email - March 2005

Argumentative Alex

Alex didn’t like our response to Jeff last month, about the origin of life.

At first, one might mistake Alex’s email for standard hate mail. That certainly would be a mistake, because the hate mail either comes from cocky, know-it-all high school students, or older people who never evolved past the cocky, know-it-all high school stage. The usual hate mail comes from kids whose knowledge of science is no better than their spelling (which is horrible).

Most hate mail is hit-and-run. We get one angry letter from somebody who thinks that if he swears enough at us, we will bow to his superior intellect and recant everything we’ve ever written. When we don’t even bother to respond to his stupid tirade, he never writes to us again.

Clearly, Alex doesn’t belong in this category. He is intelligent and educated. Furthermore, he has actually read several of our essays. We know this because he has written to us on several occasions, and he discusses the content of those essays. We believe he is sincere in his beliefs.

If Alex is not a lawyer, he should consider a career change. He would do very well in the legal profession because he is very good at twisting words and crafting arguments. He is someone that we really have to respect, even though we disagree with him. His comments should not be ignored.

Misunderstanding

Before we quote passages from Alex’s last email, we need to point out that Alex has misunderstood what we have written. Since he is certainly smart enough to understand, we suspect that he is trying to misunderstand on purpose, largely because of the tone of several previous emails we have received from him.

We are more concerned with people who honestly misunderstand what we have written. Alex’s emails are beneficial to us because he points out to us the places that are easiest to misunderstand.

Our proofreader does not have a strong science background. She catches most of the instances where we have been unclear, or assumed too much scientific background. The essays you see are greatly improved over what I thought were the final drafts because she points out so many places where I have been unclear. Consequently, I usually have to rewrite the “final” draft before we publish it.

Incremental Death

We don’t want anyone to misunderstand what we have written, so we will address some excerpts from his emails. In this excerpt, he quotes our “road kill experiment”, and then adds his own comments.

‘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?’ If your road kill is fresh enough, you will see replicating and self-sustaining cells. ‘Ask Jeeves’ threw up this interesting little reference :-

Salk Institute scientists have isolated cells from the brains of human cadavers that can grow, divide and form specialized classes of brain cells.

Their findings indicate that postmortem tissue may be a potential source of multipotent stem cells with a variety of uses and applications.

"I find it remarkable that we all have pockets of cells in our brains that can grow and differentiate throughout our lives and even after death," said Fred Gage, a professor at The Salk Institute and senior author of the study, which appears in the current Nature.

Try to do some basic research and offer references - the Internet is very good, or you might try your local University library. Librarians love to put their research skills to use!

Notice that Alex stopped quoting us with, “Why not?” There were two more sentences in that paragraph, the second of which was highlighted because it was the main point. Alex left out, “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.

The point we were trying to make is that all of the speculative origin of life scenarios make the assumption that if one just gets the right combination of proteins, sugars, amino acids, or whatever, together under the right conditions, life will just naturally start. The evolutionists’ argument is generally that scientists just haven’t found that right magic mix because there are so many possible combinations. They argue that someday the right combination will be found, and life will happen all by itself. Our point is that the right mix is in dead bodies, but they don’t naturally come to life.

Alex, however, exploits the vagueness of life and death to divert attention away from the real issue. Life and death are surprisingly hard to define. If you get badly sunburned, several days later some of your skin will turn white and peel off. You are peeling off dead skin, even though you are still alive. You are alive, even though some of your cells are dead.

Alex quite correctly points out that death is not as instantaneous and comprehensive as people generally treat it to be. We certainly don’t believe that every cell in the human body dies the exact moment when a doctor pronounces a person “dead.” Surely everyone knows that hearts used in heart transplants are taken from dead people. That goes for all organ transplants. The organ has to be removed from the person after the person has died, but the organ is still alive.

Alex tries to make it appear that we are stupid and don’t know this, to divert attention away from the truth of our point that life requires more than just getting the right organic chemicals gathered together in the same place.

Why Argue?

His argument fails to impress us because we know we weren’t trying to prove that all cells die simultaneously. We wonder why Alex would think that he could convince us we were wrong by refuting a point we weren’t trying to make. That wonderment leads us to speculate about Alex’s thinking process.

Perhaps Alex really does think I am that stupid. But if that is the case, why does he keep reading our web site? I don’t keep reading things written by people I think are stupid, so I (perhaps incorrectly) assume that Alex would not do that either.

There must be another explanation. I am not a psychiatrist, so I could be wrong (and I could be wrong even if I were a psychiatrist), but it seems more reasonable to me that Alex is attempting to justify his belief to himself. Alex has been taught that when the right molecules get together, life happens. But he is smart enough to know that the right molecules are found in dead bodies, but they don’t spring to life. So he avoids facing reality by arguing that not all cells in a body die at the same time.

Stanley Miller’s Experiment

Alex also quoted, and then commented upon, our statement about Stanley Miller’s origin of life experiment.

‘Hasn’t 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.’

Once again, try to do some basic research! Here is an extract from http://www.accessexcellence.org/bioforum/bf02/awramik/bf02a2.html to give you some idea of what has been happening in the last 50 years:-

Let us go back to Stanley Miller's experiment because he's so important. He found that at least 10 percent of the carbon was converted into a small number of organic compounds and about two percent went into amino acids. Hydrogen, cyanide, and aldehydes were also produced. Glycine was the most abundant amino acid produced. You go back to Darwin's 1871 letter, the experiments of Stanley Miller and the first one reported in 1953 and subsequent experiments. It appears that proteins, or at least getting amino acids, getting them to polymerize, you have all the basic structure there that goes on. But that's only one half of life. What about the replication that is so important for life and evolution?

