This past week I took my 6th, 7th and 8th graders to the Alliance Redwood Outdoor Education Camp. It was a new experience for most of my students; many had never been away from home, their parents, or attended any kind of science camp. Several had never spent any time on the beach, so on the last day we went to Bodega Bay and enjoyed some tide pooling with our naturalist.
The students thoroughly enjoyed themselves and when we left, I had a couple of them tell me their favorite part was the tide pooling and spending time exploring and playing along the beach. We walked a mile or two and toward the end of our exploration, I noticed two people a ways off that seemed to be doing the same thing my students were. My class approached within 50 yards or so, and I was curious as to what they were doing. The woman was facing the sea, but did not enter the water. She was conversing with the older gentleman, who was intent on some rocks and seemed to be working on something.
I took a quick glance at my students, adult chaperones, and our naturalist to make sure all was in order. Everyone was chatting and tide pooling. I then walked over to the older couple to say hello. As I walked up, I was surprised to see he was actually drilling into the rocks and seemed to be placing some small orange markers on a rock covered with sea anemones. I stopped just a few feet away and was watching what he was doing. I asked the woman what he was doing. She was very friendly and had an Australian accent.
She explained that her friend David was marking the outer edges of the sea anemone’s colonies. I asked why, and she shared that they both work at a university in Australia, outside of Sydney. I don’t recall the name of the University, but she said they travel to other university’s and coordinate working with other scientists also studying sea anemones. Currently, David was on sabbatical and they were working with U.C. Davis. I introduced myself and shook her hand. I believe she said her name was Jean.
She told me that David has studied sea anemones for over 30 years, researching their habitats and behaviors on coastal areas all over the world – North America, South America, Japan, and of course Australia. She was very friendly and shared a bit more than I wanted to know, but I listened patiently, waiting for a moment to ask a question. Finally, she paused and I jumped in with a question that I thought she might be able to answer. I asked her, “After studying sea anemones for over 30 years, I have to ask if you have found any evidence on how life could have begun?” She smiled pleasantly, looking up, thinking, she was considering her response. I continued with, “I mean abiogenesis, life from non-life. After so many years of study, have you found any explanation for that?” She glanced at me again and seemed to be slightly embarrassed, still smiling. She said, “That would be a question for David. He is also a geneticist.”
A geneticist is a biologist who studies genetics. What is genetics? It is the study of heredity and genes. Genes, among other things, can explain why you are terrible at math, but excel at language arts, assuming it is not the teacher’s fault. 😉 Geneticists study microbiology, cell biology, chemistry, and have a solid understanding of how we inherit certain traits from our parents. Why our hair is straight, why our eyes are blue, why some are tall and others short, and why some, like me, don’t like chocolate, but prefer vanilla. As a boy, all my siblings would receive a chocolate Easter Bunny to enjoy, but mine was always white chocolate and I was amazed from an early age, how the Easter Bunny knew that I disliked chocolate.
She called out to David, “David, this gentlemen has a question for you!” He nodded, but kept working for a few moments. It was obvious he was trying to complete the task of marking the rocks. She explained to me while we waited that he was actually marking the sea anemones’ colonies. By marking the colonies, they are able to track their movement, which is slow, slower than a snail. In fact, some snails are predators for the sea anemones. I found that amusing and she could tell. She went on explaining that the sea anemones who were in the front of the colony were actually scouts, and those behind the scouts were warriors. The terms scouts and warriors perked me up, (I know, a typical male response), and I asked why they were named that. She said that as the colony moved, only 15 to 25 millimeters a month, (that is about an inch for the rest of us), the scouts determined if the new territory was worth their efforts. If any scouts were threatened by some snails, (I preferred the term Hunter Killer Snails, but kept that thought to myself), the warrior sea anemones actually threw out longer tentacles and attacked.
About the time I had visions of the under water Alamo, with a colony of sea anemones surrounded by General Santa Ana and his hunter killer snails, David finished his task. He walked up and was changing the bit on his drill when I said to him, “I understand you have been studying sea anemones for over 30 years.” He smiled and said, “Yes.” I continued, “Have you come across anything in your research that would explain abiogenesis? Have you seen any kind of observable evidence that would explain how life could have begun?” David replied, but I followed very little of what he said. He mentioned genes, divisions, population genetics, mutations, and explained how some sea anemone divide. He mentioned chemistry, biology, bacteria, fungi, and other organisms. He mentioned many things, but did not mention how abiogenesis could have taken place. I was going to ask again, pressing in with the question, but a student ran up to me asking me to look at what she found. I could tell my students were gathering around the naturalist for a chat and it was something I should be involved in. I thanked David and Jean for their time and said that I enjoyed the conversation.
When you talk to someone about evolution, it is important to define what exactly they mean by the term evolution. Evolution in its most basic sense means change over time. All we need to do is look around and we can see how things change over time. The second common definition of evolution is microevolution, or adaptation. Darwin’s famous finches are an example of microevolution. The common house sparrow that came to America in the mid 1800’s is another, with the larger bodied sparrow found in the colder climate in North America and the smaller in the South. We have thousands of examples of microevolution, which are commonly used as examples of macroevolution. The last definition, macroevolution, takes place over hundreds of millions of years. Molecules to man. So the question I was asking does not have to do with the process of evolution per se, but specifically how it could have begun.
How does the Darwinian evolutionist, the macro-evolutionist, explain the beginnings of life? How can you possibly get life from non-life?
When we gathered around our naturalist, she had the students share what they had discovered and found in the last hour or so. When they finished, she asked me what I learned from my conversation with the couple. I shared what they were doing, and then my question about evidence for abiogenesis in 30 plus years of studying sea anemones, and his lack of an answer.
Greg Koukl call it, “Putting a stone in their shoe.” Others may say, “I like to give them something to think about.” No matter what we call it, asking the question of abiogenesis to even the most dedicated and educated university evolutionary professors will result in a reply that should be listened to very carefully.