Wintery Knight

…integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square

Stephen C. Meyer and Keith Fox debate intelligent design and evolution

From Justin Brierley’s “Unbelievable” podcast.

Details:

Stephen Meyer is a leading proponent of Intelligent Design who directs the Centre for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute in Seattle. His [first] book “Signature in the Cell” claims to show that the DNA code is the product of intelligent mind, not naturalistic processes. Keith Fox is Professor of Biochemistry at Southampton University. He chairs the UK Christians in Science network but disagrees strongly with ID. They debate how life could have originated and whether design is allowed as an explanation in science.

Summary: (stuff in italics is my snarky paraphrase)

Meyer:

  • background and how he got interested in intelligent design
  • his research focus is on the origin of life – the first replicator
  • summarizes the history of origin of life studies
  • authored the book “Signature in the Cell”
  • the DNA enigma: where did the information in DNA come from?
  • naturalistic explanations of the DNA information have failed
  • but intelligent agents are known to be able to produce information
  • the best explanation of the information in DNA is that an intelligent agent authored it
  • Meyer’s book was named by atheist philosopher of science Thomas Nagel as a Times Literary Supplement Book of the Year in 2010
  • why is design so controversial? Many people think that Darwin explained why nature appears design
  • the Darwinian view is that nature can create the appearance of design using mutation and selection
  • however, Darwinian mechanisms cannot explain the origin of the first living cell, it assumes replication, and the origin of life is about where the first replicator comes from

Fox:

  • Meyer’s argument is not about the evolution of life after the first cell
  • Meyer’s case for design is about the origin of life
  • naturalists do not know a naturalistic explanation for the origin of life
  • there are a number of naturalistic hypotheses for the origin of life, like the RNA-first hypothesis
  • maybe in a few years one of them will turn out to be correct
  • what intelligent design is arguing from a gap in our current naturalistic knowledge to infer that God intervened in nature

Meyer:

  • that’s not what intelligent design is at all
  • the approach ID theorists use is the inference to best explanation
  • you evaluate all explanations, non-intelligent causes and intelligent causes
  • you prefer the best possible explanation
  • we know that minds are capable of producing information just like the information we find in DNA

Fox:

  • living cells replicate, so they have the ability to introduce mutations as they replicate and then some of those mutations can be selected
  • so maybe the process of replicating that living cells do created the first living cell
  • maybe the first living cell created itself, X brought X into being, self-creation, what’s irrational about that?

Meyer:

  • the issue is the origin of life – where did the first living cell come from?
  • you cannot appeal to the operations that a living cell can perform to explain the origin of the first living cell
  • there was no first living cell operating before the first living cell
  • there was no replication, mutation or selection before the first living cell
  • in fact, in my book I show that there is no known naturalistic mechanism that is able to produce the information needed for the first living cell
  • nothing can create itself, that is self-contradictory
Fox:
  • Well, you are just saying that because something is complex that God did it
Meyer:
  • Sadly, no. What I actually said needed to be explained was the information, not complexity
  • And we know from software engineering that the process of adding information to code is performed by programmers
  • in the absence of any adequate naturalistic explanation for information, we are justified in taking the explanation that we are familiar with – namely, intelligent agency – based on our uniform, universal experience of what causes information
Fox:
  • well, maybe we can appeal to the mutation and selection in existing living cells to explain the origin of the first living cell
  • maybe there were living cells before the first living cell, and then these other living cells created the first living cell
Meyer:
  • we can’t keep invoking mutation and selection when those processes are not operating prior to the origin of the first living cell
Fox:
  • well maybe some bare-bones self-replication molecule was a precursor to the first living cell
Meyer:
  • even to generate very limited replicator would require a large amount of information
  • the argument I am making is – where does the evolution come from?
Fox:
  • well, maybe we will think of an explanation for information that is naturalistic in 20 years
  • we’ve thought of explanations to things that were NOT information before
  • so maybe we will be able to think of something to explain information based on our ability to explain NOT information before

