Casey and the Miller-Urey Experiment, #2

The cornerstone of all creationism, whether young-earth, old-earth, flat-earth, or intelligently designed earth, is the claim that the creation of life is so impossible by natural means that it had to be the result of supernatural activity.

In all their trivial and nonsensical variations, creationists peddle an imaginary solution (their magical designer) for imaginary problems — the “impossibly” fine-tuned laws of nature, the “impossibility” of life, of evolution, etc. For every problem that does not exist they have an untestable solution that solves nothing. It’s an up-to-date version of an ancient scam — swamis, gurus, sorcerers, and shamans have always been selling non-existent solutions to imaginary problems. Well, sometimes the problems were real (explaining the day-night cycle, lightning, disease, etc.) but the proffered explanations were useless.

Virtually nothing was understood before the rise of science, so mystics were easily able to claim that only a supernatural agent could be responsible for whatever phenomenon was at issue. This kind of explanation (which literally explains nothing) is popularly known as the God of the gaps. As Albert Einstein said in an often-republished article titled Science, Philosophy, and Religion:

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.

When life is literally created in the lab from non-living material, as it eventually will be, the creationists will then be scrambling around for lesser mysteries which can be attributed to their mystical agent. There’s no shortage of those — the origin of the universe, the laws of nature, human consciousness, etc., but none have the same popular appeal as the origin of life.

Whenever scientists make progress in that particular area, and they do (see, e.g., Origin of Life: Three Recent Studies), creationists are sure to be screaming. Thus the desperate cries of disbelief a year ago when Craig Venter announced that his lab had created a bacterial cell with a synthetic genome. See: Creationists React to Venter’s Breakthrough, Part 6, which links to our earlier posts in that series.

The granddaddy of all origin of life research is the famous Miller-Urey experiment of 1953, which synthesized organic compounds from inorganic precursors, and which definitely belongs in science textbooks. Our last post about it was Discovery Institute: Ignore the Miller-Urey Experiment!

That article, like today’s, is by Casey Luskin, everyone’s favorite creationist. Casey is the only non-fellow among the neo-theocrats at the Discovery Institute‘s creationist public relations and lobbying operation, the Center for Science and Culture (a/k/a the Discoveroids, a/k/a the cdesign proponentsists).

Casey’s latest is titled Miller-Urey Experiment “Icon of Evolution” Alive and Well in Proposed Texas Instructional Materials. He says:

In his path-breaking book Icons of Evolution, biologist Jonathan Wells exposed how many textbooks keep recycling inaccurate evidences for chemical and biological evolution (the “icons”) long after their pull date. … A prime example is the Miller-Urey origin of life experiment.

Four publishers — Apex Learning, Cengage Learning, School Education Group (McGraw Hill), and Technical Lab Systems — have proposed instructional materials for Texas that perpetuate classic errors about the famous experiment.

Imagine — science textbooks with “classic errors” (according to Casey and Wells). You know who Wells is. If not, see The Genius of Jonathan Wells.

Casey then repeats what he said three years ago when we last posted about him and Miller-Urey, only now he has science texts in Texas to complain about. As we read it, his big complaint is that those texts don’t have a section for Casey’s (and Wells’) objections. The essay ends up with this:

The big question now is whether the Texas State Board of Education will force publishers to correct this misinformation. More than a decade after Icons of Evolution — and more than a half-century after Miller-Urey — isn’t it time for students to get an accurate description of the facts about this 1950s experiment?

We won’t do it because it would be far too easy, but someone else might respond with something like: “Hey Casey, after more than a century and a half since Darwin published Origin of Species, isn’t it time for you Discoveroids to give up on creationism?”

Copyright © 2011. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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17 responses to “Casey and the Miller-Urey Experiment, #2

  1. Seems as though the creationists want to perpetuate their confusion of “Origin of Life” with “Origin of Species”.

    “Origin of Species” is, of course, evolution. There is ample evidence of evolution — irrefutable evidence for those who will but open their eyes. So, rather than attempt to disprove evolution, it is much easier for the creationists to confuse the issue by claiming that “Life is too complicated to have arisen on its own”, which has nothing to do with evolution.

