What Is Going On Here?

The question in our title is about a story in the Daily Express, a British tabloid: Origin of life breakthrough: Charles Darwin’s creation theory ‘PROVED after 100 years’.

Darwin’s creation theory? He never had a creation theory! And how did his non-existent theory get “proved”? Here are some excerpts from the tabloid’s story, with bold font added by us for emphasis, and occasional Curmudgeonly interjections that look [like this]:

Charles Darwin was the legendary 19th-century scientists best known for his contribution to the study of evolution, where he proposed that all species of life have descended over time from common ancestors – now widely accepted and considered a foundational concept in science. However, when Darwin published “The Origin of Species” 150 years ago, he deliberately avoided the subject of the origin of life, as he could not prove his ideas.

What ideas were those? The tabloid says:

Privately though – in a letter – Darwin told his friend, the explorer Joseph D. Hooker, that he could imagine a small, warm pool where the inanimate matter would arrange itself into the evolutionary matter, aided by chemical components and sufficient sources of energy.

It’s not all that different from the “tangled bank” Darwin mentioned in the final paragraph of Origin of Species:

It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. 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 circling 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.

Not much of a “theory.” Anyway, the tabloid tells us:

Amazingly, that theory has been proved [Gasp!], according to astrobiologist Tara Djokik, who made an astonishing discovery in Pilbara, Western Australia. Speaking in a recent TedTalks podcast, she said: “Little did I know that our research would provide a clue to the origin-of-life puzzle.

Why haven’t we heard of this before? They quote Tara:

“It was on my first field trip here, towards the end of a full, long week mapping project, that I came across something rather special, what probably looks like a bunch of wrinkly old rocks are actually stromatolites. At the centre of this mound was a small, peculiar rock about the size of a child’s hand. It took six months before we inspected this rock under a microscope, when one of my mentors at the time, Malcolm Walter, suggested the rock resembled geyserite. Geyserite is a rock type that only forms in and around the edges of hot spring pools.”

Whoa! Wait a minute! We’ve heard of this before. PhysOrg had an article on it a month ago: Earliest signs of life: Scientists find microbial remains in ancient rocks, which says:

Western Australia’s famous 3.5-billion-year-old stromatolites contain microbial remains of some of the earliest life on Earth, UNSW scientists have found. Scientists have found exceptionally preserved microbial remains in some of Earth’s oldest rocks in Western Australia — a major advance in the field, offering clues for how life on Earth originated.

[…]

“This is an exciting discovery — for the first time, we’re able to show the world that these stromatolites are definitive evidence for the earliest life on Earth,” says lead researcher Dr. Raphael Baumgartner, a research associate of the Australian Centre for Astrobiology in Professor Martin Van Kranendonk’s team at UNSW. Professor Van Kranendonk says the discovery is the closest the team have come to a “smoking gun” to prove the existence of such ancient life.

That’s nice, but what about “Darwin’s theory” about the origin of life, and what about Tara, the star of the tabloid story? Curiously, PhysOrg makes no mention of Darwin’s previously unknown theory, but Tara pops up near the end. PhysOrg says:

Just over two years ago, Dr. Baumgartner’s colleague Tara Djokic, a UNSW Ph.D. candidate, found stromatolites in hot spring deposits in the same region in WA, pushing back the earliest known existence of microbial life on land by 580 million years

There’s a bit more about her work, but nothing about “proving” Darwin’s “theory.” Okay, back to the tabloid. They quote Tara again:

“Well, we know of warm little ponds, we call them ‘hot springs’ and in these environments, you have hot water dissolving minerals from the underlying rocks. This solution mixes with organic compounds and results in a kind of chemical factory, which researchers have shown can manufacture simple cellular structures that are the first steps toward life. But 100 years after Darwin’s letter, deep-sea hydrothermal vents, or hot vents, were discovered in the ocean and these are also chemical factories.”

The tabloid continues for several more paragraphs, but we still don’t have an answer to our questions. Can you figure it out, dear reader?

Copyright © 2019. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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10 responses to “What Is Going On Here?

  1. Tara is arguing for a terrestrial pond as opposed to a deep sea vent origin. She is far from the first to do that, and I recently came across an excellent (long read) review of this and many other aspects of origins of life science: http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20161026-the-secret-of-how-life-on-earth-began Of course, Darwin’s vague remarks do not amount to a specific suggestion, and what Darwin was discussing in this famous letter was why we do not see life continuously re-emerging.

