Archive for December, 2009
Charles Darwin recorded in his autobiography that The Origin of Species “is no doubt the chief work of my life. It was from the first highly successful. The first small edition of 1,250 copies was sold on the day of publication, and a second edition of 3,000 copies soon afterwards. Sixteen thousand copies have now (1876) been sold in England and considering how stiff a book it is, this is a large sale.”
While it is unknown how the 1,250 copies could have been sold on “the day of publication” without Amazon.com, what is known is that Darwin was famous long before the publication of the first edition of The Origin of Species in 1859.
Charles Darwin was following in the tradition of his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin—author of the infamous Zoönomia. King George III even asked Erasmus to be his doctor, but he refused the appointment—too busy.
Erasmus was building a vast network of associates that became known as the leading social and philosophical lights. With contacts like Matthew Boulton, Josiah Wedgwood, and James Watt, Erasmus established the Lunar Society that became the main intellectual powerhouse of the Industrial Revolution in England.
By the time Charles Darwin entered Edinburgh University, Zoönomia (meaning “the law of life” in Latin) had become a popular poetry and science textbook. At Edinburgh University, Charles Darwin learned that his professor, Robert Edmund Grant, quoted from Zoönomia for his doctoral thesis.
Just months after returning from the voyage on the HMS Beagle in February 1837, and before starting working on what is now known as The Origin of Species, Darwin was elected to the Council of the Royal Geographical Society, later accepting Darwin accepted the position of Secretary of the Society in March 1838. Darwin was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in January 1839. The Geographic and Royal Society institutions were reserved for the intellectual elite—only.
The Darwin’s in the eighteenth century has been likened to the Kennedy’s of the nineteenth century. Darwin’s notoriety can even be seen at play during the voyage of the HMS Beagle. By British custom, the ship’s surgeon traditionally took the position of the official “naturalist.” Darwin’s role was to be a “gentleman’s naturalist” and assist the ship’s surgeon, Robert McKormick, and Captain FitzRoy.
On shore in Brazil, however, it was the 22-year old Charles Darwin, not Doctor McKormick, who began receiving all the notoriety and the invitations from dignitaries on shore. Reasonably, McKormick felt upstaged by Darwin. Being sufficiently disgruntled, McKormick left the Beagle at Rio de Janeiro. McKormick’s status was “invalided out” back to Britain.
In 1859, not only was the topic of evolution was “in the air”, Darwin’s word was like E.F. Hutton speaking. The timing was perfect. Darwin’s pre-Origin notoriety preceded the successful launch of one the most influential and contentious books ever in the history of science.
In 1986, American physicist, biochemist, and molecular biology pioneer Walter Gilbert was the first to propose the term “RNA world hypothesis” for the origin of life since the possibility of Darwin’s “proteine” arrival in the “warm little pond” was beyod any realm of possibility. Gilbert suggested that because RNA can synthesize itself in the absence of proteins, RNA may have originated on the early Earth before proteins or DNA; this is known as the RNA world. According to the RNA world hypothesis, the RNA molecule later evolved into DNA and protein molecules. While the DNA molecule evolved into a data storage role, the protein molecules evolved into a catalytic role.
Like the Miller–Urey experiment though, the lack of geological evidence for hydrogen cyanide in the fossil record is missing. Another problem with hydrogen cyanide is that at room temperature, it becomes a gas toxic to cellular metabolism. During the German Nazi regime in the mid-twentieth century, hydrogen cyanide was used as an agent for mass murder.
To date, not one laboratory experiment with realistic early Earth elements and conditions has produced a single nucleic acid. Scripps Research Institute biochemist Gerald Joyce states that the “most reasonable interpretation is that life did not start with RNA.” The origin of life is so difficult a problem that German researcher Kaus Dose stated in 1988 that the RNA theory is “a scheme of ignorance. Without fundamentally new insights in evolutionary processes … this ignorance is likely to persist.”
In 1998, Leslie Orgel, senior research fellow and research professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, where he directed the Chemical Evolution Laboratory, acknowledged that “we are very far from knowing whodunit” or what were the early environmental conditions on the Earth.
