February 18, 2006 | David F. Coppedge

Stupid Evolution Quote of the Week: Better Living Through Chemistry

Joel Achenbach (Washington Post) got a page in the March 2006 National Geographic.  His short piece on chemical evolution was juxtaposed (whether intentionally or not we do not know) against a news item on archaeology announcing the discovery of a new Dead Sea Scroll – the first found in 40 years – a fragment from Leviticus 23 on priestly ordinances for feasts and solemn assemblies unto the Lord.  Achenbach’s page could hardly contrast more starkly.  It is entitled, “The Origin of Life… Through Chemistry.”  For Achenbach, the Pentateuch is clearly not a contender as a source of answers to the big questions:

The emergence of life on Earth is on a short list of the biggest unknowns in science.  Did life begin in a small, warm pond at the edge of a primordial sea, as Charles Darwin speculated?  Or deep beneath that sea, around one of the burbling hydrothermal vents first seen in the 1970s?  And never mind the where: What was it, this initial germ of life?  Was it a cell?  A replicating molecule?   (Emphasis added in all quotes.)

By implication, only naturalistic, unguided explanations need apply.  Achenbach spent the page promoting the view of Harold Morowitz, Eric Smith and Robert Hazen that life originated not with a cell, RNA or DNA, but rather via metabolism – some self-perpetuating chemical cycle that needed no cell to grow and evolve.  Even though he admits this is a very controversial idea (and fails to mention it begs the question how a cell or genetic code could have co-opted a metabolic cycle to become a living cell), it didn’t stop him from launching into opinions about education, creationism, and the long philosophical debate over free will vs. determinism:

This is probably not what opponents of the teaching of evolution want to hear, but it seems that a kind of molecular natural selection applies even to the world of geochemistry.  Some types of molecular chains outcompeted [sic] other molecular chains for the planet’s resources, and gradually they led to [sic] the kind of molecules that life depends upon—and all this before the first living thing oozed forth [sic].  Many scientists say that life wasn’t a freak accident at all, but the likely outcome of the interaction of the molecules and minerals of the Earth.  “Life is an elaboration of something very simple,” says Smith.  “It looks easy and inevitable.

Hazen’s new book adapts the Biblical creation title, Ge•ne•sis, but with no spirit of God hovering over the surface of the waters.  Hazen emphasizes the idea of “emergence,” i.e., that “From simple beginnings, complexity can emerge.”  An example cited is that consciousness emerges from the collective activity of individual neurons.  Then comes Achenbach’s winning entry:

All of this is sure to be a matter of contentious debate for a long time.  But ours would not be so interesting a world if its ultimate secrets were easily discovered. It took us four billion years to evolve to a point where we could even begin the search. 

The cartoon illustration shows molecules combining, emerging upward, till one breaches the surface and looks like a rising sun, its beams spreading gloriously into a new sky.
    Achenbach’s entry is equaled or perhaps surpassed by a quote from James Shreeve in the article on DNA and human migration (p. 63): “What accounts for the ancient wanderlust?  Perhaps some kind of neurological mutation led to spoken language and made our ancestors fully modern, setting a small band on course to colonize the world.”

