Self-Replicating Molecules
and the Meaning of Life

Cliff Walker interviews

Dr M Reza Ghadiri

October 29, 1999 (revised, November 12, 1999)

This morning, I had the honor of completing a brief interview with Professor Ghadiri. As I suspected, Professor Ghadiri does not have "life" on his mind, except that his molecules are modeled after naturally occurring organic molecules.

He mentioned three specific groups of scientists, including his group, that have created self-replicating molecules, and indicated that there are others. I asked him if these were derived from naturally occurring self-replicating molecules, and he said that none of the molecules were derived from naturally occurring molecules.

The Sranim Peptide - animated cartoon showing the self-replication process with 32 residue peptidic template [gray] which binds a 15 nucleophilic fragment [red] and 17 electrophilic [blue] catalyses thioester bond formation [yellow] hence catalyzing its own formation.Two of the three groups, his group and that of Guntr KieDrwski, have created peptides, which are similar in structure to naturally occurring molecules. Julius Rebek's molecule, says Professor Ghadiri, does not in any way resemble the self-replicating molecules that we would find in nature, but is self-replicating nonetheless. I did not ask Dr Ghadiri if this means that Dr Rebek's molecule is not a carbon based substance.

I did ask him, however, if it is proper to consider these molecules "life" and he shot back a resounding "No!" Nobody has even come close to creating what we would call life, according to Dr Ghadiri.

From his tone, my imagination conjured an image of a scientist preparing himself for the accusation that he was a modern-day Dr Frankenstein of some sort -- or worse, someone who could accidentally unleash a powerful and deadly organism into our environment. However, I must stress that this is what went through my imagination: I cannot know for sure what brought on this apparent tone, or even whether I accurately sensed a change at all.

Then I asked him how we would define life for the purposes of this research. He reminded me that life means many things to many people. But for the purposes of this research, he said that to qualify as life, something must have three qualities:

 

1. It is self-replicating.

2. It is self-sustaining.

3. It is capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution.

 

Though admittedly not a comprehensive definition for life (mules cannot reproduce themselves), this is the definition Dr Ghadiri gave to me when I asked for it as regards to this research -- the creation of self-replicating molecules.

None of the molecules that have been made would sustain themselves (be able to continue self-replication) in an environment outside of the chemical reactions under which they are able to self-replicate, says Dr Ghadiri. These molecules, he says, are themselves chemical reactions. They just happen to be self-replicating molecules that mimic one of the processes -- self-replication -- that is found in what we call living organisms. (There goes any justified fear that they could thrive within our environment.)

 

I would add that the molecules thus far created are probably far too simple to survive even the smallest changes in structure, and probably must retain their precise structure in order to replicate. Organic molecules that we see in living organisms today contain vast amounts of redundancy and are extremely complex, so that they can and do undergo small changes without significantly affecting their ability to sustain themselves in their environment.

Occasionally, a change or "mutation" will significantly affect an organism's ability to sustain itself. The majority of these changes impair an organism's ability to survive, and that organism usually dies before reaching adulthood. Its mutated code is thus not carried into the gene pool. Very occasionally (albeit very frequently from an evolutionary time frame), the mutation happens to enhance an organism's ability to sustain itself within its environment (although the same mutation would not necessarily help the same organism living in a different environment). These "improvements" are usually but not always assimilated into the gene pool, eventually replacing the old code. A notable exception would be an organism which sustains a favorable mutation, but which dies prematurely from an accident or some other fluke that has nothing to do with an enhanced or impaired ability to survive in its environment.

 

Back to the interview with Dr Ghadiri. We were discussing the publications which document this work, and he asked me if I was a scientist in order to ascertain whether I was able to read the scientific papers he was about to recommend. I told him no, that my interest is one of philosophy and of social activism, and that I am not trained as a scientist. When I mentioned that in some of my discussions I am called on to defend Darwinism, he laughed. He said that if man is still here a thousand years from now, very few scientists from this time period would be remembered. But one scientist who will be remembered is Charles Darwin. Another, he said, was "the inventor of mathematics" -- although, ironically, the name had slipped Dr Ghadiri's mind. We had a good chuckle over this. (He mentioned that the scientist was an Englishman, and I now think he probably meant Sir Isaac Newton.)

Dr Ghadiri suggested that I stop wasting my time engaging in discussions wherein I am called upon to defend Darwinism, because it does not need defending. "People are entitled to their opinions," he said. I said that I agree, but reminded him that we have this state called Kansas and this other state called Illinois and this other notorious state called Tennessee.

