Asperis

Ideas, rants and raves, with emphasis on Science, Politics, Personal Growth and Finance

Answers NOT in Genesis #2: Origins of Life and creationist propaganda-babble

Posted by The Lukester on December 18, 2005

Once again, Answers in Genesis purposely confuses the issues surrounding evolutionary science, this time in their article Natural processes—can they explain the origin of life? by staff writer Pam S. Sheppard

This “confusion” is one of many arguments used by creationists. Instead of addressing the science, they misrepresent it badly, then construct a phony argument against the misrepresentation. Other strategies include quote mining – creating long lists of out-of-context and thereby misleading quotes by scientists, focusing on areas of research as “problems” (or criticizing early research for being incorrect, yet ignoring later research) and of course the good old ad hominum argument: say something nasty about a person doing real science.

Note that any organization using arguments like these says a lot about the organization itself; that they have no foundation in rational argument so they must obfuscate instead. I can condone making errors like these in, say, heated argument, or in an email exchange where much context is assumed. But to use these techniques as strategy is not acceptable. I find it utterly perplexing that AIG pursues this course. What is the value of arguments won by lies?

The article mostly follows the work of Mike Riddle, an ex-marine and now a “consultant” on evolutionary issues in schools helping (apparently fundamentalist) parent groups select “appropriate” biology textbooks for their children. Riddle dismisses some texts as including “content long since disproven such as the peppered moth and Haeckel’s embryos.”

First, the peppered moth is NOT disproven. Though there are some objections to the early experiments, the fundamental processes that the experiment exemplifies are still true and valuable, especially as a teaching example. See http://www.talkorigins.org/indexcc/CB/CB601.html for an excellent overview and references to the specific research.. Second, while Haekle indeed used doctored photographs over-emphasizing embryonic similarities across species, his research has been repeated using correct images. These accurate images show that both the similarities and differences among embryos are consistent with – and make a stronger case for – evolutionary theory. See http://www.talkorigins.org/indexcc/CB/CB701.html for more information.

(Note, I reference Talk.Origins a lot, since they’ve done such a fantastic job organizing the relevant material, and putting it into a context useful for addressing creationists’ claims. I recommend anyone – especially a fundamentalist with an open mind – to spend some time there)

Sheppard/Riddle then spends a significant amount of time attacking Miller’s 1953 experiment in which Miller passed an electric spark through a mixture of water, methane, hydrogen and ammonia (to simulate lightning strikes in a theorized “primordial soup” of the earth’s early atmosphere) and got biological precursor chemicals such as amino acids and small organics. Riddle objects to the resulting mixture of right and left “handedness” of the resulting molecules (real life tends to prefer only “left handed” molecules), claiming it debunks Miller’s research (see Talk.Origin’s comments on this). He also claims that Miller “purposely chose which gases to include” which somehow invalidates the experiments.

A few points about this. Most importantly, origin-of-life explanations are not required for evolutionary theory to be valid. Riddle claims that “since any biological evolution is first dependent upon life first starting, evolution has no foundation or starting point for their model”. But in fact, even if God DID create the first forms of life, evolutionary fact and theory would be just as valid as they are today. Evolutionary theory is about how biological entities change and mutate and evolve, not about where the first entities came from. That said, evolutionary theory both informs – and is informed by – origin-of-life research. Advances in the biochemistry of evolution point to possible origin-of-life scenarios, and early “life” and its precursors would have been impacted by evolutionary processes. For an excellent article on this topic, see Jump-Starting a Cellular World: Investigating the Origin of Life, from Soup to Networks.

Back to Miller: first, all valid experiments add to scientific knowledge, and this was a first in a long chain of important research. Miller didn’t attempt to “explain” the origin of life, but rather to test a hypothesis about early conditions. In that he succeeded famously, but no respectable scientist thinks he proved anything about abiogenisis. Second, all science is a long history of building on the work done before. Early science is – by definition – “early”. The Model T is a historical precursor to the fighter jet, yet the fact that the Model T didn’t fly does not make flight impossible. In fact there has been some very exciting research and speculation done on abiogenisis since Miller’s time, some of it including new information about the earth’s early atmosphere (see the above article for examples).

Riddle then floats a few more of the standard creationism pseudo-arguments. There’s the problem with ‘life being too complicated to have evolved “even a small protein”’ argument. But this implies a lot of assumptions about such a “small protein,” even that it formed randomly. It’s possible, even likely, early proteins were themselves the result of evolutionary forces. See http://www.talkorigins.org/indexcc/CB/CB010.html for further information.

Then there’s the information theory canard, claiming that “life evolved from lifeless chemicals into a complex cell consisting of vast amounts of information…”. Not only does this approach demonstrate ignorance of basic Information Theory, but the argument fails anyway, since “complex” systems are found in nature even when “life” is not involved. No deity is required to form a snowflake, or shape a spiral galaxy. More specifically, one can claim a deity is involved, but not that the science demonstrates the existence of that deity.

When Riddle says that “Both science and the Bible agree that only God could create life”, he continues one of the fundamental lies of creationism: Science does not and can not demonstrate the existence of a supernatural origin to life. Science looks only at the natural, material world. All the evidence and all the results are based in the natural world. The amazing success of science over the centuries demonstrate the effectiveness of that approach. Even if God personally did direct the origin of life and its subsequent evolution, that does not contradict the conclusions of science. To twist the conclusions of science, to lie about the results and crowbar them into one specific interpretation of a religious doctrine, insults both the science and insults the religion.

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