March 29, 2024 | David F. Coppedge

Archive: Tuatara, Eyes, Cells, Self-Organization, Astrobiology

More lost stories from the end of March 2002 are republished here.

Note: some links may no longer work.

Living Fossil from Age of Dinosaurs Getting Too Warm for Comfort   03/31/2002
The tuatara, an odd-looking lizard from New Zealand that thrived in the age of dinosaurs and is still extant today, is in peril of extinction due to rising temperatures, reports the BBC News. Nicky Nelson, one of the researchers, said, “They’ve been around since the time of the dinosaurs, so they’ve been through climate change before and survived, whereas dinosaurs didn’t, so they must have some mechanisms for coping with it.”

Something sounds incongruous in this story. On the one hand we are told that dinosaurs, who come in all shapes and sizes, were the most successful land creatures that ever lived, surviving everything from Arctic freezing to Egypt’s hot spells, yet this little contemporary, who has outlived them all, is sensitive to a one-degree rise in climate. So over 65 million years, with all the climactic changes in that long period, the tuatara, who survived whatever wiped out the dinosaurs, have never been threatened with extinction until now? Is it remotely possible something is wrong with the millions of years story?

The tuatara is one of many examples of living fossils – organisms long thought extinct for millions of years, but recently found alive and unevolved today. Living fossils pose a severe challenge to evolutionary theory. Other living fossils from the age of dinosaurs, and some before that, are known, from all over the world. Evolutionists respond that these living fossils just found niches that were comfortable enough to keep them from evolving, but at other times describe natural selection as this inexorable force that carries everything along in its path. Let the evidence speak for itself. Either evolution is not inexorable, or the earth is not that old, or (radical thought) both.

Eyes Jump, but Brain Doesn’t   03/29/2002
Our eyes are always jumping around, in a movement termed saccades, but somehow the brain smoothes out the image. Does the retina or the brain compensate for the saccadal movement? German scientists publishing in the March 29 Science have identified non-retinal neurons that are able to distinguish between the automatic saccadal movements and the darting glances we make on purpose. Marcia Barinaga explains an experiment you can do to see how the movement works:

If our mind were to see what our retinas see, the world would seem herky-jerky. That’s because our eyes continually dart from place to place, causing an image to jump about on our retinas. The brain smooths the scene by briefly blanking out visual perception when the eyes jump. A simple demonstration illustrates this: Look at one of your eyes in a mirror. Then look at your other eye. Then back to the first. You will not see your eyes move, even though a person watching over your shoulder would easily see the rapid eye movements known as saccades.

The scientists found evidence that the special neurons compensate by cancelling out the saccadal movements.

If you stared at something without movement, your receptors would be saturated. So to prevent temporary blindness, God gave you muscles that move the eyes constantly, and nerves that compensate for the movements so you don’t get confused. How could these two independent functions evolve simultaneously to harmonize just right?

Chemist Envisions Possibilities of Self-Organizing Molecules   03/29/2002
The March 29 issue of Science is devoted to “Supramolecular chemistry and self-assembly.” In a viewpoint article entitled Toward Self-Organization and Complex Matter, French chemist Jean-Marie Lehn of the Pasteur Institute speculates about the future possibilities in the upcoming era of “Darwinian chemistry” where chemists will utilize techniques molecules have evolved over millions of years:

The combined features of supramolecular systems–information and programmability, dynamics and reversibility, constitution and diversity–are leading toward the emergence of adaptive/evolutive chemistry. Adaptive chemistry implies selection and growth under time reversibility. It becomes evolutive chemistry when acquired features are conserved and passed on. Harnessing the power of selection for adaptation and evolution on the molecular scene is ushering in a darwinistic era of chemistry. The ultimate goal is to merge design and selection in self-organization to perform self-design, in which function-driven selection among suitably instructed dynamic species generates the optimal organized and functional entity, in a postdarwinian process.

… Supramolecular chemistry provides ways and means for progressively unraveling the complexification of matter through self-organization. Together with the corresponding fields in physics and biology, it leads toward a supramolecular science of complex, informed, self-organized evolutive matter… Through progressive discovery, understanding, and implementation of the rules that govern the evolution from inanimate to animate matter and beyond, we will ultimately acquire the ability to create new forms of complex matter.

As an example of a natural model, Lehn points to the human brain: “The most complex object we know, the brain, builds up by self-organization and is self-wired and self-integrated, as well as self-connected through our senses.”

