Does ribozyme research prove Darwinian evolution?
5 August 2006
This feedback comes from DB of California, a 16-year-old agnostic with a great interest in chemical evolutionary theories. While agreeing that creationist criticisms are factually accurate, he disagrees with the conclusion. Thus a particular experiment with ribozymes is discussed in some detail, as well as a number of other issues in the origin of first life, but it was also necessary to address a few of DB’s claims about the problem of evil, human evolution and philosophy of science. Dr Jonathan Sarfati responds to the points.
First, I will introduce myself as an inquisitive sixteen year old who has a profound interest in biochemistry. Another relevant fact about myself is that I am an agnostic (I am an atheist concerning the existence of the Judeo-Christian God) who was considering becoming a catechumen in the Roman Catholic Church later last year.
Origin of life (OOL) skeptic
I must add that the literature of Professor Robert Shapiro of NYU (mainly his book Origins) and Professor Gerald Joyce of the Scripps Research Institute has profoundly influenced my views.
Naturally I am very familiar with their work, and have analyzed their views in previous articles, as is easily verifiable (e.g. see Origin of life: instability of building blocks). I read Origins: A Skeptic’s Guide to the Origin of Life well before I joined CMI, and it supported my skepticism about chemical evolution. In this book, he supported a protein-first scenario rather than an RNA-first one. And in the work cited in the previous link, and as you would know from your own reading, he was still skeptical of the RNA-first idea:
‘the evidence that is available at the present time does not support the idea that RNA, or an alternative replicator that uses the current set of RNA bases, was present at the start of life.’
And in case you haven’t read the links (given that there are many others you have overlooked when writing this email), I will remind you of Shapiro’s dogmatism in Origins, in a striking admission that no amount of evidence would upset his faith:
‘some future day may yet arrive when all reasonable chemical experiments run to discover a probable origin of life have failed unequivocally. Further, new geological evidence may yet indicate a sudden appearance of life on the earth. Finally, we may have explored the universe and found no trace of life, or processes leading to life, elsewhere. Some scientists might choose to turn to religion for an answer. Others, however, myself included, would attempt to sort out the surviving less probable scientific explanations in the hope of selecting one that was still more likely than the remainder.’
Origins has transformed me into a skeptic as I remember the Skeptic in his book constantly questions every proposed hypothesis regarding the origin of life. Also Shapiro portrayed science not as a body of information, but as a method of inquiry. In the case of science, knowledge is derived from empirical evidence usually by observations or by controlled repeatable experimentation. Furthermore, scientific theories, unlikely religious dogmas, are tentative as they are subject to change when new information is obtained.
Unfortunately, the actual dogma lies with the worshipers of the church of evolution, ‘Darwiniacs’ as Ann Coulter called them in her new book Godless: The Church of Liberalism, who refuse to acknowledge any information that does not conform to their beliefs and demand complete and total indoctrination of every child who attends the public education system. As Miss Coulter correctly pointed out:
‘They cling to Darwinism even as the contrary evidence accumulates, because it allows them to ignore God … [and they] will not admit evolution is a crock until they have concocted a new creation myth that also excludes God.’
In the correct definition of the word, it is a religion; a religion funded by taxpayer dollars.
One should always scrutinize the evidence critically and not follow popular opinion blindly, which is encouraged in the sciences. An example of this is Robert Shapiro’s views on the origin of life, which are diametrically opposite the established paradigm, as he is a critic of the vogue RNA World hypothesis. Shapiro’s emphasis on critical thinking had a profound impact on my life. After reading Origins, a valuable lesson I learned is that one should apply critical thinking in all aspects in life and not restrict it in a few areas such as the sciences.
But evidently not enough to make you skeptical of materialism.
Problem of evil
This lesson made me examine my nascent faith, and I found that the concept of a benevolent God is not congruent with reality, thus making me reject Catholicism.
Here is an example of a throwaway line, which does you no credit. You have made not the slightest attempt to demonstrate a contradiction between a benevolent God and reality. Mind you, a philosophy prof. was not much better: see the answer to him on the problem of evil; see also Answering angry anti-Christianity, especially on the point that evil is not a ‘thing’ but a privation of good, and the links therein.
Also, C.S. Lewis pointed out decades ago that your idea of benevolence in the first place is incongruent with reality if we are just rearranged pond scum with no absolute moral lawgiver. So you have no basis under your belief system for making this argument in the first place.
I’m not sure how you could even make a case for incongruence with reality. Here is the usual attempt:
- An all-powerful God could get rid of evil
- A perfect God would want to get rid of evil
- Evil exists
The first two are held to be the judeo-Christian premises, while #3 is indisputable, so antitheists draw the conclusion that no perfect and all powerful God exists. Others resort to schemes where God is not all-powerful, e.g. ‘open theism’ and ‘process theology’. However, Christian philosophers have long argued that Premise 2 should be extended to:
2′. A perfect God would want to get rid of evil unless He has a good reason for allowing it.
