Does the ToE (Theory of Evolution) Include OOL (Origin of Life)?

Yes, according to two of today’s most vocal Evolution advocates on the web — P.Z. Myers of the Pharyngula blog and Nick Matzke of Panda’s Thumb.  These quotes from PZ and Nick were related by a good friend and fan of mine who goes by CK1 on all the forums where I post.  She is a professional virologist and an editor of several professional science journals and can always be counted on for insightful comments on the topics I start.  We’re having a little problem right now at the Talk Rational Forum — my current favorite hangout.  Two of the E&O moderators have decided that they don’t like the topics that I start and so they have begun banishing my topics to the Compost Heap.  They are doing this in spite of the fact that all the intelligent posters like CK1 LIKE the topics that I start and want them to stay put.  Anyway, here’s what CK1 wrote over at TR …

The issue of whether the OOL is distinct from TOE has been addressed in various Evo/Cre sites, including this comment by PZ Myers:

I’m going to be somewhat heretical, and suggest that abiogenesis as the study of chemical evolution is a natural subset of evolutionary theory, and that we should own up to it. It’s natural processes all the way back, baby, no miracles required. Life is chemistry, vitalism has evaporated and is one with phlogiston, and scientists legitimately and respectably study physical processes that were the potential instigators of life.

More recently, Nick Matzke summarized research into OOL and ended with this:

Splitting the OOL from evolutionary theory, is only technically correct in a sort of legalistic, hairsplitting way. Sure, it’s true that technically, “evolution” only happens once you have life, or at least replicators, but getting from replicators to the last common ancestor is most of what most people think about when they’re thinking about the origin of life, i.e., “where did the evolutionary ancestor of all life today come from?” and all of that is evolution all the way. Furthermore, even the origin of the first classical “replicator” was itself very likely an evolutionary process, in that it occurred in stepwise fashion and not all-at-once, and that the first replicator was likely preceded by various sorts of pseudoreplication, statistical inheritance and kinetic biases. If you remove evolution from your thinking about the origin of the first replicator then it is very likely you will never understand how it happened, or what the current research on the question is about. Finally, even apart from these detailed considerations, “evolution” reasonably has a broader meaning – the evolution of the universe, the solar system, the planet, and the planet’s geochemistry, and the origin of life and the origin of the first replicator must be understood as part of that larger evolutionary history.

One other telling point is that the statement “but the OOL is outside of evolutionary theory” response also has the problem of simply dodging the hard work of describing the discoveries and work of modern science, a problem I have already described. In conclusion, if it were up to me, I would completely scrap this statement from the rhetorical toolkit of evolution defenders.

Elsewhere on my blog, I have recorded this quote from the great Theodosius Dobzhansky …

“Evolution comprises all the stages of development of the universe: the cosmic, biological, and human or cultural developments. Attempts to restrict the concept of evolution to biology are gratuitous. Life is a product of the evolution of inorganic matter, and man is a product of the evolution of life.” (Dobzhansky, Theodosius, Science, 27 January 1967, Volume 155, Number 3761, p.409).

Well … I think that settles that. So much for my critics who, for the past two years, have constantly ridiculed me for lumping OOL under the ToE. Sorry guys … you’re wrong again!


2 Responses to “Does the ToE (Theory of Evolution) Include OOL (Origin of Life)?”

  1. lordkalvan Says:

    The compartmentalization of particular areas of study is not unusual. That OOL questions impact on evolution is undeniable, but it is certainly the case that the study of evolution on a practical, day-to-day basis is not immediately affected by the question of how that evolving life originated. It is the same as expecting an astrophysicist whose particular speciality might be the study of Jupiter to be continually concerned with addressing the question of how the Universe came into existence. It has a relevance, yes, but is not itself immediately relevant to the formation and evolution of the Jovian system.

  2. There’s an important logical distinction that you seem to be missing. Even if at some philosophical level abiogenesis is included in evolution as an area of study, they are still logically distinct issues. That is, one could have a deity poof a common ancestor into existence and then have that evolve. The evidence for universal common descent through natural selection needs to be evaluated independently of evidence for abiogenesis.

    (Note also that PZ admits here he is being “heretical” so he acknowledges that his stance is not that of most biologists and biochemists anyways).

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