Molecules that evolve

We know that plants and anmals evolve, bacteria evolve, and viruses evolve, all under pressure of natural selection.

In this study, stretches of RNA were placed in a test tube with enzymes that copy RNA. The molecules of RNA evolved into an ecosystem of mutually-supporting molecular species.

from Quanta Magazine

There are two take-home messages for me.

First, this experiment is promoted as a step toward understanding the origin of life. The experiment actually shows how far we are from understanding the orgin of life. These long stretches of RNA are far more complex than any molecular structure that could be expected to arise by chance in an inorganic world. And they can’t reproduce without enzymes that are proteins, not RNA, and which also are far too complex to arise by chance. Experimenters are keeping the test tubes supplied with a continuous source of the replicase enzyme.

Second, even in this simplest of environments, cooperation is already emerging. This contradicts the “selfish gene” dogma which has ruled the community of academic evolutionary science for more than half a century. According to the dogma, evolution promotes selfishness, and even behaviors that look like cooperation must have a selfish advantage for each cooperating individual, or else the cooperation cannot evolve. This is seen to be false even for the simplest molecules, which evolve in short order to become interdependent.

After many years of studying evolution from a theoretical perspective, I have become convinced that the classical processes of blind mutation and natural selection could not account for what we see. I see evidence for Lamarckian inheritance, i.e., that an individual’s adaptations in response to life experience can be passed to offspring. (James Shapiro calls this natural genetic engineering.)

But this effect does not help to explain the origin of life. For this, I think a more radical hypothesis is required. The best explanation I have is that consciousness, independent of matter, is a fundamental element in the fabric of the universe. Consciousness has created life as a home for itself.

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