Vol.30 No.1 March 2006
The origins of research into the origins of life
The Cohn Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Ideas, Tel AvivUniversity, Tel Aviv 69978, Israel
Most scientists at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century chose to ignore the question of the origin of life on Earth, regarding it as too mysteriousand complex to handle. Yet, in the early 1950s an experimental ﬁeld devoted to the study of the problem made its ﬁrst steps. The pioneering theories of several scientists in the ﬁrst decades of the 20thcentury played a major role in this transformation, notably those of the Russian biochemist Alexander I. Oparin and the British geneticist and biochemist J.B.S. Haldane. The ideas of the lesser-knownAmerican psycho-physiologist Leonard Troland also made a signiﬁcant contribution to subsequent developments in origin-of-life research. Therefore, it is well worth taking a look at the professional,philosophical and ideological commitments that shaped the approaches of the three scientists to origin-of-life research. Introduction In the fall of 1951, Stanley Miller, a young doctoral student atthe University of Chicago, was fascinated and inspired by a lecture delivered by the Nobel Laureate physicist and chemist, Harold Urey. In his lecture, Urey discussed physical and chemical conditionsthat might have existed on the primordial Earth, and their potential relevance to the emergence of life. Miller convinced Urey to let him try his hand at experimentally simulating these conditions. InMiller’s simulated primordial atmosphere and ocean, contained in a glass apparatus that he designed with Urey, the synthesis of organic molecules, mainly amino acids – the building blocks of proteins,was experimentally demonstrated for the ﬁrst time in the spring of 1953. The Miller–Urey experiment and many others that followed in the 1950s and 1960s led to the creation of an experimental...