Science, God, and the ultimate evolutionary question

Until science proves the origin of the very first cells, many will wheel out God as the default expl

Until science proves the origin of the very first cells, many will wheel out God as the default explanation.

No-one who has visited Richard Dawkins' website recently would have failed to notice the prominence given to an award being offered of up to 2 million dollars. Unfortunately for most of us, nobody will be granted the funding unless they put together a proposal for scientific research into the origin of life on our planet.

It's hardly a surprise that the site should draw attention to the award. After all, however much we think that we know about evolution, science is far from providing a confident explanation of the origin of the very first cells from which all life evolved. Until this gap in scientific knowledge is filled, many believers will continue to resort to God as the default explanation. For some, it must have been God who planted the first living cells on the planet, before leaving the stage and letting evolution take over. For others, the fact that no-one can prove how life originated sounds the death knell for evolution itself but is music to the ears of those who believe in Adam and Eve.

But are they right? Is science incapable of explaining the emergence of the first cells from which all life originated without the need for God?

In 1953 biologist Stanley Miller set up an experiment in the lab, intended to recreate what scientists call the earth's "primordial soup" when life first appeared 3.5 billion years ago. He created a sealed environment comprising boiling water and electric probes to simulate the effect of lightening on some of the young planet's hot waters. Thrown into the mix were methane, ammonia and hydrogen, the gases believed to be present on the early earth. The aim was to see whether anything related to life would form. Within a week, five amino acids had appeared in the water. This was a stunning result. After all, amino acids are the molecules which join up to form proteins inside living cells.

But to create proteins - and therefore life - amino acids must be strung together in a very specific order. And cells require DNA to do this. But how could something as complex as DNA have come into existence? Miller's experiment didn't answer that.

A possible explanation was found after a meteorite, slightly older than earth, crashed down in Australia in 1969. Amazingly one of the DNA bases was found inside the rock. Since the early earth was bombarded by meteorites for millions of years, this raises the tantalising possibility that DNA and RNA could have arrived here on meteorites around the time that life first appeared on the planet. This provides a partial explanation of how the amino acids could have developed into life.

But there are problems with the idea that life began in a Miller-like primordial soup. Analysis of ancient rocks has made it plain that at the time that life appeared, the earth was no longer rich in methane, ammonia and hydrogen. Besides, any soup would have been thermodynamically flat. This means that there was probably nothing to force the various molecules to react with each other, whether or not extraterrestrial DNA and RNA molecules were also present. And so far, scientists haven't been able to explain how the necessary molecules would have come together without a cell membrane.

But there is a different theory which addresses all these concerns.

It is well-known that the continents have been drifting apart throughout the lifetime of the planet. This is due to the movement of tectonic plates below the oceans. As these plates strike each other, new rocks are exposed to the sea water. This creates alkaline hydrothermal vents. The water physically reacts with the rocks and this releases heat along with gases reminiscent of Miller's experiments. As a result, warm alkaline hydrothermal fluids percolate into the cold oceans and, near the vents, structures are created which look rather like stalagmites and which are riddled with tiny compartments. These compartments could have been ideal places for chemical compounds from the gases to concentrate and combine to form early life in a fairly enclosed environment.

Although the existence of these vents had been predicted decades ago, it wasn't until 2000 that one was discovered in a part of the Atlantic Ocean which has been named Lost City. Scientists have analysed the cell-sized pores in the structures which were found there and concluded that they were almost ideal reaction vessels for producing the first life. What's more, the chemical imbalance between the sea water and the gases could have created an electrical charge which in turn possibly caused the chemical reactions needed to kick-start the creation of life.

But as I mentioned earlier, it's not sufficient to work out how the first amino acids may have appeared. It's also necessary to explain how DNA could have come onto the scene. Unfortunately DNA can't evolve without proteins. And proteins can't evolve without DNA.

Many scientists believe that the answer lies in the RNA World Theory. In 2007 it was discovered that nucleotides (and so RNA) could grow in simulated vents. At around the same time a scientific paper was published which concluded that RNA may have developed by living inside mineral cells in the vents. Biochemist Nick Lane believes once that had happened, RNA may have changed to DNA virtually spontaneously.

And so the hydrothermal vents theory provides a plausible account of how the first life could have formed on earth along with the DNA which was necessary to replicate it. But the theory certainly has difficulties. In fact, a similar theory based on a different type of vents, black smokers, is now generally given short shrift by the scientific community. Perhaps the hydrothermal vents theory will likewise come unstuck.

This is a difficult area of science. No doubt whoever receives that award, will have to work hard to earn every cent.

Andrew Zak Williams has written for the Independent and the Humanist and is a contributor to Skeptic Magazine. His email address is: andrewbelief@gmail.com

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What are the consequences of Brexit for the refugee crisis?

Politicians neglected the refugee crisis whilst campaigning – but they shouldn't now concede to the darker undertones of the debate.

