March 22, 2024 | David F. Coppedge

Archive: Wood, Gratitude, and Space Aliens

These stories from 2003 are still fun to read after 21 years.

Note: some links may no longer work.


How a Plant Would Evolve Wood if It Could   03/25/2003
Lignin is the molecule that gives sturdiness to cell walls, and is a major component of wood. Its presence differentiates land plants from the slimy algae of the waters.

Is lignin an invention of early plants evolving onto the land? An entry on EurekAlert announced today, “Scientists find evidence for crucial root in the history of plant evolution.” Apparently, new findings were announced at a national meeting of the American Chemical Society about Asteroxylon, an extinct plant found fossilized in chert, that is thought to be one of the earliest plants to invade the land.

George Cody and his team at the Carnegie Institute of Washington used an advanced analytical technique to preserve the fragile biopolymers in the rock and apparently found that this species already had lignin. Cody sets up the question and then explains the findings (emphasis added):

 A critical question is whether Asteroxylon in fact had the capacity to biosynthesize lignin. If it did, it starts to beg an interesting question: If one of the earliest plants had this capacity, then is it that capacity that allowed plants to colonize the continents? And that, of course, could have enormous significance, because that was probably one of the many truly defining events in Earth history.

What we came up with is evidence that really can’t be explained any other way than the fact that this plant, when it lived, had two structural biopolymers in its cell wall. The differences that you see in the spectra are consistent with a greater amount of lignin being in one region of the cell wall than the other, which is consistent with what we see in modern plants.

The rest of the article talks about the technique they used but says nothing else about the evolution of lignin, other than the opening paragraph, which states: “If ancient plants had not migrated from the shallow seas of early Earth to the barren land of the continents, life as we know it might never have emerged. And now it appears this massive floral colonization may have been spurred by a single genetic mutation that allowed primitive plants to make lignin, a chemical process that leads to the formation of a cell wall” (emphasis added).

We got all excited about this story because it sounded like a big breakthrough, finally, to explain the evolution of plants. But then we looked and looked and couldn’t find anything about evolution, anywhere, except a bunch of bluffing about what a big step this would be if plants could evolve lignin. After setting up the big question, they examine this primitive plant and find lignin already there! So the very earliest land plant already had it; where, O where, is the evolution? We feel cheated.

The rest of the article just brags about what a wonderful new technique they have now for getting the biological molecules out of the rock. That’s fine, but we entered this store to buy some evolution and all they offered us was some lab hardware. We thought bait and switch was against the law. If you advertise evidence for evolution, you’d better have the goods in stock.

“Because lignins are very complex natural polymers with many random couplings, the exact chemical structure is not known,” states The Lignin Institute. And yet the American Chemical Society wants us to believe that this molecule, and the world of land plants that followed, all derive from a single genetic mutation. Sanity alert! This requires some radical lignin therapy. We suggest taking a nice walk in the woods or curling up in the recliner with a copy of Wildflowers of California by Larry and Donna Ulrich (go to Portfolios/Wildflowers for samples). Ah, relief!

See also our Oct. 2001 headline [reproduced below] about RG-II, a very complex carbohydrate that gives rigidity to cell walls. It also has no evolutionary precursors.

How Plants Stand Up  10/26/2001
Plants are able to stand erect because of their rigid cell walls. Scientists have known that cell walls contained a complex carbohydrate called RG-II, but didn’t know its function. Now, scientists at the University of Georgia have figured out that RG-II forms a fishnet-like arrangement held together by boron atoms that, along with cellulose, gives the cell wall rigidity something like reinforced concrete. This carbohydrate, one of the most complex in nature and used by all plants, requires a host of enzymes to manufacture:

“RG-II has been known as an obscure, structurally weird polysaccharide that plants make,” said Malcolm O’Neill, senior research associate at UGA’s CCRC. “But we had no idea why plants went to all the effort to make it. There are 50 to 60 enzymes involved, 12 different sugars and 22 different linkages. There’s even one sugar that’s actually not been found anywhere else.”

