Where life came from, according to Richard Dawkins

The legendary atheist and evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins appeared on WBUR, Boston’s richard_dawkins_david_shankbone_eNational Public Radio affiliate. He was debating Design advocate George Gilder.

Dawkins was a professor at Oxford University. One of his admirers had created a special endowment for him, The Charles Simyoni Chair for the Public Understanding of Science.

Minutes before the show began, Dawkins announced that he wasn’t going to debate Gilder, but insisted that Gilder talk for the first 15 minutes, then Dawkins would talk for the final 15 minutes.

I thought that was… shall we say, odd.

Anyway, a caller asked Dawkins about the Origin of Life. Dawkins replied that it was “a happy chemical accident.”

A happy chemical accident?

What do you think of that answer?

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204 Responses

  1. daan joubert says:

    If two trains were on the same track approaching each other, the inevitable result according to Dawkins, would be ‘ a happy rail accident’. The nature of the physical world, said to be determined in all important detail during the Big Bang and given the right conditions and enough time (exactly the same requirements as for the two trains) , makes life a similarly inevitable result. It seems Dawkins never heard of the Miller-Urey experiment or perhaps have no idea how long the postulated ‘primordial soup’ existed before there was life.

  2. Good gracious, seems we’re all staying rather far away from the point of the post, aren’t we, which is the origin of life question, and whether it is merely an “accident” (happy or otherwise). There is a rather extensive science literature on all these points, (John Sutherland’s latest work on prebiotic chemistry comes obviously to mind) and it is rather revealing how none of the commenters bothered to allude to any of it.

    From what’s been learned about OoL so far, accident seems not an accurate description. The pieces of life seem inevitable, as amino acids show up naturally (even in comets) and the ones most commonly used in life turn out to be the easiest to synthesize abiotically. Way farther down the stream (and we’re talking billions of years here), endosymbiotic complexity and multicellularity appear fairly inevitable if you let the biology run that long, and those processes are highly observable in living organisms. Simon Conway Morris has written a lot on that natural convergence tendency.

    It should be recalled that Dawkins himself is neither an origin of life researcher or paleontologist, he is a zoologist by training who has acted as a vocal and often entertaining lightning rod press agent for the somewhat antiquated gene-centric British adaptationist philosophical view that he grew up with during his formative scientific years, and which today sounds a trifle more quaint.

    The cutting edge issues in Ool research today certainly relate to the nature of putative RNA-dominated early life (no organism today operates that way, though the ghosts of it are to be found, certainly so in the RNA ribozyme core of the protein-making ribosomes). To what extent the parasite-avoiding DNA option started out as a two nucleotide coding format (rather than the derived triplex coding of LUCA-since organisms) is also an ongoing area of investigation.

    But even if the OoL proves as intractable as a scientific problem as sensory qualia (intrinsically impossible to clarify even as it is entirely neurobiological in nature), it still won’t make all the evidence for natural evolutionary change in the billions of years afterward go away, nor make any particular supernatural entitities any more plausible as an explanation for it.

  3. Amy Lou says:

    My response: Well Mr. Dawkins, who created the chemicals? Answer; GOD.

  4. Brian Thomson says:

    Believing in a “happy chemical accident” requires far more faith than believing in a designer.

    Our own DNA is complex beyond our understanding. In a recent attempt to map our DNA they discovered that making a change to just one strand can cause the design to make changes to many nearby strands in an attempt to self balance. Once this was discovered the scientists made the statement that we do not have the computing power on this whole planet to begin to understand the complexity we just witnessed.

    Our DNA is being destroyed in a metronomic fashion by radiation and other forces. It is only due to the intelligent design, which allows for self repair, that we do not fall apart. There is no way a “happy accident” explains that. Not in the mind of any intelligent person.

    To believe that more complexity can come from less complexity is akin to believing that you could utterly destroy a Home Depot with explosives and have it form into a complete working house. When taken to the extreme of evolution it would then mean that this “happy accident” would not only need to be possible but repeatable through many many such happy accidents. It stretches the imagination far beyond breaking to think that anyone could find that an adequate explanation… unless of course… it is what they want to believe.

  5. John Meissner says:

    I have seen chemical accidents and from what I have seen they end in destruction and death.

  6. Kemal Alyürük says:

    Richard Dawkins replied a question on the origin of life, as a Lucky Incident. The Lucky Incident explained quite differently by various commentators. I wish to start commenting on the points, which should not be considered as a Lucky Incident. The existence of life forming organic compounds, in the warm little pond of Darwin was not particular to earth. These compounds also observed in other planets as well as meteoroids. Therefore the existence of these compounds cannot be considered a lucky Incidence. Furthermore, the natural tendency of the formation of these substances proved by several experiments. (S. Miller, H.Urley and J. Sutherland) The reactions of these molecules to form self-replicating molecules, following chemical laws.

