Book: 'Genesis: The Scientific Quest for Life's Origins'

Robert M. Hazen
Author/Carnegie Institute of Washington
Thursday, February 16, 2006 12:00 PM

Robert M. Hazen of the Carnegie Institute of Washington was online Thursday, Feb. 16, at noon ET to discuss his book, "Genesis: The Scientific Quest for Life's Origins," which examines the debate between scientists over theories on the origin of life. Hazen believes the emergence of life was the result of extremely complex natural events occurring over a period of time. Hazen, who opposes the theory of Intelligent Design, follows the work of scientists around the world who are grappling with this enduring and controversial question.

Read Joel Achenbach 's review in The Post: The Origin of Life? All in a Day's Work , ( Post, Jan. 8, 2006 )

The transcript follows.


Washington, D.C.: Do you believe it is possible for scientists to reconcile their belief in evolution with a deeper, spiritual commitment to religion? Do you personally grapple with this? Or are the two just incompatible? If not, how do you find that they peacefully coexist in your life?

Robert M. Hazen: See reply 8. I certainly grapple with this, and have concluded that science (especially the new science of emergent complexity) can increase one's faith in a universe with purpose and meaning. The universe inexorably transforms from simplicity to complexity, and we are part of that emergence. I find that scenario much more compelling than a creator who must continually intervene, replacing extinct forms with new "better" ones.


Washington, D.C.: Is water required for all life forms?

Robert M. Hazen: As far as we know, yes, though some scientists think that ammonia might be an alternative medium. Check out the Web site of Prof. Steve Benner in Florida for some interesting ideas about alternate life chemistries.


Upper Marlboro, Md.: Did life begin in one particular spot, on one particular day and go from there to sprout the variety of life we see on Earth today? Or did the chemical reactions you refer to in your book take place in many ways in many places? What is the most likely scenario?

Robert M. Hazen: Great question! We think the chemical processes took place in many places at many times, but ultimately one self-replicating system of chemicals was more efficient, more robust, and more successful and so it survived as the sole remaining "proto-lifeform".


Washington, D.C.: How have scientists changed their perspective on evolution since Darwin first proposed the idea? Do most of them pretty much agree with Darwin's original assessments or has the idea of evolution itself evolved in significant ways over time?

Robert M. Hazen: That's my next book!!! There are many areas of Darwin's theory that have undergone modification, and other aspects that are under debate and discussion. For one thing, Darwin didn't know about genetics, so now we have a physical mechanism for variation and change. But the fossil record (which Darwin argued is too incomplete) actually shows long periods of stasis (no change) in some species, followed by very rapid change (punctuation). Darwin argued for steady, gradual change, and that's not always what we see. The biggest gaps in our understanding of evolution concern what's known as "macroevolution." Ironically, those gaps are the most exciting aspect of the science of evolution, yet they are also the easiest targets for anti-evolutionists.


Alexandria, Va.: How can you not believe that we were created? Life is not a bunch of coincidental mishaps. Science has in no way proven that these mishaps created life. Look at how perfectly everything was created. "Out of nothing, nothing comes."

Robert M. Hazen: Science can neither prove nor disprove the claims of intelligent design, because ID relies on a miraculous process -- by definition outside what science can answer. All we can do is go to the lab and look for a natural, lawful sequence of emergent steps that led from geochemistry to biochemistry. That's the fun part!


Boise, Idaho: I'm taking Physical Anthropology and am wondering about the extraction and sequencing of mitochondrial DNA -mtDNA from Neanderthal remains about ten years ago. Has anyone been able to sequence mtDNA from Homo Sapiens Sapiens contemporary with these specimens? How much of the Neandertal genome do we now know? hanks much.

Robert M. Hazen: I know people are looking into this but I'm not an expert. It's hard to preserve DNA for 10's of thousands of years, but maybe in a frozen bog? ... Good question to do more research on.


Washington, D.C.: Perhaps this is beyond the realm of science, but I'm curious whether your amazing work into life's origins has led you to any insights, personal or otherwise, regarding the diversity of life as it exists today?

Robert M. Hazen: Excellent question! My work is on "chemical evolution", whereas the diversity of life today relies on "biological evolution." I think both processes are influenced by emergent complexity, so they are related in that way, but biological evolution is accelerated by competition.


Washington, D.C.: Can scientists of a particular train of though really declare victory in this debate? It seems that our understanding of events that took place so long ago is limited enough to leave room for debate. There seems to be a great deal of arrogance on the part of opponents of ID, but it has never been concretely disproven.

