August 15, 2005 | David F. Coppedge

Origin of Life Studies: Motion or Emotion?

Harvard is going to fund origin-of-life research to the tune of a million dollars a year, according to an AP release reported by LiveScience.com, MSNBC News and the Washington Post.  The goal is to reduce life’s origin to a “series of logical events that could have taken place with no divine intervention,” according to Harvard chemistry professor David Liu (emphasis added in all quotes).  Part of the motivation for this initiative appears to be a counterattack to recent advances by the intelligent design (ID) movement: MSNBC titled their copy, “Harvard jumps into evolution debate.”

Evolution is a fundamental scientific theory that species evolved over millions of years.  It has been standard in most public school science texts for decades but recently re-emerged in the spotlight as communities and some states debated whether school children should also be taught about creationism or intelligent design….
    Scientists say that intelligent design, unlike evolution, makes no scientific predictions and is not testable, and so it is not a scientific theoryScientists freely admit they don’t know everything, but they cite the history of figuring things out as evidence that mysteries do not imply divine, undecipherable solutions.
    Harvard has not been seen as a leader in origins of life research, but the university’s vast resources could change that perception.

Pro-evolutionists like Eugenie Scott have usually tried to keep the issue of the origin of life in the background, and treat it as a separate question.  ID isn’t letting the issue get lost in the shadows.  ID publications such as the popular film Unlocking the Mystery of Life are hoisting the issue into the limelight in order to point out the inadequacy of naturalism to account for life at its most fundamental level.  This may be spurring evolutionists to accelerate their efforts to show progress at most, or to look busy at least, so as not to concede an important piece of territory to their opponents.  They know that if ID persuades enough people that life required intelligence at the start for the first cell, then naturalism risks appearing inadequate or even superfluous for explaining the origin of birds, mammals, trees and all the rest by an unguided, mechanistic process of natural selection.  Though ID remains agnostic about identity or nature of the intelligent cause, to permit a Designer, God or undefined intelligence at any point would undermine the credibility of naturalistic science to explain the entire history of the universe without reference to divine intervention.
    One strategy is to downplay the difficulty of the problem or portray it in easy-to-visualize metaphorical language.  In a recent press release, for instance, the Geological Society of America suggested that meteor impacts might have “jump-started” life.  The evidence is strictly circumstantial: “It’s interesting to note, says [Gordon] Osinski [Canadian Space Agency], that on Earth the heaviest meteor bombardment of the planet happened at about the same time as life is believed to have started: around 3.8 billion years ago.”
    Another strategy is to claim partial success.  Three confident-looking young scientists appeared in a recent press release from University of Bath, with the title announcing, “Scientists crack 40-year-old DNA puzzle and point to ‘hot soup’ at the origin of life.”  Actually, all they did was hypothesize that life began with a two-letter DNA code, and subsequently graduated to a three-letter code when a larger vocabulary of amino acids became necessary.  Yet at the very time their model assumes the genetic code evolved naturally, the article points out that the genetic code possesses qualities generally characteristic of designed systems: translational integrity, robustness, optimization, and high fidelity:

The theory also explains how the structure of the genetic code maximises error tolerance.  For instance, ‘slippage’ in the translation process tends to produce another amino acid with the same characteristics, and explains why the DNA code is so good at maintaining its integrity.
    “This is important because these kinds of mistakes can be fatal for an organism,” said [Jean] Dr van den Elsen.  “None of the older theories can explain how this error tolerant structure might have arisen.”

It’s not likely that the opponents of evolution will be impressed by any of these three salvos, nor will retreat from pressing their case that evolutionary theory is bankrupt when accounting for the origin of life.