Achenbach’s page should be ridiculed, scoffed at, deplored and castigated on scientific grounds, let alone on grounds of philosophy, theology, or history.  Why is there no rebuttal?  Why do stupid ideas get free press in NG and most other pop-sci rags, even when any educated science writer should be aware of the extreme implausibility of the whole scenario?  Any kind of metabolic cycle that consumes all available resources is not going any further, even if geochemists find one (don’t hold your breath).  A chemical cycle is not a perpetual motion machine, and natural selection cannot be invoked for a system that does not yield progeny able to mutate.  Furthermore, it is virtually impossible that a genetic molecule would ever arise with a code matching this chemical cycle, let alone incorporate it into a membrane and discover the art of complete automated self-replication, even if it “wanted” to (which is against materialist rules to even imagine).
    “Emergence” is one of those miracle words in the naturalist dictionary.  Hazen talks glowingly about emergence in his lectures, but the examples he gives are really lame.  For inorganic processes, are you impressed by wave patterns in sand?.  All his examples in the living world, whether internet commerce or neurons producing consciousness, involve intelligence, or else logically beg the question whether naturalistic processes could have produced them.  In short, the whole theory of metabolism-first origin of life is fraught with extremely serious scientific and conceptual challenges.  The little bit of chemistry lab work done in support of it is irrelevant, because it is done under highly controlled conditions by intelligent design.  Metabolism-first is a fringe opinion among evolutionists themselves.  Its popularizers are in no position to start lecturing about determinism, human consciousness and the meaning of life.  We trust that any explanation of why the quote above wins SEQOTW is superfluous for our highly perceptive and intelligent readership.
    Scientific materialism became a fad in Germany in the mid-1800s.  Ludwig Feuerbach popularized the term “you are what you eat.”  Karl Vogt, Jakob Moleschott and Ludwig Büchner formed an “unholy trinity” of scientific materialists who promoted, with religious fervor, a radically naturalistic view of a universe consisting of nothing more than molecules in motion.  Their materialism was absolute and positivistic.  It included human rationality: Vogt wrote that “thoughts stand in the same relation to the brain as gall does to the liver and urine to the kidneys.”  They built their materialistic house on the assumptions that (1) life was simple (just one more natural arrangement of matter) and (2) natural laws in a clockwork universe rendered a Creator obsolete.  They also worked to promote a new view of scientific practice – methodological naturalism – i.e., working as if scientific materialism is true.  Like today’s evolutionary evangelists, they demanded surrender of all of philosophy and the humanities.  Worth noting, each of these men hated Christianity.  By young adulthood, having become enthralled by scientific laws, each went on a crusade to replace all religion with a “scientific” view of the world.  It was time, they preached, for mankind to grow up and get real.  Science had taught us to jettison all “superstitions” about God and a spiritual realm.  The only thing that existed was matter, obeying Newtonian-style force laws.  Mind was just an artifact, an “emergent property” of matter, a secretion of the brain.  (Historians note: Karl Marx was also caught up in this materialistic euphoria.)
    The science that fueled 19th century materialism can no longer hold up.  We know much more now about the fine-tuning of the universe and the extreme complexity of life.  We have discovered that living cells are not just bags of molecules obeying force laws, but programmed factories of molecular machines with incredibly rich libraries of coded information.  Though mind is clearly influenced by the brain, scientists still struggle to reduce consciousness and rationality to mere neurons.  Natural laws expressible in equations, the Newtonian dream of the materialists, have proved elusive in biology.  The “clockwork universe” of Laplace has given way to a statistical world, with uncertainties residing in the basic units of matter.  We have learned that positivism is self-refuting.  The hope of eternal progress has turned to vanity.  The vision of an eternal, steady state universe has been replaced by one with a sudden beginning and a slow, ignominious end.
    Notice that their assumptions and anti-religious sentiments preceded their “scientific” writings and popularizations of materialism.  The same assumptions and motivations still drive today’s evolutionary-science community, even though their castle was built on an obsolete early-19th-century conception of the world.  Meanwhile, the enforcement of methodological naturalism that came to dominate scientific practice after Darwin ensures they will never escape from their bonds.
    The present crop of scientific materialists, with their evident optimism and confidence in the eventual success of origin-of-life studies, should consider the bitter end of their path.  They should ponder the fact that depression afflicted many of the early scientific materialists.1  Büchner, the symbolic leader of the scientific materialism movement, expressed his personal feelings years after the publication of his immensely popular and influential materialistic gospel, Force and Matter.  His pessimistic conclusions must necessarily follow if Ge•ne•sis rather than Genesis is the true history of the world.  Extremely depressed and nearly suicidal, Büchner wrote under a pseudonym what he felt about life around the same time he was confidently preaching materialism in his book.  He reflected, “We are like dogs on a treadmill.  The glowing irons of life prod us to restless running without goal, until we fall dead from exhaustion in the grave we have made for ourselves.”2

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