Moderator: Change topics: the Dover decision

Meyer:

  • the Discovery Institute opposed the policy that causes the trial
  • the wording of the statute was poor
  • the judge was completely wrong in his decision
  • young earth creationists used the phrase “intelligent design” to cover their agenda
  • intelligent design is an inference using the normal methods of science
Fox:
  • intelligent design is a science stopper because it stops looking for a naturalistic explanation
  • everything in nature must have a naturalistic explanation
  • everything has to be explained using matter and time and chance
  • it just has to be that way!!!!
Meyer:
  • well, what luck would you have explaining an effect like Mt. Rushmore?
  • can you explain that using matter,time and chance?
  • Mt. Rushmore was the product of intelligence, not wind and erosion
  • similarly, there is information in the cell, and we know that intelligence causes information
Fox:
  • So you are saying that we don’t understand and therefore an intelligence is necessary?

Meyer:

  • no I am saying we DO understand and we are making an inference based on that understanding
  • you are the one who is insisting on a material explanation because you pre-suppose materialism
  • we know that minds have causal powers, and we can infer mind as an explanation from information
Fox:
  • well nature is a seamless chain of material causes and effects
Meyer:
  • agents can act without violating the laws of nature
  • even humans can act as intelligent agents to create information in books, and they don’t violate the laws of nature
  • intelligent causes are real, and they explain effects in nature
Fox:
  • you’re trying to impose on science something to do with meaning and purpose
Meyer:
  • no that’s not what we’re doing, we’re inferring from from the fact that we ourselves are known causes of information to the fact that an intelligence cause is the best explanation for information in the cell
Fox:
  • but I am a materialist, I need a materialist explanation
Meyer:
  • mind IS an answer to the how question
  • we infer to mind in many other scientific disciplines, like cryptography, archaeology, etc.
  • a materialist might accuse an archaeologist of engaging in a “scribe-of-the-gaps” argument, but the best explanation of an artifact with information is a scribe
  • we are inferring that mind is the cause from the nature of the effect: information
Moderator: is it appropriate to call DNA “information”

Fox:

  • well DNA is just a molecular polymer, any reference to information is just by analogy
Meyer:
  • DNA is a molecular polymer, but it also exhibits the property of specified complexity
  • the arrangement of bases, which function as machine instructions in a software program, for performings task in the cell
  • we have observed that the property of specified complexity always comes from an intelligence
Fox:
  • well, maybe there are other sequences that would work, so maybe it’s really not uncommon to develop functioning sequences by chance alone, without an intelligence
Meyer:
  • you can measure how precise the functional specificity is in DNA and proteins

Moderator: is Shannon information the same as functional information

Meyer:

  • Shannon information refers to the sequences of digits or symbols that do not necessarily have any function, i.e. – a four character string QSZX has as much Shannon information as WORD. However, only the latter is functional against the pattern of the English language. There are arrangements of DNA bases and amino acids that have the same number of symbols/characters as a functional sequence would have, but they have no biological function – they do not exhibit specified complexity
Fox:
  • Well, maybe there are lots and lots of sequences of DNA and proteins so that it is fairly easy to get a functional one by chance

Meyer:

  • DNA sequences that are functional are extremely rare, protein sequences are even more rare
  • this is not my opinion, this is what the research shows – functional protein sequences are rare
Fox:
  • well maybe there are other functional sequences that are occur before the first functional sequence that are precursors to the first functional sequence
  • maybe there are billions of years of replication, mutation and selection before the first replication, mutation and selection

Meyer:

  • you can’t get to the first selectable functional sequence by appealing to precursor selectable functional sequences – there are no selectable functional sequences before the FIRST one
  • you have to get the first selectable functional sequence by chance alone, because there is nothing to mutate or select before the first replicator
  • the chance hypothesis has been rejected because the minimal amount of information for the simplest replicator is too high to get by chance alone, given the resources, including time, that are available

Moderator: Keith are you confident that naturalism will be able to substantiate these naturalism-of-the-gap speculations that you offer in response to Meyer’s actual science that we have today? 