    Frequently, the statistical hopelessness of the formation of proteins by the infinite number of random trails forwarded as a shred of evidence against abiogenesis. But proteins do not form from random trails. On the contrary, they synthesized according to the directions of DNA. But, the same statistical calculations wouldn’t apply to DNA. To assess whether a given protein molecule, correctly formed from a random trial, one should inspect each segment of amino acid residues. Observing that the segment-45 is the residue of amino acid -14, but not the -3, we conclude that the trial under question is unsuccessful. We should throw the wrong molecule into a dust bin to let it degrade into pieces. Let’s consider the first DNA (or RNA) molecule formed in the primordial soup around a hydrothermal vent. (J. Szostak) probably all of the protein editing letters (A, G, C, T) are placed at the wrong locations on this molecule. We should return this molecule into the pond, but not to the dust bin. Since this molecule could replicate, rapidly increasing its population. Throughout time, mutations take place to change the sequence of letters on this molecule. (Horizontal, DNA shuffling, gene exchange, etc.) These mutations occur not only within members of a given family but also among the members of neighbor families. As a consequence of such arrangements, letters come together to form meaningful domains (exons) separated by meaningless domains (introns). Several exons separated with several introns altogether make a single gene. Further mutations at different locations of the molecule produce many other genes, with different structures. These evolutions resemble an artificial intelligence engine that is learning how to play chess. But in this case, the built-in data is only: life is good. Mutations unceasingly occur, but they are much fewer in exons than that of the introns. That is because mutations in the introns are tolerable, but in exons, they may be fatal. Acquiring several genes, continued about 320 million years until the “LUCA” with about 360 genes formed. Each mutation leading to the formation of a gene was Lucky Incident. But, the formation of the “LUCA” by copying and accumulating so many genes was the most advantageous incidence. These genes made LUCA strong and immune to hostile environments. All other cells failed to accumulate these particular genes extinguished in time. LUCA accepted as the mother of all living forms on the earth.
    Left-handiness attributed to imported chiral substances from outer space or symmetry breaking processes. Suggestıng that these processes yielded a slight excess of left-handed nucleotides (Nl) that triggered the formation of left-handed DNA. At this point, I would like tentatively to discuss a simpler model of the right and left-handed life forms. It’s safer to assume equal numbers of right (Nr) and left-handed nucleotides, i.e. a racemic mixture in the primordial soup. Nl and Nr enantiomers differ from each other by the chirality of the sugar in their structures. To form left and right-handed replicating molecules, Nl and Nr must be separated. Pasteur, by crystallizing synthetic tartaric acid separated L and R enantiomers. Enantiomer-selective forces made this separation possible. Crystallization of racemic nucleoids could also separate the Nl and Nr enantiomers. These crystals at high temperatures/pressures may polymerize to form both left and right-handed DNA. On the other hand, these nucleoids initially may be present in the aqueous solution state. Stereoregular polymerization, of these solutions, also yields both left and right-handed DNA together. This polymerization is also driven by the enantiomer selective forces which might be further enhanced by the presence of catalysts. It should be admitted that these simple models contradict with the fact that the absence of right-handed life. Right-handed genes also expected form by mutations. But the formation of the same genes both in the right and left-handed DNA must be very low probability. That is because no gene transfer between these two is possible. Furthermore, they don’t intake each other’s proteins and sugars. Therefore any predator/prey relation might be ignored. Consequently, left and right-handed life forms must be closed-systems to each other. Therefore evolutions of genes in the R and L- DNA’s expected to occur at different rates and directions consequently to form altogether different species. The racemic nucleoids-model is only worth considering if the non-existence of right-handed life forms is reasoned. In the history of the earth, perhaps several clues are present, supporting the possibility of mass extinction processes of R-handed life forms.

    • Gerald McDonald says:

      Not to mention the fact that proteins are broken down due to O2. Or that the mixing of chemicals in and of themselves produces nothing other than a different chemical, or worse.
      Not to mention the fact that we don’t know if there was a pond for life to start. Or how the chemicals came to be.
      And if there were chemicals that could make life, wouldn’t there have been chemicals that prevented and even destroy life?
      How did these chemicals, the good one from the bad, become isolated from one another.
      We see almost life being made by, what” An “intelligence”. They don’t separate themselves. They must not only be placed at the right amount, in the right conditions, and those conditions maintained.
      And that still would not be the end of it.
      Then it needs to be made to evolve.
      Making life, is not so hard. For God. But to take what God did, and then make it do something else? That is not only biting off more than can be chewed. But having what is being bitten off, to come back around and eat you.

  7. Bob McCoy says:

    I think Dawkins is glossing over the fact that he cannot explain the origins of life. His disingenuous answer is no better than saying, “I don’t know.”
    To say “a happy accident” is science is a rude slap in the face to the education and training to all scientists everywhere. Sometimes the most accurate scientific response is: We just don’t know, but we are still searching. I just wish Dawkins and other evolutionists like him would be more honest about what they do not know. It would at least give them an ounce of credulity.

  8. John Entwistle says:

    I’m not going to touch on the origins of life, rather on the origin of “intelligent” life. If we look at the sequence of events required for our existence:
    1. a planet just the right distance from just the right star
    2. a planetary impact after formation leading to a large molten iron core (with attendant magnetic fields), a higher than average incidence of trace minerals, and a large moon and the associated tidal activity
    3. not one, but two mass die-offs of life forms hostile to mammalian life
    4. an pleasantly warm inter-glacial period

    On top of that, look at the structure of genetics. Two separate but related structures, both based on the gene as engine + RNA as raw material – factory-like processes that form the basis for all life that we know. If I were to design a process for simulating life on the computer, I’d use exactly the same approach – basic components that take configuration data as input and form “living” creatures.

    Happy accidents?

    The number of convenient accidents required for us to be here pile one on top of the other to the point where, as a betting man, I’m starting to think that someone is pulling the strings.

  9. How does a scientist prove “happy”?

  10. Peter Wills says:

    Dawkins knows little about chemistry and even less about accidents.

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