Let Darwinian Selection R.I.P.

RELATED STORIES: Peer Review or “Cycle of Submission”? and The Peer Review Prison

The science establishment could not hope for two more effective polemicists than Eugene Koonin and Dieter Braun to guard the Darwinian thought-style. But why would Koonin and Braun want to do so when they are on record (I’ve interviewed both at length) as skeptics of its metaphorical language? Nevertheless, a recently published PNAS paper in the pipeline for five months and edited by Koonin (an NAS member) about an experiment led by Braun (and funded in part by the Simons Foundation) is rife with antiquated Darwinian selection references, such as:  “Darwinian selection,” “naturally selected,” “some form of selection guiding single nucleotides,” “getting selected,” “fittest sequence,” “overall fitness,” “robust creation,” “survivor sequences,” “mass extinction” (partial list). 

What’s more the paper’s been hyped in the mainstream science media to suggest that Darwinian evolution began before life itself.  Titled: “Structured sequences emerge from random pool when replicated by templated ligation”, the first author is Patrick Kudella, a PhD student in Braun’s lab at Ludwig Maxmilian University, Munich.

The paper begins with this statement, which the science media has exploited in its headlines:

The structure of life emerged from randomness.  This is attributed to Darwinian evolution.

The PNAS abstract goes on to say: 

The findings showed that replication by random templated ligation from a random sequence input will lead to a highly structured, long, and nonrandom sequence pool.  This is a favorable starting point for a subsequent Darwinian evolution searching for higher catalytic functions in an RNA world scenario.

The question continues to burn:  Just who is The Selector? 

Braun et al. claim there is evidence of a “self-selector.” 

Frankly, the language of the paper is far too metaphorical and detracts from the experiment.

For the record—following are some of Dieter Braun’s comments from our 2017 interview on Origin of Life:

Biology isn’t about Darwinian evolution even if you just look at the cell as it is. Many solid, quantitative studies are now being done on this with serious modeling similar to, say, condensed matter physics. And if you look at how the cell evolves, how it varies, how extensive the mechanism is that’s going on—biology is relying increasingly on quantitative analysis.

And Eugene Koonin’s comments to me about Darwinian selection excerpted from our 2017 interview:

Perhaps making all these parallels between natural selection and artificial selection, the way Darwin does in his book, could be somewhat dangerous because in artificial selection there is someone who is selecting, even if unconsciously. In that respect, the evolutionary process is very different in nature where nothing is there to actually select. . . .No one in the mainstream scientific community now takes selection literally.”

Making the case for the dynamics of mechanobiology, Indiana University physical chemist Bogdan Dragnea has told me the following:

Regarding mechanobiology, there’s a great introduction to it from 2006 by Rob Phillips and Steven Quake in Physics Today.  It has a wonderful easy to grasp picture of how at the scale of biological organelles below 100 nanometers many phenomena have characteristic energies that converge there.

For instance, energies related to an electron confined to a box several nanometers in size.  Thermal energy.  Mechanical energy.  And chemical energy.  Especially those bonds that are prevalent within the molecules of life.  They all converge in magnitude at that spatial scale. There is cross-talk. 

This means you have the link between mechanics and thermodynamics and the link between thermodynamics and quantum mechanics and they all mix there in the region between 10 nanometers and 100 nanometers.  It’s that area, in particular, of mechanobiology that’s going to be extremely interesting and challenging because of the mixing of these scales.”—Bogdan Dragnea, Darwin Overthrown:  Hello Mechanobiology

And Karolina Spustova at the University of Oslo has recently demonstrated that it’s possible the protocell was a phospholipid,

such as found in meteorites reaching Earth, or synthesized on early Earth, and without molecular machinery spontaneously able to form specialized, “bubble-like” compartments and divide into daughter cells

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