Fox:

  • well, it is hard to know for sure because it was just a fluke event
  • but there’s nothing irrational or unscientific or miraculous about it – the fluke would have a material explanation
  • there is nothing that we can detect that would implicate God, my speculations about a fluke which I cannot observe or measure or test would all be compatible with an atheistic worldview that omits God as a causal entity

Meyer:

  • where are those material processes that could account for this fluke then?
  • the whole point of this argument is that the information in DNA transcends the material components in the sequence
  • it’s the arrangement of the material parts/letters/characters/symbols/instructions that needs to be explained
Fox:
  • Well, I just have a different philosophy of science that rules out intelligent causation a priori

Meyer:

  • Yes, that’s the difference between us – you pre-suppose that all explanations of natural phenomena must exclude intelligent causes

There is a bit more where Meyer talks about how parts of the cell are implementations of various design patterns (Gang of Four design patterns) that are used by software architects who design software.

Find more posts on Stephen C. Meyer here.

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The importance of having a narrative when confronting the assumption of naturalism

How do you present theism as a rational belief to a person who thinks that the progress of science has removed the need for God?

Canadian science writer Denyse O’Leary writes about the history of cosmology at Evolution News.

Excerpt:

What help has materialism been in understanding the universe’s beginnings?

Many in cosmology have never made any secret of their dislike of the Big Bang, the generally accepted start to our universe first suggested by Belgian priest Georges Lemaître (1894-1966).

On the face of it, that is odd. The theory accounts well enough for the evidence. Nothing ever completely accounts for all the evidence, of course, because evidence is always changing a bit. But the Big Bang has enabled accurate prediction.

In which case, its hostile reception might surprise you. British astronomer Fred Hoyle (1915-2001) gave the theory its name in one of his papers — as a joke. Another noted astronomer, Arthur Eddington (1882-1944), exclaimed in 1933, “I feel almost an indignation that anyone should believe in it — except myself.” Why? Because “The beginning seems to present insuperable difficulties unless we agree to look on it as frankly supernatural.”

One team of astrophysicists (1973) opined that it “involves a certain metaphysical aspect which may be either appealing or revolting.” Robert Jastrow (1925-2008), head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, initially remarked, “On both scientific and philosophical grounds, the concept of an eternal Universe seems more acceptable than the concept of a transient Universe that springs into being suddenly, and then fades slowly into darkness.” And Templeton Prize winner (2011) Martin Rees recalls his mentor Dennis Sciama’s dogged commitment to an eternal universe, no-Big Bang model:

For him, as for its inventors, it had a deep philosophical appeal — the universe existed, from everlasting to everlasting, in a uniquely self-consistent state. When conflicting evidence emerged, Sciama therefore sought a loophole (even an unlikely seeming one) rather as a defense lawyer clutches at any argument to rebut the prosecution case.

Evidence forced theorists to abandon their preferred eternal-universe model. From the mid 1940s, Hoyle attempted to disprove the theory he named. Until 1964, when his preferred theory, the Steady State, lost an evidence test.

Here is a quick summary of some of the experimental evidence that emerged in the last few decades that caused naturalists to abandon the eternal universe that they loved so much when they were younger.

The importance of having a narrative

Now I want to make a very, very important point about Christianity and the progress of science. And that point is that it is very important that Christians present the evidence in exactly the way that Denyse presented it in that article – in its historical context, featuring the conflict between naturalists and the experimental evidence.

