OOL Neutrality, What's Next?

Following the conversation noted below, there’s an interesting conversation over how the narrative surrounding life’s origins should be shared in the classroom. To mention “design” or not. Reading this thread made me think, what’s to be explained next?

Continuing the discussion from Bias Against … :

It’s pretty easy for me to put myself into a student’s shoes. I think that the two most likely issues to arise following Neil’s response above would be these two:

  1. Well, how do you think it originated?
  2. You have taught us about OOL experiments that did not pan out, are they continuing today?

@Timothy_Horton mentioned that it is unnecessary to mention all of the the aspects that we don’t know, and that makes good sense.
@Eddie seems to think that it is likely that the issue of design will find its way into the conversation.
@nwrickert says that we should leave it neutral, and just say we don’t know how it happened.

I’m just curious (and maybe many here have experienced this in the classroom)… what happens next in the conversation? I don’t see the dialog stopping naturally at “we don’t know.” What do you think?
Does the fact that OOL research continues change the rules regarding the discussion? Or no?

If I were asked that in class, I would respond:

I don’t have any idea as to how life originated. There are three possibilities that occur to me:

  1. Life emerged from natural processes;
  2. There was an act of special creation;
  3. There was always life in the cosmos. Maybe it reached earth from outer space (panspermia).

But I would make it clear that I had no basis to choose between those possibilities, so it remains an open question.

If you really tried to pin me down, then I would prefer the first or the third of those possibilities. If there is a god, then I think any decent kind of god would avoid the 2nd choice, and use either the first or the third. But in a classroom setting, I would try to avoid being pinned down in that way.

That OOL research continues goes to show that this is a question that interests people. But I don’t think it changes the answers to be given.

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I would give the honest answer: the evidence we have suggests life is an emergent property of matter and the laws of the universe but we don’t know for sure. I would also make it clear work is ongoing but we may never find the correct answer since we’re trying to reconstruct events which happened over 4 billion years ago and possibly quite longer.

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It’s interesting that other mysteries are not discussed like the origin of matter. What is clear to me is that the simple to complex model is not viable as nothing about this universe is simple at its component level.

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Thanks Neil! Great response! I think that is probably the best way to handle it…

I don’t know anything about the ongoing OoL efforts, but, as you say, the topic is very interesting.

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Cosmology discusses that issue all the time.

Good thing science doesn’t use “what is clear to me” as a criterion for continuing its investigations. :slightly_smiling_face:

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That’s part of the question “Why is there something, rather than nothing?” But that’s not a question that we expect to ever answer.

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Thats right. The other part is we cannot break the something down to a simplistic origin.

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I have to say that, as a card-carrying member of The RNA Society, I am pretty disappointed that so many people would cede to ID proponents any part in a classroom discussion of the OOL, even in the high school science class.

An honest and thought-provoking presentation of the OOL in high schools can and should begin with a time-line of sorts, with coordinate 0 being the first cell. On the right of this cell, students may learn of the many, many advances that might be called “molecular archaeology”, the research that shows us that the heart of life is RNA. Moreover, students can learn that, in a very real sense, the business of life is the business of the ribosome and and thus of ribosomal RNA*. This tells us that the first cell was some sort of ribo-organism, built around an ancient manifestation of rRNA. Current research in the field (again, “molecular archaeology”, typified by the short talk I pointed to elsewhere on this forum) is taking us to the left of coordinate 0, telling us how the many forms of RNA that predated the ribo-organism evolved and cooperated to give us rRNA and ribosomes. (Of course, students would learn that amino acids and peptides were integral players as well.)

More to the left, students would learn that there are two general schools of thought – “metabolism first” and “RNA first”. They might learn why this is an open area, and also how these two concepts would and should eventually merge with what the “molecular archaeology” so plainly shows.

Finally, they can learn that several Nobel Prizes accompanied the giant leaps to the right of coordinate 0, and more await similar leaps that lie in wait on the left. These fields are active and exciting, and more and more they tie in with more fundable translational science. There is no need to shy away from “we don’t know”; rather, the unknown here is a great opportunity for research and for science.

[*To make this point in a vernacular that might be more familiar to participants and readers of this forum – in a very real sense, all life is one “kind”, the rRNA “kind”. All of the variety that we see in life today is but window dressing, a bewildering and amazing array of manifestations of this one central core.]

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Could not agree more. That is exactly right.

This also is true.


I think both statements of ignorance and knowledge are important. We know a lot, but we certainly do not know everything. We can’t be sure where it all will lead. It is the combination of valuing ignorance and knowledge that brings us to the grand questions here. Right?

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Does anyone even know of a high school class where this is even seriously discussed? Most high school kids don’t care. I certainly didn’t. All I cared about was hitting homeruns, throwing touchdowns, and getting girls. Maybe it’s because I grew up in Alabama but I barely remember talking about evolution. Definitely not the origin of life.

I cared in high school. A lot of us did.

And y’all really discussed it? I mean we had stickers in our textbooks warning against evolution in Alabama so maybe that’s why we didn’t.

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Yes we did. At least in my honors/AP biology class. This was in the 90s, so we were also discussing Dawkin’s Selfish Gene, and then Climbing Mount Improbable. I was a YEC at the time.

“Metabolism first” = Auburn.

“RNA first” = Alabama.

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Lol. Roll tide

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I remember some discussion in A-level zoology, but back in 1968 all was optimism and Miller-Urey was cutting edge.

However, I remember it was discussed at a theological level in an “Any Questions” panel I was on in school cruise ship somewhere in the Mediterranean. The ship’s chaplain was also on the panel and made some very good points, I remember (unlike me).

So such things were discussed by kids - someone, after all, asked the question. However, I do remember on that cruise how many people were obsessed with getting girls and illicitly drinking ouzo (homeruns and touchdowns being both un-British and impossible on an ocean liner) … which may be why I was the one nominated to be on the questions panel.

I did, however, win out by being asked up to the ship’s bar afterwards by the organiser, a national journalist, and having my alcohol officially paid for. Actually we did OK on the girls too, our school party having been (also offically) asked to chaperone a party from a girl’s school in the dangerous ports of Greece and Turkey. I don’t remember discussing origins of life with them, though.

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Matter condensing from energy has been experimentally verified, so the origin of matter seems to be quite solid.

Ultimately, this is where ID/creationism parts way with science. Hypotheses for a natural origin of life can be tested scientifically, but that doesn’t seem to be the case with ID/creationism. Until ID/creationists find a way to test their hypotheses for the origin of life the naturalistic explanations will continue to dominate in the realm of science.

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I agree. I was really interested in how educators, in particular, would handle the conversation. I think that Neil stated the three scenarios that make up the most-likely possible choices:

Sometimes the rules that we put in place (for instance, biology deals with the development of life after the first living cell) seem tidy, but then the very next question can spill from that tidy environment into an unexplored realm. So, I’m really curious how the conversation would be managed, because the questions are likely to be asked.

So, it seems that something similar your response above, even though a student may not have ID or creation in mind, might be a good way to respond. Science can continue to search for a mechanism that would have allowed life to assemble, and creationists can speculate as well, but until they have a model that is testable, it will sit outside of the realm of science in theology.

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