Robert M. Hazen: No, we can't claim victory, nor can we ever be sure of the answer. That's the nature of the scientific process. We can gradually eliminate impossible scenarios, and point to more probable scenarios, but we can't ever disprove ID for example. That's exactly why ID isn't science! It relies on faith, which is a completely different epistemology. This doesn't mean that science fails; I firmly believe that we keep getting closer to some truth. And I also think that this is the ONLY way to get closer to the truth, at least if the origin of life is a natural lawful process.


Baltimore, Md.: Does modern science propose a universe without meaning or purpose?

Robert M. Hazen: Science can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God, nor can it establish whether the universe is imbued with meaning and purpose. Yet the recent discoveries in the field of emergence reveal a universe that inevitably, inexorably progresses from simplicity to complexity.

Hydrogen, the simplest of all the chemical elements, formed in abundance shortly after the Big Bang origin of the universe. Those hydrogen atoms inevitably formed stars, which soon synthesized the periodic table's full complement of chemical elements. These chemical elements, in turn, led to the emergence of Earth-like planets, and from such planets life, too, arose in all its diversity. And perhaps, given living planets and sufficient time, consciousness and self-awareness are also likely consequences of emergent complexity in a universe that is learning to know itself.

Evolution by natural selection plays a central role in that emergent complexity. In a universe with a hundred billion galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of stars, we humans may be seen not as an improbable quirk of fate, but rather as an integral part of the inexorable cosmic progression from simplicity to complexity.

And so there need not be a conflict between science and faith. Indeed, if one wishes to truly understand the creator, perhaps the best place to start is to understand creation.


Bethesda, Md.: If human life is a product of evolution, does life continue to evolve? If so, in the future will species be different?

Robert M. Hazen: Life certainly continues to evolve, and we can't be sure that we won't go extinct some day. It could be a catastrophe (like the asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs) or a plague or something we do to ourselves. The process of evolution hasn't stopped. A related question that faces society is whether we might be entering a new age of engineered evolution with genetic engineering. That's a real possibility, and raises lots of ethical issues.

Robert M. Hazen: Life certainly continues to evolve, and we can't be sure that we won't go extinct some day. It could be a catastrophe (like the asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs) or a plague or something we do to ourselves. The process of evolution hasn't stopped. A related question that faces society is whether we might be entering a new age of engineered evolution with genetic engineering. That's a real possibility, and raises lots of ethical issues.


Arlington, Va.: Does the scientific research into the origin of life require faith?

Robert M. Hazen: See 8 and 17. Science does not require faith, except that observations and measurements have meaning and reveal something that is "true." Science (but not scientists) MUST remain agnostic on the question of God's existence and the meaning of the universe. We should leave those question to theology. In this sense science is VERY limited in what it can do and say about origins. We can only deal with the (rather trivial?) details of chemistry.


Arlington, Va.: I know you address this in your book, but can you elaborate here on what kind of dialogue there is between scientists and researchers who agree/disagree? For example do you interact with proponents of ID at conferences? I am just wondering how much debate takes place on an interactive level, vs. in publication. Thank you.

Robert M. Hazen: Thanks for the question. I think it's vitally important for scientists to interact with supporters of ID, creationism, and most importantly the people "in the middle" who gain understanding from both science and religion. There are many forums for this kind of exchange. At George mason University there's a chapter of IDEA; the AAAS in downtown DC has regular lectures in their program of "Dialogs on Science, Ethics and Religion; there are lots of public lectures, too, including a number I've done at seminaries. The key is to talk about different ways of knowing; the advantages and limits of science and religion, for example. I firmly believe that both domains are important and both can coexist (and the vast majority of theologians agree).


Tampa, Fla.: Has the "Intelligent" Design movement attacked you yet? If not, why not? Seems you're a logical target. Saying life came into being as a result of mere chemical reactions seems much more contradictory of fundamentalist pseudo-Christianity than Darwin's thesis.

Robert M. Hazen: It turns out, ironically, that many in the ID movement like my book because I admit how much is yet to be learned about origins. I also claim that the scientific approach, going into the lab and doing experiments, is the best way to "close the gaps" and show ID's claim of "irreducible complexity" is wrong. But we're far enough away from having all the answers that I think ID proponents take some comfort in the way I approach the subject. I'll say again though, that the big gaps in our understanding are the most fun for science.


