November 29, 2007 | David F. Coppedge

Magicians through the Looking Glass

A leading origin-of-life researcher passed away last month: Leslie Orgel.  Gerald Joyce paid him tribute in Nature.1  Orgel worked closely with other famous origin-of-life people like Stanley Miller, and was a leader in the “RNA world” scenario for the origin of life.  Joyce appreciated his rigid empiricism:

Although Orgel was a theoretician, he always demanded that theory be subject to rigorous experimental validation.  This, he felt, was especially true in the field of the origins of life, where “theories are a dime a dozen and facts are in short supply”.  He took great pleasure in a positive result, to the point of rooting for the pen on a graph-plotter during chromatography experiments.  But he also delighted in negative results, because they pushed him to devise new hypotheses.  This, of course, is the way scientists are supposed to behave, but Orgel was one of the few who actually did so.

Joyce found it refreshing that Orgel would readily criticize his own favorite hypothesis:

Following the discovery of catalytic RNA, Orgel continued to pursue the RNA-world hypothesis as both a strong proponent and a tough critic.  He pointed out that the notion of an RNA world hardly solves the problem of the origins of life, and suggested that RNA was preceded by some other genetic material, just as DNA and protein were preceded by RNA.  Many of his later publications concerned experimental studies of possible pre-RNA-world molecules.

At this point, Joyce took a swipe at another group of critics of origin-of-life theories:

His theories brought him into conflict with creationists, who sometimes quoted Orgel out of context, pointing to his admitted uncertainty about life’s origins as if this were a failing of the scientific approach.  It was, of course, typical of Orgel and of the best practice of science.  He had no time for proponents of ‘intelligent design’, and avoided those prone to magical thinking.

Since these critics included PhD biochemist Duane Gish and others with impeccable credentials who launched their criticisms specifically at the lack of rigor in such hypothesis, one is left wondering who was engaging in “magical thinking.”


1.  Gerald Joyce, “Obituary: Leslie Orgel (1927?2007),” Nature 450, 627 (29 November 2007) | doi:10.1038/450627a.

Gerald Joyce, still smarting from the other Darwin Party wizards who used their magic against him (02/15/2007), is no one to teach us about science vs magic.  The whole RNA World scenario is nothing but a stage for magicians to entertain gullible patrons.  If he has no time for creationists, does he have time for fellow OOL researcher Steve Benner?  Benner warned about the intractable problem of getting ribose (an essential sugar for RNA, ribo-nucleic acid), and criticized those who invoke “genetic takeovers” for pre-RNA chemistry (see 11/05/2004) like some magic wand.
    The charge that creationists would quote Orgel out of context is a common dodge, like throwing a smoke bomb and running away.  Prove it.  Doesn’t this just mean that Joyce is mad creationists effectively used quotations from a hostile witness to buttress their arguments that a chance origin of life is impossible?  Prosecutors do that all the time; that is not quoting out of context, it is making your case wisely.  When a hostile witness admits a key point it doesn’t matter if he still believes his story or not; the truth is out, and the jury takes note.
    Irrespective of any noble intentions of researchers like Orgel to maintain an air of empirical rigor, at what point do investigations into impossible scenarios become indistinguishable from alchemy?  The alchemists had arguably more experimental rigor behind their hypotheses than the OOL schools.  Joyce pasted the label “best practice of science” on the modern OOL foolery but it won’t stick.  It is a logical fallacy to assume that goal-oriented research, conducted via intelligent design in modern labs, can teach us anything about what chance might have done in the unobservable past.  Joyce could use a little more intelligent discernment.  Magician, don’t fool thyself.

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Categories: Dumb Ideas, Origin of Life

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