Biologý's ‘Skeleton In The Closet’: The Broken Bones Of Origins Science
Robert Deyes writes:
Review Of Chapter 13 of Stephen Meyer's Signature in the Cell (Harper One, 2009), by Stephen Meyer, HarperOne Publishers.
I never would have suspected that the literary sensation Dr Seuss’ The Cat In The Hat Comes Back would be used to make a point about the devastating shortcomings of origin of life theories (1). But when I read one of the later chapters of Meyer’s Signature In The Cell which in one foul swoop discredited Hermann Muller’s fortuitous origins of DNA, Henry Quastler’s DNA self replication hypothesis and Manfred Eigen’s ideas on hypercycles I could not help but be fascinated by his use of this children’s classic in his exposition. Of course in their own unique ways each of these scientists became steadfastly convinced that they were onto something of great significance that would lead to fruitful avenues on the all important question of how life had begun. Muller drew inferences from his own work on viruses, in particular bacteriophages (‘bacteria eaters’), equating these simple organisms to “a gene that copies itself within the cell” (2). He envisioned these as being somehow analogous to primitive DNA floating around in the chemical-rich soup of the early earth (2). Quastler on the other hand suggested that polynucleotides could act as templates for replication through complementary base pairing (3). And Eigen chose to assume that ‘self-reproducing molecular systems’ involving RNA molecules and basic enzymes could somehow supply an early form of transcription and translation, later forming hypercycles that would have preceded the arrival of the earliest cells (4).
So how is the Cat in the Hat relevant? Crucial aspects of the above mechanistic propositions, writes Meyer, parallel the antics of our feline friend as he unwillingly redistributes the mess he has created in the house of his none-too-happy hosts. Origin of life scientists have similarly been trying for decades to “clean up the problem of explaining the origin of [biological] information” only to find that they have “simply transferred the problem elsewhere- either by presupposing some other unexplained sources of information or by overlooking the indispensable role of an intelligence” (1). And their modern day brethren, with the apparent sophistication of computer-housed evolutionary algorithms, have fared little better. Meyer’s unearthing of the reality behind Ev, for example, described by its author Thomas Schneider as “a simple computer program” that attempts to evolve the information content of DNA binding sites in a hypothetical genome, is a case in point (5). In Ev Schneider ‘specifies’ the sequence of these DNA binding sites and incorporates the code for the binding site ‘recognizer’ (protein) into the genome (5). The relative penalties for mis-binding or non-binding of the recognizer to sequences are pre-set into the program (5).
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