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Moore's Law and the Origin of Life 272

Posted by Soulskill
from the does-this-mean-life-has-a-turbo-button dept.
DoctorBit writes "MIT Technology Review is running a story about an arXiv paper in which geneticists Alexei A. Sharov and Richard Gordon propose that life as we know it originated 9.7 billion years ago. The researchers estimated the genetic complexity of phyla in the paleontological record by counting the number of non-redundant functional nucleotides in typical genomes of modern day descendants of each phylum. When plotting genetic complexity against time, the researchers found that genetic complexity increases exponentially, just as with Moore's law, but with a doubling rate of about once every 376 million years. Extrapolating backwards, the researchers estimate that life began about 4 billion years after the universe formed and evolved the first bacteria just before the Earth was formed. One might image that the supernova debris that formed the early solar system could have included bacteria-bearing chunks of rock from doomed planets circling supernova progenitor stars. If true, this retro-prediction has some interesting consequences in partly resolving the Fermi Paradox. Another interesting consequence for those attempting to recreate life's origins in a lab: bacteria may have evolved under conditions very different from those on earth."
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Moore's Law and the Origin of Life

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday April 16, 2013 @01:59PM (#43464169)

    This is a fine example of how not to use arXiv as a news source. This old yarn has been trotted out before, and it is based on bad assumptions about complexity and offers a handy False Dilemma Fallacy.

    Either
    1+1=6 or
    1+1=8.
    1+1=6 is disproved, so 1+1 =8!

    Or your math is wrong.
    Complexity != genome size.
    See c-value enigma.

  • by ThorGod (456163) on Tuesday April 16, 2013 @02:19PM (#43464385) Journal

    You said it better than I was going to say it.

    The way I see it, they:
    a.) Plotted some data
    b.) Extrapolated a simple trend from that data
    c.) Forecasted, using the trend function, before the point of data collection
    d.) Came up with some wild conclusions from that forecast (or "beforecast"?) that rely heavily on the validity of the simple trend.

    It kind of smells like bad science...or at least risky science.

  • by MightyMartian (840721) on Tuesday April 16, 2013 @02:23PM (#43464427) Journal

    It does, however, use a metric pretty much meaningless to biology and comes with an answer that will get it some attention from the tragically retarded known as scientific journalism (and by extension, Slashdot editors).

  • Cambrian Explosion (Score:5, Insightful)

    by femtobyte (710429) on Tuesday April 16, 2013 @02:33PM (#43464523)

    The assumptions in the article are especially suspect, given the large number of quite well documented "explosions" of genetic diversity in Earth's history (see, e.g., the Cambrian Explosion [wikipedia.org] for the biggest example, though there are plenty of lesser events), where gigantic leaps in genetic diversity appeared over (geologically) short timescales. An extrapolation assuming a generally smooth growth rate is simply untenable.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday April 16, 2013 @02:34PM (#43464545)

    The problem with the kind of creationism some people are advertising is that they insist that it happened around 6000 years ago. A lot of scientists would be ok with the idea of creationism -- if you allow it to happen billions of years ago as the spark that created life, but then let life evolve independently. But of course then humanity is not special -- unless the creator helped things happen this way for the purpose to create intelligent life.

    So creationism/intelligent design is OK, and a higher being managing/guiding the universe is OK; it just doesn't make sense for it to have happened 6000 years ago.

    No the problem with creationism is that it's a crappy scientific theory. It doesn't add any predictive power, doesn't resolve the actual question of how life was created, and it fails Occam's Razor. It's exactly as useful as "a wizard did it".

  • Extrapolation! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by nedlohs (1335013) on Tuesday April 16, 2013 @02:40PM (#43464597)

    what could possibly go wrong, particularly when you extrapolate twice as far as you actually have data for.