Not all motion is progress.  It might just be emotion, commotion, or self-promotion (04/22/2005, 04/11/2005).  Evolutionists are generating a lot of commotion these days trying to find life’s potion in the ocean, with unmixed devotion to the notion that natural causes can explain everything, even a Laotian.  Harvard argues that science has a history of solving problems without reference to divine intervention.  They think that by running faster they will get there eventually, but what if they are running in circles?  They think that by investing more money they will win, but what if the investment is a stock fraud?  They think that by digging faster they will find the buried treasure, but what if they have cordoned off from consideration the very spot on the island where the treasure map says it is buried?
    The claim that naturalism will figure it out eventually, because science has a long history of figuring out other mysterious phenomena, is a common argument from the naturalists, so let’s think about it a minute.  It sounds reasonable on the surface, but in essence, it is a belief based on extrapolation and analogy.  All experiments in chemical evolution for 75 years have failed; in fact; the situation is more hopeless now (follow the chain links on Origin of Life) than it was when Oparin, and even Charlie himself, first speculated about how the first cell might have come about in a soup of chemicals.  Obviously, a runner will never win if running backwards away from the finish line, nor will a dogsledder reach the north pole when the ice he is on is moving southward at a faster rate.  A look at history would appear to support the criticism that abiogenesis has nearly been falsified already, when Pasteur with his law of biogenesis disproved spontaneous generation.  Chemistry shows that molecules obey the laws of valence and mass action blindly without purpose or direction.  Physics shows that the laws of thermodynamics are inviolable (yes, even in open systems and those far from equilibrium), making systems tend toward disorder.  Information theory shows that communications are more likely corrupted by natural causes, like interference and static, rather than generated or improved.  Clearly, the burden of proof is on the evolutionist to overcome the hurdles erected by these robust laws of observational science.
    To persuade philosophers or logicians that the origin of life problem is tractable with reference to natural causes alone, evolutionists need to establish at the outset that it is in the same class of problem as explaining lightning or magnetism.  After all, these were considered occult forces by many in the past.  Magnetism, electricity and other examples of naturally-solved problems, however, exhibit a fundamental difference: they are observable in the present, and subject to testability and repeatability in the lab.  The origin of life, by contrast, was a one-time event that was not observed by humans; evolutionists admit this.  Even if biochemists find a way to coax molecules to self-assemble into some sort of self-replicating entity in the lab, they could never prove that’s the way it did happen on the early earth; they could only assert that something similar might have happened.  Opponents, however, will undoubtedly criticize any successes as due to investigator interference.  Coaxing molecules to self-assemble commits the self-refuting fallacy, because it applies intelligent selection to get results that were supposed to come about without help from intelligent design.  We’re being very magnanimous here.  Anyone who has followed the chemical evolution literature knows that biochemists face extremely daunting challenges, to put it mildly (see 02/20/2004 entry and online book).  Throwing money at the problem is likely to be as futile as gambling on a race horse that is blind, deaf and crippled next to the ID Seabiscuit.
    We know a lot more now about the gap between chemicals – RNA, lipids, sugars and minerals – and the most primitive living organism (02/15/2004).  We understand better the minimal requirements for life.  Even at a hypothetical level, evolutionists cannot realistically imagine considering anything alive that did not have, at the very least, a container, a metabolic system, and a genetic code – each of which is extremely problematical to obtain from plausible natural conditions (08/26/2003).  Moreover, the requirement for water (12/30/2003) and carbon is universally acknowledged, setting constraints on the environmental conditions, and few would dally with models that did not include RNA and DNA – both highly improbable to emerge or survive under natural conditions.  Then there’s the problem of homochirality (see online book), getting molecules to be all one-handed – and these are just samples on a long list of difficulties.  That’s why most of the hope stirred up in the heyday of Miller, Sagan, Ponnamperuma and others has been abandoned (except among TV animators) as reality has set in.  One well-known researcher recently admitted that the problems are almost enough to turn one into a creationist (11/05/2004).  Ribose, he said for instance – a basic ingredient of RNA (the evolutionists’ favorite starting molecule) – is hopelessly unstable except in a desert with boron keeping it from falling apart – yet most other researchers require RNA to be abundant in water when life formed.  Another said we need to start over with simpler hypothetical molecules because the ones we know don’t work; her own research showed that amino acids degrade with hours under solar radiation (01/28/2005, 05/18/2005), but the other argued that one cannot keep changing the basic molecules without causing other problems.  If the situation is so hopeless now, and getting worse, despite all the latest lab techniques, at what point will the chemical evolutionists decide that discretion is the better part of valor?  Dean Kenyon did, after all, and now embraces intelligent design as the only plausible explanation.