Then there is no incompatibility with #3. Since no antitheist can show that there is no possible good reason for allowing evil, since that would be a universal negative, the argument collapses as logical disproof of theism. We have argued that one good reason for God’s allowing evil in the world today is a judgment resulting from the Fall.
Apologists have also long pointed out that #2 is not
2″. A perfect God would want to get rid of evil immediately (otherwise he would have to destroy all of us)
While premise 3 would be better stated as:
3′. Evil exists for now but will one day be destroyed (as the Bible says)
1, 2/2‛ and 3‛ are certainly compatible.
Science v religion?
The irony of this is that the critics of various origins of life hypotheses (like Shapiro and Professor Leslie Orgel) initially made me consider the existence of God even though they do not believe in God, (Shapiro is an agnostic/Orgel is probably an atheist) but ultimately helped me reject the existence of a benevolent God. In addition, I realized that science and religion do not mix well.
Pity that Newton, Boyle, Pascal, Faraday, Pasteur, Maxwell, Joule and many others weren’t around to benefit from your wisdom. However, you are around to benefit from the wisdom of those who can document that science first flourished in a biblical judeo-Christian milieu, for example Stanley Jaki and Loren Eiseley and most recently Rodney Stark. I explained the reasons in Creationist contributions to science. (See also Newton was a creationist only because there was no alternative?.)
Science relies on objective evidence,
This would be news to prominent philosophers and historians of science. ‘Facts do not “speak for themselves”; they are read in the light of theory,’ as the late Marxist paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould pointed out [Ever Since Darwin, 1978]. Gould also said:
‘Our ways of learning about the world are strongly influenced by the social preconceptions and biased modes of thinking that each scientist must apply to any problem. The stereotype of a fully rational and objective “scientific method”, with individual scientists as logical (and interchangeable) robots is self-serving mythology.’
‘At this point, it is necessary to reveal a little inside information about how scientists work, something the textbooks don’t usually tell you. The fact is that scientists are not really as objective and dispassionate in their work as they would like you to think. Most scientists first get their ideas about how the world works not through rigorously logical processes but through hunches and wild guesses. As individuals, they often come to believe something to be true long before they assemble the hard evidence that will convince somebody else that it is. Motivated by faith in his own ideas and a desire for acceptance by his peers, a scientist will labor for years knowing in his heart that his theory is correct but devising experiment after experiment whose results he hopes will support his position.’
while religion relies on faith and dogmatism and its evidence is often subjective, usually in the manifestation of personal experiences, which evade controlled experimentation.
On what do you base this categorical claim? You won’t find this in my explanation to an agnostic why it is rational to trust the axioms of Christianity. What about the 50 Ph.D. scientists who contributed to In Six Days? Leading apologist William Lane Craig defends the faith with the Kalām Cosmological Argument and explains that the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is the best explanation for a number of historical facts. Craig lists four: The burial, empty tomb, post-mortem appearances, and the origin of the disciples’ belief (see his debate with apostate Bart Ehrman (PDF)). James Patrick Holding, founder of Tekton Apologetics Ministries, explains 17 factors that meant Christianity could not have succeeded in the ancient world, unless it was backed up with irrefutable proof of the Resurrection (The Impossible Faith: Or, How Not to Start an Ancient Religion).
I also noticed that Shapiro was free of any dogmatic influences when interpreting the experimental data (this is evident in his cytosine, adenine, ribose papers and his analysis of Professor James Ferris’ montmorillonite model in his latest origin of life paper) so he is able to perform an objective assessment of the evidence.
How is it the epitome of objectivity to reject theistic explanations a priori while it is mere religious bias to accept them (cf. The religion of scientism)?
Surely, one could argue that a God exists (usually from the argument from design), but does it logically follow that such a God is benevolent, especially when exposed to the various cases of human suffering in the world.
Never claimed it did, and we have made that point before, in relation to ID theorist Wm. Dembski and ex-atheist philosopher Antony Flew.
Of course, Shapiro not only influenced me in this respect, as I also share his views about certain origin of life hypotheses.
Such as that life did not start with RNA.
As I mentioned before, another person who has influenced me is Professor Joyce, even though we do not agree with one another regarding the complex topic of the origin of life.
Does this include:
‘The most reasonable assumption is that life did not start with RNA…. The transition to an RNA world, like the origins of life in general, is fraught with uncertainty and is plagued by a lack of experimental data.’ [RNA evolution and the origins of life. Nature 338:217–224, 1989]
In his literature, Joyce advocates the definition of life as a self-sustaining system capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution. In other words, life is evolution! Thus, it would not be prudent to omit the teaching of evolution in high school biology class.
