Life is chemistry

Sometimes creationists say things like, “Evolution doesn’t explain the origins of life!” The common reply is that that’s the domain of abiogenesis, not evolution, with the implied suggestion that the creationist should go away and quit bugging us.

That’s a cop-out.

I’m going to be somewhat heretical, and suggest that abiogenesis as the study of chemical evolution is a natural subset of evolutionary theory, and that we should own up to it. It’s natural processes all the way back, baby, no miracles required. Life is chemistry, vitalism has evaporated and is one with phlogiston, and scientists legitimately and respectably study physical processes that were the potential instigators of life. Someday we’re going to be able to create living cells from scratch, and those mechanisms will be taken for granted afterwards, just as Wöhler’s synthesis of urea is nowadays.

What prompts this assertion of uncompromising naturalism is a reminder from two publications. Natural History has published a nice review of The Origins of Life, and The Scientist has an article on the work to create a synthetic cell, Is This Life?. They’re both good, light summaries that don’t stint on pointing out the problems in these fields—but the main point is that there has been great progress as well, and that these are productive lines of inquiry.

Spell already broken, and I haven’t even read the book

Daniel Dennett has this new book out, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), and I don’t know that I want to read it. It was just reviewed by Michael Shermer in Science, and my general feeling was an uncomfortable vibration, liking some of what they said, but feeling at the same time that it was a tossup whether Shermer or Dennett is more annoying. Shermer has a tendency to be conciliatory towards religious babble, while Dennett has this overwhelming adaptationist bias that makes me cranky.

I’ve put a chunk of the review below the fold, let me know what you think.

[Read more…]

More calls for submissions

I got a couple more requests to drum up interest in up-and-coming carnivals.

The Dharma Bums are hosting the next I and the Bird carnival, so if invertebrates aren’t your bag, but highly derived tetrapods with elaborate keratinaceous external insulating coats are, send them a link.

If even that isn’t sufficiently narrow in scope for you, how about bipedal primates? How about bipedal primates with very specific, advanced cultural views? The Carnival of the Liberals is looking for submissions now, too.

Hey…and if you written something about those spineless Democrats, send the link to both Neural Gourmet and the Circus of the Spineless! (This really is the week for getting double-duty out of your links.)

Ha-Hah. Brits are just as stupid as we are!

A survey of British beliefs about the origin and development of life had the following results:

  • 22% chose creationism
  • 17% opted for intelligent design
  • 48% selected evolution theory
  • the rest did not know.

Or how about this result? Here’s what the people in the land of David Attenborough would like to see taught in school:

  • 44% said creationism should be included
  • 41% intelligent design
  • 69% wanted evolution as part of the science curriculum.

Depressing, isn’t it? I’ve got some Guinness in the refrigerator, maybe I should just knock off work early and go home and start drinking.

Chris has reservations about their methodology—but I don’t know. The fact that almost a quarter of the people admit to being creationists is damning in and of itself. Meanwhile, John thinks 30-40% “isn’t a large group opposing teaching evolution”. That makes me wonder if he’s been raiding my refrigerator and all my beer will be gone when I get home.

Then I read that 73% of American teenagers “engaged in at least one type of psychic or witchcraft-related activity”, and I just want to throw up my hands and give up. I’m going to need something stronger than beer.

Isn’t it about time to admit that the strategies of the past, such as being deferential to the nonsense of religion or letting the kooks who dominate discourse off the hook because pointing out their fallacies would be rude, aren’t working? I predict that there will be much finger-pointing at Dawkins and tut-tutting about all those militant members of the high church of evolutionism being to blame, and that there will be further insistence on molly-coddling lunacy to make those willing believers in creationism more comfortable.

Giant octopus attacks!


Here’s a nifty video (mpg) of an octopus confronting an ROV working off Vancouver Island. The poor thing was just trying to crush and eat an interloper (or perhaps disassemble it for spare parts to use in its high-tech scheme to take over the world), and the ROV operator uses its thrusters to fling debris at it and drive it away.

It’s quite a battle, and the octopus holds on for a surprisingly long time in the face of an extremely obnoxious machine.

Call for science submissions


This coming week will be a great one for science carnivals. First up is the Circus of the Spineless which will appear on Pharyngula on Sunday—if you’ve written anything about invertebrates in the past month, send the link to by Saturday evening.

The Tangled Bank

The second big event is the next edition of the Tangled Bank, scheduled for Wednesday, 1 February, at Adventures in Ethics and Science. Send links to any science writing to,, or by next Tuesday.

Hey…and if you written something about the science of invertebrates, send the link to both!

One last thing…the schedule of future Tangled Bank hosts has been updated with an influx of new volunteers. We’ve got stuff lined up through July; check the list below if you volunteered to see when your turn is coming up. And if you aren’t there and you want to be, send a note to and I’ll add you to the list.

1 Feb 2006 Adventures in Ethics and Science
15 Feb 2006 Kete Were
1 Mar 2006 Aetiology
15 Mar 2006 Living the Scientific Life
29 Mar 2006 The Island of Doubt
12 Apr 2006 Discovering biology in a digital world
26 Apr 2006 The Inoculated Mind
10 May 2006 Science Notes
24 May 2006 Science and Politics
7 Jun 2006 Get Busy Livin’, or Get Busy Bloggin’
21 Jun 2006 Centrerion
5 Jul 2006 Information Overload
19 Jul 2006 Hairy Museum of Natural History