Random Chemicals to Reproducible Life

Back when I first became interested in science, one of the first areas I was interested in was Biology – specifically human evolution because of the hype it gets. The whole religion versus science becomes very pronounced in the creation-or-evolution debate. I read through a lot of material and was able to understand natural selection quite easily. It’s not all that complicated as some would like to suggest. It’s simply this: whoever is the better in a particular situation survives. It’s easy to understand once you realize that that’s a tautology. Whoever survives is the “fittest” and the fittest survives. So, no problems there but there was always something that didn’t quite fit. I could never quite digest the “theory” that micro-evolution (birds changing bone shape etc.) could lead to macro evolution (going from single-strand RNA to fish).

Finally, after much thought, I realized something. The way evolution is normally explained is by half a process of induction. The proponents of evolution (by the way, in the rest of this post, “evolution” should be read as “macro-evolution”) suggest that there is a gradual change from one species to another. You get to see a lot of “minor changes” and finally, with some blanks, you can see the whole chain. The base case, however, is missing. Where does this process start?

According to Darwinian evolution, if you go back in time, you go back in complexity. From complex mammals, you get fish and from there, you get stuff like amoebas, and then very simple living material like RNA etc. The problem with that though, is that there comes a point where you can’t get any simpler. If you do, your “living thing” cannot reproduce. The reason is that reproduction is a fairly complicated process and anything that does it can’t said to be the basic organism. However, if you get any simpler, you lose the ability to reproduce and then you cannot demonstrate survival of the fittest because no matter how fit you are, you cannot pass on your traits.

Now, after a long time, I came across this article on MIT Technology Review which documents an interview with George Whitesides. George Whitesides is introduced in the article with these words:

Harvard professor George Whitesides has spent his career solving problems in science and industry—he cofounded the pharmaceutical giant Genzyme, and he’s the world’s most cited living chemist.

Please read through the brief interview. It’s very informative and though provoking. Of relevance here is the answer to the first question quoted here for the sake of completeness.

Technology Review: What’s the problem you have most wanted to solve and haven’t been able to?
Whitesides: There’s an intellectual problem, which is the origin of life. The origin of life has the characteristic that there’s something in there as a chemist, which I just don’t understand. I don’t understand how you go from a system that’s random chemicals to something that becomes, in a sense, a Darwinian set of reactions that are getting more complicated spontaneously. I just don’t understand how that works. So that’s a scientific problem.

That’s a concise and succinct way of explaining the problem that I just introduced. If you get simpler beyond a certain point, you cannot obey Darwinian set of reactions (i.e. survival of the fittest). So, the question is: why aren’t we told about this problem in the Darwinian theory when we’re all taught evolution in school? It’s not that hard to explain.