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Clay theory

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The Clay theory is an theory that the origin of life started with clay crystals replicating themselves with other biological molecules to help create organic life. The theory came from the book, Seven Clues to the Origin of Life written by the scientist, Alexander Graham Cairns-Smith.

Explanation of the Clay Theory

The clay theory is another hypothesis on the origin of life, which supports the evolutionary process of clay minerals mixing with biological molecules, like DNA. That would help start and create a replication process withe clay crystals and the biological molecules that would continue for a long period of time. Over time, the biological molecules evolved to the point where they learned how to replicate without the crystals and learned how to replicate without any help, which is called "a genetic takeover". This theory started because if you look at clay underneath a microscope, there are miniature crystals within clay. Also when you look within each crystal, there are atoms organized that have a pattern that repeats in tight and condensed arrangement. All the crystals can expand when water is laced together with and they have the same chemical substances. Since the crystals can also split apart, it can create a "mother" crystal, that can create multiple "daughter" crystals. All crystals aren't the same, so every crystal has its own distinctiveness, and that passes down to the daughter crystals. The cycle that clay crystals go through is very similar to the process of genetic mutation, which is the process that creates new traits in all living organisms. [1]

Problems with the Clay Theory

Although the idea of the clay theory is brilliant, spectacular and genius there are some problems with this theory. The biggest issue with the clay theory is that there are only a handful of experiments that you can do to test the theory. A theory needs to be able to be tested to the fullest potential and this theory has been around for 51 years, there should be a multitude of tests that should come with a theory. Another issue with this theory, is that the evolution from the mother crystal to the daughter crystal is too great. Bart Karr, a crystallographer, decided to test how the traits get passed on from the mother crystals to the daughter crystals. He decided to use potassium hydrogen phthalate instead of clay because clay crystals are lousy in Karr's eyes. When the results came out, it showed that the daughter cells had way more mutations than expected. If crystals were to evolve slowly over time, then the daughter crystal should have more inherited traits from the mother crystal, not mutated traits. [2]

Alexander Graham Cairns-Smith

Alexander Graham Cairns-Smith, the scientist who came up with the clay theory.

Alexander Graham Cairns-Smith was born on November 24, 1931 in Kilmarnock, East Ayrshire. His father was also born in Kilmarnock and his occupation was being a lawyer. He met his wife, Dorothy Anne Findlay, in 1962 at Glasgow University while she was working to complete a general studies degree. They have had three children, one being named Adam who died at the young age of 21, and two more daughters named Sarah and Emma. Not much is known about Alexander Graham Cairns-Smith's childhood, but a lot is known about his college years. Alexander Graham Cairns-Smith's first occupation or passion to start off with wasn't science, it was art, specifically painting. He was a very profound artist and many people could clearly see the talent that he had as well, but he eventually had to quit painting and became a scientist full time because it brought in more money for him to support his family. He was doing shows all by himself showing off his paintings, which some of them would end up in the Royal Scottish Academy. A famous Scottish painter at the time, William Crosbie, was teaching Cairns-Smith at the time and when Cairns-Smith decided to quit, his response wasn't pleasant. Cairns-Smith's wife explains that William Crosbie had been a ruthless person of sorts and had said, "He was a dour man and he sort of muttered, 'A pity you chose science'." His love for science eventually grew and led him to write, Seven Clues to the Origin of Life, which would later sell 40,000 copies and stirred the pot in science as a whole. Many scientists, including Richard Dawkins, have been inspired by Alexander Graham Cairns-Smith's work. He died on August 26, 2016 in Uplawmoor, East Renfrewshire. [3]


Video describes the Clay Theory.


  1. Henriques, Martha. The idea that life began as clay crystal is 50 years old BBC. Web. Last Updated August 30, 2016.
  2. Henriques, Martha. The idea that life began as clay crystal is 50 years old BBC. Web. Last Updated August 30, 2016.
  3. Unknown. Obituary: Alexander Cairns-Smith, scientist The Scotsman. Web. Last Updated September 20, 2016.