    No true scientist should ever make the claim that life arose on its own. We have no way of knowing; their is no observational evidence. As you stated, SC, we should soon have definitive evidence that life *could* have arisen on its own, and then we can certainly make *that* claim. But we can never absolutely claim that life *did* arise on its own.

    On the other hand, we *can* claim that species evolve. We have ample evidence of it happening, and since the discovery of DNA, we understand the mechanism by which it happens, and we have directly observed it happening.

  2. First of all, Wells’ book is virtually unknown among scientists, although it is a “classic” to those of us who follow the creationism movement. In fact, Wells doesn’t even come close to a valid criticism of the Miller-Urey experiment.

    Secondly, after Miller died in 2007 the sealed vials containing the products from his experiment were re-examined and over 25 amino acids were identified in low concentration using techniques not available to Miller in the 50’s.

    It’s still an Iconic Experiment in that it demonstrated that complex organic compounds could form naturally from simple atmospheric molecules.

    Wells is wrong, Luskin is laughable and what else is new!

  3. retiredsciguy says:

    No true scientist should ever make the claim that life arose on its own. We have no way of knowing; their is no observational evidence.

    All that needs to be done (he modestly said) is to produce self-replicating organic molecules in the lab. From there, given that there would soon have been oceans full of the stuff and hundreds of millions of years for the little bits to do what they do naturally, the game’s afoot. It needn’t be exactly the way it happened on earth, because as you say, we don’t know precisely how it happened. But it should be entirely sufficient to show that it can happen by natural means. No magical designer is required.

  4. Self-replicating RNA molecules have already been created in the lab. Numerous variants can be produced and a form of natural selection can operate to produce the most efficient replicators. This work was published in journal Science in 2009. Work many years ago showed that bacteriophage RNA molecules replicated in the test tube can undergo natural selection based on exposure to environmental agents such as ethidium bromide, which inhibits replication. After a number of generations, spontaneous mutations produced molecules that replicate faster in the presence of the ethidium. All of this would be expected of a pre-cellular system on the way to forming the first true cell. I find it satisfying that natural selection can operate on purely chemical (replicating) systems as well as on living organisms.

  5. No true scientist should ever make the claim that life arose on its own. We have no way of knowing; their is no observational evidence.

    I’m a true scientist and I will make the claim that life arose on its own. You read it here. See you in Stockholm.

    Srsly, dude, I can’t believe you’re using the old Ham-Hovind “were you there?” argument. Old as the hills (only 6000 years old, mind you) and twice as musty.

    I drove from Houston to Austin today and you have no way to claim that I did that on my own. You have no way of knowing; there is no observational evidence. All you know is that Houston, Austin, me and my car exist. There are roads. You have no way of knowing which route I took, whether I stopped for gas or lunch, or lunch with gas. I could have driven to the airport, flown to Austin and rented a car on the other end. You have no way of knowing.

    However, you could probably rule out teleportation, magic carpets, Pegasus, ruby slippers or disapparation.

    What difference does the route or mode of transportation make if you know the starting point, end point and can build a plausible model to support it?

  6. Biokid says: “Self-replicating RNA molecules have already been created in the lab.”

    Right. I posted twice about it in 2009: Synthesis of Self-Replicating RNA Molecules and also Evolution in a Test Tube.

  7. As soon as scientists create replicating life, the creationists will say that it proves intelligent design, since the scientists are themselves intelligent designers. They will claim that the scientists fine-tuned the initial conditions in order for the experiment to work, and claim that likewise a supernatural designer fine tuned the conditions on the primitive earth.

    However, as new discoveries occur, eventually the crazies will be painted into such a tiny corner that their remaining arguments will become so implausible that even the uneducated public will turn away. Science will win in the end.

  8. Curmudgeon: “The cornerstone of all creationism, whether young-earth, old-earth, flat-earth, or intelligently designed earth, is the claim that the creation of life is so impossible by natural means that it had to be the result of supernatural activity.”

