a deity creating the first cell wouldn't preclude major evolutionary change later on, it's also true that we have no evidence for such a deity that demands any sort of reconciling with the evidence for evolution.

For the record, I'm talking more about the standard reply to a classic "gotcha" question, rather than the question of how to classify these studies in and of themselves, which doesn't much interest me.

By the way, PZ Myers went on record agreeing with me about this yesterday at CONvergence; And that was in the context of an interesting report of a research project indirectly related to the origin of life which demonstrated that we do know stuff. So there you have your authority and your science! Yay!

Such a long discussion of OOL and not a single mention of some of the most innovative (and testable) thinking on this matter by the long term collaborators William Martin and Michael Russell. Here is an excellent summary of the development of their hypothesis (although slightly marred by the introductory image of a "hot black" smoker, when their theory depends on "cool, white" smokers), and here is one of their own papers on the subject - their biogenesis theories are developed in a number of papers over a period of 18 or so years, not all of them free to view, but they are excitingly plausible and testable, and as Surgoshan says above, they move from chemistry and geology to biochemistry and biology. Their "cool white undersea vent" proposal explains many things not explained by other theories - a mechanism for the concentration of chemicals sufficient to promote reactions, the naturally occuring presence of catalysts, a continuous source of energy/protons in the form of hydrogen bubbles, etc.

They also, intriguingly, propose a plausible theory for both the similarities between eubacteria and archebacteria in terms of their internal cellular metabolic processes and their profound differences in the ways they construct their outer lipid membranes - ie ONE single origin for cellular metabolism occurring unbounded other than by pre-existing rocky "cells", with TWO separate origin events subsequently leading to the membranes required to allow independently existing cellular forms to emerge from the rocks. From these separate emergences the two ancient lines of bacteria descended (later to merge again to form our own eukaryotic cells).

I have often wondered as to whether the developement of the universe is actually evolution. I guess it probably is as it's existence must be based on economic use of energy much the same way as "living" things are. It seems to me that the origin of living things is part of evolution-not necessarilly the beginning of evolution. It stands to reason that the first and most important step in the origin of living things was the abillity for the genetic (chemistry) material to be packaged in many vessels that can replicate themselves by sharing their genetic material. This is a characteristic of every so called living (eukaryote)thing on this planet so the most obvious attribute favored by natural selection. (It could be argued of course that single cell organisms do not share their genetic material but self replicate-only using mutation rates due to rapid reproduction to maintain survival under the pressures of natural selection).
Take the human being for instance. We have our genome distributed in something like 6.8 billion vessels (human population). The variabillity of the expression of our genes is such that we are able to live anywhere on the planet and maybe beyond. This is not however to say that we will be the last thing standing in a crisis. Yes, I do believe that the origin of life is part of the evolutionary process, but not the begining.

By Georgetsmurf (not verified) on 05 Jul 2011 #permalink

Origins of life research is a separate field from biology, still conducted by geochemists. It is as separate from biological evolution as is anthropology, and for similar reasons. The rules, experiments, and expertise necessary to practice the disciplines are different. This is not to say that natural selection ought not be important in each field. The similarity/difference is that each deals with replicators, but with different replicators: molecules, organisms, and memes.

I must respectfully disagree - I think a very good analogy is physics and cosmology.

The Origin Of Life deals with questions like "what were pre-biotic Earth conditions", "how could fatty acid vesicles form naturally in pre-biotic earth conditions", "how does a ribose molecule form naturally", and "why does everything seem to have left-handed chirality".

I'm unclear why you wish to conflate Evolutionary Theory with these questions?

These are legitimately different areas of study from Evolution itself. It even has a name, Abiogenesis. And it has various competing hypotheses which are not yet well supported or complete enough to be considered a theory.

I've been collecting information and resources on abiogenesis here:

However you view things these are some VERY exciting times! I get a new thrill almost daily with important new finds in both fields.

I don't see very many questions in there that Evolutionary Biologists are best equipped to address. Certainly Evolutionary theory comes into play once you have something that is self-replicating - but there are still unique questions to be answered (was the RNA world first, if so, how did it transition to a DNA-based world, what might the first genes have been, etc).

Jeez, what a lightweight discussion we find here.

What is evolution? Easy peasy, evolution, at its most basic, is a change in gene frequency in a given population. This definition covers Darwinian selection, artificial selection, genetic drift, chromosomal anomalies and mutation.

Hasn't anyone ever given you that one before?

On to OOL: I think a role for Darwinian Selection is a reasonable hypothesis, otherwise how could life have developed, over time, from non life? What this means is that hereditary, something analogous to genes, must have come first, and everything else later. Really. Before DNA, RNA, fatty acid vacuoles or anything, there must have been reproduction and modifiable hereditability. Otherwise how could selection leading to living organisms have occurred? DNA, as it exists today, is too high tech. It has way too many support mechanisms to be the first and original basis of heredity, and fatty vacuoles simply have no guiding heritable component at all - descendants of successful vacuoles can't be selected for because a unit of selection doesn't exist.
Personally, I find Graham Cairns-Smith's mineral selection and genetic takeover hypothesis attractive. You got reproduction, you got heredity, you got mechanisms for mutation, you got chemical catalysis. Everything else flows from that.

