Of Protocells and Warm Little Ponds

By Carl Zimmer | January 8, 2009 7:00 pm

This year Science magazine will be celebrating Darwin’s big year with, among other things, a monthly series of essays on major evolutionary questions. The editors asked me to kick things off with an essay on the Big Kick Off–the origin of life. They’ve just posted my piece. Here’s how it starts:

An Amazon of words flowed from Charles Darwin’s pen. His books covered the gamut from barnacles to orchids, from geology to domestication. At the same time, he filled notebooks with his ruminations and scribbled thousands of letters packed with observations and speculations on nature. Yet Darwin dedicated only a few words of his great verbal flood to one of the biggest questions in all of biology: how life began.

Darwin saw the origin of life as beyond the scope of his methods for understanding biological history. But today scientists can test hypotheses for how life began with experiments that seemed like science fiction not long ago.

“When I was in graduate school, people thought investigating the origin of life was something old scientists did at the end of their career, when they could sit in an armchair and speculate,” says Henderson James Cleaves of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C. “Now making an artificial cell doesn’t sound like science fiction any more. It’s a reasonable pursuit.”

Read the full piece here or here. (I was also interviewed for this week’s podcast, to which you can listen here.)

And be sure to check out all the goodies Science is laying out for the year, including a Darwin blog.

Update 1/10: In my article, I quote a passage from Darwin on the origin of life and claimed it was the only time he addressed the topic in a book. Mark Pallen sets me straight in his comment:

“The only words he published in a book appeared near the end of On the Origin of Species: “Probably all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed,” Darwin wrote”.

Come, come Carl, you clearly have not read the entire corpus of Darwin’s published books nor all six editions of the Origin! ;-)

From the third edition (1861) onwards, Darwin also says:
“I have now recapitulated the chief facts and considerations which have thoroughly convinced me that species have been modified, during a long course of descent, by the preservation or the natural selection of many successive slight favourable variations. I cannot believe that a false theory would explain, as it seems to me that the theory of natural selection does explain, the several large classes of facts above specified. It is no valid objection that science as yet throws no light on the far higher problem of the essence or origin of life. Who can explain what is the essence of the attraction of gravity? No one now objects to following out the results consequent on this unknown element of attraction; notwithstanding that Leibnitz formerly accused Newton of introducing “occult qualities and miracles into philosophy.””

And in Variation Under Domestication he says:
“As the first origin of life on this earth, as well as the continued life of each individual, is at present quite beyond the scope of science, I do not wish to lay much stress on the greater simplicity of the view of a few forms, or of only one form, having been originally created, instead of innumerable miraculous creations having been necessary at innumerable periods; though this more simple view accords well with Maupertuis’s philosophical axiom “of least action.””

And don’t forget the allusion to the origin of life in the glorious closing sentence, which even included “breathed by the Creator” in some later editions:

“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

But only joking about reading them all, although I do have them all on the shelf. I cheated and used Darwin online!

So, where I say “only,” substitute “one of the only.” I’d also add that these three additional passages confirm that Darwin considered the origin of life off-limits to him as a scientist.

Once more, I bow down to the power of the Hive Mind.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, Writing Elsewhere

Comments (13)

  1. John A. Davison

    Carl

    Below is a little piece I have just composed in celebration of the “Year of Darwin.”

    http://jadavison.wordpress.com/2007/12/25/evolution-is-finished/#comment-1448

    #89

  2. MartinV

    Carl’s Zimmer book “Parasite Rex” has been translated into Czech by professor Jarolav Flegr. Oddly enough he didn’t mention it in his monography “Evolutionary biology”.

    http://www.natur.cuni.cz/~flegr/book_evbiol.php

    But he mentioned you John. He mentioned your work about non-homology of germ cells in mammals on page 240 (in index: Davison: (1998) Evolution as a self limiting process. Riv, Biol – Biol.Forum 91, 199-202) and also your Manifesto (index, page 518).

  3. Mel

    The journal Nature also has a special Darwin resource page for the year at http://www.nature.com/news/specials/darwin/index.html

    The first resource they have is a document called “15 Evolutionary Gems” that gives brief overviews of papers published in Nature over the last decade that illustrate the empirical validity and conceptual power of evolutionary biology. Complete citation information is given for each paper, as well as for additional resources that flesh out concepts or evidence discussed in each paper. If anyone out there doubts that there is any evidence for evolution, whether past or present, the papers listed among those 15 gems are a good starting place for discovering just how incorrect that view is.
    http://www.nature.com/nature/newspdf/evolutiongems.pdf

    Mel

  4. Alan Fox

    Also, for those interested in the history, Darwin’s “Voyage of the Beagle” is a great read. I have just started re-reading it.

