From: Chris Ho-Stuart
To: All Msg #111, Sep-05-93 11:15AM
Subject: Re: A FEW FUNDAMENTAL QUESTIONS
Organization: Uppsala University
From: cjhs@Alger.docs.uu.se (Chris Ho-Stuart)
Any theory of abiogeneis must be concerned with the origin of
inheritance. This is a potential definition for "origin of life".
The theory of bio-evolution is not concerned with the origin of
inheritance, but with its effects. It is must also address the
phenomenon of speciation. Inheritance alone is not enough to
explain speciation, except when we use the term with such
generality that it loses most of its descriptive power.
I do not think "theory of evolution" should be used as a synonym
for "propogation of heretiable information".
LONG POST FOLLOWS: (probably many people would like to skip it).
I have deliberately delayed making this reply to Deaddog, and
taken some care in my wording. I apologise that it is too long.
When it was done, I moved the conclusion to the front. I do think
that this topic remains one belonging in the public forum, and
not in email.
To avoid confusion, I will refer to "bio-evolution" throughout,
where I would normally simply say "evolution". I do not want my
terminology to assume my conclusion.
I also note that we agree more than we disagree. Even if (as seems
inevitable) we continue to disagree on the most approriate default
meaning for "theory of evolution", there is much we do agree upon.
: There are two major misconceptions that underlie your post.
: Rather than turn a Roladex into a telephone book, I'll deal
: with them in summary. If you feel I misrepresent your
: points, you can refer back to the original post:
: (1) You confuse evidence and theory. You and I are both
: saying that evolution occurred due to (as you say)
: inheritance and vairation or (as I say) propagation of
: heritable information. I assert that abiogenesis occurred
: because of the propagation of heritable information. I
: assert that all subsequent molecule evolution occurred
: because of the propagation of heritable information. This
: is my *theory,* which is the *theory* of evolution, OK?
I shall henceforth use your more sensible phrase "propagation of
heritable information" (PHI).
It is well known that bio-evolution takes place by PHI. We know quite a
lot about the nature of the information, how it is encoded, inherited
The original problem was to explain to superb adaption of species to
their environment. Darwin was the one who made the great breakthrough
-- the source of this adaption was natural selection. The problem for
Darwin (which I understand he never was able to resolve) is that NS
reduces variation. NS can explain adaption up to a point, but a source
of variation was needed to explain the origin of diverse species.
As far as Darwin was concerned, it was a hypothesis that there was some
source of variation. Variation in inheritance can be observed, so we
can call it a fact. However, Darwin had no theory for variation. He had
a theory for the origin of adaption, and he had a hypothesis (though
not a theory) for the origin of species.
Genetics eventually supplied the theory. Knowing now how information is
inherited, we can explain the origin of diverse well-adapted species.
This is why we have a "theory of evolution", which explains the
observed facts of common descent for many diverse well-adapted species.
It is "theory" not because of the quality of evidence, but because of
the quality of explanation.
When the creationists say "it is only a theory" we point out to them
that they are confusing theory with hypothesis. It is not the case
that bio-evolution is a hypothesis yet to be accorded the status of
"scientific fact". Bio-evolution is a fact as well established as any
fact in science.
More than that, there is also a detailed body of knowledge which
explains how the observed fact of bio-evolution came about. This second
aspect is what makes bio-evolution a theory.
I think you have confused theory with hypothesis. It is your hypothesis
and also my hypothesis that abiogenesis occurred because of PHI.
We are with respect to abiogenesis in the same (very exciting) position
of Darwin. We assume PHI as a hypothesis. We agree that there is no
sensible alternative. PHI alone is not a theory until there is a body
of knowledge explaining the pheonenom. We have before us the task of
finding the theory.
I my previous posts I have spent a fair bit of time on the nature of
the evidence for abiogenesis. However, I agree that the quality of the
evidence is not what distinguishes one theory from another. I was
trying to suggest that the theory for bio-evolution is known, and the
theory for abiogenesis is unknown.
