According to Eugene Koonin, the central problem facing origin of life researchers concerns the emergence of biological evolution (that transitional phase before the time when Darwinian mechanisms were able to operate). The origin(s) of replication and translation (OORT) "is qualitatively different from all other problems in evolutionary biology and might be viewed as the hardest problem in all of biology". The distinction comes about because Darwinists think they have natural mechanisms to account for the origin of complexity, but these only work when replication and translation processes are in place. "The crucial question, then, is how was the minimal complexity attained that is required to achieve the threshold replication fidelity."
Koonin identifies the first paradox of OORT in this way: although we talk about a "minimal" system for enabling Darwinian mechanisms to operate, even this system is a "highly evolved one"! The hurdle that must be jumped is very high indeed. "How such a system could evolve, is a puzzle that defeats conventional evolutionary thinking."
The second paradox of OORT "pertains to the origin of the translation system from within the RNA world via a Darwinian evolutionary process: until the translation system produces functional proteins, there is no obvious selective advantage to the evolution of any parts of this elaborate (even in its most primitive form) molecular machine." Current thinking about the RNA world faces "formidable difficulties".
Basically, Koonin offers no resolution of these paradoxes from within conventional evolutionary thinking. His way out of the impasse is to reposition the debate to take into account recent developments in cosmology. This means adopting the multiverse hypothesis: "The model of eternal inflation implies that all macroscopic histories permitted by the laws of physics are repeated an infinite number of times in the infinite multiverse." This model radically alters our perspectives, such that the "emergence of highly complex systems by chance is inevitable." This is claimed to be the answer to the OORT paradoxes. The multiverse "model not only permits but guarantees that, somewhere in the infinite multiverse [. . .] such a system would emerge." Thus, given the multiverse, chance and the weak anthropic principle are sufficient explanations for the appearance of life as we know it.
This paper is worthy of our attention on several counts: (a) it presents a realistic assessment of the problems of OORT; (b) it explains why the multiverse concept is needed in biology as well as cosmology in order to avoid the need to make design inferences; (c) it provides an appendix on the probabilities of the emergence, by chance, of getting through the OORT impasse (less than 10 to the power -1018).
The paper is accompanied by referees comments and author responses, which enhance its' value. However, two additional critical comments need to be made. The first concerns the author's appeal to the "infinite". Granted that probabilities deemed impossible become possible when multiplied by infinity, it is worth saying that "infinity" is not a concept that belongs to science. It is to be found in pure maths and in philosophy. Koonin does not clearly differentiate science from philosophy here and this detracts from what he has to say. The second critical comment relates to his attitude to the "weak anthropic principle" and the "strong anthropic principle". The latter idea, Koonin asserts, "does not belong in the scientific domain." It must be pointed out that whilst science does not have access to teleology, this does not mean that there is no purpose or goal in the Cosmos. To develop a science that is overtly opposed to the idea of teleology is actually to force-fit science into scientism. Science should never be in the position of declaring what the natural world should be like; its role is to explore what it is like. For more on this interesting paper, go here.
The cosmological model of eternal inflation and the transition from chance to biological evolution in the history of life
Eugene V Koonin
Biology Direct 2007, 2:15 doi:10.1186/1745-6150-2-15 [open access]
Background: Recent developments in cosmology radically change the conception of the universe as well as the very notions of "probable" and "possible". The model of eternal inflation implies that all macroscopic histories permitted by laws of physics are repeated an infinite number of times in the infinite multiverse. In contrast to the traditional cosmological models of a single, finite universe, this worldview provides for the origin of an infinite number of complex systems by chance, even as the probability of complexity emerging in any given region of the multiverse is extremely low. This change in perspective has profound implications for the history of any phenomenon, and life on earth cannot be an exception.
Hypothesis: Origin of life is a chicken and egg problem: for biological evolution that is governed, primarily, by natural selection, to take off, efficient systems for replication and translation are required, but even barebones cores of these systems appear to be products of extensive selection. The currently favored (partial) solution is an RNA world without proteins in which replication is catalyzed by ribozymes and which serves as the cradle for the translation system. However, the RNA world faces its own hard problems as ribozyme-catalyzed RNA replication remains a hypothesis and the selective pressures behind the origin of translation remain mysterious. Eternal inflation offers a viable alternative that is untenable in a finite universe, i.e., that a coupled system of translation and replication emerged by chance, and became the breakthrough stage from which biological evolution, centered around Darwinian selection, took off. A corollary of this hypothesis is that an RNA world, as a diverse population of replicating RNA molecules, might have never existed. In this model, the stage for Darwinian selection is set by anthropic selection of complex systems that rarely but inevitably emerge by chance in the infinite universe (multiverse).
Conclusion: The plausibility of different models for the origin of life on earth directly depends on the adopted cosmological scenario. In an infinite universe (multiverse), emergence of highly complex systems by chance is inevitable. Therefore, under this cosmology, an entity as complex as a coupled translation-replication system should be considered a viable breakthrough stage for the onset of biological evolution.
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