Southern Maryland: Why do you think so many people regard the origin of life as a religious question instead of a scientific one? In my view, religion is more about the purpose of life, which is a matter of personal faith. I don't think life's purpose and life's origins have much to do with one another. That's why I'm uncomfortable with "intelligent design" - it tries to scientifically prove the unprovable, and tries to pass off religious dogma as scientific truth.

Robert M. Hazen: Excellent question, and one about which a lot has been written. My sense is that the common interpretation of theories of origins and evolution are taken to imply that humans are a chance and random product of cold, impersonal chemical and physical laws. How can we be "created in God's image" if it's a random process.

I don't see it that way. One can argue that emergent complexity leads inevitably to life and thought, and that (given hundreds of billions of stars in a hundred billion galaxies), humans were also inevitable.

But I agree that ID is a religious, not a scientific, answer.


Alexandria, Va.: How would you boil down your overarching theory in a sentence or so? It is very complex but what is your basic belief on life's origins?

Robert M. Hazen: The origin of life was an inevitable process of emergent complexity -- a transition from the geochemical simplicity of oceans, atmosphere, and rocks, to the biochemical complexity of the first cell.


Arlington, Va.: In a nutshell, why do you oppose the theory of intelligent design?

Robert M. Hazen: ID is not science, because it relies on a supernatural intervention -- a process that by definition cannot be falsified by the methods of science. Science can neither prove nor disprove ID, any more than we can prove or disprove that Stonehenge was built by intelligent aliens. If we can show a simpler, natural process that leads from simplicity to complexity, then I prefer to adopt that simpler explanation. Also, I see a real flaw in resorting to a designer who who continual replace failed species and has to "tinker" if you will. I'm much more persuaded by a creator who gets it right from the start.


Washington, D.C.: Besides humans, what do you consider the most advanced form of life?

Robert M. Hazen: I'm not an expert in this, but I suppose the "most advanced" forms are those with the greatest complexity, and that means the most advanced brains. Dolphins, whales, octopi, and some birds are among these animals. But all living cells are vastly more complex than any nonliving system.


Washington, D.C.: How important do you think it is or is not for humans to try to conserve the Earth's current biological diversity?

Robert M. Hazen: I can't answer this question as a researcher, since it's outside my field or expertise, but it seems to me that conservation of any kind is important. Once a species goes extinct, it's going to be tough to bring it back (though new genetic technologies may some day allow us to bring back extinct species and invent new ones -- there's an ethical minefield!) Nevertheless, every species that goes extinct takes with it unique combinations of chemicals, and may have trickle down adverse effects of ecosystems.


Laurel, Md.: In what ways are the environmental conditions on Venus and Mars different from Earth that life did not start on them?

Robert M. Hazen: Excellent question. Venus has always been too hot, I think, and we suspect that life could not get started above the boiling point of water.

Mars, on the other hand, had a quite habitable environment during its first billion years or so, so life may have arisen there before Earth. In fact, life may have been transferred from Mars to Earth (as the result of a meteor impact) and thus we were seeded. This is very seriously considered by planetary scientists; we may all be Martians!


New York, N.Y.: It seems that religion is playing more and more of a role in policy decisions that affect our lives and the lives of our kids. Do you see a trend lately of the theory of ID growing in popularity?

Robert M. Hazen: ID is a very old idea, dating back to the ancient Greeks, but it is growing in popularity today I think because it seems to provide a scientific basis for creationism. In fact, ID isn't science because it doesn't meet the minimum requirement of science that it is falsifiable. ID relies on an unseen, supernatural designer. Science can't disprove that idea, so ID is outside the realm of science. All science can do is try to demonstrate a natural, lawful process that leads from simplicity to complexity. That's the theme of my book.


Bowie, Md.: One of ID proponents favorite arguments has been "irreducible complexity." (For readers: Take the human eye. It's difficult to imagine what benefits it would have enabled until it reached a fairly developed form -- so what original biological accident might have caused the most primitive kind of "pre-eye" to convey a biological advantage.")

Do scientists have a good idea of what the most primitive forms of our eyes, livers and kidneys might have been and how they reached their current form?

Robert M. Hazen: I'm not an expert on livers and kidneys, but there's a great study on eye evolution [Google "Nilsson and Pelger"] that shows a stepwise progression from simplicity to complexity. It answers the old question "of what use is half an eye?"


Washington, D.C.: It seems that the current debate about ID vs. evolution is primarily concentrated in the U.S. and has not reached the same intensity in other Western countries (if the debate is taking place in Europe at all). Is this so? If so, in your opinion, what explains the emotional character of the debate here in the States?

