Calspace Courses

 Climate Change · Part One
 Climate Change · Part Two
 Introduction to Astronomy
 Life in the Universe

      Life in the Universe Syllabus

    1.0 - What is Life?

  2.0 Origin of Life Scenarios
         · 2.1 - Basic Assumptions
         · 2.2 - The Early Earth
         · 2.3 - The Prebiotic Earth

    3.0 - Development of Simple Life
    4.0 - How Life Became "Complicated"
    5.0 - The Tree of Life
    6.0 - Changes and Evolution
    7.0 - Disturbance and Mass Extinction
    8.0 - The Genetic Record
    9.0 - Why Brains? Likelihood for Getting Smarter
    10.0 - Life on Other Planets?
    11.0 - The Search for Biomarkers
    12.0 - Science of Searching for Intelligent Life

 Glossary: Climate Change
 Glossary: Astronomy
 Glossary: Life in Universe

Basic Assumptions

Carl von Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist who developed the system still in use for classifying living things.
The question about Life's origins arises because of the following observations:
  • All known living things have a parent.
  • All known living things have the same basic machinery for replication.
  • All known living things are made of the same kinds of substances, favoring certain selected types of carbon molecules.
  • Many living things are represented by fossils in the geologic record in such a fashion that the younger rocks bear the remains of the more familiar organisms.
  • Very ancient rocks bear no fossils that are similar to modern animals or plants; the oldest rocks contain only microfossils.
From these observations we make the following scientific inferences:
  • There is an unbroken chain of ancestry for each organism on the planet.
  • All known organisms are somehow related by genetic code.
  • All known organisms are somehow related by carbon chemistry.
  • Offspring differ from ancestors and the difference increases with the number of generations.
  • Modern plants and animals have single-celled primitive ancestors.
Alternative suggestions are as follows:
  • Organisms can arise spontaneously from non-living matter. (Maggots-from-meat hypothesis.)
  • Organisms produce offspring strictly in their image. (Fixed species hypothesis.)
  • Similarities are due to basic purposeful design, not common ancestry. (Design hypothesis.)
  • Fossils have little relevance to understanding the living world. (Playful nature hypothesis.)
  • Many-celled and single-celled organisms are fundamentally different. (We-are-very-special hypothesis.)
The alternative statements were part of the world-view of naturalists and educated people of the Middle Ages. These assumptions dominated discussions right into the 19th century. They are now abandoned among scientists, but linger in what might be called "folk science". Modern thinking on these matters has merged as a rebellious offspring of the older ideas.

Some of these older ideas are found wanting when tested. Maggots do not arise spontaneously from meat, as Redi showed by screening rotting meat from flies. Also, in breeding different dogs from the same ancestral stock (wolves), the fixed species hypothesis has suffered. (While dogs are still the same species, many of the races cannot breed with each other.) Design, playfulness and speciality are impossible to test and falsify and are not therefore considered scientific hypotheses. To get away from the discussions surrounding such concepts, scientists have changed the rules of the game: much of what passed for science in the Middle Ages is no longer considered a valid object of discussion.

If there is no conceivable test which might show a hypothesis false, it is not science.

Clearly, this ground rule poses some problems for those studying the origin of Life. In a way, such an origin is a "maggots-from-meat" problem, or worse, "maggots-from-inorganic-matter". When Earth first formed from coalescing dust and rocks presumably there was no Life. Sometime later (perhaps 500 million years later) there was Life (we think). Eventually, there were maggots. Thus, we are forced to admit that maggots can arise from lifeless matter after all. It just takes the proper conditions; conditions that no longer exist on the Earth.

The historical sciences (astronomy, geology, biology) have a fundamental problem regarding testing of hypotheses. How would we test the details of an inferred unique event in history? The Big Bang? The appearance of the first cell? The appearance of the first multi-cellular organism? The extinction of the trilobites? When inferred events took place under irreproducible conditions, reconstruction must remain in the realms of speculation. As long as we all understand that we cannot be certain how things happened, we can proceed with building a likely story, a "scenario", based on the best evidence and on known principles of physics and chemistry.

Of course, the absence of certainty regarding the precise course of history in no way strengthens hypotheses regarding purposeful design, playfulness of nature, or a privileged status for humans as a biological species. In analogy with mystery stories: not being sure whether the butler did it in the way proposed does not necessarily implicate the gardener.

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