In the chaotic aftermath of Brexit, the refugee crisis seems like a distant memory. Yet not even a year has passed since the body of a young Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach, shocking the world.

When campaigning for the EU referendum began, politicians neglected the crisis. Not because the situation had ameliorated, but because the issue had become strategically toxic. Nigel Farage's infamous poster aside, the Leave side preferred scare stories about economic migrants rather than refugees; the Remain side because the refugee crisis, more than anything else since its inception, highlighted the fragility of the ideals that underpin the European Union.

Many of the main issues aired in the course of the referendum debate were related to the refugee crisis, regardless of how little it impacted on them in reality; immigration, strain on public services, national identity. The refugee crisis became a proxy issue; implied, but not addressed, for fear of detrimental impact in the polls.

However, in his repugnant posters (it should be stressed, nothing to do with Leave campaign itself), Nigel Farage made explicit what he thought posed the greatest threat to the UK. Rightly, the posters have been condemned by both sides of the referendum debate, but the underlying suspicion of refugees it reflects has concerned many organisations.Their concern has only been exacerbated by the result of the referendum. The spike in hate crime compounds their fears.

Paul Dillane, head of UKLGIG, a charity that supports LGBTI asylum seekers to the UK, expressed unease at the reaction of his clients: “The asylum seekers I work with do not understand the decision that has been made – they feel vulnerable, they feel unwelcome. Yes the law hasn’t changed, and if they’re at risk of persecution, they will be protected. But they don’t feel like that now.”

Despite the troubling situation, the result of the referendum changes little when it comes to refugee law. “Refugee policy is shaped in London, not in Brussels”, said Stephen Hale, Chief Executive of Refugees Action. “The decision about how well we support refugees in terms of integration is a matter for the UK, not Brussels. The number of Syrian refugees we choose to resettle is a matter for the UK, not Brussels.”

Although the law may not have changed, from a diplomatic or political perspective, the same cannot be said. This does have the power to negatively impact legislation. Post-Brexit reaction in France surrounding the Touquet Treaty typifies this.

The Touquet Treaty, reached between the UK and France in 2003, permits each country to carry out passport checks on the other countries’ soil. It is what, according to French politicians in Calais, has accelerated the growth of the "Jungle", which currently accommodates close to 5,000 refugees.

Because the agreement was signed outside the auspices of the European Union, Brexit does not affect its legal legitimacy. However, for France, EU membership was crucial to the nature of the agreement. Speaking earlier this year, Harlem Desir, French Secretary of State for European Affairs, said the Touquet Treaty is “a bilaterial agreement. So, there will be no blackmail, nor threat, but it’s true that we cooperate more easily in both being members of the EU.”

Natacha Bouchart, mayor of Calais and a long-time critic of the treaty, has been vocal in her demands for legislative change since the result. Speaking to French broadcaster BGM TV, she said: “The British must take on the consequences of their choice. We are in a strong position to push, to press this request for a review and we are asking the President to bring his weight to the issue.” Some have adopted the slogan of the Leave campaign, telling them to now “take back control of your borders.”

Modification of the Touquet Treaty was branded part of ‘Project Fear’ by the Leave campaign. Because of this, change – if indeed it does happen – needs to be handled carefully by both the British and French governments.

The reaction of Natacha Bouchart is already a worrying sign for refugees. Firstly, it perpetuates the toxic narrative that casts refugees as an inconvenience. And secondly, any souring of relations between the UK and France over Brexit and the Touquet Treaty only increases the likelihood of refugees being used as political bargaining chips in the broader EU crisis over Schengen.

A divided government and disintegrating opposition do little to aid the situation. Furthermore, come October, how likely is a Brexit Tory cabinet – governing off the back of a manifesto predicated on reducing immigration – to extend the support networks offered to refugees? Even before the referendum, Theresa May, a supporter of the Remain campaign, said that Britain should withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, replacing it with the more questionable Bill of Rights.

Uncertainty of any kind is the most immediate danger to refugees. “Everyone is talking about it,” said Clare Mosesly, founder of Care4Calais. “But opinions on the impact are divided, which is creating yet more uncertainty.” Refugees, unsure whether Brexit will lead to increased fortification of the border, are prone to take ever more dangerous risks to reach the UK. Even economic uncertainty, seemingly distinct from issues such as the refugee crisis or immigration, has a negative impact. “The thing that worries me about a fragile economy”, said Paul Dillane, “is that when a country’s economy suffers, minorities suffer as well. Tolerance and inclusivity are undermined.”

The government must stress that the welcoming principles and legislation Britain had prior to Brexit remain in place. Andrej Mahecic, from the UNHCR, said “we will continue to rely on the UK’s strong support for humanitarian responses to refugee crises. Our work with the government on the UK’s asylum system and refugee resettlement schemes continues.”

The will from NGOs is there. The political will is less assured. In the aftermath of Brexit, the government must not concede to the darker side of the referendum debate.