  5. MartinV

    Alan is a neodarwinian AtBC regular who thinks that “On the Origin of Species” was written by “Charles Erasmus Darwin”. He wrote: “Charles Erasmus Darwin came from Great Britain, which some consider to be part of Europe.”

    http://www.overwhelmingevidence.com/oe/node/594

    I don’t think his opinion are of any value.

  6. Alan Fox

    I don’t think his opinion are of any value.

    Ah! But I am presenting evidence, Martin. All anyone has to do is follow the link I provided and read for themselves. They can then form their own opinion.

  7. John A. Davison

    Mel,

    No one here is questioning a past evolution, certainly not I. The question has always been the same. What was the mechanism by which evolution took place in the past? St George Jackson Mivart asked the key question in Darwin’s own day, a question which still cannot be answered by the Darwinians. I paraphrase as I don’t have the original handy.

    How can natural selection have been involved with a structure which had not yet appeared?

    jadavison.wordpress.com

  8. MartinV

    “Natural selection” plays no role in evolution. I must agree with John Davison. “Natural selection” and “struggle for life” is the same nonsense as marxists’ “class struggle”. The latter naturalists’ theory of human history is dead now. How is it possible that “struggle for life” and “natural selection” is still taught at schools as the explanation of “history of life”?

  9. John A. Davison

    “Animals are not always struggling for existence. Most of the time they are sitting around doing nothing at all.”
    anonymous only because I can’t recall the source.

    “Marx, Darwin and Freud are the three most crashing bores of the Western World.”
    William Golding

    “He who establishes his argument by noise and command, shows that he is weak.”
    Montaigne

    jadavison.wordpress.com

  10. John A. Davison

    Martin

    Natural selection plays an important role in evolution. It prevents evolution.

    ” The struggle for existence and natural selection are not progresssive agencies, but being, on the contrary, conservative, maintain the standard.”
    Leo Berg, Nomogenesis, page 406.

    jadavison.wordpress.com

  11. “The only words he published in a book appeared near the end of On the Origin of Species: “Probably all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed,” Darwin wrote”.

    Come, come Carl, you clearly have not read the entire corpus of Darwin’s published books nor all six editions of the Origin! ;-)

    From the third edition (1861) onwards, Darwin also says:
    “I have now recapitulated the chief facts and considerations which have thoroughly convinced me that species have been modified, during a long course of descent, by the preservation or the natural selection of many successive slight favourable variations. I cannot believe that a false theory would explain, as it seems to me that the theory of natural selection does explain, the several large classes of facts above specified. It is no valid objection that science as yet throws no light on the far higher problem of the essence or origin of life. Who can explain what is the essence of the attraction of gravity? No one now objects to following out the results consequent on this unknown element of attraction; notwithstanding that Leibnitz formerly accused Newton of introducing “occult qualities and miracles into philosophy.”"

    And in Variation Under Domestication he says:
    “As the first origin of life on this earth, as well as the continued life of each individual, is at present quite beyond the scope of science, I do not wish to lay much stress on the greater simplicity of the view of a few forms, or of only one form, having been originally created, instead of innumerable miraculous creations having been necessary at innumerable periods; though this more simple view accords well with Maupertuis’s philosophical axiom “of least action.”"

    And don’t forget the allusion to the origin of life in the glorious closing sentence, which even included “breathed by the Creator” in some later editions:

    “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

    But only joking about reading them all, although I do have them all on the shelf. I cheated and used Darwin online!

  12. Dr M.Wainwright

    Darwin rarely novel

    Darwin’s ideas were rarely orignal. He had to accept that Patrick Matthew came up with idea of natural before him and all of the ideas (as opposed to examples)given in “On the Origin of Species” were published before 1857 by various naturalists(Search Google for “wainwrightscience” for details). The warm little pond idea was mentioned by his grandfather Erasmus Darwin and given fuller explanation by Robert Chambers in his “Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation” which again predates the “Origins”.
    Dr Milton Wainwright,Dept Molecular Biology and Biotechnology,University of Sheffield,UK.

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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.

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