Discovery Institute: Ignore the Miller-Urey Experiment!

THE ORIGIN of life is one of the cornerstones of creationism. Darwin never tackled the topic (organic chemistry was then in its infancy), and although we know considerably more than Darwin, no living matter has yet been created in the lab from non-living chemicals. One of the main reasons that scientists are confident that one day this problem will be solved is the famous Miller-Urey experiment of 1953, which synthesized organic compounds from inorganic precursors.

Research continues, of course, but as long as scientists haven’t yet actually created life, creationists are able to claim that only a supernatural cause could bring about such a miracle. This reasoning is popularly known as the God of the gaps.

As Albert Einstein said, in an often-republished article titled Religion and Science:

To be sure, the doctrine of a personal God interfering with natural events could never be refuted, in the real sense, by science, for this doctrine can always take refuge in those domains in which scientific knowledge has not yet been able to set foot.

Because of the importance of this issue, we’ve had a few readers ask us why we haven’t written about the news that the “Lost” Miller-Urey experiment created more of life’s building blocks. As the press release dated 16 October 2008 from Indiana Universy said:

A classic experiment proving amino acids are created when inorganic molecules are exposed to electricity isn’t the whole story, it turns out. The 1953 Miller-Urey Synthesis had two sibling studies, neither of which was published. Vials containing the products from those experiments were recently recovered and reanalyzed using modern technology. The results are reported in this week’s Science.

The lead author of the Science article is Adam Johnson, a doctoral student at Indiana Universy, hence their press release. It goes on to say:

The 11 vials scientists recovered from the unpublished [Miller-Urey] aspirator experiment, however, produced 22 amino acids and the same five amines at yields comparable to the original experiment.

Miller thought he produced 5 organic compounds, but he actually produced 22 more. This is significant news. The press release also says:

“This research is both a link to the experimental foundations of astrobiology as well as an exciting result leading toward greater understanding of how life might have arisen on Earth,” said Carl Pilcher, director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, headquartered at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif.

So when asked why we don’t blog about this, our response has been that everyone else is already gushing about the news, and we’d rather wait until the neo-theocrats at the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture (a/k/a the Discoveroids) post something — as we knew they would — giving us the creationist reaction. It didn’t take long.

To our delight, the Discoveroid blogger leading the creationist counter-attack is none other than Casey Luskin, our favorite. His article is: Origin of Life Theorists Perpetuate the Implausible Miller-Urey Experiment. Here (with bold added for emphasis) are some excerpts:

Regardless of how many chemical products useful to origin of life theorists came out of Miller’s experiments, many sources have shown that the earth’s early atmosphere was mainly composed largely of carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrogen (N2), NOT methane or ammonia, as Miller’s experiments required. The geochemical evidence is very clear on this point: the news release even admits…

Okay. But then Casey has to deal with a new hypothesis, which he describes as follows:

Since the earth’s atmosphere is clearly not conducive to Miller-Urey type chemistry, the vast primordial soup hypothesis was abandoned. The ScienceNow news release suggests that instead, “It is possible that volcanoes, which were much more active early in Earth’s history, seeded our planet with life’s ingredients.” Similarly, the paper states that “the volcanic apparatus experiment suggests that, even if the overall atmosphere was not reducing [Note: reducing atmosphere], localized prebiotic synthesis could have been effective.”

How does Casey dismiss this volcano hypothesis? Easy:

But how will you get such localized highly reducing conditions in a few places on earth with a non-reducing atmosphere everywhere? In a paragraph in the Science paper describing such speculation, there is one “may” and four “coulds.” Even if the “mays” and “coulds” imply a “did,” such a scenario greatly reduces the amount of primordial soup to little localized pockets near island arc volcanoes, vastly reducing the ability to meet the odds …

In other words — relying on his brilliant linguistic analysis — Casey declares that he just doesn’t believe it. Hypothesis rejected. Isn’t creationism fun?

Near the end of Casey’s science-crushing article, he points out:

Likewise, the news release states: “The big question is what happened next–how did those molecules turn into self-replicating organic compounds?

Aha! Questions remain — for which the Designer must be answer. Relax, Casey, your job as a creationist public relations operative is still secure. At least for now.

[Addendum: This is an interesting update: Synthesis of Self-Replicating RNA Molecules.]

Update: Casey and the Miller-Urey Experiment, #2.

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9 responses to “Discovery Institute: Ignore the Miller-Urey Experiment!

  1. “[M]any sources have shown that the earth’s early atmosphere was mainly composed largely of carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrogen (N2), NOT methane or ammonia, as Miller’s experiments required.”

    Don’t you love how they invoke scientific studies only when it suits their purposes, while ignoring the thousands of peer-reviewed papers supporting evolution over the years? Small wonder they’ve failed to present a single piece of data supporting their claims in peer-reviewed scientific research papers, they have a fundamental ignorance of the scientific method.

  2. James F says:

    Don’t you love how they invoke scientific studies only when it suits their purposes …

    It’s like quote-mining, but I guess it could be called “fact mining.”

  3. mightyfrijoles

    James F
    Sure and they make claims about the primordial atmosphere even though they know it’s only 6000 years old and since God created Man and animals and plants, etc. the atmosphere couldn’t even be composed like he claimed. Just like they complain about the “Cambrian Explosion”, even though it’s really only 6000 years old.

    How there can be idiots who are truthful Young Earth Creationists and believe that nonsense and still be human is just beyond my imagination. And no one has ever said I was lacking in the imagination department.

  4. retiredsciguy

    Luskin wrote:
    “…many sources have shown that the earth’s early atmosphere was mainly composed largely of carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrogen (N2)…”
    Hmmm. Mightyfrijoles makes a good point. We should ask Luskin on which day of the first week the atmosphere changed over to N2 and O2. Boy! Talk about sudden Climate Change! That sure must have been fast!

  5. Why is Miller Urey still presented in textbooks as evidence for inorganic matter turning into organic matter if in fact the atmosphere was not like he suggested?

  6. I don’t see anything wrong with Mr. Luskin’s skepticism. Nothing he says in his essay is false, indeed it all seems true, is it not?

    If us scientists really want to be taken seriously we need to turn “may have”‘s into “did” and stop propagandizing our speculations for the purpose of securing research funding and our jobs. For those of you on this blog who are qualified scientits I’d suggest you take a cold, hard look at whether or not you’re being intellectually honest.

  7. Doug says: “I’d suggest you take a cold, hard look at whether or not you’re being intellectually honest.”

    Thanks for the advice. Now I have some for you: Find another blog to hang out at.

  8. longshadow

    If us [sic] scientists really want to be taken seriously….

    … you should start by using proper grammar when writing.