    So what is going on? just a little bit of irresponsible hyping from one of the UK’s most irresponsible newspapers, whose other offerings have included an allegation that if the UK did not leave the EU, it would be invaded by 12 million Turks (Turkey of course is not a member of the EU, and decreasingly likely to be). They also on an earlier occasion described a Creation Museum exhibit under the headline “is this proof that dinosaurs and humans coexisted?” I think you picked up on that one.

    So, in short, what is going on is that when it comes to politics, the Express is a committed liar for its Conservative agenda, whereas for science it is an equal opportunity bullsh*tter

  2. I suggest that it is yet another case where the headline writer did not understand the story.

  3. Given the reputation of the Daily Express (hardly better than The Sun) I suggest that it’s rather a case where the headline write did not care about understanding the story but only about sensationalism.

  4. Of course it is suggested that the earliest living things, aka self-replicating molecules, first appeared in energy-rich (ie, warm) environments with abundant sources of organic molecules and above all, water as a solvent. Of course this suggestion has been made many times. I would not be surprised if it antedated Darwin, although I am bereft of the spoons at present to investigate that.

    And of course it’s a speculation. It seems reasonable, it may be possible, and if it is possible then it actually happened, Murphy’s Law being the real ruling principle underlying the Universe, unified field theory be blowed. But is it true?

    I can hear the creationists from here, should they even notice this. I hope they don’t, but their eyes and ears are everywhere, and there’s much to mock in this frantic piece of falsely packaged misrepresentation. But “molecules to man” they will chant, and “information”, they will bawl, and “let’s see you do it in a lab, then”, and “complexity”. And let us never forget, “were you there?”

    Those will suffice for the likes of Ham and Comfort, and the legions of knuckle-dragging droolers who follow them. But in another part of the creationist castle, some faux-guru in an armchair will be earnestly pointing out that the Darwinists have again substituted supposition for data, that this is no more than airy theorising without a shred of evidence, and typical of them, at that, for Darwinism is “only a theory”, and so on. All here can fill in the rest. And the maddening thing is that in the case of this newspaper story, that would be right, except that it isn’t the researchers doing it. Tara Djokik is quoted as saying that the find provided “a clue to the origin-of-life puzzle”, not that it solved it. The rest is a stupid beat-up by a tabloid.

    If the Daily Express were our friend – it’s not, but if – then we certainly don’t need enemies. The pity of it is that we have plenty of those, as well.

  5. Our Curmudgeon: “It’s not all that different from the ‘tangled bank’ Darwin mentioned in the final paragraph of Origin of Species . . . “

    I cannot believe you wrote that — the “warm pool” is TOTALLY different from the “tangled bank”.

    As different as abiogenesis and evolution, for one thing.

    And for another, as different as abiogenesis and Creation —

    Warm Pool: ” . . . a small, warm pool where the inanimate matter would arrange itself into the evolutionary matter, aided by chemical components and sufficient sources of energy.”

    Tangled Bank: ” . . . this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one . . . “

    The only commonality I see is that each was a product of the same mind.

    What am I missing here, My Dear SC?

  6. @Dave Luckett
    The idea that the first life came from the Primal Waters is ancient, found for example in Genesis 1.

  7. Random, my guess is that Darwin regarded both the warm pool and the tangled bank as wild shots in the dark, not as serious scientific hypotheses.

  8. @Dave Luckett

    Of course the most numerous inorganic self-replicating molecules found in nature are clay crystals.

    The “genetic takeover” (or “crystals-as-genes”) hypothesis of Graham Cairns-Smith has captured my imagination.

    http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20160823-the-idea-that-life-began-as-clay-crystals-is-50-years-old

    Some interesting reviews here:

  9. @Paul Braterman — Thanks for the good link.

  10. Erasmus Darwin had a suggestion:
    “Organic life beneath the shoreless waves
    Was born and rais’d in Ocean’s pearly caves
    First forms minute, unseen by spheric glass,
    Move on the mud, or pierce the watery mass;
    These, as successive generations bloom,
    New powers acquire, and larger limbs assume;
    Whence countless groups of vegetation spring,
    And breathing realms of fin, and feet and wing.”