Evolution v. Creation Watch: A Caution about Jumping to Conclusions

Abiogenesis (how life may have come from nonlife) continues to be a thorny problem for science, but ID people and creationists should be careful about running too quickly to the conclusion that the problem is insoluble.

I was reminded of this today when a thread commenter at this blog brought up the name of Jack Szostak, an abiogenesis researcher. I thought that I had never heard of him, then had a hunch that he might have been associated with the article that appeared in May, in the New York Times, on a breakthrough in abiogenesis research. Sure enough, he was quoted in the Times article, and below is the post that I wrote in response. I still think it is a relevant lesson in epistemic caution (whether you are an atheist, an agnostic, or a theist):

May 13, 2009

A major science story today (in the New York Times) reminds us to be cautious about what we might regard as “impossible” and capable of explanation only via a “miracle.”

Exhibit A: One of the great problems of evolution is how life’s RNA building blocks—that is, its nucleotides—could have gotten started on the primitive Earth in the first place. Creationists have often insisted that RNA molecules are so complex that they could have appeared on our planet only via direct intervention by God. But the New York Times reports today that a perhaps historic solution to this prebiotic chemical puzzle may have been found. A paper on the molecular experiments of John Sutherland, an English chemist, is scheduled to appear tomorrow in the prestigious science journal, Nature: 

The spontaneous appearance of . . . [RNA] nucleotides on the primitive earth “would have been a near miracle,” two leading researchers, Gerald Joyce and Leslie Orgel, wrote in 1999. Others were so despairing that they believed some other molecule must have preceded RNA and started looking for a pre-RNA world.

The miracle seems now to have been explained. In the article in Nature, Dr. Sutherland and his colleagues Matthew W. Powner and Béatrice Gerland report that they have taken the same starting chemicals used by others but have caused them to react in a different order and in different combinations than in previous experiments. They discovered their recipe, which is far from intuitive, after 10 years of working through every possible combination of starting chemicals.

Instead of making the starting chemicals form a sugar and a base, they mixed them in a different order, in which the chemicals naturally formed a compound that is half-sugar and half-base. When another half-sugar and half-base are added, the RNA nucleotide called ribocytidine phosphate emerges.

A second nucleotide is created if ultraviolet light is shined on the mixture. Dr. Sutherland said he had not yet found natural ways to generate the other two types of nucleotides found in RNA molecules, but synthesis of the first two was thought to be harder to achieve.

In other words, a major obstacle to the natural and spontaneous generation of the building blocks of life seems not to be an obstacle afterall. And the New York Times article quotes a scientist as saying that the discovery appears to represent something historic—”one of the great advances in prebiotic chemistry”:

“It is precisely because this work opens up so many new directions for research that it will stand for years as one of the great advances in prebiotic chemistry,” Jack Szostak of the Massachusetts General Hospital wrote in a commentary in Nature, where the work is being published on Thursday.

In short, it appears that a directly intervening and miracle-working God is not, in fact, necessary to the formation of RNA nucleotides. Thus science appears to be closing in yet again on another big “God of the gaps” argument used by creationists and “intelligent design” advocates to suggest that life on Earth can only be the product of an actively intervening fashioner.

This is not to say that God doesn’t exist. It is only to say that God seems not to be necessary to explain RNA nucleotides. It may be, of course, that the “God of the gaps” in our knowledge lingers and hides elsewhere, or (S)he designed the universe so that its chemistry would, under the right conditions, naturally and spontaneously go organic.

And that might make a good Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s grocery slogan: “3.8 billion years ago Earth went organic. Now how about you?”

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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4 Responses to Evolution v. Creation Watch: A Caution about Jumping to Conclusions

  1. TomH says:

    From the article in Science News, “But while this is a step forward, it’s not the whole picture,” Ferris points out. “It’s not as simple as putting compounds in a beaker and mixing it up. It’s a series of steps. You still have to stop and purify and then do the next step, and that probably didn’t happen in the ancient world.” http://www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/43723/title/How_RNA_got_started

    Not to take away from Sutherland et. al.’s clever chemistry–but there’s still a bit of overreaching to think that there aren’t still serious problems with RNA synthesis in an early-earth context. This is a baby step, important though it is.

    Your point about overreaching in the other direction, of course, is quite valid.

  2. santitafarella says:

    Tom:

    You provide an excellent caution. What they achieved in the lab may not be capable of replication in the natural world—which would seem to strengthen the intelligent design hypothesis.

    —Santi

    • Jimfromsac@aol.com says:

      Intelligent design does not even qualify as a hypothesis, but a cop out. I can’t think or understand, therefore God did it.

  3. TomH says:

    I view the underdetermination problem a little differently. I see theoretically an infinite number of theories in the theory-space which might correspond to the phenomenological-reality-space of potential observations, so that the reduction of confidence in one theory doesn’t significantly alter the confidence in others.

    Hence, I don’t see a lack of support for abiogenesis as necessarily strengthening ID. My position is eccentric, but I think that it’s more accurate than the two-model view of phil. of sci.

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