email - February 2005

Two Students

This month we received two excellent emails from college students.

Jeff

Jeff wrote to us regarding our refutation of a Scientific American article.

I was very interested in your article refuting Scientific Americans [sic] Claims for "15 answers for creationist nonsense".(Aprox. 3 years ago)

In John Rennie's article he makes the assumption that: "The origin of life remains very much a mystery, but biochemists have learned about how primitive nucleic acids, amino acids and other building blocks of life could have formed and organized themselves into self-replicating, self-sustaining units, laying the foundation for cellular biochemistry" He offers no research examples or evidence to back up his claim.

Similarily [sic] you refute that claim saying: "But biochemists have NOT learned how primitive nucleic acids, amino acids and other building blocks of life could have formed and organized themselves into self-replicating, self-sustaining units, laying the foundation for cellular biochemistry" And you offer no evidence or support to back up your claim.

Im [sic] merely interested in the truth. I don't want to "believe" in anything. I just want to know what is true and make a judgement [sic] based on those facts. Its [sic] not that I [sic] dont [sic] trust your website over his claims but where do you get the facts to make the above claim.

Thank you,

Jeff

Jeff has a good question and a good attitude.

If it were true that biochemists know how to create self-replicating, self-sustaining units, and if that process were so simple that it could have happened by accident, you can be sure that it would be an experiment done in every introductory organic chemistry class.

If the process were known, but not simple enough to do as an experiment in a college chemistry class, certainly the experiment would have been done by professionals with special equipment and documented in chemistry textbooks. Weíve never seen a chemistry textbook describing that experiment. What does Scientific American know that chemistry textbook authors don't know?

Chemistry textbooks usually describe Pasteur's experiment that proved life comes only from life. It isnít generally repeated in freshman chemistry classes, but it is simple enough that you could do it if you wanted to. And, to some extent, you probably have done the experiment accidentally from time to time. Cleaning out your refrigerator, you might have found a green, fuzzy, "science experiment" that you had forgotten about. The fact that you (or your grandmother) boil things when canning them is evidence that you have confidence that Pasteur's discovery will keep your food safe.

Here is another experiment you can do. Go out and find some road kill--a rabbit, a bird, a deer, whatever. Bring part of it back to the lab and look at it under the microscope. Do the cells replicate? Are they self-sustaining? Why not? All the sugars, proteins, amino acids, etc., are there. Apparently something more is needed than just getting all the right organic chemicals gathered together in the same place.

Stanley Miller's experiment is in nearly all chemistry textbooks, too. But the textbooks donít say the experiment produced self-replicating, self-sustaining units because it didn't. His experiment required unrealistic conditions, and did not even produce all the organic material needed for life. Textbooks include the experiment because of its historical significance, not as proof of how life began.

Hasnít anybody done anything better in the last 50 years that can be put in the textbooks? No, they haven't. That's why Stanley Miller's experiment is still there. It is the best they have.

The Burden of Proof

If someone claims that money grows on trees, and you say that it doesn't, it is hard for you to prove your claim. You can point to all the kinds of trees that money does not grow on, but that doesn't disprove the claim. Fortunately, the burden of proof isn't on you. The burden of proof is on the one who made the claim in the first place.

Scientific American made an unsubstantiated claim. We challenged it. The burden of proof is on them, not us. But, as Jeff correctly implied at the end of his email, it isn't really up to them or us. It is up to you. Only you can decide if the original claim is valid or not. We don't want you to take their word or our word for it. We want you to investigate the claim yourself.

Jeffís email came from a university Internet address. Since he has access to their computers, he should have access to a library full of chemistry books and scientific journals. We encouraged him to do some research himself.

We also suggested that Jeff ask the librarian to help him. (I have two friends who are librarians. They love to put their research skills to use. They didnít go to college all those years just to learn how to shelve books. Rescue a librarian from boredom with a research request today!)

Jeffís university no doubt has a Chemistry Department chairman. We suggested Jeff make an appointment to ask the chairman what process Scientific American was talking about. We would be surprised if he or she knew of one. If the department chairman can cite one experiment in a peer-reviewed scientific journal that replicates a plausible, unguided, natural process that could have produced life on Earth (or any other planet), then we will have to retract our claim.

No Nobel Prize Yet

We are confident that no such experiment has ever been done because EVERYONE would have heard about it if it had! You wouldn't want to be nominated for a Nobel Prize the same year somebody does that experiment because you wouldn't stand a chance of winning. Anyone who could do that experiment would be on the cover of Time magazine as the person of the year. That's why so many people have tried. But all have failed.

Kevinís Question

Kevin wrote:

Can you give me some pointers in how to respectfully counter†evolution teaching in the university classroom?† I am currently taking Origins as a "mandatory" course.

Thanks,

Kevin

To all of you who are in Kevinís situation we say, ďJust ask questions.Ē† If the teacher says that chemicals naturally formed to create the first cell, ask for references.† If the teacher says that some fossil is a transitional form, ask how we know what its ancestors and descendants are.† Don't argue.† Just ask for proof.

If the professor says you are taking up too much class time asking questions, ask for an appointment to see him after class.

If the professor gets annoyed with all your questions, you can truthfully tell him that you are asking because you really want to know the answers.† Tell him that you need to know how to answer the objections that creationists are likely to raise.† You are paying no small amount of money to get an education. You have the right to ask questions and get them answered.

If the textbook says that reptilian scales evolved into feathers, there is nothing wrong with asking if that statement is based on comparison of the genes that create scales with the genes that create feathers.† Does the textbook say that scales evolved into feathers because the genes are so similar, and located on similar chromosomes?† If not, what is the basis for the textbook statement?

Of course, a lot will depend upon your professor's attitude.† He might not believe in evolution himself.† In that case, he might welcome the opportunity to admit that there are serious problems with the theory of evolution.

It is better if you aren't the only one asking questions.† Do you know of anyone else who is brave enough to shoulder some of the load?† You can ask other students (outside of class), "Do you really understand that stuff about how mammary glands evolved?"† This way you can find out where they stand, and whether they might support you. If four or five students are asking respectful questions in class, the professor will be forced to deal with them.

If the professor won't answer the questions, it will be obvious to the other students that either (1) there aren't any answers, or (2) there are answers but the professor doesn't know them.† If evolution doesn't have the answers to so many questions, then you canít believe the theory.† If evolution does have the answers, but†the professor doesn't know them, then you canít believe the professor when he claims evolution is true.

Whatever you do, DON'T ARGUE.† Don't challenge the teacher.† Just ask for clarification and further explanation.

On tests, give the answers the professor wants to hear, whether you believe them or not.† You can honestly answer, "According to the International Union of Geological Sciences Geologic Timescale (May 2004 Revision), the Jurassic period began 199.6 millions years ago, and ended 145.5 million years ago," even if you don't believe it.

You might also want to review our June, 2003, newsletter which also gave some more advice on dealing with science teachers.

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