SETI bioastro: Organic chemistry and Lynn Margulis UMass article

From: Larry Klaes (
Date: Wed Apr 19 2000 - 09:25:51 PDT

As a refresher, here are the URLs of two articles by and on
UMass-Amherst professor Lynn Margulis (first wife of Carl
Sagan) and her son, Dorion Sagan, from the UMass Alumni
magazine for Fall, 1999:

A response letter:

Fall '99 issue of UMass. According to the article, Lynn Margulis,
teaching a course in Environmental Evolution, presents work by
James Lovelock, originator of the Gaia Hypothesis. According to
this hypothesis "the environment is shaped, in part, the
organisms it sustains."

Proposed, in this scenario, is that the Earth gave rise to life
and, through chemical equilibrium, each continues to shape the
other. The article goes on to praise Margulis's multi-sensory
presentation and describes her effort to "get her students in
touch" with the multidisciplinary host of contemporary experts
contributing to the field.

The fields from which the experts are drawn include "astronomy,
paleontology, geochemistry, microbiology, and ethnobiology."
Absent from this list, and I'm certain by accident, is the field
of organic chemistry. Organic chemistry is the study of carbon-based
compounds, which, when applied to Origins studies, helps us to
understand the foundational chemical events believed to give rise
to life. Though seemingly a subtle point, it is not to those who
follow developments in the field of chemical origin of life or
chemical evolution and recognize the mechanistic chores required
by carbon-based materials to accomplish this feat.

And indeed, organic chemists are not silent about chemical evolution.
One of the best known workers in the field of chemical evolution, the
organic chemist Dr. Stanley Miller, described the evidence deficit
facing the hypothesis of chemical evolution.

"There is no agreement on the composition of the primitive atmosphere.
There is no geological evidence either way. The temperature of the
primitive Earth during the period of origin of life is unknown. . .
(It) is not possible to assign a precise chronology to the events
leading to the origin of life." (Cell, Vol. 85, 793-796, June 14, 1996)

Thus, chemical composition, possible temperatures, and what we
might call "life's reaction time and steps" are unknown, according
to Miller after forty-five years of study.

Further, in a personal communication, Miller revealed that no one
has ever produced in the laboratory an "informational polymer" from
scratch that self-replicates and evolves. Such "pre-biotic" materials
are absolutely required to explain formation of single-celled organisms,
which presumably evolved into "higher" organisms. Thus, the hypothesis
of chemical evolution remains infertile until evidence or substantive
experimental results can be obtained.

The truth is that investigators are faced with highly complex
biological molecules and multi-dependent systems that defy natural
origin explanations. Organic chemists know and can prove that large
biological multifunctional polymeric proteins (i.e., enzymes) or
polynucleotides (i.e., RNA or DNA), in addition to the systems in
which they are found, are not made from bubbling "soups" of random
chemicals and catalysts as assumed by evolution models.

One indisputable fact remains; life is not a random mixture of chemicals.
Life is organized, information-packed and possesses interdependent
chemical networks that are purposeful. As one takes a tour around any
protein and observes the folding, unfolding, delicate precision with
which other molecules are disassembled and reassembled, it becomes
clear to the dimmest observer that such elegance, purpose, and
subtlety are not the product of careless, random events. Rather these
incredible molecular machines appear to have been designed by an
equally incredible intelligence. [God? A really advanced grad student
from another universe doing his thesis on universe creation with
our Universe as his project?]

I would suggest that as our prestigious, open-minded faculty look
for origins and present hypotheses to young influential minds, let
us be generous in considering and questioning ALL of the related
disciplines, facts and, yes, origin possibilities.

     John DeMassa '91G
     Norwalk, Connecticut

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