 

As the conversation ended, I had the impression that Dr Ghadiri has never seen the popular lapel button which says, "Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups." But perhaps he knows something about this matter that I do not. More likely, though, Dr Ghadiri, as a scientist, speaks from a much different perspective than I do as an activist and a lay philosopher.

Maybe Dr Ghadiri is aware of the four recent surveys which show that between 45 and 47 percent of Americans are young-earth creationists. He could know this and remain unconcerned for reasons that I cannot see. Most likely, though, for anyone to go much further than Professor Ghadiri does would be to overstep the bounds of scientific inquiry.

In this sense, scientific inquiry would say, at most, "Thank you for the reminder that fundamentalism still thrives." Only an activist or a social commentator, I think, would go so far as H. L. Mencken, and say, "The way to deal with superstition is not to be polite to it, but to tackle it with all arms, and so rout it, cripple it, and make it forever infamous and ridiculous." ("Aftermath," The Baltimore Evening Sun, September 14, 1925.) But even Mencken, in the same piece, later nudges himself back toward the outlook of a scientist:

True enough, even a superstitious man has certain inalienable rights. He has a right to harbor and indulge his imbecilities as long as he pleases, provided only he does not try to inflict them upon other men by force. He has a right to argue for them as eloquently as he can, in season and out of season. He has a right to teach them to his children. But certainly he has no right to be protected against the free criticism of those who do not hold them. He has no right to demand that they be treated as sacred. He has no right to preach them without challenge.

 

I still suspect that Dr Ghadiri's remark may reflect upon at least one reason why we have these problems in Kansas, Tennessee, and elsewhere: The scientists rightly concentrate on their work, but some of us may need to support science through public awareness and social activism.

I am reminded of a call to the Dr Dean Edell Show several years ago, where the topic was the fact that many more advances had been made in breast cancer research in recent years than had been made in prostate cancer research. (This has since changed somewhat since the broadcast in question.) Dr Edell suggested that this was because women tend more toward organized activist efforts, whereas men tend to think that if something needs to get done, we should simply do it rather than talk about it. Today's American culture seems to be based more upon politics than upon practicality. The work needs to be done, but appropriating the resources to do the work is itself a lot of work.
 

People have been working for years to undermine any human progress which contradicts cherished myths. Today, it seems as if these people think they are entitled to more than simply their opinions. They seem to want protection from criticism; but also, they seem to want the ability to enforce their myth upon the rest of us. Since the myth they want to enforce cannot stand on its own merit, the only method left for them is to try to discredit any human progress which contradicts the myth.

We must remember that in 600 B.C.E., philosophers (what scientists were called back then) knew that the earth is a globe (and is not flat, as it appears to a mind that is unaided by abstract thinking skills). In 400 B.C.E., philosophers had made a close calculation as to the size of the earth. By 200 B.C.E., they had realized that the earth is not a perfect sphere, and had made some concerted efforts to measure how far off from a perfect sphere this spheroid called Earth is.

The first two-piston steam engine was developed in AlexanDra by Hero in 200 B.C.E. The library where Hero worked was later burned and destroyed, piecemeal, over the centuries, by fanatics of both the Christian and the Muslim varieties. Scientists and thinkers, both men and women, were brutally murdered by mobs of priests and other frenzied clerics.

Long after these accomplishments came the Dark Ages. Ancient science had become so completely forgotten, through the domination of the Christian religion and its flat-earth dogma, that we now speak of the Copernican Revolution -- as if Copernicus was the first to discover and publicize heliocentricity. Galileo was persecuted in 1633 -- fully 141 years after Christopher Columbus, in 1492, "discovered" a land that had already been inhabited for tens of thousands of years. Galileo was persecuted fully 111 years after Magellan's crew, in 1522, completed the first known voyage around the globe.

I suspect that had the science of the wheel contradicted some aspect of the dominant and cherished myth, Copernicus and his associates would have been too busy reinventing it to have made much progress in astronomy and cosmology. We can only hope that science remains so firmly established in the popular mindset that no upheaval can ever again overthrow it.
 

Man's persecution of his fellow-man's quest for truth is, in my opinion, the deepest stain upon the dignity of the human species. This conversation has reminded me that to hold wrong scientific opinions is not a punishable offense. All scientific opinions must be subject to the test of public scrutiny, and only those which continue to survive have the right to be called knowledge. The rest are safely marginalized or ignored. We must never persecute someone for holding a wrong scientific opinion. At the same time, we cannot admit into the body of scientific knowledge an opinion which has not passed the test of public scrutiny.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine

At the same time, we cannot admit into the body of scientific knowledge an opinion which has not passed the test of public scrutiny.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine

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