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Coachwhip: I may not agree with your opinion but I respect your right to have it and as often is attributed to Voltaire, "will defend to the death your right to say it."
Thanks for the comments CF, I hope to have more equally in depth posts in the future.
Coachwhip: The origin of life is a very complicated area to look into. I do have to mention first though - a common misunderstanding is that evolutionary theory explains how life originated, it doesn't. It only deals with life and how it changes. The general "idea" about the origin of life has been termed abiogenesis. The work in this field is multidisciplinary with biochemists, geologists, geochemists, physicists, biologists and so forth. The field, however, is pretty small with only a handful of dedicated researchers as compared to many other research fields.
However, the basics of the origin of life as it stands now and to the best of my understanding is more about organic chemistry than anything else. The Earth around 3.8 billion years ago was very different - nearly void of much oxygen (our current atmosphere is only about 20%, we have an atmosphere of mostly nitrogen which is around 78%) with gases such as CO2 and CH4 (carbon dioxide and methane) in abundance. What it did have was basic organic building blocks in or near the oceans. The exact place of origin isn't known but many strong possibilities exist and all involve the ocean in some capacity. Many people have criticized the experiments carried out by Stanely Miller and some work with Harold Urey (Miller, 1953; Miller and Urey, 1959). What they did show is that simple amino acids can form under certain conditions. These experiments have been done repeatedly over the years with different configurations of gases, temperatures, pressures and so forth. Each one seems to produce basic organic molecules. I'll not get into the debate over chirality since that takes up a lot of time. One important molecule formed was the amino acid glycine which is achiral or having no optically active form. Other researchers found that amino acids can self assembly into small peptide chains (Huber and Wachtershauser, 1998).
From the formation of small chain peptides I'll jump to the formation of more complex structures such as DNA. DNA didn't appear suddenly, just as the other structures in the process it had its precursors. The most likely candidate was RNA, which has lead to one of the prominent ideas is abiogenic research - the "RNA World" hypothesis. RNA is unique in that it can store "information" like DNA but also catalyze reactions like a protein. Other areas into the origin of the first protocells have involved finding that lipid bilayers which make up the membrane of cells can self-assemble, the incoporation of autonomous "organisms" explains the presence of mitochondria and chloroplasts, research into particular chemical processes under different conditions of atmosphere, pressure and so forth have begun to bring us closer to elucidating how the first metabolic processes formed such as the citric acid cycle (more commonly known as the Krebs cycle).
There are still many, many unanswered questions - there always are in science. However, unlike much of what is found on the internet or relating to this research in popular media - there is substantial evidence to support an abiogenic origin of life.
A decent book on the subject came out in 2005 written by Robert Hazen. The book attempts to not be too heavy on the complex science and where it is necessary, he tries to explain it thoroughly. If you're interested about work in this field I recommend picking it up:
Hazen, R. (2005). Genesis: The Scientific Quest for Life's Origin. Washington, D.C.: Joseph Henry Press.
And here are the other references I cited in the paragraphs above:
Miller, S. (1953). A production of amino acids under possible primitive earth conditions. Science, 117, 528-529.
Miller, S. and Urey, H. (1959). Organic compound synthesis on the primitive earth. Science, 130, 245-251.
Huber, C. and Wächtershäuser, G. (1998). Peptides by activation of amino acids with CO on (Ni,Fe)S surfaces: Implications for the origin of life. Science, 281, 670-672.
Thank you for posting this. It's so refreshing to read a post that's so well-worded and thought out, and even backed up with references. I guess it doesn't hurt that I agree with your viewpoint, either, right? :-)
How ironic that I found this post today. I am almost through Alan Alda's second book, Things Overheard While Talking To Myself, in which he discusses various talks he's given over the years to graduating classes and the like. He gave a commencement speech to the Cal Tech graduates shortly after playing Richard Feynman in his self-written play QED (another physics genius my husband greatly admires), and he basically said the same thing as you in regards to the decline of science literacy here in the U.S. He sounds just as appalled by it as you. I, too, have noticed the same thing in recent years (mainly because my husband is a HUGE physics buff, and takes great steps to incorporate science and the scientific process into everyday life with our sons), but I was beginning to think that the "dumbing down" of America was just a figment of my imagination. Thank you for verifying that I'm NOT crazy. :-)