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Speculations on the origins of life and Haldane's 3 theorems


The probability of creating life in a laboratory
John Maynard Smith Scientist
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[Q] Is it possible that life is such a rare phenomenon in the universe as a whole that the kind of chemical event we're looking for is too improbable that we should ever expect to see it duplicated in the laboratory?

If I can quote somebody I quoted earlier: 'It is logically possible, but it would be very inelegant.' I mean, I would hate to think that some wildly unlikely event had to come across. At the moment, I see no reason. Things don't seem to be going that way. I mean, things are going very nicely, thank you, I think, in the origin of life problem, I mean, we're getting closer and closer. We don't seem to be up against an impasse that we can make no progress with. Maybe we'll hit one, but at the moment, I should say, things are looking relatively...

[Q] 'But if it's that easy, where are they?' to quote Fermi.

You mean, up there somewhere, but why haven't they come?

[Q] Why haven't they come?

Well, there's a rather sick reason, that life is fine until you get the evolution of an intelligent, tool-making organism, and then it blows itself up. And they're not here because, although they evolved, they destroyed themselves as soon as they reached our stage. I'd prefer not to believe that either, I think. It is a little puzzling that we haven't picked up information, even if we have, you know, one might expect in the... all this radiation that's surrounding us, be able to pick up a message of some kind. Disappointing.

The late British biologist John Maynard Smith (1920-2004) is famous for applying game theory to the study of natural selection. At Eton College, inspired by the work of old Etonian JBS Haldane, Maynard Smith developed an interest in Darwinian evolutionary theory and mathematics. Then he entered University College London (UCL) to study fruit fly genetics under Haldane. In 1973 Maynard Smith formalised a central concept in game theory called the evolutionarily stable strategy (ESS). His ideas, presented in books such as 'Evolution and the Theory of Games', were enormously influential and led to a more rigorous scientific analysis and understanding of interactions between living things.

Listeners: Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins was educated at Oxford University and has taught zoology at the universities of California and Oxford. He is a fellow of New College, Oxford and the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. Dawkins is one of the leading thinkers in modern evolutionary biology. He is also one of the best read and most popular writers on the subject: his books about evolution and science include "The Selfish Gene", "The Extended Phenotype", "The Blind Watchmaker", "River Out of Eden", "Climbing Mount Improbable", and most recently, "Unweaving the Rainbow".

Tags: life, aliens, extraterrestrials

Duration: 1 minute, 30 seconds

Date story recorded: April 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008