Of Protocells and Warm Little Ponds

This year Science magazine will be celebrating Darwin’s big year with, among other things, a monthly series of essays on major evolutionary questions. The editors asked me to kick things off with an essay on the Big Kick Off–the origin of life. They’ve just posted my piece. Here’s how it starts:

An Amazon of words flowed from Charles Darwin’s pen. His books covered the gamut from barnacles to orchids, from geology to domestication. At the same time, he filled notebooks with his ruminations and scribbled thousands of letters packed with observations and speculations on nature. Yet Darwin dedicated only a few words of his great verbal flood to one of the biggest questions in all of biology: how life began.

Darwin saw the origin of life as beyond the scope of his methods for understanding biological history. But today scientists can test hypotheses for how life began with experiments that seemed like science fiction not long ago.

“When I was in graduate school, people thought investigating the origin of life was something old scientists did at the end of their career, when they could sit in an armchair and speculate,” says Henderson James Cleaves of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C. “Now making an artificial cell doesn’t sound like science fiction any more. It’s a reasonable pursuit.”

Read the full piece here or here. (I was also interviewed for this week’s podcast, to which you can listen here.)

And be sure to check out all the goodies Science is laying out for the year, including a Darwin blog.

Update 1/10: In my article, I quote a passage from Darwin on the origin of life and claimed it was the only time he addressed the topic in a book. Mark Pallen sets me straight in his comment:

“The only words he published in a book appeared near the end of On the Origin of Species: “Probably all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed,” Darwin wrote”.

Come, come Carl, you clearly have not read the entire corpus of Darwin’s published books nor all six editions of the Origin!

From the third edition (1861) onwards, Darwin also says:
“I have now recapitulated the chief facts and considerations which have thoroughly convinced me that species have been modified, during a long course of descent, by the preservation or the natural selection of many successive slight favourable variations. I cannot believe that a false theory would explain, as it seems to me that the theory of natural selection does explain, the several large classes of facts above specified. It is no valid objection that science as yet throws no light on the far higher problem of the essence or origin of life. Who can explain what is the essence of the attraction of gravity? No one now objects to following out the results consequent on this unknown element of attraction; notwithstanding that Leibnitz formerly accused Newton of introducing “occult qualities and miracles into philosophy.””

And in Variation Under Domestication he says:
“As the first origin of life on this earth, as well as the continued life of each individual, is at present quite beyond the scope of science, I do not wish to lay much stress on the greater simplicity of the view of a few forms, or of only one form, having been originally created, instead of innumerable miraculous creations having been necessary at innumerable periods; though this more simple view accords well with Maupertuis’s philosophical axiom “of least action.””

And don’t forget the allusion to the origin of life in the glorious closing sentence, which even included “breathed by the Creator” in some later editions:

“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

But only joking about reading them all, although I do have them all on the shelf. I cheated and used Darwin online!

So, where I say “only,” substitute “one of the only.” I’d also add that these three additional passages confirm that Darwin considered the origin of life off-limits to him as a scientist.

Once more, I bow down to the power of the Hive Mind.