It looks like I might be the only thiest posting here, but that's OK. I choose to believe God exists and I choose to believe He used abiogenesis and evolution to create and develop life, respectively. I choose to love God and love the study of science and see no problem with that. That is my choice, and I am free to make it.

I think the comparison with Cosmology is apt.

OOL is a part of evolutionary biology, but Abiogenesis and the Theory of Evolution are separate theories and areas of study, within that larger framework.

Evolutionary biology must, eventually, include both.

I don't get it.

Sure, we don't know how life began, but we do know how we define evolution: adaptation, natural selection, and whatnot.

Evolution demands that life exists. It cannot happen if there's no life. Evolution shows how life changes; not how life began.

Origin of life demands that there is, at some point, no life. And at another point, there is life. Having these two points of "no life" and "life" allows us to define, wait for it, the origin.

Of course, the line between the two is infinitesimally small; once life begins, evolution takes over. But it still needs to get there.

So that's really it. Sure, we don't know how life began, but that does NOT mean evolution and origin of life can be separated; evolution is defined to require life, origin of life is defined to require no life.

By Freerefill (not verified) on 28 Jul 2011 #permalink

Freerefill -- evolution actually may explain the origin of life -- and it's not a concept limited to living creatures. Let me explain....

* Start with a bubbling broth of amino acids, constantly being energized somehow (heat? lightning? whatever) so that proteins are forming and deforming all the time.

* These proteins are forming at random; the odds of producing useful ones is small. So most will just fall apart again.

* Over time, the more stable proteins will begin to dominate, simply because they're sticking around longer. This is happening through an evolutionary process; the unstable ones are falling apart, while the stable ones are surviving.

* Eventually, by chance, some of those proteins will end up swapping sections, or influencing one another in a way which improves both proteins' survival, and eventually, one or more may arise which are actually able to build copies of themselves out of amino acids floating around. It's important to mention that this isn't happening on purpose; the surviving proteins aren't "better" or "more evolved" or even intending to live. But because they are surviving longer and producing more of themselves, their numbers will increase relative to other proteins.

* From there, it is not a major conceptual leap to what we think of as life. We're all just primordial slime with delusions of grandeur. ;-)

Incidentally, Rebel, you are not the only theist posting here. I believe in God, and His only Son, Jesus Christ. I even believe in the trinity. I think God created us all by creating the universe and then letting it go, and speaks to us not because he created us specially but because we have the capacity to begin to understand. I think we are letting Him down when we resort to "my grandma said it was like this, so I'll die to defend that view!" instead of using the brains evolution endowed upon us -- we aren't living up to our potential when we do that.

By Calli Arcale (not verified) on 28 Jul 2011 #permalink

Oddly enough, I happened to see the link to this thread as I posted a comment on another blog telling a creationist that not knowing how life originated wasn't any bar to knowing that life had a common origin and that it evolved into different species.

We're never going to know how life originated because the evidence of that event is irretrievably lost. It won't stop people from speculating about it but that's not the same thing as knowing how it actually happened, though we can be fairly confident it's unlikely to have happened in a science lab.

Of course, it is difficult to draw a line between life and non life, and to say when "chemical evolution" would have become "biological evolution'. this might be because we know so little of the process - if we ever understood it, the line might be clear, but perhaps it would still be as murky.
That said, the two are different. Biological evolution did occur. The scientific evidence for common descent is overwhelming and denied only for religious reasons. Abiogenesis is different. While it is also primarily denied for religious reasons, the scientific support is lacking. It is true that there are no reasonable alternatives, but that does not mean it has been demonstrated.
As the saying goes, it could be demonstrated tomorrow that it is not possible for life to have started by non supernatural means, but that wouldn't change the fact that the earth is around 4 billion years old and all life on it descends from a single common ancestor or pool of ancestors several billion years ago

By G.Shelley (not verified) on 29 Jul 2011 #permalink

The question of how life on Earth started those billions of years ago can't be answered merely by contemporary experiments done by really clever scientists. They might show that they can reproduce what's here now or even some proposed "first form of life" but since we don't know what form our first ancestor took, that's just going to be guessing from far later evidence. I'll point out, provocatively, the materialist effort will be the result of some very intelligently designed experiments, but that won't show how it happened without science those billions of years ago. If anything, what they will have shown is that it can be done through intelligence and intention. Which I don't think will quite be what the ideological materialists will claim happened but which any honest evaluation of their experiment will have to acknowledge.

Just as creationists won't find support for their ideology with science, atheists hoping to be able to experiment themselves into an origin for life through randomness and chance, without the intention of an intelligent creator are just showing how blind they are to the nature of their efforts. If they don't notice that inconvenient truth about it, their opponents won't miss it for a second. They will never be able to get away from the fact that intelligence and intention will be an essential part of their effort, that fact will be quite usable by their ideological opponents.

They will never be able to get away from the fact that intelligence and intention will be an essential part of their effort, that fact will be quite usable by their ideological opponents.

Nah. The intelligence and intention is directed at reproducing circumstances that can/do occur in undirected nature. The fact that we can produce natural selection in a lab doesn't mean that we are required to produce it outside one.