Juan Orowin, in 1961, took some of the materials that were produced in the Miller experiments and he took hydrogen cyanide, one of these compounds produced, along with ammonia and left out the aldehyde. So he kind of organized the experiment in a certain way. He produced some amino acids but he also got some adenine, one of the nitrogen containing bases. Later experiments by him and others were actually able to produce the other nucleic acid bases. So now we see there's another area of chemical evolution experiments going on to get at replication. Also, it was found that sugars could be produced. Formaldehyde is one of these monomers produced in the Miller experiments and other experiments. The formaldehyde could polymerize to form a ribose. And indeed, in various kinds of experiments, ribonucleotides are more readily synthesized than the dioxyribonucleotides. Therefore, it started to appear that maybe, if that's the case, the ribonucleotides, that RNA may have appeared early, that the early world was an RNA world.

But this leads to a paradox because today nucleic acids are only synthesized with the help of proteins and the proteins are synthesized only if their corresponding nucleotide sequence is present. So we have sort of a chicken and egg problem. It's improbable that proteins and nucleic acids arose spontaneously, at the same time and at the same place. It seems implausible to have one without the other.

In 1986 Tom Scheck discovered something called a riboenzyme, basically, enzymes made of RNA. They could do little more than cut and join preexisting RNA, but until then proteins were thought to carry out all the catalytic activities in an organism. So, now we see since 1953, since the experiment of Stanley Miller, some extremely interesting directions in which chemical evolution has moved. A great deal of information, a great deal of organic compounds have been produced yet no self replicating life or organism or cell has yet been produced in the laboratory. And that's often a criticism that is aimed at chemical evolution studies by the creationists: "Well, why haven't you produced life in the laboratory?" But it's only been 44 years since Stanley Miller's experiment was published in Science. [The article Alex is quoting was written in 1994.] And although there may have been and still are many laboratories around the world that are involved in experiments to produce organic compounds from various kinds of gases that may have existed on the primitive earth, it's not like what probably occurred on the early earth back four or more billions years ago. Forty four years isn't a lot of time.

Alex also quoted some more recent articles along this same line, but we think we have given you more than enough of his email for you to get his point. The common theme in these articles is that under certain controlled conditions one can get a few of the necessary organic compounds to be produced, but nobody has ever been able to get them all at the same time. The argument is that scientists just haven’t had enough time to try all the combinations and get the right one. One has to accept, by faith, that there is a still undiscovered combination of chemicals and conditions that will naturally result in life.

In other words, Miller’s experiment is still the best they have.

Pasteur’s Experiment

Alex is in a state of denial. Part of his denial is that other people misunderstand Pasteur’s experiment. He quotes us again, and responds this way:

‘Chemistry textbooks usually describe Pasteur's experiment that proved life comes only from life.’ This is one of the most widely misunderstood experiments ever! Louis Pasteur did not prove that life could only come from life. All he did was to demonstrate that, under normal terrestrial conditions, cellular organisms could only come from other cellular organisms; in other words that pre-formed organisms did not arise spontaneously from organic or inorganic precursors. He did not demonstrate that, under more specialised conditions, organic molecules could not form self-replicating systems. See http://arjournals.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev.matsci.31.1.387 and http://www.nature.com/news/2004/041206/pf/041206-2_pf.html for articles on synthetic cells and membranes.

According to Alex, Pasteur’s experiment is widely misunderstood. If that is the case, don’t blame us. Blame the public schools and the public school textbooks. Actually, we think it is Alex who doesn’t understand.

Let’s put Pasteur’s experiment in historical context. People used to believe that life originated spontaneously from dead material. They saw maggots coming from meat. They thought the dead meat turned into live worms. They believed in “spontaneous generation of life.”

In 1668, Francesco Redi placed two identical pieces of meat in jars. One jar he left open, so that flies could land on it. The other jar was covered with gauze so that flies could not get to it. The exposed meat soon bred maggots, the protected meat did not. This proved that the larva came from living flies, not dead meat.

This should have put the issue to rest, but people still continued to believe in spontaneous generation of life for another 200 years. In 1861, Pasteur boiled some broth and kept it in a sealed vessel for a long time. Nothing happened. Then he opened the vessel, and soon it began to grow yucky living stuff. This proved that there were microscopic forms of life in the air, which reproduced when given the nourishment of the broth.

Good Science

Notice how science works. People observed life appearing in dead organic material. Some scientists came up with the hypothesis that life arises spontaneously from dead material. Other scientists came up with the hypothesis that life comes from other pre-existing life, and merely grows on dead material. Two different experiments were done, and both showed that life came from pre-existing life. In the following 140 years, many more experiments have been done, attempting to find ways in which inanimate material could come to life. None have been successful. But some people still believe that once upon a time, long ago, inanimate material came to life.

Does a good scientist accept the results of countless experiments? Or, does a good scientist cling to the belief that life can naturally originate from inanimate material even though every attempt to do so in the laboratory has failed? Is it good science to teach public school students that life did originate naturally, and get court injunctions to prevent science teachers from pointing out the scientific evidence against the natural origin of life, simply because there might be religious implications?

Alex is sincere and intelligent. He is reading all the latest scientific literature, desperately trying to find a way to believe the unbelievable. The problem is that science is against evolution.

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