All Christians should be familiar with the following basic pieces of evidence which fit the war between science and naturalism narrative:

  1. The origin of the universe
  2. The cosmic fine-tuning
  3. The origin of life (biological information)
  4. The sudden origin of the Cambrian phyla
  5. The habitability/observability correlation

When you talk about these evidences as a Christian theist to non-Christians, you have to have cultivated a genuine interest in reconciling your beliefs with science. You have to accept that there are two books that reveal God’s character and attributes. The book of nature, and the book of Scripture. And you need to be flexible about getting these two books to fit together. The book of nature gives us natural theology (see Romans 1). It tells us that God is Creator and Designer. The book of Scripture tells us that God stepped into history as a man to save us by taking the punishment for our headlong rush away from God, which the Bible calls sin. Science is one way that humans can recover some of basic knowledge about God. Knowledge that is only possible because God created and designed the universe (and us) in such a way that we are capable of making discoveries, and that the universe is capable of being explored and understood.

It’s very important to present these five basic evidences to non-Christians in the historical context. And here is the story you must tell: “In the beginning, there was the naturalism, and the naturalism tried to argue from ignorance that God was not Creator and God was not Designer. And then came the science, and now people have to give up their naturalism in order to not be crazy and irrational”. That’s the narrative you use when talking to non-Christians about science.

In the beginning was the naturalism:

  1. In pre-scientific times, atheists maintained that the universe was eternal
  2. In pre-scientific times, atheists maintained that a life-permitting universe was as likely as a life-prohibiting universe
  3. In pre-scientific times, atheists maintained that the cell was a simple blob of jello that could spontaneously emerge in some warm pond
  4. In pre-scientific times, atheists maintained that the sudden origin of the Cambrian phyla would be explained by subsequent fossil discoveries
  5. In pre-scientific times, atheists maintained that there was nothing special about our galaxy, solar system, planet or moon

But then science progressed by doing experiments and making observations:

  1. Scientists discovered redshift and the cosmic microwave background radiation (evidence for a cosmic beginning) and more!
  2. Scientists discovered the fine-tuning of gravity and of the cosmological constant and more!
  3. Scientists discovered protein sequencing and exposed the myth of “junk DNA” and more!
  4. Scientists discovered an even shorter Cambrian explosion period and the absence of precursor fossils and more!
  5. Scientists discovered galactic habitable zones and circumstellar habitable zones and more!

And now rational people – people who want to have true beliefs about reality – need to abandon a false religion (naturalism).

Now naturally, science is in a state of flux and things change. But you have to look at the trend of discoveries, and those trends are clearly going against naturalism, and in favor of Christian theism. No one is arguing for a deductive proof here, we are simply looking at the evidence we have today and proportioning our belief to the concrete evidence we have today. People who are guided by reason should not seek to construct a worldview by leveraging speculations about future discoveries and mere possibilities. We should instead believe what is more probable than not. That’s what a rational seeker of truth ought to do. Proportion belief to probabilities based on current, concrete knowledge.

It is very important that Christians keep abreast of the progress of science, and give proper respect to science when forming our worldviews, and keep in mind what is really going on with atheism. There is a lot of loud worshiping of science by people like Dawkins and Atkins and Krauss, but if you dig into things a little, you’ll find that they are actually filled with rage and enmity against what science has revealed about nature. And not just in one area, but in many, many areas.

Atheism, as a worldview, is not rooted in an honest assessment about what science tells us about reality. Atheism is rooted in a religion: naturalism. And the troubling thing we learn from looking at the history of science is that this religion of naturalism is insulated from correction from the progress of science. Nothing that science reveals about nature seems to be able to put a dent in the religion of naturalism, at least for most atheists. Their belief in naturalism is so strong that it repels all scientific evidence that falsifies it. Atheists simply don’t let science inform and correct their worldview.

It falls to us Christian theists, then, to hold them accountable for their abuse and misrepresentation of science. And that means telling the story of the progress of science accurately, and accurately calling out the religion of naturalism for what it is - a religion rooted in blind faith and ignorance that has been repeatedly and convincingly falsified by the progress of science in the modern era.

Positive arguments for Christian theism

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Stephen C. Meyer and Peter Atkins debate intelligent design

This dialog occurred in 2010 on the Unbelievable radio show.