Stepahnie Z. you don't know the original circumstances so you can't reproduce them. No one knows under what conditions or at what time during a rather long stretch of its existence life on Earth originated. We do know that the period during which it is presumed to have happened leaves little evidence and is quite a long period of time. I doubt that the conditions in all locations on Earth during that time were uniform for the entire length of time. I would also assume that it didn't happen more than once so it would seem possible that the ambient conditions were rather rare. Imagining some homogenous environment and the various, existing conditions under which life happened is quite a stretch of imagination, an intelligent act, in itself. And the possibility of getting it accurate, in terms of the actual conditions under which life actually arose, billions of years ago, is anything from of unknowable accuracy to nearly impossible.

If you produce something you call "selection" IN A LAB , you will have produced "artificial selection", which will be of unknowable relevance to the origin of life. You don't even know if "selection" was relevant for the first organism or the organisms in the earliest generations that came from it. It's quite possible that selection was a later development. For all anyone knows there was 100% success in reproduction for quite a large stretch of time after the first act of reproduction happened.

If you're talking about that reproducing artificial DNA, how do you know DNA isn't a later development and that the original mechanism of inheritance took another form? If we're imagining things on the basis of no evidence, why isn't that within the real of possibility?

Making up explanatory myths isn't just for Biblical fundamentalists, it's almost universally done among materialist fundamentalists these days.

Anthony, I think you have a rather fundamental misunderstanding of what anyone is claiming about these types of experiments. They are designed to determine whether and how it is possible for life to arise from non-life. They are designed to as much as possible duplicate the circumstances under which we hypothesize life began (and we have a better grasp of early terrestrial chemistry than you give credit for, even just by knowing where we started and ended) for two reasons. (1) We want to know what was possible (not certain) about our origins, and (2) since our best evidence says life arose under these conditions, we presume these circumstances will give us the best chance of success.

You might want to brush up on the difference between mythmaking and hypothesis generation.

Oh, Stepahnie, I think if anything I've been rather modest in citing the claims made for them, though often not by those who published the papers. I've seen atheists claiming everything from a confirmation of the speculations of evo-psy and Darwinian fundamentalism (in Lewontin and Gould's use of the term) up to any one of them being the definitive nail in the coffin of God and religion. I don't read your blog regularly but I wonder what could be found there which would be relevant to that point. I don't think I've ever had many interactions with blog atheists that didn't make those kinds of claims.

Myths can take the form of an hypothesis, note how Creationists use the of the creation in Genesis. And I've seldom gone a month without some blog atheist challenging me about "the God hypothesis".

Science is not going to prove any more usable to confirm materialism or atheism than it will to confirm said Creation hypothesis or that there was a word wide flood within the history of people, though if there had been one it would have left far more evidence than you will ever have of the nature of the original organism, the ambient conditions out of which it, presumably, created its habitat, the conditions under which subsequent early generations lived and reproduced or anything else for which there is no evidence. Given what biology has been able to show about the enormously complex conditions under which contemporary life exists, it's quite possible that the conditions under which the earliest life arose and reproduced are far too complex to guess accurately. Though even that isn't knowable.

It's often stunning, the absurd level of reductionism that non-biologists apply to what are extremely complicated problems when it's a question of life and the exigencies under which organisms can even life. I would guess that is due to their habits of being able to generalize about the far simpler matters they study. Rocks, chemicals, the entities studied by physics, exist under far less exact conditions than living things, the actions they are involved with are far more easily explained, they are far simpler. As one of my family members says about her work, "It's not rocket science, it's a lot harder than rocket science." That level of absurd reductionism has been a major fad in some biological topics for the past 35 or so years, it's introduced active mythologizing into scientific publication, that is a trend that is, unfortunately, spreading to other would be sciences. Richard Dawkins is one of the people most responsible for that. I don't think his avocation and major claim to popular fame is just a coincidence.

Feel free to read my blog. Feel free to argue with those atheists who are actually making any such claim. Coming in here to air your gripes where what you're whining about is most decidedly not on display is silly.

Also, I think you're missing the point of "the God Hypothesis." That point would be that when you take your myths and create testable hypotheses from them, rather than just relying on the myth, those hypotheses fail when put to the test. If people are telling you this every month, why haven't you engaged enough to become aware of that?

Stephanie, I just happened to think, you do realize that the belief in a single original ancestor, which I do believe, would mean that in order to know about that organism you would have to actually know about that organism and not just some possible earliest ancestor.

It would have been that, specific, organism which, through enormously complex and spontaneous chemistry, was contained, I assume in some kind of constructed membrane, which managed to reproduce itself in a way would close that containing structure and also that of its first a offspring, would have had to have a mechanism of reproduction, including not only a chemical entity that both consisted its reproduction and the motivation for reproduction and a myriad of other aspects of reproduction, assuming something close to what we know now. Considering the chances of that first reproduction not working but that it did, obviously, work, that first formation of an organism and its reproduction, would have been an extremely complicated and entirely undocumented chemical and physical process in itself. Then you have to add the complications of the entirely unknown environment in which that happened and those earliest organisms survived and persisted. Given what's known of cellular reproduction now, I'm kind of skeptical of the idea that the very, earliest organisms had a modern mode of reproduction, which is the result of many, many millions of years of change in a greatly changing environment. I'd guess that anything based on life in anything like a modern environment would be unlike that earliest life.

When you're talking about the actual first organism, you aren't talking about a theoretical entity, you're talking about an actual organism, living and reproducing in an actual environment. In order to talk it that organism, you have to talk about it. Speculation without any evidence is hardly likely to produce an accurate picture of that organism, you're likely to come up with something far far less like that very real and specific organism and its immediate descendents than a unicorn would be from a horse.

