origin of life

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Theoretical Clay Feet

Have you ever seen a wooden bead in a pocket calculator? Sounds ludicrous, doesn't it? But calculators have not always contained such "high tech" components as silicon and plastic. The primitive abacus relied on racks of wooden beads to perform mathematical calculations. Of course our modern version retains none of the wooden components of its "low tech" precursor. Read More ›
Geyser at Yellowstone
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The Origin of Life and the Death of Materialism

Introduction Alfred North Whitehead once said that “when we consider what religion is for mankind and what science is, it is no exaggeration to say that the future course of history depends upon the decision of this generation as to the relations between them.” Whitehead spoke early in this century at a time when most elite intellectuals believed that science Read More ›

Alchemy, NK Boolean Style

There’s an old joke about the philosopher Rudolf Carnap and his method of doing philosophy. According to the joke, Carnap’s method was to begin any philosophical investigation with the statement “Consider a formal language L.” As the good logical positivist he was, Carnap desired the precision inherent in formal languages. Unfortunately, precision has its price. Formal languages are not natural languages and the problems expressible in formal languages need not connect to actual problems in the real world. With formal languages the question ever remains whether they adequately capture the subject under investigation.

Appropriately modified, the joke about Rudolf Carnap can be retold about Stuart Kauffman and the scientific method he employs in At Home in the Universe. According to the modified joke, Kauffman’s method is to begin any scientific investigation with the statement “Consider an NK Boolean network.” Indeed, throughout At Home in the Universe just about every real-world problem gets translated into a toy-world problem involving NK Boolean networks. As with Carnap’s formal languages, NK Boolean networks have the advantage of complete logical precision. But they also suffer the disadvantage of losing touch with reality. And it is this disadvantage which ultimately proves the undoing of Kauffman’s project.

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Literature Survey March 1996

Charles Darwin on Social Darwinism Richard Weikart, “A Recently Discovered Darwin Letter on Social Darwinism,” Isis 86 (1995): 609-611. For many decades, historians have debated whether Darwin was himself a social Darwinist, i.e., someone who believed that human beings were and should be subject to the same competitive forces acting on all other living things. The debate is sharpened by Read More ›

The RNA World


One of the earliest published suggestions that RNA-catalyzed RNA replication preceded and gave rise to the first DNA-based living cells was made by Carl Woese in 1967, in his book The Genetic Code1. Similar suggestions were made by Crick and Orgel2, for reasons that are not difficult to grasp. Prior to the discovery of catalytic RNAs, proteins were considered by many to be the only organic molecules in living matter that could function as catalysts. DNA carries the genetic information required for the synthesis of proteins. The replication and transcription of DNA require a complex set of enzymes and other proteins. How then could the first living cells with DNA-based molecular biology have originated by spontaneous chemical processes on the prebiotic Earth? Primordial DNA synthesis would have required the presence of specific enzymes, but how could these enzymes be synthesized without the genetic information in DNA and without RNA for translating that information into the amino acid sequence of the protein enzymes? In other words, proteins are required for DNA synthesis and DNA is required for protein synthesis.

This classic “chicken-and-egg” problem made it immensely difficult to conceive of any plausible prebiotic chemical pathway to the molecular biological system. Certainly no such chemical pathway had been demonstrated experimentally by the early 1960s. So the suggestion that RNA molecules might have formed the first self-replicating chemical systems on the primitive Earth seemed a natural one, given the unique properties of these substances.

They carry genetic information and (unlike DNA) occur primarily as single-stranded molecules that can assume a great variety of tertiary structures, and might therefore be capable of catalysis, in a manner similar to that of proteins. The problem of which came first, DNA or proteins, would then be resolved.

Self-replicating RNA-based systems would have arisen first, and DNA and proteins would have been added later. But in the absence of any direct demonstration of RNA catalysis, this suggestion remained only an interesting possibility.

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