Life in the Lab--Koichiro Matsuno responds

Brian D Harper (
Fri, 14 May 1999 13:30:13 -0700

At 07:09 PM 5/12/99 -0700, I wrote:


>Seeing Koichiro's name reminded me that I had a brief e-mail
>discussion with him several years ago about Hubert Yockey.
>So, I decided to send him an e-mail to see if he would
>express his views on the subject. I'll let the group know
>if he replies.

I received a very interesting reply from Koichiro today
regarding the question of whether Fox's protocells are
alive. He kindly gave me permission to quote his reply
to the group. Here it is:

==========begin Koichiro=========================================
Apart from what Sid Fox actually said, there has not been
any public agreement on whether Fox's protocells would be
alive. To my mind, the question is rather ill-stated.
Whether or not something would be alive is a metaphysical
question, which cannot properly be answered based upon the
empirical or experimental methods alone. The definition of
what is life is still equivocal. At issue would be how to
describe what we can make or get in the Lab. Rather, what
we are asked to do most is to design the experimental setup
related to the problem of the origins and to describe the
results without referring to such terms "life" or "being alive".
An example is seen in our recent paper (Imai, E. et al.,1999.
Elongation of Oligopeptides in s Simulated Submarine Hydrothermal
System. Science 283, 831-833). It seems to me that Sid Fox knew
this simple fact very well.

IMHO, this is a brilliant response and reaffirms the positive
impression that I had of Koichiro from my earlier contact
with him. Note the straightforward application of what we here
would call "methodological naturalism".

So, it seems I'll have to eat my words regarding my last post.
Not the first time :). I had taken the following sentence from
the abstract I gave as indicating that the authors of that
paper thought that the protocells were alive:

#"The protocells have characteristics of life defined by Webster's
#Dictionary: metabolism, growth, reproduction and response to
#stimuli in the environment."

After reading Koichiro's response I believe I see how to interpret
this sentence. Before guessing and having to eat my words again :),
I plan to reply to Koichiro this afternoon and ask him about
this particular abstract. I had not mentioned it in my first
letter to him.

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