Yeah, Greg. Just as an example, do you know that RNA is relevant to the first organism which was the beginning of life on Earth? Do you know that RNA isn't the result of selection in the very early history of life? How do you know that unless you know about that without actual samples of that life?

Stephanie, what evidence specific to the earliest thousand or even ten thousand years of life on earth do you have. Not speculations about it, not "evidence" created out of assumptions about what it would "have to have been like", what actual, physical evidence of that life can you point to?

You can't use natural selection to invent evidence of it, you can't use modern biochemistry derived from a knowledge of far later generations to create evidence that you can know is relevant to it, you have to have the actual evidence of what it was like. And that is lost. You can't recreate it out of imagining it anymore than you can come up with reliable science by making up stories about flocks of birds. Observation of actual physical evidence, call me old fashioned, but I was taught you had to have that to come up with reliable information about the physical world.

What kind of evidence would you look for, Anthony? Specifically (i.e., you can't use the word "evidence" in the sentence ... you must specify what exactly the evidence would be and what sort of sampling or instrumentation you would use to see/measure it, and where you would look for it).

That point would be that when you take your myths and create testable hypotheses from them, rather than just relying on the myth, those hypotheses fail when put to the test.

"My myths"? I haven't proposed any myths, I've been arguing against creating myths and calling it science.

If people are telling you this every month, why haven't you engaged enough to become aware of that?

Oh, good Lord. You don't think I'm aware of the difference between religion and the testing of hypotheses from this discussion? I gave up trying to get the materialist tape loop to notice that difference a long time ago. I can't even get them to understand that science has to have actual evidence in the physical world in order to even approximate reliable conclusions. Most blog atheists are as credulous as creationists, only for the side they favor. You can't know about something, certainly not the earliest organism, unless you actually know about IT. Anything you make up about it is of unknowable reliability but is certainly open to an enormous range of ways to get it wrong. You can say the same thing about God. Without direct evidence you can come up with all kinds of junk. Look at the history of psychology, not to mention its invasion into would-be evolutionary biology, for a good example of the kind of junk that can gain currency, a following and even dominate entire academic fields. I don't think inserting that kind of speculation into evolutionary biology is going to do anything but lead to the already too widely spread unwillingness to accept the real, evidence based, fact that evolution happened.

What kind of evidence would you look for,

What you would have to know to know what that original organism and its immediate descendents and their descendents were like, how the original one happened to come about and the environment in which they lived.

How about, at least, the level of physical evidence that is required to have accurate information about actual organisms today or even the far less specific, though far more abundant, information about earlier life found in the fossil record?

Let me ask you a question. How do you propose to have accurate information about contemporary organisms without actual, physical evidence? And that would be organisms you would be able to assume came from an organism you could also know a lot about by comparison. When you're talking about the first organism in our line of life, you're talking about something which came from an entirely speculative process of its origin, which can't just be assumed to have been like modern biological chemistry except on the basis of pure speculation.

If the Origin of Life or Abiogenesis is Evolution then you just made evolution a faith based religion! There is scarce solid 100% evidence of actual genesis of life from evolution. Genetic studies only complicate it because of the mathematical complexity of humans especially going beyond just the four commonly known bases - It seems more likely a master programmer wrote a life program in " DNA ++" than it just happened to evolve- It would have made it impossible for life to hit the right combination to randomly evolve to human life forms unless it started somewhere beyond earth. The 4.5 billion years of earth's existence would not have been enough time for every combination of DNA required to develop a complex human life.
Just because a bunch of scientists agreed through peer reviews ( means they kick out anyone who takes a differing view ) does not mean its true. Global warming cooling etc same thing. Science is not supposed to dogmatically decide that Evolution is the origin of life. It is to question it! Whenever a new fossil is found the evolutionist immediately is biased by their rose colored glasses and place it within their world view. And the media usually propagates that. Then when someone questions its science the issue is silenced and the media usually does not speak out about it making it mute. But many will still believe the first theory that is now false.
Could it be there is an ancient wisdom passed down by our ancestors that tells us that we came from somewhere else? Read the Bible for example - there are stories that talk about angels - today we would actually call them aliens if we could see them, they are a life form which did things that we primitive humans could not understand, could it be there actually are of two kingdoms the one of "God" and the one of "Satan", God's rebellious angel and enemy? Myths ? Perhaps, but perhaps not, and if not then we are all in a big deal of trouble, as when the rest of the story continues - God will return with his angels to recoup his earth which is being influenced by Satan at the moment. IF it is all a myth how do you know for sure? So think about it. Some guy named Jesus comes down preaches peace, the kingdom of Heaven and heals people then dies and rises from the dead then walks around and then flys up into the sky - like on a tractor beam. You have to be kidding? No but how come 11 scared young men, then take on courage suddenly to teach others about it with vigor? And if it was all just a fairy tale they made up how did they heal people? Don't think so? There is plenty of proof that Jesus was a real guy and extraordinary at that. He even claimed he was older than Abraham! Like right out of a movie.

