Watching the Watchmen: Thoughts on Abiogenesis

I will be upfront and say I lack training in microbiology and biochemistry, and this post is intended to be a big-picture pondering on the subject, rather than a paper for peer review. So feel free to take what I write with a five pound bag of salt.

Abiogenesis is the notion that biological life can coalesce out of molecules. In this scenario, no more than the right circumstances and chemicals are required, and they can be acted upon by natural laws to bring about a complex self-replicating molecule that could eventually give rise to what we would normally call a cell.

It is also something that has never been replicated in the laboratory. The actual results behind the optimistic rhetoric of life’s “building blocks” (amino acids, etc.) being generated in the laboratory pales in comparison to our increased understanding of what would be required to be present in even the simplest conceivable cell, one much simpler than the ones we have yet detected under a microscope. And yet abiogenesis is taken for granted as having occurred at some point in the past, whether on Earth or elsewhere.

Some time ago on Facebook, I had a couple of debates with natural history illustrator and paleoartist Julius Csotonyi, who is also very well-trained in microbiology. My position was (and is) that decades of experimentation give us excellent reason to harshly criticize the assumption of abiogenesis, and even discard it. He pointed me to many, many papers on the subject and the basic argument put forward was, “We’re working on it, and are getting more answers. We just need more time to figure out how [not if] abiogenesis happened.” I would point out more problems after looking over the arguments given (and the papers I had time to peruse), and more papers would be thrown down to trip me up. All in the name of benevolently “educating” me, you understand.

Nonetheless, I know enough to recognize what we should be seeing if Csotonyi and other microbiologists are correct in saying abiogenesis must have happened. The issue was not what the papers contained, but what was missing from them. My basic requirement, that went all but ignored, was “Show me a cell or self-replicating complex molecule.”

We all know that either one of those showing up in a test tube would be the biggest biochemical breakthrough in this century and would instantly flood journals and social media both. In the meantime, the gap between laboratory results and the requirements to generate a cell should be shrinking. If that gap expands, it’s a good bet that abiogenesis is a faulty hypothesis, and to hold it as the clear explanation for life’s origin is to engage in pseudoscience.

As far as I can tell, a handful of possible but hotly debated answers have been uncovered, but that handful is dwarfed by the mountains of newly uncovered questions and obstacles. The gap between lab results and the requirements to generate even the simplest cell seems to grow every year.

Still, is there some chance that the stated results of abiogenesis experiments give any cause for excitement at someday creating a cell, or at least a self-replicating complex molecule?

Let us imagine a compulsive gambler who has racked up several million dollars in debt. Hoping to win it back, he returns to the tables, and manages to win a few hundred bucks. But he has not come close to paying it off. He’s even lost enough times, in his renewed efforts, to add another million to the bill.

Would any hope or optimism on the gambler’s part be warranted?

The obvious answer also applies to the ever-hopeful microbiologist who still seeks to find a way to generate a basic cell in a test tube. (I invoke gambling not to say life would generate “randomly.” This is a question of debt, or the criteria that an experiment’s results must satisfy before we can reach a cell.)

I admire the dogged persistence for a desired result. What disappoints and frustrates me is the double header of assuming the process must be possible, combined with a climate of hubris in academia, which perceives anyone who says abiogenesis cannot happen to be uneducated, or unwilling to consider it — perhaps out of some nefarious religious motivation.

It would be more accurate (and more gracious) to say that those more removed from the assumption that life can start by natural means may, ironically, be more observant and more willing to follow where the data points. Not only have the predictions of abiogenesis failed (or “been revised” to put it more politely), but the hurdles of statistics and chemistry have added to the problems with even the simplest conceivable cell assembling from a state without biological life.

This is much more than scientific inquiry whittling down explanations and refining the hypothesis. The debt does not merely still stand; it has been augmented.

The insistence of the True Believer combines with the momentum of grant money and an assumption that is less warranted than ever, that life “must have spontaneously generated” by natural process (the words of Stephen Hawking). Thus today’s model of Spontaneous Generation spins its wheels, all the while demanding exclusivity in laboratory and classroom alike.

My request remains. A cell or self-replicating complex molecule will do. Neither a computer simulation of a cell nor the laughably mislabeled “protocells” so far generated will satisfy the demand for abiogenesis to be scientifically tenable.

If the hypothesis fails, what should we replace it with? I am even less qualified to offer an answer to that, so I won’t dare speak on any replacement theory. All I can do is give speculation:

The changeable rules of “proper” science may cling to abiogenesis in the teeth of the evidence and hang a no-creators-allowed sign on its clubhouse door. But, if such a creator happens to exist, the necessity of such a being’s handiwork may insist on giving Him a hearing anyway.