Self, self, self. Pasteur would be appalled at what this scientist, at the institute he founded, is saying. Pasteur thought he had demonstrated for all time the law of biogenesis: only life begets life. “Never will the doctrine of spontaneous generation recover from the mortal blow of this one simple experiment,” he claimed after demonstrating the results of tests with his famous swan-necked flask. Leeuwenhoek before him had also argued strongly that living things do not just emerge (self-assemble) from inanimate matter. But now, spontaneous generation has arisen with a vengeance: the universe is viewed as a self-assembling, self-organizing, self-designing, self-fabricating, self-recognizing, selfish self. Lehn uses the prefix “self-” 45 times in his short article. How apt a science for the “me generation.”

Crystalline structures can be claimed to self-assemble because of the laws governing their bonding (a form of programming that implies design in the laws of physics), but nowhere is there found a type of chemistry that can carry information and be programmed except in living things. Lehn provides no examples of inanimate primordial soup that has self-organized into a functioning unit. Instead, he is so convinced that life designed itself that it taints his view of the hard sciences of physics and chemistry, making them animated with intelligence and power. This is not hard science: it is pantheism. It is animism dressed up in a lab coat.

Consider this opening line by Joe Alper in another paper in the same issue: “Despite biology’s considerable lead in working with loose-knit bonds, scientists have learned…” Here we see biology treated as a god. It has intelligence, a competitive edge, and technical skill. You thought atoms were lifeless particles, but lo! they are imbued with spirits. And these spirits, more powerful than thermodynamics, able to leap tall design specs in a single bound, are creating the most complex programs known to man, by themselves. And now the good part: we have evolved self-recognition to the point where we can take control of our own evolution. Isn’t that what it’s all about? You shall be as gods.

Know the fallacy of personification well, for you will see it often in evolutionary thinking.

Another Protein Chaperone Found   03/28/2002
German scientists writing in the March 28 Nature have described another “protease-chaperone machine” in cells that is widely conserved in living things. Named DegP, this molecular machine has two functions: if it cannot refold a badly-folded protein, it dismantles it. Its functions appear to be heat sensitive. The six-sided cluster of protein chains forms a barrel-shaped cavity, with “a construction reminiscent of a compactor.” Customers are guided by tentacle-like “gatekeepers” into the machine, and the door is closed. If the customer just needs cleaning to refold, the lint is scraped off and the molecule is ejected to refold; otherwise, it is compacted and destroyed. The machine is apparently versatile enough to handle many different kinds of proteins.

This is all so amazing, and raises additional questions; how do these eyeless, mindless machines know just what to do? How do they recognize a badly folded protein? When our best biochemists can’t solve the highly complex problem of protein folding, how does a cell do it? Clearly a great deal of sophisticated hardware and software design is behind the construction of these tiny machines. And remember, these machines are already fully functional in bacteria, the simplest forms of life.

Life Compared to Designed Architecture   03/28/2002
In the March 28 issue of Nature, Everett Shock of Washington University of St. Louis gives his view on the announcement in the same issue of the creation of amino acids by UV light in simulated interstellar ice (see this NASA press release for details). Titling his News and Views piece “Astrobiology: Seeds of Life?” Shock, after agreeing that amino acids are easily formed in a variety of abiological conditions, ends with this statement:

Does this tell us much about the origin of life? Well, you can study geology for a living, but knowing how different rocks form doesn’t tell you which lumps of rock will become Teotihuacán, the Taj Mahal or Tony’s Tavern. Studying the chemical building-blocks of life shows that they are ubiquitous and can exist in the absence of life. Indeed, inferred cosmic abundances of these building-blocks from abiological sources greatly exceed those from living organisms. Accepting that fact, it follows that process-driven investigations into the emergence of life may need to be cast in a different way, which takes into account the materials involved but is not directly tied to them. This, I believe, is a major challenge for the fledgling field of astrobiology.

This sounds for all the world like a statement by an Intelligent Design theorist. What are Teotihuacán, the Taj Mahal or Tony’s Tavern, but examples of intelligent (more or less) design? Dr. Shock correctly distinguishes the building blocks from the way they are assembled. Of course, this is obvious to anyone, even Tony, that bricks do not spontaneously assemble themselves into taverns. Yet astrobiologists routinely get excited about finding bricks. They have never found abiological architects. We agree with Everett Shock that astrobiology needs to be cast in a different way that is not just tied to the materials; it needs to account for the origin of information that leads to functional structures. To do this without input of intelligent design is a “major challenge,” to put it wildly mildly.

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