I agree. In fact, we would like to see students taught more about evolution than the evolutionists want them to know. Conversely, many evolutionists don’t want students to learn the problems with evolution in case they end up disbelieving it, as Eugenie Scott admitted. And are you happy when the Miller–Urey experiments are presented to students almost as if life itself had formed spontaneously, or if the RNA world was presented as fact?
‘The worlds of prebiotic chemistry and primitive biology lie on opposite sides of the defining moment for life, when darwinian evolution first began to operate ... Once a general mechanism existed for self-replication, allowing the introduction of variation and the ability to replicate those variants, darwinian evolution began to operate. This marked the beginning of life.’ — Joyce, Gerald F. (2002). The antiquity of RNA-based evolution. Nature 418:214-221; pp. 214–215.
If we accept Joyce’s definition of life, one must what is the position of the species Homo sapiens in the universe. Are humans just another branch on the tree of life, descended from primates, which in turn are descended from a primitive common ancestor whose lineage is characterized by unbroken continuity spanning 3.8 billion years?
That indeed is a problem for theistic evolutionists. But since I try not to hold mutually contradictory ideas (like theism and evolution) in the same skull, I don’t have that worry.
I have accepted that humans are nothing more than units of hereditary material,
So why are you bothering to tell me this instead of making sure your material is inherited (cf. some implications of this philosophy)?
which are capable of being influenced by the processes of Darwinian evolution, but we have the power to add subjective purpose to our own lives unlike other animals. Could Joyce’s definition of life be reconciled with Christian theology, which proposes that the purpose of human life is to have eternal fellowship with God, not simply vectors for genes whose purpose is to simply multiply? If so, one has to demonstrate that humanity is the exception to the inherent disteleology [sic] of Darwinian evolution.
Dysteleology is essentially a theological argument, not a scientific one, as pointed out before. In any case, why should I demonstrate that humanity is an exception to evolution when I don’t believe in evolution?
But the evidence speaks against such a supposition. We could be influenced by the forces of nature in detrimental way like all other organisms on Earth.
Of course, because all of us live in a fallen world.
For example, humanity is not exempt from the malady of the bubonic plague, nor where the thousands of people who died in the calamity of the Indian Ocean tsunami where spared from that force of nature. Is this the testimony of a God of loves each one of us on a personal level?
Yes, but also of a God who is holy enough to punish Adam’s sin with a judgment on the whole creation of which he was head. As all of us are sinners, we are not exempt from the consequences, which is not to say that the worst sinners suffer the worst consequences in this life. We have already explained this in Waves of sadness: Tsunami terror raises age-old questions.
I might have stumbled upon the reason why some Christians think that young-Earth creationism is a necessity for their faith as opposed to theistic evolution. Under this framework, the Fall is a justification for the suffering of humanity, but unfortunately there is ample evidence supporting human evolution (I will not elaborate as I do not claim to be an expert in this field).
It is also interesting that with such ‘ample evidence’ you couldn’t elaborate enough to provide even one example. You appear to be adhering to a belief of human evolution that you are unable to substantiate with fact, and your inability to elaborate could indicate ‘blind faith’.
The message above is far from conveying the optimistic tone of the Gospel, which states that one could be endowed salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, but it is consistent with empirical reality especially in the light of human suffering.
Faith in Jesus Christ is compatible with the historical evidence that could have been examined empirically by His contemporaries. Chemical evolution that you now believe in has no such evidence. It would actually be a good exercise to follow Dr Craig’s explanation of the probability of Jesus’ resurrection (using Bayes’ theorem), and then plug in the data for origin of life research, and compare the probabilities. It might just indicate that you have put your faith in the wrong place.
I do believe that creationists are afraid of dealing with reality, thus they dogmatically adhere to doctrines such young-Earth creationism to palliate the pain of human suffering.
Conversely, you should examine why you are dogmatically adhering to a doctrine of Darwinian evolution that you cannot support by fact. Who's really ignoring reality here?
However, Professor Joyce does not elaborate on the moral implications of his definition of life nor I do I think he completely agrees with me, and he certainly is not an ethicist, but I respect him as a competent scientist.
So do I. So I tend to trust his data, disagree with the materialistic paradigm under which he interprets the data, but take any ethical pronouncement with a grain of sugar.
I will start off by mentioning that I used to be somewhat sympathetic towards the notion of so-called ‘Intelligent Design’.
This whole hype on hydrothermal systems and everything is just bogus.
But falling into the evidentialist roller coaster.
Such evidence is found here [link deleted as per feedback rules] when I was rebutting a ‘critique’ by Dr Gary Hurd regarding Dr Sarfati’s analysis of hydrothermal polypeptide synthesis.
