origin of life

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Jonathan M who seems to have become a regular blogger for the Discovery Institute has noticed this blog once again (From the Darwinist Blogosphere, Stephen Meyer’s Trip to London Elicits a Typical Reaction) in a posting at the bizarrely named Evolution News website – no comments permitted there, it would seem. The BCSE believes Jonathan M to be Jonathan MacLatchie (sometimes his name is given as McLatchie), an undergraduate student in forensic science [UPDATE: Jonathan is now taking a Masters degree in Evolutionary Biology & Systematics at the University of Glasgow (!) ] who appears to have absorbed a typical strategy beloved of Intelligent Design creationists: of devising neologisms that don’t correspond to normally used science terminology, and combined this with ignorance of biology. P. Z. Myers was exposed to some of his ‘thinking’ while visiting Glasgow.

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Back in September, I received a plain envelope at my work address.  In it was an invitation to attend an event in Whitehall, London.  This invitation from Lord Mackay of Clashfern, was for an’”Evening lecture and supper with Dr Stephen Meyer”, which would feature a “careful presentation of the ‘fiendishly difficult’ problem of the origin of life and the evidence for intelligent design”, and was held on 17th November.  I’ve obscured my name from the image below (click the image for a larger version).

Interestingly, the front of the invitation was a little coy about the organisers.  It did surprise me that Lord Mackay, one of the more outstanding lawyers of the 20th Century (according to Wikipedia) would take an interest in intelligent design creationism.  But Lord Mackay was a member of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland until a rumpus developed following his attendance at a Roman Catholic colleague’s funeral.  From Wikipedia:

Lord Mackay of Clashfern is also remembered for an incident when he, an elder of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, attended the funeral Masses of two close Roman Catholic friends. On one of these occasions, Lord Mackay attended in his role as Lord Advocate as the deceased was a member of the judiciary. This was considered a grave offence by the Free Presbyterian Church authorities and he was suspended from church office, bringing about a split and the formation of Associated Presbyterian Church in 1989, which supported greater “liberty of conscience”.

Notably, the triumvirate  behind C4ID hold strongly religious views, and at least one is a lay preacher.

All is made clear on the reverse of the invitation, where the Centre for Intelligent Design logo is prominently displayed.  And indeed the accompanying letter is headed with the C4ID logo.  All attendees are to be blessed with a copy of Meyer’s book ‘Signature in the Cell’.

Bizarrely (as you can see), the reverse of the invitation uses a piece of puffery from  Thomas Nagel, Professor of Law and Professor of Philosophy at New York University.  This, rather than being derived from an actual review of the book (which, it might be suggested, a Professor of Law and of Philosophy might not be best equipped to deliver) was actually Nagel’s submission to the Times Literary Supplement 2009 Books of the Year.

I haven’t read Meyer’s book, so receiving a copy would have been interesting.  I have, however, read a number of articles about the book, both supportive and dismissive (particularly those who take issue with Meyer’s (mis)use of information theory), together with a number of Meyer’s articles.  Most of these are un-refereed book chapters, though a recent review paper has appeared in the Biologic Institute house ‘journal’ BIO-Complexity (of which, more later in this article).  As an aside, the Discovery Institute has released a brief publication entitled ‘Signature of Controversy‘, which is a response to the many criticisms of Signature in the Cell and very largely figures the rather abusive and puerile writing of one David Klinghoffer.

It would seem that the topic of the lecture (entitled “Is there a signature in the cell?”) principally relates to the origins of life, and in particular, it would seem to relate to the difficulty Meyer has in understanding how the genetic code was able to arise in the first place.  Of course, once organisms with heritable genetic material were present on Earth, normal and well understood evolutionary processes would have given rise to the diversity of life on the planet.  I don’t suppose that is something Meyer subscribes to, since he is one of the principal architects (and an author) of the Wedge Strategy- the duplicitous strategy that aimed to supplant evolution with creationism by an extensive rebranding exercise.  The scheme came a little unstuck when the Dover school board in Pennsylvania, which was at the time influenced by creationists, attempted to force Intelligent Design into science classrooms.  The subsequent trial (Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District) ruled that Intelligent Design was a rebranding of creationism, that it was not a scientific approach and that teaching it in American schools was unconstitutiomal.  This judgement forced the Discovery Institute onto the back foot.  More recently, the Centre for Intelligent Design was established in the UK, based in Glasgow, apparently to regurgitate the DI line.

The Centre for Intelligent Design makes much of the supposition that only intelligence can bring about ‘information’.  Unfortunately from their point of view, increase (and decrease) in gene number and genome size are clearly observable, not only by comparative genomics studies of a wide variety of taxa, but by direct observation of within species genome variation. What’s more, those of us engaged in laboratory genetics are well aware of the kinds of genome changes that can occur even within the timescale of laboratory work.

In contrast to the ongoing efforts of science, one of the hallmarks of Intelligent Design creationism is that they don’t conduct novel research aimed at proving the existence of design.  How can they? – ID isn’t science and makes no testable predictions. What ID creationists do is to focus on individual cases where they assert evolutionary biology cannot explain how some feature arose (usually by claiming “irreducible complexity” or some such tosh) and claim that if evolution wasn’t responsible, intelligent design is the only alternative – a pretty dubious way of claiming evidence for ID.  Unfortunately for the likes of Michael Behe, each time one of these assertions is made, those pesky scientists come along and knock it down.  Examples include the bacterial flagellum and the vertebrate immune system.  The rather wonderful Nova TV documentary about Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District I linked to the other day (US TV Documentary – Judgment Day: Intelligent Design On Trial) demolishes those two canards of intelligent design creationism in a very accessible fashion.