I made a rough transcript, so please see below for that.

The MP3 file is here. (60 minutes)

Details:

The documentary film “Expelled” is presented by US Actor Ben Stein and makes the case that scientists who question Darwinian orthodoxy and support Intelligent Design are being “expelled” from academia.

As the UK edition of the DVD is released we ask “Is freedom of thought at stake or is Intelligent Design out of bounds when it comes to biological science?”

Stephen C Meyer is co founder of the Discovery Institute in the USA and a major proponent of Intelligent Design.

Peter Atkins is Professor of Chemistry at Oxford University and an outspoken atheist.

They both feature in “Expelled” and join Justin to debate the pros and cons of Intelligent Design theory.

Mark Haville who is bringing the film to the UK also joins the discussion.

Note: The transcript below is quite snarky and may include paraphrases of Dr. Atkins for the sake of humor.

My rough transcript of the Meyer-Atkins debate

Stephen Meyer:
- started researching on ID while doing his PhD at Cambridge
- the question is whether the information-bearing properties in DNA require a designer
- what cause is adequate to explain the digital code that in the simplest living cell
- alternative explanations like self-organization and RNA-first have failed
- so the best explanation for functional sequences of parts is an intelligent designer
- Darwinists have responded to this argument with insults and suppression of dissent

Peter Atkins:
- intelligent design is creationism
- there is no science at all in it
- information can emerge without an intelligent designer
- structures emerge spontaneously, no agent is needed to generate the structure
- information in DNA is also a structure

Stephen Meyer:
- structure and information are two different things
- many structures emerge spontaneously
- structure may be like the vortex that occurs when water goes down a drain

Peter Atkins:
- the vortex is information

Stephen Meyer:
- structures are different from functionally-specified digital information
- in DNA, there is a 4-digit alphabet that is used to create code sequences
- the thing to be explained is where do the functional sequences come from

Peter Atkins:
- information can grow without an agent
- the second law of thermodynamics
- the universe is falling into disorder
- but there are local abatements of chaos that create information
- evolution can cause the amount of information to grow

Stephen Meyer:
- that’s just an assertion
- I agree that energy flow through a system can produce spontaneous order
- but spontaneous order is not the same thing as information

Peter Atkins:
- spontaneous order is the same as information

Stephen Meyer:
- it’s not order that needs to be explained it’s specified complexity

Peter Atkins:
- what do you mean by specified complexity?

Stephen Meyer:
- the chemical bonds that connect to each letter do not determine the letter
- the chemical bonding sites will accept any letter as easily as any other
- any one of the 4 bases (letters) can attach at any place along the backbone

Peter Atkins:
- the selection of which letter comes next is determined by evolution

Stephen Meyer:
- that is just an assertion
- there is no physical process that sequences the letters to have a function

Peter Atkins:
- do you believe in evolution? YES OR NO!

Mark Haville:
- for him to answer the question you have to define the word
- do you mean macro or micro? biological or stellar? directed or undirected?

Peter Atkins:
- undirected molecules to man evolution by natural processes

Stephen Meyer:
- but even Dawkins doesn’t believe in evolution then
- you’re including the origin of life from non-living matter in evolution
- Dawkins says that there is no known naturalistic explanation for that

Mark Haville:
- you need to define your terms

[They discuss of the movie Expelled and the case of Richard Sternberg]

Stephen Meyer:
- the problem is people don’t want to talk about the science
- they denounce dissent as unscientific
- they will not debate about whther natural causes can explain the information
- I want to talk about the science

Peter Atkins:
- ID people raise interesting questions for naturalists to work on
- but you want to tell us what the answer is (intelligence) before we begin
- you start from the idea that an intelligence was involved

Justin Brierley:
- but you start with the idea that natural mechanisms can explain everything!

