A Rare Bubble in the Primordial Soup?

Jeffrey Kluger writes in Time Magazine review of Ben Stein's new Documentary on Evolution, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed:

The man made famous by Ferris Bueller, however quickly wades into waters too deep for him. He makes all the usual mistakes nonscientists make whenever they try to take down evolution, asking, for example, how something as complex as a living cell could have possibly arisen whole from the earth's primordial soup. The answer is, it couldn't--and it didn't. Organic chemicals needed eons of stirring and slow cooking before they could produce compounds that could begin to lead to a living thing.
Is this brush-off really fair? Someone please correct me if I'm wrong, but the current theory has it that Earth's early atmosphere was conducive to the production of organic compounds, and somehow the first cell came about from this. I understand there are tentative hypotheses as to various proto-cells that could be created, or that DNA could somehow have come about that would start reproducing, but is this not all speculation? Is there a theory (with positive evidence in its favor, of course) that asserts something that is not ultimately reducible to "lightning struck this soup, DNA was formed and happened to be near a membrane bubble, and voila!"?

Granted science is a process and unanswered questions do not nullify its current theories, but should not such a question should put a considerable burden upon the biologist to provide a more satisfying answer than the oft heard "an infinite time anything could happen".


  1. John,

    I don't know the answer to your question, and I am biased (since I favor certain forms of ID theory). But back when I delved into this stuff, I believe I found that it was a categorically different (and harder) question to explain where the first cell came from, compared to the eventual evolution of our current menagerie.

    I'm pretty sure the famous experiments where someone replicated the primordial soup in a lab, and then zapped it with electricity to form organic compounds, has been discredited--but again maybe a typical biologist would dispute this claim. I seem to recall that the conditions weren't really those of the primordial soup, and so the experiment was rigged to make genesis look easier than it would have been. (I'm not saying the people doing those experiments were frauds, just that I'm pretty sure current views on what the soup was like were not the environment in the experiment.)

  2. The experiment, as I understood it, showed that given certain basic conditions and lightning, a primordial soup would be generated that consisted of organic compounds. As far as I know this is at least the current hypothesis, that there were pools of organic material.

    At THIS point, as I understand it, biologists essentially wave their hands and say the unlikely genesis of a cell was inevitable, given the "eons" of time that passed in these volatile conditions. So even if the experiments were not frauds, the question remains.

  3. On the one hand, remember that the positivist, textbook picture of science is a unrealistic caricature -- scientists are ALWAYS groping their way forward, going on hunches, working from metaphysical biases, and so on. From Newton until Einstein, no one had a friggin' clue HOW gravity worked -- they knew the result of its existence, but had no explanation for how it produced that result. They trucked on, hoping the hole would be filled one day. So there's nothing intrinsically wrong with a Darwinian proceeding in a similar fashion.

    But, it's also OK to regularly point out, "Don't get so cocky, son -- notice that big hole over there in your theory?"

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  6. A couple of notes,

    The Miller-Urey experiment is that decades old textbook example everyone involved with the origins-of-life debate likes to discuss: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miller-Urey_experiment

    While I have been scouring torrent sites for 'Expelled' (somehow I don't think it'll get a wide release out here...) I have manged to watch a number of clips from the movie.

    And unfortunately Stein, like many creationists, conflates evolution with the origin-of-life. Then they throw ol' Darwin in there and a dab of salt.

    While Darwin touched a little bit on how life arose, his main thesis was on how life evolved/survived/reproduced/died out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Origin_of_Species

    I recently had a small blog-to-blog debate with a creationist on this topic (http://movementarian.com/2008/03/24/admitting-you-are-wrong-on-easter/) who is unfamiliar with how synthetic biologists like J. Craig Venter are actually creating life from the ground up (http://www.cosmosmagazine.com/node/1642). If he can do it in a period of 25 years, why is it a stretch to believe that natural phenomenon could not have inadvertently engineered the same outcome?

    Researchers involved in the field of abiogenesis (origin of life) have numerous models discussing other alternatives: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Origin_of_life#Current_models

    Also, if you have a chance PBS put together a surprisingly decent account of the Kitzmiller case from a few years ago: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/id/program.html

    However, I should note that the case centered around testable instances of biological evolution, not the origin of life.

  7. I think the issue is that no scientist is going to claim a "modern" cell formed in one go, but it is fair to point out the various proto-life theories are still in their infancy as far as I know.

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