From what I’d read of Meyer’s written output, it seemed likely that Meyer’s tack would be to claim that the probability of the appearance of a genetic code that enabled life to begin is so vanishingly small that it must have been designed.  What I have noted is a paper by Meyer (with his colleage  Paul A. Nelson) in the Biologic Institute house ‘journal’ BIO-Complexity.  The Biologic Institute is funded by the Discovery Institute and really fits the Wedge Strategy as an attempt to portray ID as a scientific discipline, largely by playing at science.  BIO-Complexity is an example: an apparently above-board journal website with quite specific aims:

BIO-Complexity is a peer-reviewed scientific journal with a unique goal. It aims to be the leading forum for testing the scientific merit of the claim that intelligent design (ID) is a credible explanation for life. Because questions having to do with the role and origin of information in living systems are at the heart of the scientific controversy over ID, these topics—viewed from all angles and perspectives—are central to the journal’s scope.

(I note that Kluwer, a respectable scientific publisher, originally planned a journal called Biocomplexity: its launch issue was cancelled due to a lack of submissions.  I don’t think this should be confused with the Biologic Institute creation.)  BIO-Complexity’s editorial board comprises a disparate collection of people who support Intelligent Design creationism or, it would seem in some cases, a more conventional young earth creationism.  To date, and through two years of publishing, only a handful of publications have been made.  And these are derived from members of the editorial board, and largely include members of the Discovery and Biologic Institutes (vanity publishing?).

Meyer and Nelson’s recent publication in BIO-complexity is really an objection to the work of Yarus and colleagues modelling how an RNA world could have come into being.  It’s not really a research paper, and kind of fits the ID strategy of knocking down science with the intention of allowing an ID ‘explanation’ to fill the gap.  This would be in keeping with Meyer and Nelson’s expertise (Meyer qualified as an earth scientist and has a PhD in Philosophy of science, while Nelson similarly has a PhD in Philosophy): Nelson appears in the past to have held young earth creationist views.

My particular scientific field is not related to the origins of life, and it’s always seemed to me that figuring out how life began on Earth is particularly challenging, especially as our understanding of likely pre-biotic conditions changes periodically. Nevertheless, the scientific approach is to try and figure out plausible hypotheses: if Meyer and Nelson have bona fide concerns about Yarus’ hypotheses, I’d be the last to censor them.  I’d be even happier if Meyer and Nelson had the science background sufficient to set up their own experimental programme.

An email communication from C4ID a week or so before the lecture said in part (the comment is mine):

At the request of some guests and to encourage open discussion, we wish to conduct the evening with a modification of the Chatham House Rule as follows:  Guests are free to report, formally or informally, on the content of the lecture, the nature of the issues raised at question time, and the identities of the host, lecturer and representatives of the Centre for Intelligent Design.  However the identities of all the other guests who attend and who may contribute to the debate should not be revealed unless specific permission is given by them to do so. [ It's hard to see how the planned release of video recording of the event could avoid identifying attendees if they questioned the speaker] We thank you for respecting our wishes in this matter.

Quite what significance (if any) this holds I don’t know.  But one interpretation might be that attendance from individuals outside the obvious ID creationism circles was looking low, and the organisers felt this statement might encourage them to come along.  In the end, I chose not to attend, not because I have scientific objections to hearing Meyer’s message, but because I object to the Discovery Institute’s working methods, its deceptive Wedge strategy (of which Meyer is an author), and that attendance might be taken as offering support to ID creationism (despite C4ID’s intention that attendee identity be kept secret). I did not want to add apparent legitimacy to ID creationism my my attendance, even though my attendance would have been as a private individual rather than as a representative of my employer. Finally, I don’t believe that lectures delivered to lay audiences are the most effective way of communicating science (or, in the case of ID creationism, pseudoscience): I would much rather read the technical literature. Unfortunately, Intelligent Design creationists are unable to generate research of the kind that would find its way into the science literature.


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This blog is entitled “Wonderful Life” mostly because I find the world around me wonderful, in part because of what we do know of its origins, but also because of what we don’t (yet) know.  I don’t need to have any invisible creator to have instigated, directed or interfered in any way in the origins of life.  I noticed that PZ Myers of Pharyngula has posted this diagram (God’s timeline) of the history of the Universe (seen from a human perspective), comparing the scientific and creationist explanations: Read the rest of this entry »

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This week’s Nature includes a brief paper that concludes that multicellular life originated about 100 million years earlier that previously known. The work places sponges in the Cryogenian period, >635 million years ago, prior to the Ediacaran period. See Flies & Bikes for more on this paper.  Formally, of course the paper suggests that either demosponges were there, or an ancestor – but still, more evidence of the antiquity of life on Earth!

Love et al (2009) Fossil steroids record the appearance of Demospongidae dueing the Cryogenian period. Nature 457; 718-723. doi:10.1038/nature07673 (subscription required)

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