Stephen Meyer:
- for Dr. Atkins, only explanations based on material processes are valid

Peter Atkins:
- that is correct

Stephen Meyer:
- but we think that the activities of mind can explain some effects
- e.g. – the best explanation of the Rosetta stone is a mind

Peter Atkins:
- but we naturalists think of minds as material as well

Stephen Meyer:
- that’s a materialist pre-supposition on your part
- we would have to have a debate about mind and body

Mark Haville:
- I think that the materialist position is socially dangerous
- the problem with naturalism is that it is an ideology
- the ideology pushes absurdities, e.g. – the universe came from nothing uncaused
- and naturalists exert power over others to force them to believe nonsense

Stephen Meyer:
- science progresses as the result of scientists disagreeing
- both sides agree to the facts
- the debate is about the interpretation of those facts
- and one side is being ruled out a priori based on the pre-supposition of materialism

Peter Atkins:
- why do you say that an intelligence is involved in DNA but not general relativity

Stephen Meyer:
- it is always logically possible that intelligence can be invlved in any effect
- the main thing is that explanations based on intelligence should not be ruled out

Peter Atkins:
= well you can’t appeal to any non-material process in expaining anything
- those are the rules

Moderator:
- what does intelligent design have to do with religion?

Stephen Meyer:
- creationism is about understanding the istory of life using the Bible
- intelligent design is about using the same method of inquiry as Darwin
- we know that information arises from intelligent causes
- humans create information all the time by using intelligence to sequence parts

Moderator:
- are intelligent design proponents disreputable?

Stephen Meyer:
- what’s disreputable is shutting down debate by setting arbitrary rules

Peter Atkins:
- we are both interested in the same questions

Moderator:
- why won’t you let Stephen publish his papers then?

Peter Atkins:
- because it breaks the pre-suppositions of naturalism and materialism

Stephen Meyer:
- you’re shutting down inquiry by using an arbitrary definition of science

Mark Haville:
- we need to define the word science
- science should be based on what we can observe empirically
- we can observe micro-evolution empirically
- but Darwinism goes beyond what is observable to postulate macro-evolution

Peter Atkins:
- but paleobiology is replete with evidence

Stephen Meyer:
- paleobiology uses a method of inference that I think is valid
- but intelligent design uses the same mode of reasoning which is also valid

Peter Atkins:
= you’re intellectually lazy
- we’re smart, we’re using our brains

Moderator:
- you’re saying that appeals to intelligent causes ends science?
- is ID the view that some things are too complex to be explained with naturalism?

Peter Atkins:
- yes, and to teach children that materialism is false is child abuse

Stephen Meyer:
- let’s drop the insults and the rhetoric and focus on the arguments
- the ID argument is not based on what we don’t know, it’s based on what we DO know
- first, we can ask what undirected natural processes can and cannot do
- second, we can ask what we know about intelligent causes from our own experience
- what we do know seems to me to require an intelligent agent as a cause

Peter Atkins:
- GOD! Do you mean God!? Do you mean God!?

Stephen Meyer:
- I personally mean God, but all that the arguments proves is a generic intelligent cause
- and I am using the same method of investigation that Darwin used to get there
- what we know from our experience is that a mind is needed to create information

Peter Atkins:
- NONSENSE! ABSOLUTE NONSENSE!

Stephen Meyer:
- in my book, I list 10 predictions made by ID, so it’s not a science-stopper
- furthermore, the enterprise of science began with th goal of understanding God
- consider the earliest scientists, people like James Boyler and Johannes Kepler

Peter Atkins:
- that was 300 years ago, we’ve moved on

Mark Haville:
- what about Max Planck then?

Stephen Meyer:
- how about James Clark Maxwell?

Mark Haville:
- we need to focus on the facts

Peter Atkins:
- what do you mean by the facts?