Megalodon and the Decline of Science: From Enthusiasm to Contempt

After Animal Planet ran some specials regarding mermaids, Discovery Channel released another mockumentary which (a) I haven’t seen but my interest is piqued, and (b) has many scientists and science enthusiasts up in arms, blogging up a storm. Here’s the trailer:

Disclaimers were released with the special, but not ones that flat-out said its scenario is strictly fictional (which is problematic). The program, like the mermaid ones before, is a thought exercise. It asks “What if?” — that beloved question of writers, artists, and anyone with an imagination. What are the charges against this show? As I understand it, it’s a combination of “That’s not real,” “Discovery is abandoning science and reality,” and “People fell for it.”

Can I be honest with you? I can agree that Discovery should have done more to let people know the program was presenting a fictional scenario. However…this show isn’t a threat to science. Where are those “huge numbers” of people who still think mermaids are real after seeing the shows on Animal Planet? Are they hiding behind the conspiracy theorists who think the Moon landings were faked?

People are smarter than that, in general, and are probably tired of getting talked down to. I don’t know about any of you, but I am definitely weary of the fear and fretting, including the endless proclamations that science is somehow harmed by mockumentaries.

Sure, don’t lie to people. But if the show is presented in a “what-if” manner, then bring on the Megalodons!

This is part of a bigger issue that stretches across a much larger canvas, from the endless complaints of scientific inaccuracies in movies to the mindset that scientists have “all” the tools we need to discover truth (as a Christian, that’s something I’ll respectfully disagree with). Without asserting it firmly, I worry that the most vocal supporters of science are turning increasingly contemptuous toward anyone who sees nature in a different way than they do, or who asks different questions.

I speak as someone who loves science. I may not have a PhD, but I love nature. I love science. And I appreciate accuracy and realism, insofar as they go. I grew up with Bill Nye and Beakman’s World. David Attenborough nature specials are sources of beauty and amazement. Bob Bakker and George Blasing can talk about dinosaurs for the rest of eternity without boring me (admittedly that’s already hard to do when we’re talking about dinosaurs). Neil deGrasse Tyson is always a delight when he speaks about astronomy — I met him at the Space Symposium in 2006, and count myself blessed for that.

You know what all of these people have (or had, in some cases) in common? Enthusiasm. I caught the science bug from them because they recognized and shared the wonders and the fun it holds. Where is that today, at least on Facebook and the blogosphere? The internet seems to be where science goes to die, even when the cemetery is marked “National Geographic” or “Discover Magazine.”

Please tell me I’m not crazy. Is anyone else noticing scientists now make more headlines for shouting that creationists and global warming “deniers” are idiots than for encouraging us to finally put humans on Mars? Even Nye and Tyson are starting to get in on the rhetorical bloodshed. The contempt is getting old. Fast.

One incontrovertible fact goes all but ignored by the online community as it does its Chicken Little impressions: nature includes so much more than what we know about or can currently explain, even where it seems no surprises are left. Just because a stone is overturned doesn’t mean a door has been closed on this or that possibility. Giant prehistoric sharks living in the present aren’t “impossible.” I find it doubtful that we’ll discover Megalodons surviving in the ocean. But I’m not going to say something foolish, like “all evidence says it’s extinct.” We don’t have all the evidence.

Contempt finds its roots in hubris and paranoia, both of which are well-displayed in the blogosphere. Passion and humility are what drive curiosity forward and breed enthusiasm.

Reality holds a lot of beautiful surprises. Who could have guessed we’d find gigantic pink slugs living in a lost world? That’s reality. What of the tantalizing possibility that it’s raining diamonds on Uranus and Neptune? And those are just the little things, tiny parts of a huge, mysterious universe that we’re nowhere close to understanding in full. There’s still plenty of room in the world for things that we little humans have a hard time imagining to be real.

Why waste my time yelling at Discovery Channel, when I can go look for those surprises? You’ll find me striving alongside Johannes Kepler to “think God’s thoughts after Him.”

Worldbuilding — Races — Fairies

I have been doing a Worldbuilding of the Day series on my author’s page on Facebook, and decided to start putting up the information here instead. Seems like more of a fit here, aside from the Facebook policy of “What you type, we own. Forever.”

Anyway, here’s the entry about fairies in the world of The Wolfglen Legacy. I hope you enjoy it!

Social Influence

Rather than being reclusive people isolated from everyone else or hiding under garden toadstools, fairies are quite well-integrated in most societies. Many have positions of wealth or political power. Almost all large cities have groups of fairy apartments or homes, oftentimes perched on the roofs of other houses or even built into the walls of buildings, resembling large dollhouses. Occasional fairy ghettos or “nests” as they are called will consist entirely of these structures and are sometimes known to hold well over a thousand residents.

There are select roads in many cities with raised platforms, like broad stone railings, that are called “fairy-walks.” Inns and hotels usually have a few fairy-sized rooms available, and all will have appropriately sized cutlery, dishes, cups, and chairs for their pint-sized customers. Currency is an issue, but fairies often can barter gemstones or small bags of spices for meals and drinks, or they’ll have satchels over their shoulders that can hold a few coins.

An average fairy’s diet consists of fruits (particularly berries), sugary foods, and lean protein. Their bug-based cuisine is highly prized, even among humans. Butter-fried winged termites have been known to turn even the most insect-averse eater into someone who will eagerly snack on the little invertebrates.

