TELEVISION / How did it all begin?

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The Independent Culture
PROFESSOR Karl Stetter could have sprung from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. No surface was safe when it came to expounding his beliefs on the oh so sweet mystery of life's origins. Putting the manic back into Germanic, Herr Professor defaced the matte-black door of his office with dashing chalk strokes, all the better to explain how primitive heat-loving organisms of four and a half billion years ago survived the ocean floor to become thinking man. The sort of thinking man who would one day deface the matte-black door of his office explaining how primitive heat-loving organisms . . .

With or without chalk, Stetter was absolutely convincing. Unfortunately, so was Prof Stanley Miller and his primordial soup theory. Ditto Nasa's Dr Christopher Chyba and his interplanetary dust particles, Everett Shock's hydro- thermal vents, geochemist Remy Hennet's mineral bomb and Dr Graham Cairn-Smith's spontaneous RNA strand. The checklist went on - and on and on. What about the iron-sulphur equation as presented by amiable patent lawyer Gunter Wachtershauser? The 'attractive scenario of the ice impacting / melting event' of Prof Jeffrey Bada? Or all of the above?

Each expert practised eminent reason; camouflage, pure camouflage, like those white coats worn to signify both purity and detachment. The true, naked subject of Horizon: Life Is Impossible (BBC2 Monday) was obsession. John Lynch's film was too affectionate to be dubbed ironic, but it displayed a sense of humour - and laudable proportion - invariably lacking from the modern science documentary. The programme may have opened with raging storms, bubbling mud, billowing smoke and red showers of lava to stress that the biggest of the big questions was under consideration, yet Lynch immediately set about undercutting the premise while doling out the expected data on amino acids, DNA and 1,001 things to do with fossils.

One montage accorded each theory-pedlar a single sound-bite, artfully establishing the chorus of voices as fiercely competitive. Rivals' convictions were ruthlessly squashed. The convolutions of the aforementioned frozen-sea doctrine were seen off sharpish by the eloquent Stetter: 'It is always best to take the simplest way in science.' Prof Miller, who had led the field 40 years ago with his laboratory mixture of methane, ammonia, hydrogen and water, took evident pleasure in pouring cold primordial soup over all and sundry. The sneer was clear: 'That's what I call paper science.' Jump to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy as the Great Computer pronounced on man's quest for the ultimate answer: 'As long as you can keep violently disagreeing with one another and slagging each other off in the popular press, you can keep yourselves on the gravy train for life.'

The harshness of judgement was tempered by the scientists' infectious desire to communicate ideas. If they habitually disagreed, they also shared a boyish eagerness to reach out and touch somebody's head. In fact, as a group, they seemed almost a parody embodiment of the processes they imagined had created life; powerful conflicting pressures coming together, each needing the other to force the next stage of meaning.

Still, it took patent lawyer and 'outsider' Gunter Wachtershauser to point out the obvious - that when everyone agrees with an idea it's usually called a religion. And as Horizon proved, these days God has nothing to do with creation. Not when the evidence makes it easier to credit dumb luck.

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