Thank you for that. Yes, it’s amazing what happens when people like Hurd, whose main qualification is in social science, decide to become atheist apologists and start writing for gutter sites taking on chemists in their own field. It’s really bizarre that he accused me of ignorance of Wächterhäuser’s work when my second footnote linked to the more detailed article Origin of life: the polymerization problem which critiques his theory in detail. Anyway, leading OOL researcher Jeffrey Bada scathingly denounced this idea:
‘This whole hype on hydrothermal systems and everything is just bogus.’
I must add that I have written it when I was sympathetic to Catholicism, but currently I do not retain those sentiments. I still retain most of my technical criticism from that post even though I am not skeptical of abiogenesis anymore. This was also written at I time when I did not have access to that many online journals (hence why I referred some creationist resources), but I have access to computers from a university library now, which would grant me such access.
Yes, very handy. It is useful to see how even chemical evolutionists knock gaping holes in the theories of other chemical evolutionists. Even without the online access, it is not too hard to find, e.g. Cairns-Smith’s devastating criticisms of RNA-first and general Miller–Urey scenarios.
I will then discuss the topic of the origin of life, a topic that I pursue on my own free time as a hobby.
Personally, I find it quite sad that my fellow skeptics do not express any skepticism towards origin of life research.
I must agree. In many cases, it is an unhealthy combination of an atheistic belief system and ignorance of the chemistry involved.
Even though I immensely disagree with young-Earth creationism, I must say that most of the technical materials regarding the origin of life on CMI’s website, depict the facts quite accurately,
Thanks, we try. It helps to have chemistry specialists on staff.
even though I obviously disagree with the creationist conclusion. This is in stark contrast to Ian Musgrave’s hilariously atrocious article about abiogenesis. Does he really believe or expects us to believe that peptides are capable of self-replication and the prebiotic ocean could form 1049 oligonucleotides up to 200 nucleotides long!!??
Who knows what Musgrave believes? Like Hurd, his purpose in life is apparently to show there is no purpose. He should stick to neurology because his chemistry is abysmal, and his article is deceitful. For example, his diagram (right, with that red ‘negation’ graphic in front to show that it is not a true representation) is a complete distortion of what creationists believe. As you have verified, we understand perfectly that chemical evolution is proposed as per the ‘real theory’, precisely because we address the proposed stages in detail. Indeed, long ago, Ph.D. biochemist Duane Gish wrote a three part critique of chemical evolution (linked here), dealing with simple chemicals, theories of polymerization, and the development of complexity and protobiont models.
Musgrave is also besotted with the Ghadiri peptide that I showed in detail was irrelevant for chemical evolution (see Self-replicating Peptides?).
For probabilities, see Probabilities of randomly assembling a primitive cell on Earth.
Where’s the evidence for profound claims of this nature?? The origin of life is certainly a complex topic and by no means our scientific understanding is even complete.
Indeed not. This year, an article sympathetic to chemical evolution had to admit:
‘[The Origin of Life] is full of unknowns and uncertainties, of raging controversies, of passions and prejudices. Of all the great unknowns, the origin of life is particularly daunting. Direct evidence of the origin is essentially nonexistent: It happened too long ago, in too subtle a way. There’s no fossil of the First Microbe … In the words of George Cody, an origin-of-life researcher, “No one knows anything about the origin of life.” …
‘Hazen [another OOL researcher] writes that the origin-of-life field is “at times tarnished by questionable data, contentious debates, or even outright quackery.”‘
Non-creationist information theorist Hubert Yockey also argued that Chemical evolution is based on (blind) faith not fact
I admire the efforts of various origins of life researchers such as Gerald Joyce and Leslie Orgel who are working to improve our understanding on the origin of life through laboratory experimentation, even though I disagree with them.
Although as a physical/inorganic chemist, I think Orgel, famous for ‘Orgel diagrams’ in ligand field theory of metal complexes, was a great loss to my field and at best a draw for biochemistry. For example, Orgel’s First Rule:
‘Whenever a spontaneous process is too slow or too inefficient, a protein will evolve to speed it up or make it more efficient.’
But consider the problems with this, because without a protein efficient enough for some processes, there could be no life, therefore no Darwinian evolution. See World record enzymes.
However, Orgel did make it clear how living organisms could be distinguished from non-living things:
‘Living things are distinguished by their specified complexity. Crystals such as granite fail to qualify as living because they lack complexity; mixtures of random polymers fail to qualify because they lack specificity.’
That is, specified complexity is not some illegitimate invention of the intelligent design movement, but really is something different from both order and randomness.
At least they are doing something!!
Reminds me of the brilliant British television political satire, Yes, Minister. In one episode (‘Party Games’), two head civil servants (Sir Arnold Robinson and Sir Humphrey Appleby) illustrated ‘politician’s logic’:
1) Something must be done;
2) This is something;
∴ We must do it.
As pointed out in the program (see clip below), this is just as invalid as:
1) All cats have four legs;
2) My dog has four legs;
∴ My dog is a cat.