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Wednesday, July 20, 2005

The minimal cell: No response so far?

Various persons have demanded that I demonstrate that there are indeed problems with Darwinian evolution. I am currently co-writing a book about something else, but have begun to try to post useful links on problems with Darwinism.

Meanwhile, I notice that Australian biologist Stephen E. Jones has posted Part 2 of his survey of the problems of the minimal cell, using Darwinian evolution as a model for how life originally came into existence. Part 1 is here.

Surprisingly, Jones has received no comments since his first post on Monday, July 18. I e-mailed him to enquire whether, for some reason, he had had to delete or delay comments. But he said no.

So, none of the Internet evolutionists wishes to contest Jones’s statement of the facts? Well, then, the grim fate of origin of life studies becomes an argument in favour of looking for intelligent design.

(Note: If this is not the story you were looking for, see the Blog service note below or the stories listed in the middle sidebar. )

( Background: Darwin himself did not attempt to explain the origin of life, but many modern Darwinian evolutionists have attempted feats of this kind, sometimes using origin of life ideas such as chemical evolution prebiological evolution” or prebiological evolution.

The reason these hypotheses don’t go very far is the massive complexity of even the minimal cells (the smallest cell that could possibly exist and replicate). Generally, the simplest cells that exist today are parasites, which complicates the problem because parasites depend on other organisms, usually more complex organisms than themselves, to survive. So they don’t really help us understand how life can get started without a host. But study of these simpler, single cell parasites can help determine which of the many components are truly necessary for life.

In "Part 1, Jones points out that

... M. genitalium [the parasite under study] has 580,070 nucleotide base pairs with
each gene being an average of 1,040 base pairs.5 Even assuming the lower minimum of 256 genes necessary for life, and an average of 1,000 base pairs per gene, that is a requirement that no less than 256,000 nucleotide base pairs would have to spontaneously self-assemble.

So that is the order of difficulties for a spontaneous, unguided origin of life (as in, “life just happens, okay?”).

In Part 2, he goes on to talk about the problem of self-assembly. It is not enough that the parts of the cell merely come into being somehow. They must assemble themselves in a coherent working order:

A free-living single celled organism, such as a bacterium, is a Von Neumann machine, named after the mathematician Johann Von Neumann, who before the cell's self-replication machinery was known, worked out the minimum level of complexity for any self-replicating system.[2] Von Neumann found his minimum self-replicating automaton was enormously complex, with 200,000 components, totalling 3 kilometres across and requiring 200 pages just to describe it![3] But even then, unlike a living cell, no provision was made for the automaton obtaining its energy direct from the environment.[4] While simpler Von Neumann machines have since been proposed, they are not fully self-replicating and yet are still enormously complex.[5] Indeed no machine that can fully replicate itself from simple basic components[6] has ever been built.[7] Yet uncountable trillions of living cells replicate themselves every day, from simple basic components, according to the principles Von Neumann worked out.[8] Not surprisingly, Von Neumann himself found the origin of life to be utterly perplexing.[9]

Now, the origin of life is only perplexing if we assume that it must all happen by chance, in accord with laws of physics and chemistry. However, if we assume that design is a normal feature of the universe, it is not perplexing. It simply identifies a point at which a design was imposed on the system in order to achieve a given result.

Perhaps it is somewhat like coming across a series of stones on the beach that spells out

Thanks for letting us stay at your cottage. We left the key with Fran.

Even if the message were written entirely in Chinese ideograms, a non-reader of Chinese could likely identify it as a message, of unknown purport. On the other hand, a person could spend a lot of time trying to figure out how all those stones had got positioned in that particular way entirely by random movements of wind and water ...

In the face of the current evidence base, whether design or no-design seems more productive for understanding the origin of life depends on one’s prior philosophical commitments.

Methodological naturalism?

While I am on this topic, one reader seems anxious to get me to consider the claims of methodological naturalism in science. Methodological naturalism means assuming that there is no design, and therefore no evidence for design is even possible. The reader assures me that only metaphysical naturalism (= we absolutely believe, as a matter of faith that there is no design!) is wrong.

Sorry, no. Methodological naturalism is only a completely reliable guide if we actually know that metaphysical naturalism is true. If we are not certain that there is no design, we must remain open to the possibility and go with the evidence. Otherwise, we will face mounting difficulties with situations like the one Jones outlines - but no one seems to want to comment on them.

That is why I usually describe the intelligent design controversy as a conflict at the heart of science between naturalism (we must assume that brute nature is all there is) and empiricism (but what does the evidence point to?).

If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?. You can read excerpts as well.
Blog service note: Did you come here looking for any of the following stories?

- The op-ed by Catholic Cardinal Schonborn in the New York Times? Note also the Times's story on the subject, some interesting quotes from major Darwinists to compare with the Catholic Church's view, as expressed by the Cardinal, and an example of the kind of problem with Darwinian philosophy that the Cardinal is talking about.

- the Privileged Planet film shown at the Smithsonian, go here for an extended review. Please do not raise cain about an "anti-evolution" film without seeing it. If your doctor forbids you to see the film, in case you get too excited, at least read my detailed log of the actual subjects of the film. If you were one of the people who raised cain, ask yourself why you should continue to believe the people who so misled you about the film's actual content ...

- the showing of Privileged Planet at the Smithsonian, go here and here to start, and then this one and this one will bring you up to date.

Blog policy note: This blog does not intentionally accept fully anonymous Comments, Comments with language unsuited to an intellectual discussion, URLs posted without comment, or defamatory statements. Defamatory statement: A statement that would be actionable if anyone took the author seriously. For example, someone may say "O’Leary is a crummy journalist"; that’s a matter of opinion and I don’t know who would care. But if they say, “O’Leary was convicted of grand theft auto in 1983," well that’s just plain false, and probably actionable, if the author were taken seriously. Also, due to time constraints, the moderator rarely responds to comments, and usually only about blog service issues.

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