Mark Haville:
- well the fact is that Darwinism has no mechanism to produce new information

Peter Atkins:
- well copying errors introduces beneficial mutations

Stephen Meyer:
- let’s focus on where we get the first information from the simplest organism
- you can’t account for the first organism by appealing to copying errors
- to add functionality to a program, you need new lines codes from an intelligence
- once you have life, you can generate some new information
- but you can’t generate macro-evolution either

Peter Atkins:
- if we give you your explanation for teh origin of life, will you give this up

Stephen Meyer:
- of course! I’m a former theistic evolutionist
- but right now the evidence is not there for it
- we have to decide these questions based on what we see with our own eyes today

Peter Atkins:
- but I pre-suppose materialism as the starting point of all explanations
- you’re just intellectually lazy to abandon my pre-supposition

Stephen Meyer:
- why is it is less intellectually lazy to insist that materialism is true
- we are making plenty of predictions, and isn’t that what science is about?
- consider Junk DNA – you guys said it had no use
- now we know it has a use

Peter Atkins:
- naturalists were open to the idea that junk DNA might have a use before ID

Moderator:
- Dr. Meyer, what about the wall that locks out intelligence as an explanation?

Stephen Meyer:
- if these are interesting questions, then we should allow freedom of inquiry
- that’s how science advances

Peter Atkins:
- for all their science-talk really they are just saying God did it
- people who don’t agree with me are not using their brains, like I do
- to give up on my pre-supposition of materialism is a denial of humanity

Mark Haville:
- there are important issues that are affected by our view of origins
- everyone who hasn’t seen Expelled movie should definitely see it

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Was early Earth a good place to create the building blocks of life?

Do the Miller-Urey experiments simulate the early Earth?

The Miller-Urey experiments

Biochemist Dr. Fazale Rana of Reasons to Believe offers some evidence.

Excerpt:

Today, the Miller-Urey experiment is considered to be irrelevant to the origin-of-life question. Current understanding of the composition of early Earth’s atmosphere differs significantly from the gas mix used by Miller. Most planetary scientists now think that the Earth’s primeval atmosphere consisted of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and water vapor. Laboratory experiments indicate that this gas mixture is incapable of yielding organic materials in Miller-Urey-type experiments.

In May 2003 origin-of-life researchers Jeffrey Bada and Antonio Lazcano, long-time associates of Miller, wrote an essay for Science (May 2, 2003, pp. 745-746)commemorating the 50-year anniversary of the publication of Miller’s initial results.They pointed out that the Miller-Urey experiment has historical significance, but not scientific importance in contemporary origin-of-life thought. Bada and Lazcano wrote:

Is the “prebiotic soup” theory a reasonable explanation for the emergence of life? Contemporary geoscientists tend to doubt that the primitive atmosphere had the highly reducing composition used by Miller in 1953.

In his book Biogenesis, origin-of-life researcher Noam Lahav passes similar judgment:

The prebiotic conditions assumed by Miller and Urey were essentially those of a reducing atmosphere. Under slightly reducing conditions, the Miller-Urey reaction does not produce amino acids, nor does it produce the chemicals that may serve as the predecessors of other important biopolymer building blocks. Thus, by challenging the assumption of a reducing atmosphere, we challenge the very existence of the “prebiotic soup”, with its richness of biologically important organic compounds.

For many people, the generation of amino acids from simple chemical compounds thought to be present in early Earth’s atmosphere meant that life could originate all on its own without the need for a Creator. Work done on the early planetary conditions of Earth in the intervening decades between Miller’s famous experiment and his death, however, have invalidated this famous experiment and its support for an evolutionary explanation for life’s origin, in spite of what textbooks report.

The IDEA Center has a nice summary of origin-of-life research that explains why scientists no longer accept the idea that the building blocks of life can be formed by sparking the gasses that were present on the early Earth.

Miler and Urey used the wrong gasses:

Miller’s experiment requires a reducing methane and ammonia atmosphere, however geochemical evidence says the atmosphere was hydrogen, water, and carbon dioxide (non-reducing). The only amino acid produced in a such an atmosphere is glycine (and only when the hydrogen content is unreasonably high), and could not form the necessary building blocks of life.

