Monday, February 06, 2006


In the last post I introduced the article “On the Origins of Life” by David Berlinski in the Feb’06 issue of Commentary Magazine. Berlinski lists the six basic assumptions of life's origin that are the fundamentals of the standard biochemical model. It is unfortunate that the scientific understanding of this crucial step in the trail to human beings is poorly understood. Please allow me to explain.

1. The pre-biotic atmosphere was reductive. That is, the atmosphere contained Hydrogen atoms available to give up electrons in order to promote chemical reactions. Indeed, Stanley Miller of Miller-Urey fame made it clear: "Either you have a reducing atmosphere or you're not going to have the organic compounds required for life."

Unfortunately, geochemists now believe that the pre-biotic atmosphere was neutral rather than reductive, consisting mainly of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, water, sulpher dioxide and some oxygen. This is a big problem for the origin of life model.

2, 3. Nature found a way to synthesize cytosine and ribose. Cytosine and dextro-ribose were essential to life's origin and have never been created in any pre-biotic experiment. Beyond the living cell, not a trace of cytosine has ever been found. The same can be said for dextro-ribose. Its synthesis by Albert Eschenmoser in 1990 was critically dependent on his physical intercession. These are two more big problems for the origin of life model.

4, 5. Nature found the means to assemble nucleotides into polynucleotides, and discovered a self-replicating molecule. Chemists have been able to promote polymerization of pre-biotic nucleotides, but the resulting polynucleotide sequences are RANDOM. They are not RNA and RNA was required. So what are the odds?

Gustaf Arrhenius showed that the minimum sequence of nucleotides that would "demonstrate ligase activity" is roughly 100 nucleotides in length. The odds of randomly creating a 100 nucleotide piece of RNA is 1 in 4 (^100) or 1 in 10(^60), daunting odds indeed. Of course the RNA piece needs a template to replicate against so a minimum of two polynucleotides are required, at the same time and place, pushing the odds to 1 in 10(^120). Of course these 2 molecules would have to be buffered against competing reactions, and productive enough so that their duplicates would not vanish before reproducing again, and .... Ever heard of miracles?... or just two more big problems for the origin of life model?

6. Having done all that, nature promoted a self-replicating molecule into a full system of coded chemistry. This is where it becomes really difficult, even conceptually difficult. Even if the self-replicating RNA were available (see 4, 5) to manage the genetic information, how was the translation of information to the amino acid workers (proteins) achieved? We now know it required a "genetic code" but how did that arise? How could a pre-biotic form of RNA have aquired the ability to code for various proteins before coding was useful? Why did the ribozymes expedite their own obsolence?

In the 2005 issue of the journal RNA, Carl Woese referred to this problem as "the dark side of molecular biology." This is perhaps the biggest problem for the origin of life model.

Anyway, this is what the science of Intelligent Design is all about. Like the great scientists of the past, we look at the fundamental origins and examine the details. Does it make sense as a random process, is Darwinian competition sufficient, or does the evidence point to a directed process?

I’ll close with a response to Tex’s comments on the last post.

I think the record of Christianity as an inspiration for scientific thought is actually rather poor. Two of the major forces which gave rise to the resurgence of scientific thought during the Renaissance were (1) the WEAKENING of the grip which the established church had on people's thinking and (2) the renewed fascination and respect for things Greek.

This is a great example of a historical myth that still has traction among the general population, even after it has been abandoned by the historians.

It pays to get the centuries straight. The Scientific Renaissance began in the 16th century with the work of Copernicus through Galileo. This period was followed by the secular humanism movement when Voltaire, Rousseau, Locke and other intellectuals took the view that their “Enlightenment” was responsible for the rise of science after the “Dark Ages” that were mired in “decay and degeneracy.” These views have been discredited by reputable historians… they are popular myths. Indeed modern science arose during the so called Dark Ages in the 14th century, at least 200 years before the Scientific Revolution.

Now to Tex’s points:

(1) Science arose in Europe because of “the widespread faith in the possibility of science, derivative from medieval theology.” (Alfred North Whitehead at the Lowell Lectures at Harvard, 1925)

(2) It was only by rejecting Greek, and especially Aristotelian, physics that science could progress. “Greek learning stagnated of its own inner logic.” (Stanley Jaki, Science and Creation, 1986)


Hubert Yockey, Information Theory, Evolution and the Origin of Life, 2005.

Robert Shapiro in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 1999.

Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God, 2003.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


I'm not sure where to start.

I agree that it does pay to get the centuries straight, but I think you are confused between the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment

The Renaissance started in Italy in the 14th century (not 1600). A few of the key figures in the early Renaissance were:

Dante (1265-1321)
Petrarch (1304-1374)
Boccaccio (1313-1375)

and in the "High" Renaissance:

Copernicus (1473-1543)
Machiavelli (1469-1527)
Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519)
Erasmus (1466-1536)
Rabelais (1495-1553)
Michaelangelo (1475-1564)
Cervantes (1547-1616)
Galileo (1564-1642)

The main developments in thinking at this time were an increased belief in the individual, increased belief in the power of education, a new impetus in the humanities, mathematics and science (including the science of war), and art. There was a more general desire to increase the bounds of knowledge, a growth in skepticism and free-thinking, and a renewed interest in and translation of Greek ideas.

The Catholic Church, which had its own problems to deal with (thanks to Martin Luther and others) didn't like a lot of this, especially some of the new science. Copernicus was unable to publish his work during his lifetime and Galileo spent many years under house arrest, fearing the Inquisition. They were the Renaissance Darwins.

These people and others triumphed in spite of the influence of the Church, not because of it.

I'm not sure what the Enlightenment figures have to do with all this. Voltaire was a great playwright and novelist, but he was not an original thinker (although I think he was a believer in a form of Intelligent Design). Incidentally, his dates were 1694-1778 (Copernicus, Galileo and even Isaac Newton were all dead by the time Voltaire was writing.) Ditto Rousseau. The new science was well under way by the time these people were active.

Was the possibilty of science derived from Medieval Theology? I don't know, but I do know the Church worked very hard to stop it from evolving.


11:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If I told you that a tornado hit a junkyard, and the random movement of objects had created a working car, you would not believe me. Yet, many people seem to be able to accept the idea that our world was created by an accident. Fascinating...........


2:47 PM  
Blogger Bill Lama said...

Thank you for the feedback, and sorry for the confusion. I said that "it pays to get the centuries right" then immediately blow it by writing 1600 instead of 16th century. I've fixed it in the post. Mea culpa.

I was in fact referring to your roster of Scientific Revolutionaries from Copernicus to Galileo and trying to make the point that the real scientific revolution began two centuries before during the so-called "Dark Ages."

Your final point pitting the Church vs. science is exactly what I was intending to refute. I'll take it up again in a near future post.

Thanks again,

11:37 AM  

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