Robert M. Hazen: Good question! I'm not sure, but have thoughts. For one thing, our government (and public education) is much more restricted here regarding separation of church and state. Might that institutionalize a false dichotomy between church and state? There is also a much stronger fundamentalist movement in the US, and evolution has long been viewed as an enemy to a literal Biblical interpretation. But I'd be interested in other points of  view on this!


Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: Did we all decide and agree on where consciousness starts?

Cell level?

Molecular level?




Without consciousness, life is just another four letter word.

BTW: Consciousness might just be an organizing principle. Life, just the software it runs.

Thanks much.

Robert M. Hazen: Consciousness is really a tough problem. What exactly is it? How do you measure it? I think those questions may be a bit beyond science today. But I think it has to be a collective emergent property of trillions of interconnected cells.


Washington, D.C.: My apologies, I haven't read your book, but my question is - what IS the conflict between Genesis and evolution? Is it because people believe Genesis literally (1 day = 24 hours)? I'm not particularly religious, but if I was a big Bible-thumper I'd see our scientific evidence as proof that the guys who wrote Genesis had it about right. I personally think the Bible is a collection of stories, combining history and fables and an attempt to explain our world. The attempt at explaining the origin of our world seems about right, as far as we know:

(This, of course, all depends on which version you read...)

Day 1 - Light. The sun formed. Okay.

Day 2 - Sky/heaven/separation/earth. Hard to interpret, but sounds like the earth forms as a separate entity and starts revolving around the sun.

Day 3 - Water and plants. Water forms on earth, and plants grow. Alrighty.

Day 4 - Stars and moon. The moon shows up, revolves around the earth. The timing is iffy here, but it's a good guess.

Day 5 - Animals. We have water, plants, tides, atmosphere, etc, then the animals evolve. So far, so good.

Day 6 - Humans. Yep.

Day 7 - Rest. Seems about right, not much has happened in the grand scheme of things since us humans came about.

Am I entirely off-base about the similarities? So what's the big conflict? Whether or not there's a God who causes all this stuff to happen? Doesn't seem like a scientific question to me...

Robert M. Hazen: I am not a Biblical scholar, but have talked to experts and read their articles. I see at least a couple of problems in any attempt to reconcile the scientific model and a literal interpretation. First, there are two quite different chronologies in Genesis 1 and 2. Second, the modern Bible is a translation of a translation of an often ambiguous text by multiple authors. So I don't even try to do this. I see Biblical Genesis as a wonderful metaphor.


Fairfax, Va.: Cause and Effect: The universe was created. That was the effect. The cause is intelligent design, a creator. As simple as that. having said that, it belongs in Sunday school, not in a science classroom. But I do think that the THEORY of evolution should stopped being pushed as the fact of evolution. I had to change my major from anthropology to philosophy over this back in college because I kept bringing up the "missing link" argument to explain why I did not believe that evolution explained how I came from a caveman.

Robert M. Hazen: Thanks for the comment. Science seeks to explain "how" while religion seeks to explain "why" and perhaps "how". As to the "theory of evolution," it is a model that makes innumerable very specific predictions and it is still being examined and tested. You're correct that there are many large gaps in what we know. But many of those gaps are getting smaller, so I don't put my faith there. But, as I've say over and over again, science cannot disprove ID because ID relies on an unseen creator -- a phenomenon outside the domain of science.


Munich, Germany: I've read that many scientists believe that this period on earth will be defined by the extinction of a large number of species. This sounds like the opposite of the Cambrian Explosion, when a multitude of new life forms came into existence.

What is your thought about the preservation of species? Should we try to keep as many endangered species alive as possible, or is there a time when a scientists thinks that you have to left evolution and nature take its course?

Robert M. Hazen: Fascinating question! The current human-driven mass extinction is a big concern. Every species lost is also a lost opportunity to learn about a unique organism and possibly benefit from unique chemistry. But I don't think the Cambrian explosion is the opposite; the Cambrian explosion marks a point in time when hard shells became common, but that doesn't mean there wasn't diversity before then. Also the "explosion" took many millions of years, while the current extinctions are occurring yearly. There have been real increases in diversity following every major extinction event in the past.


Gaithersburg, Md.: Within certain totalitarian philosophies like Nazism, it was widely believed that eugenics was necessary because humans had advanced so much that we are reversing the gains of evolution. There's little question today, for instance, that the more intelligent a woman is, the fewer children she's likely to have because her education and the beginning of her career end up superceding her childbearing years.

Advanced societies like America, Japan and Western Europe don't replace their own population and end up importing people from less advanced areas like Latin America, India and the Middle East.

