BOOK REVIEW: ORIGINS, A SKEPTIC’S GUIDE TO THE CREATION OF LIFE ON EARTH, Robert Shapiro (1987):
I discovered this little gem tucked away on a dusty bookshelf at my local library. Though nearly a quarter-century old and long out of print (I checked Amazon.com), the book still resonates, both with the subject matter at hand (the inquiry into life’s origins) but more broadly with the proper method and mindset with which such scientific inquiries are done, regardless of the subject matter.
Mr. Shapiro uses an alter-ego, the Skeptic, in desconstructing and destroying as myth or unproven the reigning theories of life’s origins. A Harvard-educated biochemist, Shapiro is that most remarkable of clergy in this age of the scientific priesthood. He admits the scientists studying the origins of life–his scientific brethren–have nothing more than theories, myths and speculations to show for their efforts, and claiming otherwise is bad science. Would that some of his skepticism and its attendant humility be transmitted to his brethen in the global warming community.
The essential problem with understanding the origins of life is trying to figure out how simplicity first begat complexity–how some chemicals got together and traded greater entropy in some other matter/energy system (the sun, for example) for lesser entropy in theirs. There are several theories, all of them unsatisfactory to some degree or another, and the Skeptic objectively points out their flaws.
First, spontaneous generation–the idea that life could arise from a pile of oily rags, or a bale of hay–was dispensed early on by Pasteur, when he proved that life (today) can only come from life. Thus we still have the problem of originality–from whence did life first arise?
There was the “Spark and the Soup”, the famous Miller-Urey experiment in 1952 that tried to grow some amino acids in a pre-biotic soup by the application of static electrical charges (simulated lightning). They were able to produce six amino acids, only two of which, glycine and alanine, grew in quantities considered marginally significant (2.1 and 1.7%, respectively), and then only half of those quantities matter to biology, as life needs “L” shaped amino acids. The experiment was conducted to provide evidence of the validity of Oparin-Haldane Hypothesis, that posits several conditions for life arising spontaneously on earth, including an oxygen-free atmosphere made of methane, ammonia, hydrogen and water; that this atmosphere was exposed to several energy sources, such as lightning and solar radiation, which then lead to the formation of organic compounds; and, last, that these compounds must have accumulated in the oceans until they reached the consistency of hot dilute soup.
Shapiro’s Skeptic thrashes the hypothesis. First, hydrogen is needed in a concentration greater than carbon dioxide in order to produce amino acids, but an early earth atmosphere with that much hydrogen is most improbable for the simple reason that hydrogen is so light until it would continually be lost to space. Second, the energy required to keep the chemical reactions in a pre-biotic soup from settling down and reaching equilibrium would inevitably destroy any amino acids created thereby.
Probabilities seal the argument against primordial soup. By various measures, Shapiro points out that the probability of life arising from a soup with all the right chemicals and exactly the right temperature is something like ten to the one hundred billionth power. The stars would all die out before such time as odds this large would reduce to an expectation.
Given how easily the pseudo-scientific mythology of this leading theory (the Oparin-Haldane Hypothesis) of life’s origins was dispatched, it was hardly worth bothering to dispense with all the creation myths, other than to say, it is clearly the case that anything that invokes the need for a creator is not science but is straight mythology. Indeed. Either believe it or not, as you wish, but don’t claim a scientific basis for your belief.
So far as the theories go, Shapiro seems to most favor a derivative of the theory propounded by Richard Dawkins, among others, of life having a silicate crystal beginning. That it was silica mud, not soup, in which life started. But the Skeptic observes that it is quite a leap from crystallization to complex amino acids. The theory was a bit sketchy in its details at the time of Origins publication, with very little experimental evidence to support or disprove it. Things aren’t much different today, but the atheist ideologue Dawkins still supports it. Because of the lack of experimental evidence supporting it, I think the Skeptic would today consider belief in it to be mythology. It is as yet only a theory. “Belief” in a theory is not science.
Some theorists believe that nucleic acids (the building blocks of RNA and DNA) had to be present somehow in order for life to get a start. But such a theory has the same problems as the Oparin-Haldane Hypothesis. The probability of complexity of just the right sort arising from simplicity is extremely low. Even given a million billion years, it is still highly unlikely that sunshine beaming down on a junkyard will cause a 747 to arise spontaneously, even if all the components needed for it are contained in the yard.
The difficulty with probability means that it is far more likely that first there were amino acids, then proteins and enzymes, which learned how to replicate. Thus, things went from simplest to most complex. These then then “evolved” to become RNA first, and finally became DNA, storing all the replication instructions in double-stranded helixes, presumably a more efficient and secure method of storage and transmission than all around the cell wherever the proteins lurked.
The problem with this idea is not one of life origins, but of how we understand life to evolve today. In the “Central Dogma”, as Francis Crick unfortunately named it, information can only flow one way–from DNA to RNA to protein/enzyme/amino acid. In the understandings of evolutionary biology, it never flows backward. But the only way to get life is to move from simple to complex, and the only way to do that is start with the simplest of structures capable of supporting life, that then become more complex as life evolves. In other words, the protein had to provide the information to the RNA in order to create it, likewise RNA to DNA. For evolution theorists, who generally support the nucleic acid theory of life’s origins, if this reversed information flow happened at all, it had to happen only once, else their theories of later evolution are moribund.
Creationists have made great hay with science’s difficulty in explaining the origins of life. But supplanting poor science with mythology is poorer science still, as the Skeptic makes abundantly clear.
It would be so refreshing if Shapiro’s scientific skepticism were applied to other areas suffering from the same mythological curse as origin of life science is and has. Most notably, the notion of anthropogenic global warming could use a heavy dose of scientific skepticism if it is to exit the realm of mythology for the bright light of objectivity (which is rather how I prefer to characterize most skepticism–I think it unfortunate that objectivity is routinely tarred with the brush of skepticism).
The idea that the world is warming because of man’s activity is a coagulation of science and belief, almost in the same manner as the Creationists use science’s fallibilty in ascertaining the origin of life to justify belief in a creator. Just because we don’t know what may be causing atmospheric carbon dioxide to increase, and we don’t know whether its increase is affecting the earth’s climate (we have both negative and positive correlations), does not mean that the activities of mankind have anything to do with it. But try saying that among a group of otherwise intelligent people vested in the anthropogenic global warming myth, and you’ll be treated as if you’d just said the earth is flat.
The first thing to know when solving a problem is ascertaining what you know versus what you don’t know. What we don’t know about the origins of life on the planet, and about the cause of fluctuations in the earth’s atmosphere, far exceed what we do know. It is bad science to claim otherwise. Thank-you, Mr. Shapiro, for pointing that out.