Over at the Panda's Thumb, Nick Matzke weighs in on how scientists should respond to Creationist criticisms that we know nothing about abiogenesis - the origins of the first living systems from non-living systems. Matzke correctly says that the typical response is two-fold: scientists will say that a) sure, we don't know much about it, but we're working on it, and b) it has nothing to do with the main field of evolutionary biology. Matzke says that
It is high time all of these statements be discarded or highly modified. They are basically lazy, all-too-easy responses relying on hair-splitting technicalities or nearly philosophical assertions of the “even if the creationists were empirically correct on this point, which they aren’t but I’m too busy to back it up right now, it wouldn’t matter” variety. And the worst part is that these sorts of statements mis-describe the actual state of the science among the people who work in the field. It is simply not true that we, the scientific community, know almost nothing about the OOL (what an individual who spent a career working on fossils or fruit flies or speciation might know personally is a different question).
I agree with much of what Matzke has to say, but disagree with him that it's wrong for scientists to say that origins of life/abiogenesis research is a substantially different field from mainstream evolutionary biology. I don't think "splitting the OOL [origins of life research] from evolutionary theory, is only technically correct in a sort of legalistic, hairsplitting way." Here's why: almost nothing in mainstream evolutionary biology depends on theories of how the first bacterial cells appeared on earth. The validity of our current ideas about natural selection, genetic drift, phylogenetics, speciation, the evolutionary history of life for the last ~3 billion years, etc. - are not at all dependent on how life first arose. We could discover that God poofed those first cells into existence - it doesn't matter, the rest of evolutionary biology would be the same. I don't think that's being too legalistic. Matzke does come up with a good list about what researchers have learned about how life may have originated. He highlights some great research, but I would add one caveat: very little of that research tells us how life actually arose, instead it tells us how life might arise. This is even true of the RNA World idea: it's true that we've learned a great deal about the biochemical dexterity of RNA, and we know that in some of the most ancient cellular machines (like ribosomes), RNA is the catalytic molecule. The RNA world hypothesis is plausible (with many details still uncertain), but proving that there actually was an RNA World on this planet is something science may never be able to do. We may some day learn how to create life from scratch (this is an active area of research), and we may have many well developed scientific explanations for how life could arise, but I doubt that we'll be able to show in any detail how life did arise on this planet, at least not with the same standards of evidence we expect in other fields. UPDATE: I'm just getting back from a long time on the road, so I missed Ryan Gregory's thoughts on this issue over at Genomicron - those thoughts are well worth reading.