Thursday, June 19, 2008

"How Life Began" on History Channel

On June 17, the History Channel broadcast the two-hour documentary “How Life Began.” Much of the film centers around an animation of a “life factory” that looks a bit like the Wonka Chocolate factory from the kids’ movies. Here is the Google talk board on the film.

The film takes the position that life comes into a being through a natural process called “emergence” where nature synthesizes more complex systems out of simpler components. The hexagonal snowflake is seen a an example of chemical emergence. Life may have started as self-replicating organic molecules (mostly CHON – carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen) in a reducing environment, and gradually changed through accidental mistakes, mutations. The film travels to Western Australia to show fossils of some of the earliest cyanobacteria.

Eventually, nature developed sexual reproduction, which allowed organisms to develop into efficient and complex systems, particularly in metabolism and producing energy, more quickly, by matching traits and allowing much more rapid development of genetic variation.

There was a theory that early Earth consisted of nitrogen, carbon dioxide, methane and ammonia. Stanley Miller ( ) organized some “primordial soup” experiments in the 1950s called “Life in a Glass Earth” where he ran electricity through these mixtures and got complex organic goo. The atmosphere of Titan today has a similar composition. But later research found that there may have been much less methane and ammonia early in Earth’s history than previously thought. The show goes on to showing that organic compounds might emerge in outer space. The movie examines the concept of panspermia, the idea that life on earth could have been seeded from elsewhere. Organic compounds are thought to exist in the ices of comets. Recall the media reports of a rock found in Antarctica in 1996 that contained microtubules and thought to have originated on Mars.

The movie goes back and examines the idea that clay facilitates certain organic emergence, and the experiments at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institutes to create proto-cells.

The religious explanations of life (creationism and intelligent design) as in Genesis are viewed as supplementary to the idea of “emergence” in nature. Darwin, recall, viewed chemistry and biology as the same science at the molecular level. Yet, in school, the progression of sciences usually goes from physical science to chemistry to biology.

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