    That they need to bait-and-switch between evolution and aboigenesis to perpertate their scam says it all to anyone reasonably science-literate. That alone screams that they have nothing, and know it, but that they do it on top of a false dichotomy (“naturalism” does it this way and a “designer” does it “some other way”) erases any reasonable doubt that it’s a scam. But alas, only to those who can detect the fallacy. The % who can do that and are reasonably science-literate are, sadly, a small minority. The scam artists would never resort to this nonsense if the weren’t.

    One argument that may prevent some people from being scammed is this: Anti-evolution activists claim that the origin of life is improbable. They may be right, but evolution (origin of species by common descent with modification) would be unaffected if the origin of life was a unique, highly improbable event. Whereas creationism demands that it occurred independently many times, once for each “kind.” So even if their “probability” arguments were valid (they’re not) they would be arguments against creationism much more than against evolution.

    Remember that most people are already convinced that God did something, be it evolution, YEC, OEC, etc. The achievable goal is to convince them that evolution has the only explanation that fits the evidence.

  9. Ed: However, as new discoveries occur, eventually the crazies will be painted into such a tiny corner that their remaining arguments will become so implausible that even the uneducated public will turn away. Science will win in the end.

    I wish I believed this, but I think the more likely result will be the theological equivalent of historical revisionism. “Of course the bible doesn’t mean X,” the generation of priests following X’s disproof will say, “only the bad apples ever claimed it did. You can still believe our claims Y and Z, as the true christian teaching never said X was true.”

    It’ll be Galileo all over again. Believers claiming to get their information from the faith regularly and often turn out to be wrong. And every time it happens, we are told by faith leaders that this does NOT imply any wrongness in the source faith.

  10. eric: “I wish I believed this, but I think the more likely result will be the theological equivalent of historical revisionism.”

    Or as I like to call it “revisionist prehistory.” Every new piece of evidence is spun as another “weakness” to gullible audiences (especially if that’s what they want to believe). Similarly, every “gap” filled creates 2 new “gaps.” Creationism’s “evolution” from “belief system” to all-out pseudoscience was completed 50 years ago. Since then it has steadily become a more “new agey” pseudoscience, where one is allowed to conclude more and more mutually contradictory things from the evidence (e.g. when events occurred, which species share common ancestors, whether or not there was a global flood, and of course, “whodunit”), but increasingly discouraged from challenging anyone who concludes something else, as long as they share one’s commitment to spread misinformation about evolution.

  11. More comments to Eric and Ed:

    I think that anti-evolution activists started seeing themselves “painted into a corner” in the 70s and 80s, when the “scientific” YEC strategy had the adverse side effect of calling too much attention to the weaknesses of YEC and its contradictions with OEC. That forced the “don’t ask, don’t tell what happened when” even before the court losses forced a “don’t ask, don’t tell whodunit.” Apparently some YEC and OEC groups thought that “don’t ask, don’t tell” weakened their strategy, and some still do. But increasingly they are coming around to see that it is actually better at keeping the “masses” believing their mutually contradictory fairy tales. With the aded bonus of attracting the odd “new ager” and “pseudoskeptic” (doubts evolution and creationism but only criricizes evolution) into the big tent.

  12. Frank J: Apparently some YEC and OEC groups thought that “don’t ask, don’t tell” weakened their strategy, and some still do.

    I’m actually in agreement with them. I think it’s good tactics for hiding illegal conduct, but bad strategy if their ultimate goal is to make teaching creationism legal. Eventually, you have to stand in that classroom and teach something. ‘Stealth’ tactics can get you to that point, but will never make it legal. Quite the reverse – using a stealth tactic makes it pretty clear to the court that you knew you were committing a crime, because you were trying to hide it.

    The current strategy of lying to the judicial branch makes enemies out of potential friends. Consider the case of Dover and Judge Jones. He might have been intellectually skeptical about TMLC’s scientific case, but he got visibly pissed off when Buckingham and Bonsell started lying. Whatever benefit of doubt or leniency he might have otherwise given the Dover BOE went right out the window when he figured out they were lying to him.

  13. re: “science will win in the end” … right now, science has already won, in the sense that matters. For example, medicine and agriculture have vastly improved by application of evolutionary theory. Creationists benefit from this every day, even as they deny the very science that enables such benefits in the first place.

