Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Insanity from ARN. Surprise!

Every time I think the Access Research Network has published the dumbest thing imaginable, they go publish something new to prove me wrong.

The following brief missive was written by ARN contirbutor Tom Magnussen, whose gift for imaginative stupidity will be well-familiar to loyal ARN readers. Magnussen is charged with providing brief summaries for the news articles ARN sees fit to link to.

Magnussen was discussing this PBS interview with Harvard biology professor Andy Knoll. Here, in their entirety, are Magnussen's comments, exactly as they originally appeared:

While this interview on PBS occurred last year, no new discoveries have been made since. Andrew Knoll is a professor of biology at Harvard University.

Dr. Knoll stated a number of times that we do not know how life came about on planet earth. In science, since he CANNOT even consider extra-natural means, he MUST use the evolutionary paradigm as the creation story. If he have no idea how it happened, how does he know that it happened? Because we're here!...and Darwinism just has to be true! How convincing!

Darwinists often become irritated when it is pointed out that we have NO idea how life started. This fact is a defeater of evolution. They say that Darwinism is not about how life got started, but rather, how life evolved. Sorry, but they need to explain the kick off as well.

So if we do not know how something happened we can not be certain that it happened at all? That's going to come as news to people like William Dembski, whose writings routinely assert that we can infer the action of a designer in nature without knowing anything about who the designer is or how he carried out his will. Since ID folks steadfastly refuse to tell us anything at all about the designer or his actions, Magnussen's ridicule applies with equal force to them.

Of course, it's ridiculous to claim that we have no idea how life started. As described here, we know quite a bit about the likely steps that led to the first living organism. There is no shortage of possible scenarios to explain the emergence of life. These scenarios are united by the fact that they hypothesize nothing that is known to be impossible, and that is enough to refute the claim that supernatural action must be invoked to explain life's origin.

But let's suppose we genuinely had no idea how life emerged. Would that justify Magnussen's comment about evolution being defeated? Of course not, and for precisely the reason he mentions. Evolution has nothing to do with the origin of life. Magnussen's statement that “evolution must explain the kickoff as well” makes as much sense as suggesting that since evolution does not enable us to predict eclipses, it must be arrant nonsense.

For heaven's sake, what could Magnussen possibly be suggesting here? That we should simply discard all the evidence for common descent and natural selection because we have not yet explained the origin of life? The fossil evidence, the studies in comparitive genomics and anatomy, the embryological evidence, the field studies of natural selection and observed instances of evolution in the wild, and the many other branches of science that suggest common descent count for nothing because the origin of life has not been explained? Is that what Magnussen believes?

As for Knoll, I guess we can all feel some sympathy for the guy, being constitutionally unable to even conceive that supernatural forces were responsible for life's origin. On the other hand, we ought to least show him the courtesy of letting him say for himself what he thinks about the origins of life:

NOVA: What is the recipe for life?

Knoll: The recipe for life is not that complicated. There are a limited number of elements inside your body. Most of your mass is carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, sulfur, plus some nitrogen and phosphorous. There are a couple dozen other elements that are in there in trace amounts, but to a first approximation you're just a bag of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen.

Now, it turns out that the atmosphere is a bag of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen as well, and it's not living. So the real issue here is, how do you take that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (or methane in an early atmosphere) and water vapor and other sources of hydrogen—how do you take those simple, inorganic precursors and make them into the building blocks of life?

There was a famous experiment done by Stanley Miller when he was a graduate student at the University of Chicago in the early 1950s. Miller essentially put methane, or natural gas, ammonia, hydrogen gas, and water vapor into a beaker. That wasn't a random mixture; at the time he did the experiment, that was at least one view of what the primordial atmosphere would have looked like.

Then he did a brilliant thing. He simply put an electric charge through that mixture to simulate lightning going through an early atmosphere. After sitting around for a couple of days, all of a sudden there was this brown goo all over the reaction vessel. When he analyzed what was in the vessel, rather than only having methane and ammonia, he actually had amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins. In fact, he had them in just about the same proportions you would find if you looked at organic matter in a meteorite. So the chemistry that Miller was discovering in this wonderful experiment was not some improbable chemistry, but a chemistry that is widely distributed throughout our solar system.

NOVA: So life is really chemistry.

Knoll: Life really is a form of chemistry, a particular form in which the chemicals can lead to their own reproduction. But the important thing, I think, is that when we think about the origin of life this way, it isn't that life is somehow different from the rest of the planet. Life is something that emerges on a developing planetary surface as part and parcel of the chemistry of that surface.

Life is also sustained by the planet itself. That is, all of the nutrients that go into the oceans and end up getting incorporated into biology, at first they're locked up in rocks and then they are eroded from rocks, enter the oceans, and take part in a complex recycling that ensures that there's always carbon and nitrogen and phosphorous available for each new generation of organisms.

The most interesting thought of all is that not only does life arise as a product of planetary processes, but in the fullness of time, on this planet at least, life emerged as a suite of planetary processes that are important in their own right. We're sitting here today breathing an oxygen-rich mixture of air. We couldn't be here without that oxygen, but that oxygen wasn't present on the early Earth, and it only became present because of the activity of photosynthetic organisms. So in a nutshell, life is really part of the fabric of a planet like Earth.

Knoll says much more beyond this, and I recommend reading the whole interview.

Comparing Knoll's remarks to Magnussen's makes very clear what pathetic simpletons ID proponents really are. People like Magnussen do not even try to explain the origin of life. To them, ignorance of nature's workings is a good thing, since it then becomes easier to believe in God. They see the progress of science as alarming, since each new discovery seems to make God that much more superfluous. For them God's glory is found not in the ability of humans to learn, via hard work and long hours, the workings of nature, but rather in the inability of humans to solve fundamental problems. Forgive me if I am not inspired by such a God.

I'll throw my hat in with Knoll, thank you very much. Will the origin of life ever yield to scientific study? I don't know. But I do know that no mystery of nature has ever yielded to anything other than scientific study. I know that history is littered with countless examples of cowards and simpletons drawing intellectual lines in the sand only to have those lines crossed by people smarter and more imaginative than they. And I know that science is indeed making progress on the problem, Manussen's expectorations notwithstanding. Now that's inspiring.


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