    The quest for the chemical evolution holy grail continues largely on the assumption that science must seek natural explanations for things (see quote by Lewontin).  But excluding intelligent causes by definition makes no sense in archaeology, forensics, cryptography and SETI, so why exclude them from biology?  The very same methods used in these other scientific activities can be used to infer design in a living cell.  Would it be reasonable to study the origin of Mt. Rushmore by first ruling out sculptors, and restricting one’s explanatory toolkit to wind and erosion?  The mountain is a “natural” phenomenon, in the sense of being made of rock, but the essence of the sculpture is not the rock but the design.  Similarly, the essence of a language is not the paper and ink, nor the electrons hitting your terminal screen, but the structure, syntax, and semantics of the message conveyed by an intelligent agent.  What is the difference with DNA?  DNA’s function is not derivable from the sugars, phosphates and nucleotides of which it is composed, but rather from the meaningful sequence of the bases.  The specific sequence cannot be predicted from first principles, yet it is not random, because it produces function.  Moreover, that information is translated by molecular interpreters from one language convention into another, entirely different code: the protein code of amino acids.  More astonishing, to guarantee the message is not garbled, the cell constantly monitors its information database with error-correction and editing machines.  This underscores the realization that DNA is, in fact, a language.  It’s not just a metaphor that scientists speak of DNA as the “language of life”– that’s really what it is.  The comparison to computer programming is even more apt.  The scientific literature is replete with references to molecular machines, functioning harmoniously in robust networks programmed by codes written on informational macromolecules; on top of everything else, it now appears that DNA is a code regulated by another level of information.
    The essence of life is information made flesh (06/25/2005).  Information is the calling card of intelligent design.  From our uniform experience, every coded language comes from a mind.  If natural causes did not produce the Morse Code, or ASCII, why should anyone assume they could have produced the DNA code?  It is futile to account only for the chemicals when information is the characteristic ingredient.  The logical approach to understanding a Rosetta Stone is not to examine the minerals in the substrate, or tell stories about how they might have coagulated into the shape of the stone with all its markings.  The logical approach is what Champollion did with the Rosetta Stone: decipher the message with the presupposition that an intelligent messenger, whoever it was, produced it with a purpose.  The only reason evolutionists abandon this approach in biology and reject the clear design inference is their philosophical bias.  The result is a vain trust in inadequate causes.
    The quest for a natural explanation of life’s origin is reminiscent of the contest between Elijah and the Baal worshipers on Mt. Carmel (see I Kings 18).  It would be interesting to see the expense report from the priests of Baal.  They certainly had the advantage of numbers, for one thing, and must have thrown a lot of resources and effort into the contest with Elijah.  Their efforts bear some similarity to today’s contest to get the fire of life started naturalistically, by force of hubris and commotion.  There’s the bluffing element: “we can do it without divine intervention.”  There’s the shotgun approach of trying a lot of different methods (02/06/2005).  There are the empty promises that they will figure it out in due time (futureware), or that it’s not that big a problem (sidestepping; see 08/05/2005).  All such tactics resemble the bravado of the priests of Baal.  On the defensive side, they can always fall back on the accusation that intelligent design is not science.  This equivocation is as arbitrary as if the priests of Baal were to disqualify Elijah’s method because it was not polytheistic.
    Elijah had a strategy of his own.  He let the priests of Baal do their best.  He gave them all day to shout, dance, pray, weep, cut themselves and collapse.  By sundown, after they were all bleeding and panting from their doomed efforts, Elijah calmly gave a simple invocation to the adequate cause.  The fire not only came instantly, it “consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood and the stones and the dust, and it licked up the water that was in the trench.”  This overkill demonstrated to everyone the contrast between adequate and inadequate causes.  That’s why the intelligent design movement doesn’t need to throw a million dollars a year, nor a large number of priests making a lot of racket, at the question of the origin of life.  It doesn’t need a consensus, and it doesn’t need compromise.  As an old preacher once said, “you and God make a majority in your community.”

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