Lifelike: Last Call for Intelligent Design

The only redoubt of biology that has not yet yielded utterly to Darwin is the problem of the origin of life. I have now reached Canterbury in The Ancestor's Tale and it's pretty clear that even that last fortress is crumbling fast.

The line between living and non-living is still a bright one - there is still a yawning gap between chemistry and life. So how do you get from non-living to life? I'm a firm believer in the idea that there are no "valley crossers" in evolution, to use Lee Smolin's phrase, only hill climbers, so the answer (I think) has got to be some variation on "in small steps."

Living things distinguish themselves in a number of ways, but the most obvious are metabolism and reproduction, or more precisely, more or less faithful reproduction. Little pine trees grow up to be big pine trees, not cherry trees, and little kittens grow up to be cats instead of dogs. The hereditary quality is the important one, says Dawkins. Without it you can't have evolution or life.

The world is not quite bereft of nonliving things that reproduce themselves. Dawkins mentions computer viruses and chain letters. Needless to say, each is dependent on both a (more or less) intelligent designer and a highly artificial environment. Chain letters, says Dawkins, depend on a supply of literate idiots.

What about nature? Well, certain reactions can propagate themselves, fire, for example, but it doesn't really display heredity, or more precisely, it only displays heredity with respect to the quality of being fire. Some speculative cosmologies are supposed to carry inheritable information, but they are purely speculative.

Life depends on catalysis, so it is speculated that a catalyst which catalyzed its own production could be that magic intermediate step between nonliving and alive. Dawkins mentions some fascinating experiments which capture many aspects of this ur-life. We may or may not ever be able to figure out how life on Earth actually began, but I suspect that rather soon ways that it could have arisen will be clearly demonstrated.

Consequently, if you are cheering for ID, I suspect that the window of opportunity is closing fast. Get your licks in while you still can.


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