Saturday, June 13, 2009

Another Good Sign in Science Reporting

For the second time in as many months there is a reasonably accurate report on recent origin of life research. That's about as many as there were in the entire twentieth century. Something is going right, particularly since this latest piece comes in the renown crusader of evolution, Nature magazine. Katharine Sanderson writes of some fascinating new biochemistry research which is being erroneously described as an evolution breakthrough.

But Sanderson makes no such blunder. She even interviewed chemist Robert Shapiro who has the unusual habit of requiring evolutionary hypotheses to be supported by empirical evidence. Shapiro points out that the research deals with a chemical system that is unlikely (to put it mildly) to be available in a warm little pond:

It is possible to speculate that a system of this type arose during the course of evolution — though well after life began — as a precursor to RNA and DNA. At the time when life first began, however, only crude chemical mixtures would be expected on early Earth. The idea that such mixtures would spontaneously transform themselves into the systems of the type described here, without the aid of chemists and laboratories, is absurd.

Sanderson goes even further, and notes that even the lead researcher "is coy about the implications of his work for the origins of life." Fifty years ago such research would likey have been proclaimed with triumphant headlines. "Life in a Test Tube," the headlines might have read. The bar is rising, and Sanderson should be commended for good journalism.