June 2, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Venter’s Synthetic Plagiarism Deflated by NY Times

How significant was Craig Venter’s achievement of a so-called synthetic genome?  Somewhat significant, but it pales in significance to creating life from scratch.  It was only like “peering over a fortress that is the mighty cell,” wrote Natalie Angier for the New York Times Monday, May 31.
    The article was accompanied with a cartoon by Serge Bloch of a musician playing a DNA double helix as if it were a concertina.  It ended with an analogy of researchers in synthetic biology making a few instruments, but failing to get an orchestra to sound together.  The running theme of the article was that molecular biologists are nowhere close to imitating what a living cell accomplishes with apparent ease.  Venter’s lab essentially copied the code, borrowed existing parts, and depended completely on cell machinery.  In effect, they plagiarized living cells, just like our earlier entry claimed (see 05/31/2010).  “Only on looking carefully at the genetic sequence in each cell,” she said, “would you find the researchers’ distinguishing ‘watermarks,’ brief chemical messages inserted into the otherwise plagiarized string of one million-plus letters of bacterial DNA.”  In essence, she said that everything except the watermarks amounted to plagiarism.  But then, it could even be argued that the quotations from Joyce, Oppenheimer, Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann, which they inscribed in DNA symbols, were not original work, either – nor were their own names, which had been assigned the scientists by their parents.  What, exactly, was original about this achievement?
    Angier’s article employed amusing wordplay here and there, such as this excerpt: “Other researchers were impressed by the work but were quick to keep the feat on the ground.”  Throughout, she extolled the cell’s complexity and power: “every cell is a microcosm of life, and neither the Venter team nor anybody else has come close to recreating the cell from scratch,” she said: “If anything, the new report underscores how dependent biologists remain on its encapsulated power.”  On page two, she described how cytoplasm, which “pretty much has the texture of snot,” conceals a “beautiful architecture” within.  Venter’s lab merely utilized the architecture without constructing anything new:

When the Venter team inserted the synthetic version of the Mycoplasma mycoides genome into the cellular housing of the Mycoplasma capricolum bacterium, the newcomer took full advantage of the resident cytoplasmic wares.  It used the thousands of little biodevices called ribosomes to stitch together amino acids into new proteins.  It relied on complex molecular assemblages to maintain its DNA in working order and to duplicate that DNA when it was time to divide.  It thanked its lucky base pairs that a greasy lipid cell membrane and stiffer bacterial wall not only kept the inside appropriately, bioactively dense, but also kept the outside appropriately out, for an exposed cytoplasm would soon be scavenged for parts, most likely by a neighboring microbe.
    Considered together, the modern cell is dauntingly complex….

Yet the article contained a strange tension.  Intertwined with praise of the cell, Angier repeatedly attributed its design to time and chance.  She made it sound as if time alone was responsible for the dazzling power seen in ribosomes, codes and membranes.  personified evolution or ascribed the majesty of cells to a single creative factor: time –

  • Dr. Venter freely admitted his indebtedness to precedence.  His team, he said, was “taking advantage of three and a half billion years of evolution.
  • Throughout those preposterous eons, nature has had a chance to perfect the splendid entity of all earthly animation that is the living cell.
  • The goal of contriving a self-replicating and autonomously metabolizing protocell, however, continues to elude them.  “We have the instruments,” he [Dr. Steen Rasmussen, University of Southern Denmark] said, “but it doesn?t sound like an orchestra yet.”  Just pick up your baton, hum a few bars, and give it three billion years.

The take-away quote goes to Dr. Bonnie Bassler of Princeton: “I am always awed by nature and how it manages to work so well.

The Darwiniacs will continue to get away with this intellectual schizophrenia unless we, the citizen sanitizers of sanity, the local vocal focal points of biological logic, blow the whistle.  Natalie’s essay is a mix of sublime insight and utter absurdity.  “Hum a few bars and give it three billion years”?  What kind of nonsense is that?  Is that how Brahms and Mozart wrote their orchestral masterpieces?  Is that how anything of “beautiful architecture” and “encapsulated power” came to be?  No, it’s not, and no, it’s not snot either (cytoplasm, that is).  The exquisite design of cell architecture is nothing to sneeze at.  If time is all you need to create such things, the Earth has rocks that evolutionists believe are older than three billion years – how come they aren’t making codes and molecular machines and dividing into perfect copies of themselves?  It’s hard to believe that any self-respecting Darwinist would not be blushing after reading those statements.
    Instead of merely claiming that “preposterous eons” are a necessary and sufficient condition for biological complexity, how about giving us a little empirical, scientific demonstration?  We challenge these researchers to go into their labs, put some sterile minerals, clays, and oils into a beaker with water, keep their dirty designing hands off and wait three billion years.  Natalie Angier can be the journalist to cover the story.  If something crawls out at the end of the experiment, all observers will surely be happy to acknowledge that time alone can produce a living cell.  (If anything did crawl out, we would have strong reason to suspect, given the deviousness of human nature and the difficulty of preventing contamination, that pre-existing life got into the beaker.)  We rather suspect that by the end of the first day the Darwin Team will be jumping up and down, crying out to Mother Nature and Father Time, just like the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel.  But rules are rules; we won’t let them touch it.  This has to be a demonstration of the creative power of time and chance alone, without any help from the intelligently guided hands of human beings.  We can even make it easier.  We can cut up dead cells in the beaker and provide all the components and building blocks.  Just add time.  That’s all Angier wants, right?
    It will quickly become apparent just how preposterous those eons are.  They are not anything as preposterous as Darwinists themselves; for, by conjuring up preposterous things, whether eons, as here, or preposterous universes (09/20/2002, 07/02/2003), they contradict themselves.  Anything preposterous is both pre- and post- at the same time (by definition), thus canceling itself out, and coming to naught.  With apologies to Ogden Nash,
The Darwin mind is a muddled beast;
For sound discourse, it’s not a feast.
Farewell, farewell, old Darwinist,
I’ll debate one less preposterist.
    Here’s a call to sane Darwinists (Note: we didn’t intend that phrase an oxymoron).  Join with us in condemning statements that attribute creative power to Mother Nature and Father Time.  Tell the press to stop parading absurdities like, “preposterous eons” will give “nature” (whoever “she” is) a “chance to perfect the splendid entity of all earthly animation that is the living cell.”  That may be poetic license, but it is not Darwinism.  That’s intelligent design.  We cannot carry on a reasoned debate about origins if there is going to be equivocation over terms and concepts.  We are going to talk past one another if you allow fairy-tale anthropomorphic gobbledygook into the discussion, where miracles can happen with mystical agents that can be snuck in with rhetoric, contrary to naturalistic core beliefs.  Stick with matter, motion, time, and impersonal law.  Furthermore, you cannot stash miracles of chance in unobserved eons, nor make reckless drafts on the bank of time (07/02/2007).  And it is not going to help your cause if your opponents understand Darwinian theory better than your defenders do.  Get your disarrayed team in order.  If we are going to mop the floor with you, victory is sweeter if we achieve it in a fair fight.

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