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  Topic: Official Uncommonly Dense Discussion Thread< Next Oldest | Next Newest >  

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(Permalink) Posted: April 01 2007,08:16   

Quote (N.Wells @ Mar. 31 2007,21:53)
Dave Scot quotes a speech by Priestley Medalist George Whitesides on the origin of life:                                  
Most chemists believe, as do I, that life emerged spontaneously from mixtures of molecules in the prebiotic Earth.  How? I have no idea.

In the comments, C. Bass says,
Isn’t this the sort of thing Richard Dawkins is talking about when he defines “faith” as “belief without evidence”? I mean, why do “most chemists believe…that life emerged spontaneously” if there is no evidence as to how that can happen?

I've got to agree with Bass, for much the same reason that Zachriel disagrees with GilDodgen.  

Whitesides is clearly talking very loosely and is exaggerating for rhetorical effect, but nonetheless scientists shouldn't be dealing in beliefs and shouldn't be using that sort of language.  In parallel with what Zachriel said, the default here is, we know very little about the origin of life, but we're working on it, and we have some suspicions and some hypotheses.  Whitesides is welcome to his personal hunches, and is certainly welcome to state the reasons behind his hunches, but this is otherwise regrettable language.

You're right in that Whitesides's language might lead to a bit of conflation on the term "believe". There are two different definitions at work here.

 1) to have a firm religious faith
 2) to hold as an opinion

We can presume that Whitesides is using the second definition (deduced from his appeal to authority). There is ample reason to suggest that life arose due to naturalistic mechanisms: We know that life is a chemical process. We know that the basic principles of chemistry (though perhaps not the particulars) were the same on the primordial Earth. We know that life once did not exist on Earth; but once it began, it evolved and diversified from primitive ancestors; and as we peer further back in time, we peer further back into this ancestry. The more closely we look, the more reasonable natural abiogenesis appears.

As an analogy, Friedrich August Kekulé might not have known how a benzene molecule was constructed, but he could make a reasonable scientific inference (based on what was already known about chemistry) that the atoms were held together by naturalistic mechanisms. "How? He had no idea." But from there, he could hypothesize various structures. (The solution actually appeared to Kekulé in a dream.)              
I was sitting writing on my textbook, but the work did not progress; my thoughts were elsewhere. I turned my chair to the fire and dozed. Again the atoms were gamboling before my eyes. This time the smaller groups kept modestly in the background. My mental eye, rendered more acute by the repeated visions of the kind, could now distinguish larger structures of manifold conformation; long rows sometimes more closely fitted together all twining and twisting in snake-like motion. But look! What was that? One of the snakes had seized hold of its own tail, and the form whirled mockingly before my eyes. As if by a flash of lightning I awoke; and this time also I spent the rest of the night in working out the consequences of the hypothesis.

On Blipey's point. I think most people make a real attempt to communicate with one another. If a word such as "believe" is subject to misunderstanding, they simply ask for clarification rather than trying to manipulate the language for rhetorical purposes. IDers seem to think that a perceived rhetorical victory inevitably results in scientific acceptance.

There is no complete theory of abiogenesis. The general hypothesis is that chemicals can form primitive replicators. Abiogenesis is not a component of the Theory of Evolution, or Germ Theory for that matter. The first life form on Earth may have been a lucky accident, a natural property of carbon and liquid water, a unique circumstance, seeded by comets, or even a Divine Miracle. The Theory of Evolution concerns the diversification of life, not its origin. However, it is known that life did not always exist on Earth, but that once it began, it diversified into a variety of forms.

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There is only one Tard. The Tard is One.

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