So back to Evolution well its measurable, but only slight changes in current species are. Like the finches of Galapagos - oh but that was disproven as just changes of climate because the beaks returned to normal as the weather changed and it seemed only cyclical. What about those transitional species in fossil records - none of them is 100% confirmed and many were disproven by other evolutionists but the text books still teach them like facts! So that is myth and that is just like some other religion.
It irritates me that Evolutionists become so religious and dogmatic about their faith without calling it that - call it what it is, a faith, because every piece of bone ever found could be explained in many different ways. Even petrified wood and fossils can form in a very fast period of time - they have to by definition to survive. And they may be falsely carbon dated. Carbon dating cannot be relied upon because we don't know how much radiation the earth has been receiving over time, it probably was not constant, we were not there to measure it back then. In fact any type of dating that uses radioactive isotopes all have major assumptions that could be false.
My prediction Evolution will be looked at like the flat earth theory in one hundred years from now.

Five minutes, Hah!
Well, I skipped to the end just in time to run into the post above, from Bhe. This will serve to fit a few comments into.

"If abiogenesis is evolution," etc., It seems that a great deal of discussion above points to the difficulty of drawing a firm line in the timeline of earth's history to say, "here evolution begins." Truly, the entire narrative of the history of our universe must be included, as well. The formation of the chemical elements in supernova explosions, the formation of the sun and the earth, are all essential parts of the story.
I've been avoiding the use of the term "Darwinism" to describe our present understanding of evolutionary biology as being historically inaccurate - as we've gone well past that now. This though, gives me a reason to bring it back - to delineate a lesser theory, which need not become encumbered by dragging the entire history of the universe in, especially since it isn't necessary. So let's start with living species and enjoy Darwin's insights, without making things unnecessarily complicated.

But Bhe, don't you think it's a bit over the top to accuse us of of promoting a faith-based religion only now, when you creationists have been saying the same thing long before the introduction of abiogenesis into the picture?

Looking over your screed, I fail to see anything original. Keep in mind that we have been reading this continuously recycled crap for as long as evolution has been under discussion - well over 200 years,now. The misinformation about randomness, complaints about peer review, dragging in global climate change, reference to ancient wisdom (are you sure you're not a Rosicrucian?),threats of eternal punishment, then back to micro vs macro, and the unreliability of radioactive decay measurements and on and on, this is really old news.

Odd you should mention the flat earth theory. The bible
(you know, that reliable source of good science,) is 100% in agreement with a flat earth. Especially recall many references the the earth being motionless, and supported underneath by pillars. Are you sure that your belief in a heliocentric solar system (originally proposed by those heathen Greeks) is ok with you-know-who? If I were you, I wouldn't be so sure of a friendly welcome when the Great Return occurs.

And if your handle is a reference to our pal Michael Behe, let me suggest that his ideas and yours will be treated in future like the little song sung by the giant in the "Jack and the Beanstalk" story.

By Bob Carroll (not verified) on 30 Jul 2011 #permalink

Same old song and dance up in here.

When will creationists learn that their arguments have been refuted hundreds of times? They keep reforming their arguments to handle the changing scientific environment, but they are continuously selected against.

It's funny to claim that a materialistic explanation of the origin of life is a religion, given that there is no proof and never, ever will be... completely putting aside the fact that most of these people proclaim God to be absolute despite the same exact lack of evidence (hypocrite much?), I must say that their claim has merit from a particular perspective: Yes, there will never, ever be proof. ... Once again, putting aside the fact that there is no such thing as "proof" in science, merely the potential of a huge body of evidence allowing for a 99.99999% confidence of the theory, one must confess that, knowing that a theory cannot be 100% proven and yet still making that 0.00001% jump as by an assumption, one must call that some form of faith. It is, by definition, inescapable.

... Therefore God? Ha ha ha.. ha... no.

Which god? Which interpretation of which god? Where's your evidence? Do you realize you're being a complete and utter hypocrite? Do you realize you don't understand the fundamentals of the science you're claiming is false? Why, if the universe must be intelligently designed, does it end up actually being so stupidly designed, when you actually understand the natural world? Why do scientific theories and laws so beautifully fit the observed data whereas your creationist theories don't fit it without a level of interpretation that would make a surrealist art critic wince?

Besides, if you actually knew what went into that 99.99999% confidence, you wouldn't be harping over the last bit. I am not a scientist but I confess, as all scientists should, that we can only do our best. What creationists don't realize is that "our best" is PRETTY DAMN GOOD.

We do have data regarding the chemical composition of the primordial Earth. We can look at other planets to see their composition. We can look at rock sediments. We can look at planetary nebula. We know there was an atmosphere, we know there was liquid, we know there was heat.. thus we know there was a water cycle of some form and lightning. Do we have proof? No, and we never will. Are we confident enough to make claims of fact? Yes. And so are all of you creationists. You do it every single day of your lives. You yourselves abide by the scientific method with everything you do. Nothing you do can be accomplished with 100% confidence, and yet, you do it. 99.99999% is pretty damn good. It's good enough for you. It's good enough for us.

By Freerefill (not verified) on 01 Aug 2011 #permalink

Put me in the 5 minutes wasted column. "I think it is something that has been said enough times that if you are not personally engaged in the research or just don't think about it enough, you can easily assume that this is what the experts say. But they don't."
Nothing like quoting a few experts here to back up your position.
If one casual definition of evolution focuses on one aspect, and another casual definition on another aspect, then you can't dismiss OOL just because its different. Wha??
What part of a Miller-Urey experiment is about variable replication and differential fitness? None of it. It is applied geochemistry.
You might as well conflate studying penmanship and literature.