    But in the larger picture, there will almost certainly be Creationists with us for the next century, and probably for some time beyond that. The issue isn’t science, but rather is science education. The allegedly “scientific” objections are really beside the point: “the Bible said it, that settles it.”

    The ID gambit is certainly part of a legal strategy. But it’s also part of a “big tent” strategy, attempting to unite theists against atheists.

    Fortunately, there are ways to combat the Creationist/ID strategy that hit them where they actually hurt, as opposed to hitting them in the cranium. Threatening lawsuits and pointing to the costs of litigation, let alone the cost of losing, is anathema to the conservative mentality that dominates Creationist/ID thinking.

  14. Frank J: “That they (creationists) need to bait-and-switch between evolution and abiogenesis to perpetrate their scam says it all to anyone reasonably science-literate. That alone screams that they have nothing, and know it…”

    Thanks for stating more clearly a point I was trying to make in my first post. There is abundant proof of evolution. Creationists have to switch the argument to abiogenesis, about which Darwin said absolutely nothing, in order to make it appear that Darwin and anyone agreeing with him was and is in league with the devil, is probably a communist, and is most certainly an atheist and eats babies for lunch.

    And Doc Bill, I’m certainly not saying that goddidit when I say we can’t claim as a fact that abiogenesis happened. Honestly, we don’t know how life arose. The only people making any claims of certainty are the theologists. From a paleontological point of view, we have ample evidence of evolution; we can’t claim to have solid evidence that abiogenesis absolutely did take place, only that it may have happened. My personal opinion is that life did indeed arise on its own, but hell, that’s only my opinion — well-informed though it is, it is still just opinion.
    When I stated that “No true scientist should ever make the claim that life arose on its own,” I was expressing my opinion that science should differentiate between well-supported theories and hypothoses and the personal opinions of individual scientists. When scientists state that abiogenesis is fact just gives ammunition to Ham and all the creationists.

  15. @retiredsciguy, FrankJ:

    The reason that creationism will suffer from laboratory demonstrations of abiogenesis is that their argument is much stronger than “no one saw life come into existence by natural means”. Their argument is, “life CANNOT have come into existence by natural means”. And so laboratory abiogenesis would leave them with the much weaker argument that “life COULD have bee created”. This is much less satisfactory to them because they have always maintained that REAL science would justify the Bible, and the fact that life exists AT ALL is proof it must have been created. The mere POSSIBILITY of life naturally occuring is impermissible.

  16. G. H. — I agree with your insight. It’s going to take a while, though, before the creationists admit that life has been created in the lab — if they ever do. They will most likely maintain that it’s “not really living” or that it was faked, or they will say “Of course it’s living! It was intelligently designed! It could never happen on it’s own in the real world.”

  17. eric: “I’m actually in agreement with them. I think it’s good tactics for hiding illegal conduct, but bad strategy if their ultimate goal is to make teaching creationism legal.”

    Yes, but what I mean by “DADT” has nothing to do with the religion issue. What I mean is that before it became mandatory to omit references to God or “creation,” the “scientific” YEC strategy experienced 2 spectacular failures.

    First, OECs were not buying it, so any hope at a compromise (remember that Flat-Earthers and Geocentrists were also making some noise) interpretation agreeable to all was lost. Second, even with the cherry picking of independent evidence (an absolute no-no in real science), they could not force the evidence to converge on any particular ages, or particular independently created “kinds.” So, while some YEC and OEC groups bravely (or foolishly) stuck to their guns, a growing faction decided that it is best to just focus on “weaknesses” of evolution, and leave it to the audience to figure what God did, when, and how. That was while it was still peddled as “creationism” with no intent to hide the creator’s identity.

    To fully appreciate the 50 years of breathtaking inanity, one needs to step away from the religion issue (Constitutionality, etc.) and imagine if the evidence for evolution really were weak, and that there was some promise of a competing explanation. The scam artists would be talking nonstop about their “theory” – the what’s, whens, hows. They would have no need to mention God, creation, design or the misrepresentations of evolution spun as “weaknesses.” And it would be perfectly legal to teach that even if it validated a popular literal interpretation of Genesis.