Are we in danger of turning the corner on evolution?

Robert M. Hazen: I'm very uncomfortable with this question. I see no evidence of "less advanced countries" having any disadvantage other than poverty, disease, malnourishment, and conflict. I'd replace "more intelligent" with "luckier".


Naples, Fla.: Evolutionary changes are usually a response to environmental changes. Since humans have very effectively taken control of our environment is there a long enough base line to see which way we are taking ourselves? I am thinking of things like, a narrow pelvis was vary frequently fatal in child birth and now in a large part of the world is not.

Robert M. Hazen: I think of advanced medicine as part of the human evolutionary process, so we are indeed continuing to evolve as a species. What you refer to, I think, is a change in selection pressures (if almost every individual survives to produce more offspring, then Darwin's mechanism no longer applies -- until bird flu, or some other pandemic!)


Bowie, Md.: This probably isn't your field, but historically has the literal belief in the creation stories of holy texts the norm in advanced societies? Did the most educated Greeks and Romans really think Cronus created the earth?

Robert M. Hazen: I don't know. However, I'm pretty sure that most people over the last 5,000 years have believed in a creator of the heavens and Earth, though I don't know how literally they took any given text. It's only with modern science and the [admittedly slow] closing of the gaps in our understanding of origins and evolution that the alternative view has taken hold.


Los Angeles, Calif.: What puzzles me is the actual mechanism of evolution. We know, for example, that natural selection plays a part, but so does iRNA and similar mechanisms which seem to be able to turn on and off specific genes.

Doesn't all this point to a more "interactive" and sophisticated system, with some genes being able to adapt more quickly based on some genetic "awareness", or ability to adapt, to changes in the environment?

Robert M. Hazen: We need to get an expert in genetics and evolution here! A major thrust of modern evolution research is the rate and nature of genetic changes, and how they are propagated through a population. Certainly some changes (certain base-pair swaps, for example) are more likely. But evolution ALWAYS requires some kind of selection, and most experts argue that the  selection can only take place at the level of individuals. Either you survive to reproduce, or you don't.


Cloud 9: Someone offered: out of nothing, comes nothing. So where did something come from that designed all this? We cannot answer that and may never. It is the mystery at the basis of religion and mysticism.

Robert M. Hazen: Some questions are beyond the domain of science,

and that's one of them. Science can only deal with

the rather limited domain of subjects we can

observe, measure, and study by reproducible



Clifton, Va.: What force do you advocate offsets entropy in evolving from simplicity to complexity?

(I'm a devout Christian who believes passionately in science and in keeping religion out of scientific debate - which means hoping atheists scientists don't similarly mock the faithful!)

Robert M. Hazen: This is a very important aspect of emergent complexity. The LOCAL increase in order is offset by the flow of energy through the system and the resultant global increase in entropy. It's the same in principle how you can make highly ordered ice cubes in your refrigerator in summertime. You have to supply energy from the putside. By the way, I too gain understanding from both science and religion. They complement each other and enrich our lives.


Clifton, Va.: Regarding human's continued evolution, perhaps it was from sci-fi I heard the notion that because we now devise tools, our physiognomy will no longer change - we change the environment around us! Your thoughts?

Robert M. Hazen: I don't know. Humans are certainly still subject to selection (for example, if a bird flu pandemic hits). But I think it more likely that we'll enter an era of engineered evolution through genetic manipulation. Lots of ethical concerns there!


Washington, D.C.: You had mentioned this at your Smithsonian talk last month, but could you elaborate a little bit on the one line of research you mentioned. I believe it had to do with the possibility of organic compounds forming into chains on the outside of certain inorganic "stacked" compounds which when stripped away may have ultimately resulted in RNA? I'm probably way off here, but from what I remember, the idea seemed pretty interesting.

Robert M. Hazen: What you remember is my discussion of the "PAH world" hypothesis of Nick Platts (it's chapter 17 of my book "Genesis"). The idea is that one set of common molecules self-organizes into a stack, which then serves as a template for a DNA-like molecule to form. No experimental work yet, but that's coming I hope.


Washington, D.C.: Thanks so much for the opportunity to "chat" with you! It's not every day one gets to rub elbows with a world-class scientist doing such important, interesting work. Besides being so stimulating, as an environmental professional I found it very inspiring.

Robert M. Hazen: My pleasure -- great questions!


Re: Genesis: "translation of a translation of a translation" - Exactly. Thank you.

Robert M. Hazen: .


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