March 3, 2009 | David F. Coppedge

Using Engineering to Prove Evolution

David Deamer smiling at a tide pool: is there an evolutionary connection?  The picture accompanies an article on Science Daily about Deamer’s latest thinking on the origin of life.  He’s going to share his ideas at a symposium in Oakland, California, organized by Eugenie Scott of the NCSE.

According to Deamer, life began with complex systems of molecules that came together through the self-assembly of nonliving components.  A useful metaphor for understanding how this came about, he said, can be found in combinatorial chemistry, an approach in which thousands of experiments are carried out in parallel by robotic devices.

But, one asks, where are the robots in the ancient primordial soup?  Who designed the experiments?  Nobody.

The power of combinatorial chemistry lies in the vast numbers of structurally distinct molecules that can be synthesized and tested at the same time.  Similarly, conditions on the early Earth allowed not only the synthesis of a wide variety of complex organic molecules, but also the formation of membrane-bound compartments that would have encapsulated different combinations of molecules.
    “We have made protocells in the lab–artificial compartments containing complex systems of molecules,” Deamer said.  “The creationists charge that it’s too unlikely for the right combination to have come together on its own, but combinatorial chemistry gives us a better way to think about the probability of life emerging from this process.

In his view, the spark of life was born “when one or a few protocells happened to have a mix of components that could capture energy and nutrients from the environment and use them to grow and reproduce.”  He distinguished between protocells that simply grew and those that could evolve:

Evolution began when large populations of cells had variations that led to different metabolic efficiencies,” Deamer said.  “If the populations were in a confined environment, at some point they would begin to compete for limited resources.
    The first evolutionary selection processes would have favored those organisms that were most efficient in capturing energy and nutrients from the local environment, he said.

Deamer has been working on the origin of life for more than 20 years, and others decades longer than that.  The first serious thinking about a naturalistic origin of life dates back to Oparin in the 1920s at least, but Deamer remarked that the “Efforts to replicate this process in the laboratory are still in their infancy.” 

Will someone in the philosophy department please look at this nonsense that passes for science these days and speak up?  This is absurd.  Deamer and Scott are asking the public to tolerate decades of fruitless research with nothing to show for it and a lot against it and still bless it with the label of science.
    Creationists point out how improbable their fable is for good reason (see online book).  Deamer responds, in effect, “Oh, so you think our story is improbable?  Well, I’ll show you.  I have a LOT bigger imagination than you think!”  So he conjures up metaphorical robots doing combinatorial chemistry experiments with no chemist around.  The lucky imaginary “protocell” (there’s the power of suggestion for you) wins the X-prize: the one that learns to synthesize and capture energy and nutrients and use them to grow and compete for resources.  Wow.  You thought intelligent agents did those things, but no: Deamer’s magic molecules are endowed with purpose and drive and visions of new possibilities: pterosaurs, roses, and concert pianists (01/24/2008).  Now isn’t this a “better way to think” about it?
    Look how many miracle words are in this short article.  Life came about.  Life came together through self-assembly via natural experiments in combinatorial chemistry.  Molecules were synthesized and formed membranes that allowed different protocells to compete for limited resources.  In sum, life emerged.  There is their favorite miracle word again.  That miracle is so common it hardly seems miraculous any more (see repetition).
    Look at that smile on Deamer’s face again.  He’s happy when you’re gullible.  “I’m a scientist, and YOU came from slime!”  Some smiling people need a change of face.  A citizen’s arrest should help (see 09/30/2007 commentary).

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