Nearly twenty years later, the role of RNA in the origin of life remains elusive, if not improbable. In 2007, commenting in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America on a paper by Phillipp Baaske and Eugene V. Koonin, senior investigator, National Center for Biotechnology Information, National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, stated that while more is known about RNA, the evolutionary role of RNA has severe difficulties and “still is a hypothetical entity; … the evolutionary path to the translation systems remains essentially uncharted.”
Charles Darwin in a letter Joseph Hooker in February 1871 speculated that life might have originated in “some warm little pond, with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, light, heat, electricity, &c., present, that a proteine compound was chemically formed ready to undergo still more complex changes”.
Darwin’s speculation went untested until the Miller–Urey experiment in 1952 at the University of Chicago. Stanley Miller and Harold Urey successfully produced some of Darwin’s “proteine compounds” by building on Alexander Oparin‘s and J. B. S. Haldane‘s hypothesis that the primitive conditions on Earth were favorable to the chemical reactions that synthesized organic compounds from inorganic precursors. Oparian and Haldane’s favorable conditions required a nitrogen-rich reducing atmosphere without oxygen.
The Miller-Urey experiment advanced the question to center stage—were the conditions of primitive Earth the same as proposed by Oparin and Haldane? Was early Earth nitrogen-rich? Was oxygen absent?
Since 1952, research on the actual chemical conditions of the primitive Earth has been on the investigative frontlines of origin of life research. After over 50 years, the consensus is inconclusive. Wikipedia, under the topic of “Origin of Life” in, now more commonly referred to as “Abiogenesis,” concludes: “There is no truly ‘standard model’ of the origin of life. Most currently accepted models draw at least some elements from the framework laid out by the Oparin-Haldane hypothesis.”
Irrespective of primitive Earth conditions, an even more challenging question emerges—what is the statisitcal probability for functional proteins to arise de novo from the “prebiotic soup” of amino acids by chance?
Stephen Meyer, in his new book entitled Signature in the Cell, reviews the extensive research into answering this daunting question on chance. Based on the works of Robert Sauer at MIT, Douglas Axe at Cambridge University, and British cosmologist Sir Fred Hoyle, Meyer, concldues that “the improbability of generating the necessary proteins by chance—or the genetic information to produce them—to balloon beyond comprehension.”
Meyer writes, “The odds of getting even one functional protein of modest length (150 amino acids) by chance from a prebioitc soup is no better than 1 chance in 10164.” Meyer continues, “Another way to say that is the probability of finding a functional protein by chance alone is a trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion times smaller than the odds of finding a single specific particle among all the particles in the universe.”
The evidence for the probability of origin of life arising from Darwin’s “warm little pond” seems to have vanished beyond the realm of any possibility—regardless of any early Earth scenario.
Darwin’s preamble to the first edition of The Origin of Species includes quotations from William Whewell’s popular book entitled Bridgewater Treatise and Francis Bacon’s sentential work entitled Advancement of Learning. From different worldview, both Whewell and Bacon advocated the use of inductive reasoning—the scientific method.
Bacon (January 1561 – April 1626) is noted as one of the founders of the Scientific Revolution that eventually lead to the establishment of the Royal Society by Charles II in 1660. Whewell, one of Darwin’s dons at Cambridge University, is credited for coining the term “scientist.”
Taking a comprehensive approach to the study of evolution, Darwin presented the two different worldviews of Bacon and Whewell. Whewell, envisioning nature apart from a “Divine” intervention,
“But with regard to the material world, we can at least go so far as this-we can perceive that events are brought about not by insulated interpositions of Divine power, exerted in each particular case, but by the establishment of general laws.”
Bacon, by contrast, envisioned nature as part of “God’s work,”
“To conclude, therefore, let no man out of a weak conceit of sobriety, or an ill-applied moderation, think or maintain, that a man can search too far or be too well studied in the book of God’s word, or in the book of God’s works; divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavour an endless progress or proficience in both.”
Darwin teaches, by example, to embrace the exploration of diverse worldviews. Modern education should take Darwin’s approach and “teach the controversy.”