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Harvard goes hunting for life's origins

Causes a ruckus, stateside

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Harvard University has set aside an annual million dollar budget for research into the origins of life. The project will bring together physicists, chemists and biologists to take a multi-disciplinary approach to unraveling exactly how life arose on Earth.

Creationists and proponents of the "intelligent design" hypothesis in the US have said the move demonstrates the science of evolution is far from proven, and have renewed calls in the US for alternatives to evolution to be taught in science classes.

"This is ... a stunning admission that the current theories do not explain [the origin of life], and [have] not refuted the idea that things are the product of intelligent cause," John West, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, a thinktank that backs intelligent design, told Reuters.

It is probably worth noting here that West holds no scientific qualifications. He has a PhD in Government from Claremont Graduate University and a BA in Communications from the University of Washington.

Intelligent design holds that life and its origins are too complex to have come about through natural selection alone. The US president has given his backing to the school of thought, but others in the States argue that it would be letting religion into science classes by the back door.

The university has dismissed suggestions that it is involving itself in the political row, instead focussing on what it expects to learn from its research.

David R. Liu, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Harvard, is quoted widely as saying: "My expectation is that we will be able to reduce this to a very simple series of logical events that could have taken place with no divine intervention."

Meanwhile B D Colen, a spokesman for the university, told The Guardian that the project was not a response to any political or public debate: "The origins of life in the universe initiative was started several years ago before questions about the existence or non-existence of some kind of intelligent design became part of the national debate.

"This is a long-term purely scientific exercise looking at questions about the basic chemical molecular beginnings of life," he said. ®

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