Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Overselling the origin of life

It's interesting that Nobel prizes in science are often awarded for research that is at least a decade old. The reason is obvious: time gives us perspective; it helps us to discern what research has really made an important impact on science. That advantage of time is apparently lost on many reporters, who frequently oversell the latest research papers that have just been published. Long time readers know of my distaste for the sad state of science journalism and self-promotion (Ida anyone?). So you can imagine my reaction when I read this at ScienceDaily:
For 80 years it has been accepted that early life began in a 'primordial soup' of organic molecules before evolving out of the oceans millions of years later. Today the 'soup' theory has been over turned in a pioneering paper in BioEssays which claims it was the Earth's chemical energy, from hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor, which kick-started early life.
Pure hilarity. A brand new paper has "overturned" an 80 year old theory? And you know this because the authors told you? If you believe that, I've got a bridge I'm looking to sell. I'll give you a great deal.

So I went over to the BioEssays website to look for this earth-shattering article. They must be talking about this preview article:

Lane et al. 2010. How did LUCA make a living? Chemiosmosis in the origin of life. BioEssays doi 10.1002/bies.200900131.

It's basically a variant of a theory that has already been proposed: namely that the first living organisms must have originated in the high-energy environment of ocean floor hydrothermal vents. Here's a similar hypothesis from 25 years ago:

Baross and Hoffman. 1985. Submarine hydrothermal vents and associated gradient environments as sites for the origin and evolution of life. Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres 15(4):327-345.

It's important to note that Lane et al. have written a different version of this idea, and they've added material that explicitly refutes the old "primordial soup" idea. Is it going to overturn anything? Only time will tell.

On the other hand, why should I (a creationist) care about origin of life research? I'm fairly convinced all of it is a dead end anyway, right? Who cares if it's being oversold or undersold or completely ignored? Here's a little advice: The constant overselling of evolutionary research undermines scientific credibility in the eyes of the public. When creationists regularly hear "this fossil completely changes our understanding of evolution" or "this theory requires a total revision of evolutionary biology," the more cynical among us start to think that evolutionary biologists really don't know what's going on after all. When the big new discoveries are presented as undermining all previous ideas, why should we believe the ideas that are presented today? Some new discovery will come along tomorrow to completely undermine today's ideas, right? That's the pattern of discovery, right?

I guess I'm harping on the same issues that Genie Scott did at the Evolution conference last summer. Part of the solution is better science education, to make the public aware of the real nature of science: the constant state of discovery, the tentativeness of explanations, etc. I sometimes think if science was portrayed accurately in view of the public, there would be a lot less creationist animosity towards evolution. I also think that scientists have to bear at least some of the responsibility. In this era of dwindling research funding, showmanship is becoming a greater part of the work of a scientist. But we'll only shoot ourselves in the foot if we erode public confidence in science by indulging in hype and hyperbole.

It's something to think about anyway. In other news, check out the really tiny toads at the Bronx Zoo! They're tiny!