Casual definitions? Go back and re read but this time spend six minutes.

Bleh - this is all just semantics.

Evolution requires self-replication with inheritable variation. OOL(*) deals with how we could have gotten to something that can self-replicate with inheritable variation.

So no, I wouldn't consider OOL to be "part of evolution", although I would classify it as part of evolutionary biology.

(*) Origins of "Life" is itself a very poor term, because I don't believe it is possible to pinpoint a moment in time when things suddenly went from "not alive" to "alive". Stop treating life as if it's binary, and save yourself a lot of headaches!

Note that there is an entirely analogous situation in cosmology.

We have an extremely solid theory of how gravity affects the course of planets, stars, and galaxies. And we can extrapolate from this theory of gravity and the current movement of galaxies that there must have been something like a Big Bang, or whatever you'd prefer to call the beginning of Time. Our theories of the beginning of time still leave a lot to be desired. However this in no way takes away from the strength of the theory of gravity, since, by definition, time and gravity did not yet exist at that point.

@greg - Casual definitions? Go back and re read but this time spend six minutes.

Umm, yeah, "Evolution is natural selection" sounds pretty casual to me. You think it is rigorous??

Some further thoughts -

I think you got off on the wrong foot entirely with the angle that some people, whoever they might be, differentiate OOL from evolution because they are crypto-accomodationists, and therefore acceptance of OOL as part of evolution should be some kind of purity test. It is to LOL.

The NASA Astrobiology definition of life is something I'd stack up against your expert opinions, if you ever produce one in support of your position. To paraphrase, if it is alive, it experiences Darwinian evolution. Flip it around, and if it is not alive (what OOL studies) it doesn't experience Darwinian evolution.

OOL says nothing about evolution as a process that occurs whenever certain conditions are met. I can study evolution mathematically all day long, with GAs, CAs, etc. The quirky geochemistry of this planet has nothing to do with it.

Bottom line - making a distinction between OOL and evolution when discussing same with a creationist can be a useful distinction between what we already know a lot about and what we know a tremendous amount about.

To paraphrase, if it is alive, it experiences Darwinian evolution. Flip it around, and if it is not alive (what OOL studies) it doesn't experience Darwinian evolution.

Is that necessarily true? A chemical process can "experience evolution" of a sort, to the extent that some can continue, and perpetuate themselves, in a certain envirionment for longer periods of time than others; so the most stable and lasting processes are more likely to be incorporated into something that later comes closer to being what we consider "life."

We actually have had the argument here before that something can be alive and not experience, say, natural selection. I suggested that others got really mad at me and screamed about it for a while but never disproved the idea. Nor did I support it much because I'm really not sure about it.

It seems to me to be both a circular argument & an example of someone taking what they believe about in one area & superimposing it into another area. To say, origins of life is part of evolutionary biology, is like saying at one time the evidence pointed to the fact that the world is flat, so therefore the origins of life is part of the flat world theory. If what you are trying to say is that looking at the physical evidence, can give thouhgt to what caused it, then I agree, but if you are saying that evolutionary biology explains how the physical came into existence & inanimate matter came to life, then I think you are barking up the wrong tree.

By Woody Perry (not verified) on 02 Aug 2011 #permalink

Nietzsche said it best: "there are no facts, only interpretations." With a couple of advanced degrees in biology and years of research in this field, i can attest to the fact that the creationists cannot scientifically support their beliefs. At the same time, I can confidently say, as an insider even, that biologists are in the same boat. The evidence to support "evolution" in all its forms is based upon logical reasoning, not empirical evidence. I base my acceptance of the evolutionary origin and development of life upon sheer faith in the logic of the theories. There is insufficient evidence to substantiate it because every "fact" is "interpreted" by the first assumptions of the observer. "there are no facts, only interpretations." Be honest with yourselves and with the creationists.

Woody, did you have a different tree to suggest for the barking up of?

Neitzsche was a philosopher. I'm sure he was a smart guy, but philosophers don't utilize facts. To a philosopher, a fact is a surrender. To a philosopher, everything must be questioned. Everything in the universe, even thought itself, is malleable. It is a powerful machine, and it is no surprise that everything we have discovered can trace its roots back to philosophy.

Philosophy is a raging torrent of water. It is a wild, untamed river, churning and working relentlessly. Natural science cannot use this machinery, because it is too strong and too flexible. You can't build a computer out of ideas. That's where the water wheel comes in. A water wheel placed into a river samples just one particular aspect of the river, and transforms it into a pattern; something we can analyze and understand more simply. Natural science is a subset of philosophy; it is a surrender, an acceptance that pure philosophy cannot clothe us or feed us.

Give a man a fish, he eats for a day.
Teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime.
Give a hungry man the idea that fish may be able to be eaten but you're not exactly how, why, or even if, he'll probably punch you in the face and go find the guy handing out fishing poles.

There are facts just like there are numbers or words: we all agree upon them. We agree that the sun is bright, that sticks and stones can break bones, that boats float except in the presence of the Mythbusters (or contrariwise, in the presence of both Mythbusters and ping pong balls / duck tape). We accept these things because only the most deluded, insane, or fundamentally philosophical of us accept that they occur (I wanted to say 'religious' as well, but I felt I covered that with the first two). These are of course obvious examples, but they are analogies; we can do the same thing for Newtonian physics, relativistic physics, electrodynamics, quantum physics, atomic physics... and so on. With repetition, considerable analysis, peer review, different perspectives, and (literally) generations of effort, we can elevate things to accepted fact.