: Now, when you say:
: >Surely a theory of something specifies the mechanism. There is
: >plenty of mechanism in evolution which is agreed upon by all the
: >gradualists and punk eeks: the theory is not completely worked out to
: >the nth degree, so there are variations as you point out. But there is
: >also a solid body of almost universally accepted fundamentals, and hard
: >evidence that the mechanisms of that theory do operate and do actually
: >cause evolution. The distinction with the state of affairs in abiogenesis
: >is stark.
: what you are really saying is: Evolution is a single theory
: because it has lots of good evidential support, abiogenesis
No, I am saying bio-evolution is a theory because it is a body
of knowledge which explains a phenomenon. (Mechanism, if you like,
though this is not as good a word as "theory").
: is not a single theory because its evidential support is not
: as good. You miss the point: they are one and the same
: theory, the theory of "inheritance and variation." Both must
I would not use the term "theory" here: some more general term
such as "paradigm" or "concept" seems preferable.
: have occurred this way. The mechanisms are different and
: have differing degrees of experimental support. But they
: utilize exactly the same theory. If abiogenesis falls, so
: does evolution.
What do you mean in that last sentence by "abiogenesis falls"?
Everyone (even the creationists) is agreed that at some time in the
past living things came about where previously there had been none.
But consider a wild thought experiment. Suppose that the big bang
theory is overturned, and the steady state theory established beyond
all doubt, that life is seeded from extra-terrestrial sources, and also
that at no time in the past had there ever been a time without living
things. This would not invalidate the theory of bio-evolution.
Or by "abiogenesis falls", do you mean it is established that life
first came about by some means not involving PHI? This would still
not invalidate bio-evolution.
Or do you mean by "abiogenesis falls" that somehow the "God of the
Gaps" wins out -- it is discovered that the first origin of life was
due to the intervention into our universe of some god-like entity that
did the deed. Again, I can't imagine how this could ever be
established, but it would still not invalidate bio-evolution.
: Later on you say:
: >The mechanism for abiogensis (whatever it turns out to be) will
: >not be the same as for evolution, though there will be analogies
: >between them.
: But we've already agreed on the mechanism, Chris.
: Inheritance and variation. Just expand your thoughts so
: that they don't fixate on nucleic acids. You can 'inherit'
I am not fixated on nucleic acids. I am saying that we use the term
"theory" when we have have a satisfactory description of the processes
under consideration. PHI alone is not a theory until you describe the
"how". There are many theories for abiogenesis. We don't know as yet
which one was resonsible for life on Earth.
: crystal structures, and they can 'vary' depending on their
: environment. You can 'inherit' chemical cycles, and they
: can 'vary' depending on their environment. You can
: 'inherit' liposomal arrays and they can 'vary' depending on
: their environment. Abiogenesis occurred by inheritance and
: variation. Mechanisms differ, the theory doesn't.
Here I add a peripheral point. You state that abiogenesis
occurred by inheritatance and variation. I agree. But I also
insist that there is a great difference between the foundation
of the statement
"bio-evolution occurs by inheritance and variation"
"abiogenesis occurs by inheritance and variation"
The first statement is proven by observation. The second is
assumed because there is no reasonable alternative.
: (2) Just because we can't specify a single mechanism does not
: mean that we must admit to mysticism.
I have never admitted to mysticism. I have stated that we have
observable evidence that the origin of species was not by divine
fiat, but we do not have the same kind of observable evidence
: >With abiogenesis we simply assume that there must be some kind of
: >heredity involved (because there are no sensible alternatives)
: Yes, Chris. Yes. This is it in a nutshell. THERE ARE NO
: SENSIBLE ALTERNATIVES. IT MUST HAVE HAPPENED THIS WAY.
: You're right, I can't tell you exactly how it happened; I
: can't tell you exactly which molecules formed the first
: proto-cell; I can only give you testable hypotheses and
: then proceed to test them.
Agreed with the above paragraph.
