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Origins : A Skeptic's Guide to the Creation of Life on Earth Hardcover – January 1, 1986
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From Publishers Weekly
This is popular science writing in top style: witty, informed, provocative. New York University chemistry professor Shapiro, DNA expert and co-author (with Gerald Feinberg) of Life Beyond Earth, expounds on the notion that modern theories of life's origin are inadequate and in a sense tend to become mythologies. Then, with a sobriety leavened by his consistent summoning of an imagined champion of true science called The Skeptic, he examines and rejects "genesis" theories Sir Fred Hoyle's "planetary dust" suggestions; the life-from-clay explanations; the Urey-Miller argument favored by scientists, that life began when lightning stirred earth's "prebiotic soups"; and so on, including even so-called Scientific Creationism. In the end, Shapiro proves surprisingly sanguine that science will yet find the "answer," offering his own bold reversal of molecular science's central dogma, that nucleic acids were the first genes. "In the beginning was protein. Protein begat RNA and then both begat DNA." January
Copyright 1985 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From Library Journal
Shapiro, a biochemist, considers the various experiments and theories that contribute to explaining the origin of life on Earth. He examines in detail the Urey-Miller experiments (familiar to every freshman in biology), the clay organism, and spontaneous generation with relentless attention to their scientific merits. He gently dismisses the peculiar theory of directed panspermia espoused by Crick, and thoroughly debunks the outrageous proposals of Hoyle. Finally, Shapiro suggests a protein (enzyme) as the orginal replicator, and speculates on the possibility that other planets may provide models for some processes in life's origin. An excellent critical review, with technical jargon kept to a minimum, this book will be comprehensible to a diversified readership. Walter P. Coombs, Jr., Biology Dept., Western New England College, Springfield, Mass.
Copyright 1986 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Robert Shapiro, a leading DNA scientist, says that our genetic coding is so complex that it is a major problem for the theory of evolution. That doesn't mean that science should give up, he says, but that real scientific method should be pursued, instead of religious or scientific mytholology, or unproven beliefs that are strongly held. It shouldn't matter to science how faithfully people believe in the Creation Story of the Bible, that God created everything in seven days, or in the theory of panspermia, that the seeds of life came from outer space. Science, instead, should be about science; it should be about looking at the evidence critically, obtaining proof, being able to repeat results, and standing up to skepticism, or negative questioning of the results. A lot of this is simply not being done, in his opinion. By the way, he sees no conflict between believing in a Creator and science at the same time, but that the two should be separated for purposes of scientific study. You can believe in God and evolution at the same time. I couldn't agree more.
The first DNA molecule did not have enough time for 'spontaneous generation' given the overwhelming odds of 1 chance in 10 to the 40,000th power (1 followed by 40,000 zeros). Nobel Prize contender Dr. Fred Hoyle, who coined the term `Big Bang' in the 1940's, came up with this number. In fact, Shapiro says the odds are much greater than that, 1 chance in 10 to the 100 billionth power. These odds have been calculated based on the complexity of the 2000 enzymes in the cell, each consisting of 100 to 1000 specific amino acids linked together in a specific sequence. Hoyle assumed already-assembled amino acids in the pre-biotic soup, and Shapiro assumed `reduced' chemicals instead. Bottom line, either way, DNA just didn't happen spontaneously.
Shapiro gives us a history lesson of where we have been scientifically and where we might go from here. He starts with the famous, but overrated Miller-Urey experiments where only a couple of amino acids were produced in an attempt to simulate the pre-biotic condition of early earth, a very long way from the completion of a DNA module. He goes through a lot of scenarios about the early earth and how the principal chemicals got together with the right energy sources to produce that first cell. He admits that it is all conjecture and that it would have to be proven in a laboratory. He goes over the theory that bubbles or mud in the soup could have combined and been exposed to the right chemicals and conditions for something to happen. He proposes looking into the Random Generator that could possibly be a sort of intermediate step in the creation of DNA. He considers the initial, start-up reversal of the Central Dogma of microbology: from DNA producing RNA producing protein, to protein producing RNA producing DNA. He finally hits the subject of panspermia, which says that life on earth originated from outer space. Bizarrely, the noted Dr. Chandra Wickramasinghe even proposes a hierarchy of creators, including a silicon chip. Do we start to see some desperation?
A lot of what he writes is technical, and I had to look up words like caovercate, eukayotic, lipid, enzyme, ribosome, organelle, etc. I also had to dust off my college chemistry memories and do some searches on Google to make sense of what he was saying. I don't believe he was at all showing off or talking down, but was making a valiant effort to communicate a complex subject. Frankly, I would have liked a little higher-level explanation of the detailed subject matter, but I'm sure he is writing for an audience that varies in its knowledge of science and DNA workings. He comes across as a humble man who admits he doesn't have all the answers.
He likens all this to `unbaking a cake' to find out how DNA got here. I liken it to de-compiling a multi-billion line program, going backward from the machine code to the source, something I've never seen done.
DNA and its first appearance is THE issue that won't go away for the origin of life on earth. It is still the eight-hundred pound gorilla.
However, back to honesty and intellectual respectability. Professor Shapiro brings on at intervals a Greek-chorus-like persona called the `Skeptic', aka, on the dustcover of the British hardback edition, the `Sceptic'. The Sceptic's job is to demand that the scientific method be unflinchingly applied at all times. The scientific method requires that all hypotheses be tested so far as this is possible, and that a high standard of proof be invoked. Ideas and theories in the realm of chemistry or biology or physics or astronomy may qualify as `science' in ordinary discourse, but people are only human and the votaries of this or that pet idea are liable to slip off the strait and narrow of the scientific method, often without realising. However there have always been attempts by powerful and interested parties to prostitute the science outright in the name of non-scientific or pseudo-scientific doctrines. Stalin, through his toady Lysenko, bent evolutionary theories to support dialectical materialism. Then of course there is creationism, which has a longer history than I had appreciated, although the name may be fairly new. Oh dear, creationism.
I am myself much too polite to call creationism nauseating drivel that dishonours the human intellect. Professor Shapiro is even politer than I am, but he states categorically enough that to proclaim any doctrine true simply on the basis of authority - i.e. just because someone said it - is the complete antithesis of the scientific approach, and the creationists are not entitled to misappropriate the term `science' for their doctrines. `Science' requires evidence that can be validated or falsified, and the biblical account of creation is a fable that does not operate in that sphere. Nor does it help matters to claim that `God' said it. Who says God said it? Some very human scribes said it, at a rather early stage of culture and education, and to claim that sort of thing as some word of God strikes me as close to downright blasphemy. It may of course be Professor Shapiro's compelling courtesy that leads him to treat religion with kid gloves in the way he does. If there is any point at which he may be missing a trick, I think this is it. It would be worth outraging some regular believers by saying that there is no legitimate connection whatsoever between Genesis and any rational belief in a Creator of the cosmos, and none between Genesis and the moral teachings of the scripture, by which many atheists try to regulate their own conduct. We might as well believe Hesiod, except that the study of the ancient classics has declined these days.
This book is, I would say, a volume that any serious enquirer into the matter of our ultimate progenitors ought to read. Professor Shapiro has been nothing if not thorough at least as far as the date of writing, and it is another sign of the accommodating thoughtfulness that marks his tone also that he has taken so much trouble to bring some distinctly arcane arguments within the comprehension of the lay public.