They observed that mutants lacking a crucial side chain on the carbohydrate, or lacking boron, end up as dwarfs. The plants returned to normal by the addition of the missing ingredients.

Did you catch the personification fallacy there? Plants don’t go to the effort to make something; they just respond to the engineering designed into their coded instructions. Think about a process that requires 60 enzymes to complete, when each enzyme is a complex, folded strand of dozens or hundreds of precisely-placed amino acids, coded for by genes in the DNA library. The functions of enzymes and carbohydrates are highly dependent on having a precise shape, which in turn is highly dependent on the precise sequence of amino acids. The article agrees, “The sugar substitution [in the mutant form] changes the shape of the molecule . . . . As in all molecules – and in all biology – it’s the shapes of molecules that control their function.” The chance of getting one enzyme right, let alone 50 or 60, is infinitesimally small; yet if any one of them is wrong, the entire manufacturing process comes to a halt. how could this and thousands of other complex functional systems arise without design? Think about the degree of complexity at work the next time you look at a blade of grass standing upright against the force of gravity.


Gratefulness in the Test Tube   03/24/2003
Some psychologists discovered what most people already knew: being grateful makes you happier. Science Now reports on work by some UC Davis psychologists who tested three groups of subjects: those who made weekly lists of things they were grateful for, those who made lists of hassles, and those who made no list. To probably no one’s surprise except the psychologists, those who counted their blessings reported “considerably more satisfaction with their lives as a whole.”

Human subjects are just too complex to analyze with the scientific method. We are not lab rabbits. Nevertheless, it is kind of funny to see psychologists “confirm” what we all know from common sense and experience. Focusing on hassles makes you grumpy. Focusing on blessings makes you happy. Well, duh. We didn’t need a psychologist to tell us that. We just needed to pick up our hymnal and recall Johnson Oatman’s lyrics set to Edwin Excell’s cheerful melody:

When upon life’s billows you are tempest tossed,
When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.

Count your blessings, name them one by one,
Count your blessings, see what God hath done!
Count your blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.

Maybe these scientists should go to church and find out what is making all these people so disgustingly happy. Hint: it isn’t natural selection.


How to Tell Aliens About Morality   03/21/2003
“Artists and scientists discuss how to tell ET about morality,” begins a report in Nature Science Update, with a picture of a young couple enjoying a warm hug. “Twenty scientists, artists and philosophers will gather in Paris on Sunday and Monday to discuss how best to tell extraterrestrials about altruism,” it says.

The SETI Institute doesn’t plan to actually send a message, but uses this workshop as a way to get participants to envision ways to communicate our humanity, not necessarily our nobility, to aliens. Perhaps we could send postcards or interactive games.

Psychologist Douglas Vakoch of the SETI Institute thinks “any message should take into account studies of animal and human behaviour showing that apparent self-sacrifice often serves selfish ends. Good deeds are often done in aid of relatives, in expectation of a future favour, or to gain the benefits of a good reputation.”

We’ve reported some pretty dumb evolution stories before, but this one takes the cake. Nobody knows if anyone is out there, but we’re going to teach them morality.

But look at the morality: we’re going to tell them that based on evolutionary theory, everyone is really selfish and love is an illusion. It may take 100,000 years to receive their response to whatever interactive game we want them to play (Prisoner’s Dilemma is the evolutionists’ favorite – “in which the temptation to cheat threatens the benefits of cooperating”), but the same could be done with Monopoly, if they don’t mind long waits between moves.

If anyone you know claims creationists are crackpots but evolution is scientific, hand them this story. These guys are reminiscent of the new-age group in Independence Day on top of a skyscraper, welcoming the aliens with gushy smiles and open arms, begging to become one with them. Yes, aliens, our friends, we want to evolve upward to where you are. Like Jimmy Carter, we want to join a community of galactic civilizations. We are selfish. You are selfish. Everyone is selfish. Selfishness makes the world go round. We love you! Take us!  (Zap!)

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