Anatomy

The smallest of all the world’s races, the fairy stands 18-24 inches high, and possesses four wings. Each wing is framed by one long finger-like group of bones and has a leathery skin membrane, meaning it is structured like the wing of a pterodactyl, rather than like a bat or dragon. However, these are wings made for powered flight, not for hovering. Hovering is a rare art among fairies, which takes a lot of training and discipline.

Most males are slightly taller than the females. All fairies have a light and thin build, with heads the size of nectarines or large plums. When they give birth, the wing buds are either invisible or only show up as four tiny bumps on the baby’s back.

Their bone cells adopt a honeycomb structure, they can utilize body energy more efficiently than any other race, and they have large flight muscles on their back. This means a reasonably healthy fairy can fly for over an hour (at sea level — very high altitudes can cut that time in half) before he or she is too physically exhausted to do anything but walk.

Common Roles

Due to their small size and ability to fly, fairies can excel at espionage, scouting and reconnaissance, lookouts for hunters, message delivery, and prospecting. They don’t make good soldiers because of their frail and small bodies, but they can serve a military on the sidelines, such as delivering orders or looking for threats on the road ahead when ranks are mobilizing.

The darker parts of society have found them quite handy for pickpocketing (for small items they can fly away with, like jewelry), assassinations, and subtly whispering to passersby to advertise brothels or gambling dens.

Like all other races on this world, magic-workers are rare among fairies. When a fairy is a magic-worker, he or she doesn’t obey different rules or get the magic from some other source. The same principles (as outlined here) apply to them, except that they cannot control nearly as much physical substance with magic, due to their own small size.

Worldbuilding — Zoology — Tyrant Dragon

I’ve made the decision to begin a new series on my blog. My fantasy series-in-progress, The Wolfglen Legacy, is going to take place in a detailed world I have been building for the last several years. And I think this would be an excellent place to start introducing my readers to bits and pieces of that world (if you’re interested, of course), even though it’s going to be a while before the books themselves are ready.

What I like about this idea is its versatility. This is a chance to give you anything from cuisine to animals to weapons to a nation’s history, revealing it in detail. Magic systems, politics, natural history, whatever. My plan is to try and give one entry per week.

And with that, I will start with an entry I posted on deviantart.com.

The Tyrant Dragon

The largest known species of dragon that is capable of flight. Like roughly half of all dragons, it is able to breathe fire by using hydrogen gas from its flight lungs.* Easily recognizable by a green body with stripes of black or dark brown, and the presence of four wings rather than two, that extra pair endowed to them by the Founders when this dragon species was created. The wings are colored red with splashes of green on the fringes. Females have a darker red on the membranes, almost like wine or dried blood.

This dragon is rare, but almost universally respected, hated, or feared, depending on whom you ask. Tyrants tend to be much more violent than other dragon species, territorial in the extreme. The mating season occurs in the springtime once every three years. During this period, three or four males congregate in an open space like a prairie or grassland, and collect a small heap of prey animals to display for a local female. The male with the most notable quarry (and the most impressive display of his spread-out wings) wins, and the losers will have to find other females over which to compete. After eating the male’s victims, the female will stay with him for protection and the extra food he can provide. When a month has gone by, the female lays three to five blue eggs in a warm and secluded spot, each one about the size of a human head. The eggs are then abandoned by the parents until they hatch in late summer, and the young creatures will begin hunting mere hours after hatching.

Aside from its great size and extra set of wings, the species is also renowned for what is known as Tyrant’s Madness, a period of heightened aggression when the creature’s wings have been severely injured. Through some unknown mechanism or instinct, the tyrant knows if and when any of its wings have been so extensively injured that they will never heal enough to let the reptile fly again. Once this boundary has been crossed, the animal lands (if it was already airborne) and reaches around with its lengthy neck to bite its own wings off, one at a time. It then becomes a multi-ton berserker, breathing flame and attacking anything within reach until it is almost exhausted. The animal then spends the remainder of its life roaming on the ground, subsisting on whatever it is fast enough to catch.

Few militaries have been sufficiently stupid, crazy, or desperate to use a tyrant dragon in their campaigns (assuming they can capture and tame a juvenile), but the ones who succeed force the enemy’s tactics to change. When flying dragons are part of a battle, usually the opposing force will try to bring the animals down or destroy their wings any way they can: fire bombs, broad-head arrows and crossbow bolts, nets launched from catapults, etc. But thanks to the threat of Tyrant’s Madness, any military force going against this dragon will most likely try instead to kill the animal or exhaust it, rather than risk injury to the wings and having the creature become a far deadlier force on the ground, where more of their own soldiers would be targets for the tyrant’s rage.

* Flight lungs are actually a set of bladders carrying bacteria which produce hydrogen and other lighter-than-air gases to help make the dragon’s body lighter and easier to carry in flight. However, in the fire-breathing species, the gas mixture can be quickly exhausted for producing flame, and the now-heavier animal will find it more difficult, even impossible to fly a distance, until the gas has been replenished.