To think that everything that exists is merely an interpretation is to jump blindly into the raging river and abandon everything that your senses tell you.

By oofreerefilloo (not verified) on 04 Aug 2011 #permalink

I don't know a lot about evolutionary biology. I am also not a participant in the debate between Darwinism and Creationism. I think that the fixation on an "origin," is problematic and pointless. I understand it stems from a primal need for certainty -it's a weakness, but not one that we can't learn from.

By Mejgan Zia (not verified) on 05 Sep 2011 #permalink

Origin And Nature Of Evolution/Natural Selection
(updated beyond historical concepts)

Natural Selection applies to ALL mass formats. Life, a self-replicating format, is just one of them. Natural Selection Defined:

Natural selection is E (energy) temporarily constrained in an m (mass) format. Period.

Natural selection is a ubiquitous property of each and every and all cosmic mass, spin array, formats, from the biggest black hole to the smallest physical particle. Every mass strives to increase its constrained energy content in attempt to postpone its reconversion to energy, to thus postpone addition of its own constitutional energy to the totality of the cosmic energy that fuels the cosmic expansion that goes on since the Big Bang.

The universe, and life within it, are not just conglomerations of mechanisms. The universe, and life within it, have come into being by the nature of energy-mass dualism, and their fate, their final outcome, is governed by this dualism. The genesis and, most probable cyclic, existence of the universe are governed by the energy-mass relationship.

Energy-mass relationship governs also the routes, the mechanisms, of cosmic and life evolutions.

Mechanisms do not set/determine the classical physics fate states. Mechanisms are routes of evolution between classical physics fate states. Quantum mechanics are mechanisms, probable, possible and actual mechanisms of getting from one to other classical physics states WITHIN the expanse from cosmic singularity to the maximum expanded universe and back to singularity states, from the all-mass to nearly-all-energy universe poles.

The universe is the archetype of quantum within classical physics. This is the fractal oneness of the universe. Astronomically there are two physics. A classical Newtonian physics behavior of and between galactic clusters, and a quantum physics behavior WITHIN the galactic clusters.

Life's Evolution Is The Quantum Mechanics Of Biology. UNRAVEL COMPLEXITIES OF GENETICS. Extend Evolution/Natural Selection Backward To Genes/Genomes. BOTH ARE ORGANISMS. RNAs are Earthâs base primal organisms.

The origin-reason and the purpose-fate of life are mechanistic, ethically and practically meaningless. Life is the cheapest commodity on Earth. Human life is just one of many nature's routes for the natural survival of RNAs, the base Earth organism.

It is up to humans themselves to elect the purpose and format of their life as individuals and as group-members.

Dov Henis
(comments from 22nd century)

Now that the thread hijacker seems to have lost interest, I'd like to tiptoe in and add my 2 cents.

I don't think it's a good idea to conflate abiogenesis and evolution.

The reason that abiogenesis can be used by accommodationists isn't because it's been separated from evolutionary theory-- it's because we really don't know yet exactly how life began. So conflating evolution with abiogenesis simply hands creationists an unfair weapon, without doing anything to discourage accommodationists. We don't have solid evidence of how life began. But we do have masses of evidence of how life evolved. Why saddle a persuasive, well-supported argument with a weak and irrelevant minor point?

My second reason for not wanting to mix up abiogenesis and evolution is that the process of abiogenesis virtually certainly involved somewhat different chemicals from present RNA/DNA-based life forms. I suspect this is because our ancestors literally swallowed all the competition. But it does mean that most of the research in modern biology, paleontology, etc., will have very little practical connection with the study of abiogenesis, even if scientists learn exactly how abiogenesis occurred.

Please note that I am not in any way endorsing a supernatural origin for life on earth. I think there's a good chance the chemical basis (and physical locus) of abiogenesis will be worked out in the next couple of decades. It will be one of the most exciting discoveries in the history of science.

By hoary puccoon (not verified) on 16 Sep 2011 #permalink

I am very much interested in your approach, particularly by your two arguments:
1) "we don't know what the origin if life was like".
2) "Most models for the origin of life are very Darwinian".
I am even more radical and state that the concept of life is âtoo vague and general, and loaded with a number of historical, traditional, religious valuesâ (Luisi 2006). Although life is âa useful word in practiceâ, it is ânot a scientific conceptâ (Gayon 2010). Actually the concept of life is related to an indefinable state. Any definition of life is subjective and arbitrary as is the boundary between living and non-living systems or pinpointing the moment when non living systems would have become living. For instance, saying that virus or prions or vesicles with the capacity of evolving are living systems (or not) adds nothing more than the definition of life one would propose. Therefore, as the distinction between living and non living systems is a matter of belief and not science, it is not only hopeless but useless to try to define this indefinable state related to a metaphysical question (Tessera 2011 and 2012). By contrast the distinction between systems with evolvable capacity and systems without is not so problematic. It seems more appropriate to focus on the process of Darwinian evolution as the source of the primordial ancestor on Earth and presumably similar systems elsewhere. The consensus to be reached in the quest for the primordial ancestor must be in defining the minimal process that allowed Darwinian evolution to emerge and persist (Tessera 2011 and 2012).