  • by Crazy Taco (1083423) on Tuesday April 16, 2013 @04:06PM (#43465545)
    Dude, that's really ignorant. Life is WAY to complex to be reduced to what you are describing. The process involved in just DNA replication (not counting the transcription and translation processes involved in protein synthesis) in even the simplest prokaryotic cells involves more than 30 specialized proteins that perform the tasks of accurately copying the genetic material. They include DNA polymerases, primases, helicases, topoisomerases, DNA binding proteins, DNA ligases, and editing enzymes. And these are just for simple prokaryotes, not eukaryotes. All these protein mechanisms MUST be present for just this one process in this one simple form of life. but there's a major chicken and the egg problem here: the information on how to build the proteins necessary to do DNA duplication is encoded on the DNA. So you have to have the cellular machinery to use the DNA information, but you can't build the machinery until you have the information from DNA. Having just DNA is like having an x86 executable program that knows how to manufacture both a brand new computer and the machines necessary to build that computer... It's not going to get far if you have only that program and no existing machines for it to make use of. And having just amino acids or proteins is no better than just having the machinery... It's going to just sit there unless you have a program to run it. This new theory (and all theories along this line) are totally bizarre because they fail at a fundamental level to account for what life is. Having an Amino acid or even a random chain of them gets you no closer to life than having base elements swirling around. You need the entire system: both the information as stored on DNA and molecular equipment that can process that information. You can't just have an amino acid chain form over here and have another form over there and somehow get life from that. A self replicating machine with encoded information about how to build itself is clearly more than a random assemblage of chemicals on an asteroid, or even in an ocean. For any origin theory to succeed it must provide an explanation of these things: 1. It must explain the origin of the system for storing and encoding digital information in the cell. 2. It must explain the origin of the information itself that is stored in DNA 3. It must explain the origin of the integrated complexity, or functional interdependence, of the cell's information processing system. This is why, like it or not, there is no plausible naturalistic origin theory at this time. It is why Intelligent Design can't be gotten rid of... It is the only theory that currently offers an explanation that accounts for these three points. You may not like the explanation, but the only cause we know of that leads to the effect of having information or information processing systems is intelligence. There is no known chemical process or law of nature that would lead to an integrated, information processing system that contains the information necessary to replicate itself. High school textbooks often get this next point wrong: Natural Selection is not a possible theory, because it presupposes the existence of life that it can act upon. Getting the first life requires a different origin theory, and as yet there aren't any other than intelligent design that can account for all the evidence. This is the very reason famous Athiest Antony Flew became a diest. Sorry to get on my soapbox, but these ignorant theories that come out every day about life magically happening on an asteroid, or life magically arising because a world happens to have water are really starting to irritate me. It's only a plausible theory if it can account for everything we currently know. I'm interested in hearing all theories that can do this, naturalistic or otherwise, but if it can't even explain the basic facts that must be explained, the don't call it an origin theory, don't pretend it's legitimate, and don't waste the electrons sending it to me.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday April 16, 2013 @05:46PM (#43466635)

    Here's the problem: reasonable functions exist which behave completely differently from what goes on inside the data set.

    Let's take the article before us as an example. If x(t) is the average number of functional base pairs in an organism as a function of time, the article's authors are asserting that x'(t) = kx(t), or rather that the rate at which more base pairs are generated is proportional to the existing amount of base pairs.

    But what if we change this just a tiny bit? What if x'(t) = kx(t) + C, where C is tiny (think 10e-5 base pairs / year)? The graph they show would look exactly the same in the range of known organisms, but now it would only take between 4 and 5 billion years for mammalian-level complexity to emerge, and at that point we're in margin of error. (Don't believe me? Here's a back-of-the-envelope fit to the data that I made with this model: http://www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=plot+ln%28%284349%29*exp%28%282.3e-9%29*t%29+-+4348%29%2Fln%2810%29+from+0+to+10%5E10).

    Note how the log-plot of this function (again, see the link above) has a "hockey-stick" shape located outside of the region where we have data. A more precise fit will provide no more or less error for the data on hand compared to an exponential curve, but it behaves radically differently outside of that range.

  • by alexgieg (948359) <alexgieg@gmail.com> on Tuesday April 16, 2013 @06:10PM (#43466915) Homepage

    I see no reason to privilege math over English in this regard.

    But you certainly see much reason to privilege reason, i.e., logic and all it implies.

    There's no running around the fact that if you refuse the framework you're left with no knowledge at all. Either you accept some kind of basic realism or you give up and go with the methodological anarchism of a Feyerabend, who sees no difference at all between modern Physics and Astrology, or some kind of skepticism, be it classical skepticism, which affirms no possibility of knowledge of anything at all, or the Kantian alternative, which says science can be at best a very precise knowledge of our sensory input, but incapable of saying anything at all about this maybe existing thing that maybe multiple humans (supposing there are more than one) perceive as "the external world".

    I tend to switch between realism and kantism, but I concede the later is more rigorous. Too bad it causes everything we say about anything to necessarily become surrounded by double quotes.

I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve immortality through not dying. -- Woody Allen

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