Life in the Lab? was [Re: Dembski and Nelson at MIT and Tufts

Brian D Harper (
Wed, 07 Apr 1999 19:07:16 -0700

At 08:43 AM 4/7/99 -0600, Kevin wrote:


>Since Brian is more open-minded (he at least accepts that abiogenesis is a
>reality) I have already contacted him privately and informed him that once
>my move is completed I will provide him with some references to help him
>start a search that should lead him to the same concensus that abiotic
>researchers have made. If he wishes he can share those references with you
>and others, but I would urge him not to waste his time.
>Immediately after this messge is posted I must cancel my service, so I will
>not know of nor be able to respond to any further posts. I shall announce
>when I am back on service again.

I welcome any references you might send my way, but
I must say that my own search into this matter began
quite a few years ago. While I'm certainly no expert
on the subject, I have read extensively from the
literature. As partial evidence of this, I'll provide
below what would arguably qualify for one of the
five examples I asked for. BTW, one reason I asked
for five and not just one is that I already had one :-).
The main reason though is that I ran across this
example several years ago and was very interested
in seeing if there was any consensus. So far, I
haven't found any, so I thought perhaps you had
some other examples. Another reason is that the
individual that I'll quote is Sydney Fox with the
candidate for lab-life being his proteinoid
microspheres. I know from my own reading that a
number of prominent scientists (Miller, Urey,
Bernal, Orgel, Jukes, Margulis) raise
serious doubts as to whether Fox's protocells
had anything to do with the origin of life.
Nevertheless, even if they were not involved
in the origin of life, this would not necessarily
invalidate Kevin's claim as the protocells might
still be alive. Unless, of course, the emergence
of life is a unique process.

Anyway, here is the proposed partial answer to
my own question:

A. Pappelis and S. W. Fox, "Questionnairing University
Students in Biology on Emergence and Evolution of Life,"
<Origins of Life and Evolution of the Biosphere>
24(2-4):049, June 1994.

This is an abstracts issue for the 1993 ISSOL Meeting
in Barcelona, Spain. Thus, unfortunately, I have only
the following abstract.

We have each taught courses in emergence (molecular origin)
and evolution of life stressing the "synthetic", forward
(determined) rather than the "analytical", backward
(random) direction. In recent classes at SIU-C (3 classes
of Cell Biology; 2 classes of History of Biology; 2
classes of Introductory Biology for non-science majors)
we questionnaired (26 questions) students (n=665) and
found that about 60% recognized that protolife
(protocells=microspheres of thermal proteins) has already
been created in the laboratory. About 75% believe protocells
are alive. About 70% believe that the University began
from a determined bias most people call God(s), that the
Universe is real (97%), everything in the Universe including
life obeys physical and chemical laws (60%), in the "fixity"
of species (15%), that it is sacrilegious to try to solve
the problems of emergence of life in the laboratory (23%),
that both science and creation versions of the origin and
evolution of life should be taught in public schools and
universities (74%), in the concept of the miraculous origin
of cellular life (60%), and that scientists who experiment
with the synthetic retracement of the emergence of life will
eventually contribute richly to identifying new biological
processes and a new philosophy (84%).

Wow, that's quite a discussion starter isn't it? :)

I managed to get a hold of Kevin before he signed off
to let him know that I would be providing an example.
Since "talking" to him I've started to have some doubts
about this example. Of course, I had already noted that
Fox doesn't quite say in the above that *he* thinks the
protocells alive, but it seems to me fairly well implied.
What raised some doubts is when I started looking
through one of Fox's books <The Emergence of Life>
and found the following:

#"Despite a fair amount of agreement on the definition
#of the unit of life as the cell, biologists, like other
#scientists, tend not to agree entirely on any issue.
#A few dissenters from the cellular definition seem to
#choose as their definition of life the gene or DNA.
#For all real purposes, and consistent with all kinds
#of biological data, the cell continues to be widely
#recognized as the unit of life. Correspondingly, the
#protocell is the unit of protolife."
#-- Sydney Fox <The Emergence of Life>, Basic Books,

This would seem to indicate that Fox does not consider
the protocell to be alive, only protoalive, whatever
that means ;-).

Looking further in his book I found another quote
which seems to re-inforce this conclusion:

#"In a broad sense, the first steps revealed by experiment
#describe how a really complex form of inanimate matter,
#proteinoid (thermal protein), arose quickly and simply
#from simple precursors, and how that matter was converted
#to organized microspheres." -- Fox, ibid

OK, so the proteinoids are inanimate. Immediately following
the above, Fox writes:

#"Proteinoid is a complex type of protein-like matter,
#and microspheres are the cell-like units that form when
#water comes into contact with proteinoid. They fill the
#role of the most primitive type of cell having properties
#of life. The unit of life is the cell; the unit of
#protolife (first life) is the protocell." --Fox ibid.

So now I'm back where I started :). Protolife means "first
life". So, apparently, proteinoids are not alive but
come to life when you pour water on them ;-).

OK, sorry for the jest. After all this I think we can
conclude that Sidney Fox and roughly 500 students
(or former students) at Southern Illinois University,
Carbondale believe that life has been created in the

Before I close, I should probably say something about
Kevin's claim about argument from authority. At present,
I am only interested in establishing whether there is
a consensus for this view and not whether the view is
correct. IOW, I do not intend to say something like:
"Professor Abe I. O'Genesis says it so it must be true."

Brian Harper
Associate Professor
Applied Mechanics
The Ohio State University

"All kinds of private metaphysics and theology have
grown like weeds in the garden of thermodynamics"
-- E. H. Hiebert