Miller and Urey didn’t account for UV of molecular instability:

Not only would UV radiation destroy any molecules that were made, but their own short lifespans would also greatly limit their numbers. For example, at 100ºC (boiling point of water), the half lives of the nucleic acids Adenine and Guanine are 1 year, uracil is 12 years, and cytozine is 19 days (nucleic acids and other important proteins such as chlorophyll and hemoglobin have never been synthesized in origin-of-life type experiments).

Miller and Urey didn’t account for molecular oxygen:

We all have know ozone in the upper atmosphere protects life from harmful UV radiation. However, ozone is composed of oxygen which is the very gas that Stanley Miller-type experiments avoided, for it prevents the synthesis of organic molecules like the ones obtained from the experiments! Pre-biotic synthesis is in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario. The chemistry does not work if there is oxygen because the atmosphere would be non-reducing, but if there is no UV-light-blocking oxygen (i.e. ozone – O3) in the atmosphere, the amino acids would be quickly destroyed by extremely high amounts of UV light (which would have been 100 times stronger than today on the early earth).This radiation could destroy methane within a few tens of years, and atmospheric ammonia within 30,000 years.

And there were three other problems too:

At best the processes would likely create a dilute “thin soup,” destroyed by meteorite impacts every 10 million years. This severely limits the time available to create pre-biotic chemicals and allow for the OOL.

Chemically speaking, life uses only “left-handed” (“L”) amino acids and “right-handed” (“R)” genetic molecules. This is called “chirality,” and any account of the origin of life must somehow explain the origin of chirality. Nearly all chemical reactions produce “racemic” mixtures–mixtures with products that are 50% L and 50% R.

Two more problems are not mentioned in the article. A non-peptide bond anywhere in the chain will ruin the chain. You need around 200 amino acids to make a protein. If any of the bonds is not a peptide bond, the chain will not work in a living system. Additionally, the article does not mention the need for the experimenter to intervene in order to prevent interfering cross-reactions that would prevent the amino acids from forming.

Filed under: News, , ,

Stephen C. Meyer debates Peter D. Ward on intelligent design and evolution

The speakers

Stephen C. Meyer is director of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture (CSC) and a founder both of the intelligent design movement and of the CSC, intelligent design’s primary intellectual and scientific headquarters. Dr. Meyer is a Cambridge University-trained philosopher of science, the author of peer-reviewed publications in technical, scientific, philosophical and other books and journals. His signal contribution to ID theory is given most fully in Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design, published by HarperOne in June 2009.

Graduating from Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington, in 1981 with a degree in physics and earth science, he later became a geophysicist with Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO) in Dallas, Texas. From 1981 to 1985, he worked for ARCO in digital signal processing and seismic survey interpretation. As a Rotary International Scholar, he received his training in the history and philosophy of science at Cambridge University, earning a PhD in 1991. His thesis offered a methodological interpretation of origin-of-life research.

Peter D. Ward, Ph.D., is a paleontologist and professor in the Departments of Geology and Biology at the University of Washington in Seattle. He also serves as an adjunct professor of zoology and astronomy. His research specialties include the Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction event and mass extinctions generally. His books include the best-selling “Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe” (co-author Donald Brownlee, 2000), “Under a Green Sky: Global Warming, the Mass Extinctions of the Past, and What They Can Tell Us About Our Future” (2007), and “The Medea Hypothesis: Is Life on Earth Ultimately Self-Destructive?” (2009).

The debate

Here’s the video of the debate:

The debate itself starts at around 8:19, after all the moderators have spoken.

The debate is focused on disagreements about scientific evidence.

Even though Peter Ward is an atheist, he has co-written a fabulous book that I own and have read called “Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe“. I really recommend getting this book, as it is a great book by two non-theists on the habitability argument. It’s sort of a secular precursor to Jay Richards’ and Guillermo Gonzalez’s “The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos is Designed for Discovery“. The habitability argument is a really neglected argument, but it’s a good one.

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