By TESSERA Marc (not verified) on 22 Jan 2012 #permalink

To paraphrase, if it is alive, it experiences Darwinian evolution. Flip it around, and if it is not alive (what OOL studies) it doesn't experience Darwinian evolution.

Is that necessarily true? A chemical process can "experience evolution" of a sort, to the extent that some can continue, and perpetuate themselves, in a certain envirionment for longer periods of time than others; so the most stable and lasting processes are more likely to be incorporated into something that later comes closer to being what we consider "life."

I don't know a lot about evolutionary biology. I am also not a participant in the debate between Darwinism and Creationism. I think that the fixation on an "origin," is problematic and pointless. I understand it stems from a primal need for certainty -it's a weakness, but not one that we can't learn from.

By Mejgan Zia (not verified) on 05 Sep 2011 #permalink

Greg: Thought this might be interesting to you:
N. C. Wickramasinghe*1, J. Wallis2, D.H. Wallis1 and Anil Samaranayake+3
1Buckingham Centre for Astrobiology, University of Buckingham, Buckingham, UK
2School of Mathematics, Cardiff University, Cardiff, UK
3Medical Research Institute, Colombo, Sri Lanka

We report the discovery for the first time of diatom frustules in a carbonaceous meteorite that fell in the North Central Province of Sri Lanka on 29 December 2012. Contamination is excluded by the circumstance that the elemental abundances within the structures match closely with those of the surrounding matrix. There is also evidence of structures morphologically similar to red rain cells that may have contributed to the episode of red rain that followed within days of the meteorite fall. The new data on “fossil” diatoms provide strong evidence to support the theory of cometary panspermia.

The full paper is here:

Polonnaruwa-meteorite (PDF)

Jim Brock

By Jim Brock (not verified) on 14 Jan 2013 #permalink

I respectfully disagree. I am studying evolutionary biology at university and while I think that abiogenesis is a highly related subject I still consider them separate.
After all, if our technology and knowledge of genetics advanced to the point where we could literally create a new life form from scratch, then if we made several populations of these new life forms and put them in separate conditions and left them for a very large number of generations then they would still evolve.
Whether life arose via abiogenesis or was originally intelligently designed does change the fact that evolution occurs and will continue to occur, so I still consider them to be separate.
It's like life and non-life. People assume that there is a clear distinction, but with viruses (no-one knows if they are alive or not), self-replicating proteins which aren't alive (prions) and simple biological molecules, there is a (admittedly murky) gradient between life and non-life, but the end products are still fairly distinct.

By Jack Baxter (not verified) on 15 Jan 2015 #permalink

As an alien, this has deeply offended me since i put so much hard work into creation humans !!!!!! You will be hearing off my lawyers !!!

You can use your points to counter your points.

I have tried to find good definitions of the word "Evolution". It is obvious that it generally means "gradually changing". But Darwin defined the word for use in biology as describing his theory of common descent. When you use it in comparison to origin of life, then Darwin’s specific definition should give the meaning of the word. And that was the only meaning of the word until 1940, when the "modern synthesis" committee, in an attempt to save the theory from the "eclipse of Darwinism", redefined the word. In the new terminology it was used to denote adaptation in a population, also known as "population genetics". But this new definition of the word is known mostly to people working in the field. Most other people, also scientists, think of evolution the way Darwin did. Thereby evolution should ideally include the origin of life.

This article is rather silly. The definition of the scientific theory of life is an explanation for the change in populations of living things over time. For the theory to work, you have to have living things. That's a very simple pre-qualification, and also very true. So trying to cram abiogenesis into the theory of evolution doesn't make one iota of sense, because how life began is not the study of living things.

Call it oversimplified if you want, but I think it's pretty obvious why the two topics are separate.

Yeah, that's pretty oversimplified.

Imagine a graduate student in history does a thesis on the evolution over time of the automobile industry, but omits an mention whatsoever of origins.

During the thesis defense, someone asks,"why didn't you talk at all about the origins. That could be important."

Answer: "Because origins are totally different than the thing that originated."

Response from faculty: "OK, fine, write two new chapters for your thesis. One on the origin of the auto industry. The other on why you think the origin chapter shouldn't have been written. See you next year."

What about Probability theory refuting the idea of evolution (mutation, adaptive change, natural selection) as an explanation of OOL?

Every article I read debunking this idea, leaves me wondering why I haven't won that mega million lottery ticket yet.

Mark, I have no idea how probability theory can refute an explanation in biology. Perhaps you should reword. In your second paragraph you mention "this idea." Which idea are you referring to? Your probability theory idea, or something about evolution?

If you are implying that the probability of life originating is low, and that we can demonstrate that with probability theory, I assure you that is impossible.

I suspect, though, that live is highly likely to start up. The earliest evidence of life seems to be emerging in the earliest possible geological contexts. It isn't like the life-free planet existed for any measurable or observable time with live, unlikely, not starting up. It almost seems like life getting going was simply part of the condensation and cooling of the earth!

Probability theory cannot provide us with much knowledge about the Origin Of Life (OOL), since we do not know the odds. The creationists who have invoked probability theory usually make the unproven and *likely incorrect* assumption that everything is pure chance. However, we know from thermodynamics and kinetics that not everything is equally likely to happen.