: >I concede that I do not have the evidence to hand which shows
: >the processes involved in the transition from non-life to life.
: I don't have the evidence for *which* process led to the
: origin of life. But I have mounds of evidence that tells
: me that that process was *NOT* mystical, and so do you.
It is a working assumption of science that the universe operates in a
regular way according to physical laws and not by the caprice of divine
entities. This is an assumption. It has been been proven true for
countless phenomena, but cannot be said to be proven true for all
The theist who continually retreats beyond the boundaries of science
for seek for a phenomenon which has not as yet been illuminated by
science may still take refuge in the very earliest origin of life.
Such a theist is a pitiful figure indeed. But he is there precisely
because this is the point where he is beyond the reach of available
evidence. And that is what I am saying. In the retreat before
available evidence the creationist can still hide here, and can be
safely ignored since he offers nothing to our understanding.
: >For the creationist who says, "okay species arose through
: >evolution but God formed the first cells" I have rather more
: >of a problem. I am completely confident they are mistaken.
: >I am confident that abiogenesis occurred by processes
: >which can be described without reference to any "Gods".
: >But I can only argue this position to them by claiming
: >that the very notion of "God doing" such a thing is absurd,
: >not by pointing to real evidence of the processes which were
: >in fact involved.
: No, that's not true. You can say to them that the last
: common ancestor of modern life contained DNA, proteins, and
: a wide variety of metabolic processes. You can show them
: examples of how modern pathways have evolved, and examples
: of how ancient ones may therefore have evolved. You can show
: them how prebiotic chemicals can be formed in the laboratory.
: You can show them experiments that reveal how
: self-replicating polymers may have arisen. And then you
: can say, "No, I can't tell you exactly how it happened. But
: these sure make a whole lot more sense than mysticism.
I agree with all of the above paragraph.
: Because they all turn on that most important point, that with
: inheritance and variation evolution occurs. Yeah, we're
: still working out the details for abiogenesis, just as
: we're working out the details between gradualism and
: punctuated equilibrium. But that's what they are, details.
: Abiogenesis happened, and God didn't have a thing to do with
But from here on in, you are working on the assumption that
abiogenesis is due to PHI. Now note carefully -- I make the
same assumption. But it is an assumption, not an observed fact.
: And you'll be right.
: There is no need to take umbrage at being a Creationist.
: Heck, it's just a matter of how far you want to push 'first
: causes.' But I'm telling you that you don't ever have to
: admit that "God did it." for abiogenesis.
I have never admitted that "God did it". It is a position which
I consider to be absurd. Let me try to explain myself one more time.
The "God of the gaps" hypothesis is that there are certain aspects of
the universe where God steps into the scheme of things and by divine
fiat brings about some phenomena that could not have arisen by the
normal running of the universe.
This hypothesis is widely recognized as intellectual suicide by
theist and atheist alike. This is the creationist position.
Now, when someone proposes that a "god-of-the-gaps" was responsible
for the origin of species, we can show from the evidence that this
is absurd. It is a fact that species arose by PHI and the mechanisms
of speciation over a very long period of time.
When someone proposes a "god-of-the-gaps" for abiogenesis, it is
not so easy to show the position is absurd. We can show a solid
body of science which has been progressively shedding more light
on possible mechanisms for abiogenesis. We can show by regularities
in the structure of cells that any god-of-the-gaps would have made
his appearance extremely early in the process (essentially far
enough back that science is for the moment reduced to speculation).
You have taken my unfortunate phrase "mabe God did it" as a position
which I am advancing. IT MOST EMPHATICALLY IS NOT. I am suggesting
only that there is a gap in our present understanding in which the
God-of-the-gaps can hide, even though he has been thoroughly evicted
from the origin of species.
It is still a position of intellectual suicide.
: [If Chris Colby is reading this post: I give up. If you do
: not have an abiogenesis FAQ, I'll write it.]
I liked the FAQ.
Cheers -- Chris Ho-Stuart