Discovery Institute: Chemicals Are Dead

When this showed up at the Discovery Institute’s creationist blog yesterday, we just rolled our eyes and moved on, regarding it as too bizarre to bother with. But nothing else worth writing about has turned up, so we’ve returned to it. We regard this as a strong indicator of the downward trend of the Discoveroids’ movement — which is quite an accomplishment, considering that they were already at the bottom when their “think tank” began.

The Discoveroid post we’re talking about is What Origin-of-Life Researchers Forget. It doesn’t have a byline, and it doesn’t require much — if any — commentary from us. A few excerpts should be sufficient, with some bold font added for emphasis. They start with this:

The origin-of-life field is often guilty of ascribing personality to molecules.

See what we mean? It’s hard to believe, but the thing goes downhill from there. This comes next:

You see this in the popular literature, but even the serious scientists slip into the habit. It takes the form of an invisible hand, directing the assembly of multiple parts like a foreman at a construction site. Need a membrane? Here are some fatty acids that can make a simple one for starters. Need a replicator? This RNA isn’t great, but he can learn. Need proteins? We found some in this meteorite that are willing to lend a left hand.

Uh huh — we all think there’s “an invisible hand directing the assembly” of organic molecules. However, as you already know, it’s not scientists who think there’s some mysterious assembler who puts molecules together — that’s the exclusive belief of creationists. But in this weird post, the Discoveroids are projecting their fantasies onto us. Their article proceeds:

A more realistic image would be an arena of dead runners surrounded by hurdles as high as mountains. They don’t “want” to leap over the hurdles and win a race to become alive, because they can’t. They’re dead. So are molecules often dubbed “The building blocks of life.” They have no interest in jumping over hurdles on a path to a protocell. Much as the origin-of-life researcher wants them to win the Protocell Prize, they couldn’t care less. They’ll just do whatever the unguided forces of nature make them do.

Amazing, isn’t it? The Discoveroids are claiming to be sensible, and accusing us of being advocates of an invisible designer. Their incredible post continues:

The only way dead runners can get over a hurdle without intelligent help is to wait for an earthquake, a tsunami, or a meteorite to launch them. With a lot of luck, one runner might land on the other side of the first hurdle. But then he won’t have any interest in continuing on over the second hurdle. He is incapable of wanting.

What they’re describing seems to be a precursor of the false dichotomy between “micro evolution” and “macro evolution,” but applied to organic chemistry. Their claim is that “macro assembly” of complex organic molecules by natural means is impossible. Here’s more:

This is the only realistic way for an origin-of-life researcher to approach the problem: molecules are dead things. They don’t want to become alive. No amount of coaxing, sweet-talking, or intelligent interference will make them want to live. They will behave like the lifeless things they are, blindly following the laws of chemistry and physics, just as dead runners will obey the law of gravity and lie on the ground unless launched by a force strong enough to overcome gravity. Even if they make it over the top, they will fall back on the ground without any interest in making it over the next hurdle.

Ah, we get it. They’re saying that unaided chemistry can’t produce anything more complex than, say, H2O, without help from some transcendent helper; and if we think otherwise, we’re fools! Moving along:

Origin-of-life researchers think they have done their job if they find a possible earthquake or tsunami that might get one body over a hurdle. This “sheds light” on the problem, they say. Different labs find additional earthquakes and tsunamis to help with the other hurdles. Accident #1 “might” work, accident #2 “might” get a body over the next hurdle, and so on. The series of lucky accidents “sheds light” on how life got here, the materialists assure us. They feel justified making up various scenarios because they think, “We’re here, aren’t we? It must have happened somehow.” Having abandoned intelligence as a cause, they’re stuck.

With that nonsense as background, the article proceeds to criticize a recently published paper in Current Biology: Origin of Life: Protocells Red in Tooth and Claw. You can’t read it without a subscription, but the Summary says:

To study the origin of life, synthetic biologists construct simple ‘protocells’, but previous models were not able to reproduce both genome and membrane sustainably. A recent advance feeds the protocells by vesicle fusion, suggesting a practical pathway for indefinite self-reproduction.

It appears to be yet another study showing a possible pathway for the appearance of self-reproducing organic molecules. Such studies drive creationists crazy, because the demonstration of any way such things can happen naturally is a total refutation of their incessant claims that the natural appearance of life is impossible — it requires supernatural assistance. That mystical dogma is what inspired the Discoveroid post.

We’ll skip their critique of the Current Biology paper, and give you one last excerpt from the end of the Discoveroid post:

If you find it troubling that scientific journals can publish stuff like this and be rewarded for it — with no complaints from sensible realists or opportunities for rebuttal — you’re not alone.

We have nothing to say — well, nothing that would get by our profanity filters — but maybe you do, dear reader.

Copyright © 2016. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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26 responses to “Discovery Institute: Chemicals Are Dead

  1. The whole truth

    That discotoot screed is dense enough to have been written by o’leary.

  2. Yes, dead, dead, dead. They lack vitality.
    Bring on the vital force…Behold, Information!
    Wait, information isn’t alive either…Bring on the vital force! Bring it!
    What? We may be waiting a while?
    OK. Well, we’ll be over there, doing a little evolutionary biology. Come get us when you find the vital force.

  3. As keithnoback has noted: Vitalism is alive and well at the Disco’Tute!

  4. I have a book by a lawyer written some years ago, a creationist of course, who thought that atoms could think and dubbed this phenomenon atomis mentalis (if I recall correctly) whereby atoms “knew what and how to combine with other atoms” to give rise to life. Of course this ability was ascribed to the great hidden force which they today call the intelligent designer.

  5. Charles Deetz ;)

    Once again, if you move the metaphor to the water, the possibility of dead things floating, moving, colliding (or going over a hurdle even) suddenly is very likely.

  6. michaelfugate

    Which other dead ideas will the DI try to revive? Will they be denying momentum next? Will they claim that the thrower imparts a physical or perhaps immaterial “impetus” to a ball?

    A new motto “Jesus resurrected dead bodies, we resurrect dead ideas”

  7. Derek Freyberg

    There are many more hurdles in the track beyond the two they mention, (1) genetic information and (2) a container. But did you catch the intelligent interference? They speak of labs run by intelligent agents who “have undertaken the task of synthesizing an organism.” They ask, “How can we make it?” It’s not their job, but even if they were to succeed, it would prove intelligent design, not the origin of life by natural processes.

    No, not really, DiscoDiddlers – what it would prove (or at least demonstrate) is that under certain conditions, which researchers in the field (unlike the DiscoDumpster denizens) believe bear some relation to the conditions which might have prevailed at about the time life began, life could begin. Remember, nature had billions of years to do this, we’re trying to emulate that process in the here-and-now, and it’s not surprising that we should start with a model that’s part-way there; after all, the Miller-Urey experiment has already been done.

  8. Mike Elzinga

    ID/creationists, particularly those over at UD, don’t know any chemistry and phyiscs at even the most basic levels.

    Any high school physics or chemistry student can scale up the charge-to-mass ratios of electrons and protons to kilogram-size masses separated by distances on the order of a meter and calculate the potential energy of interaction between pairs of such masses.

    This energy turns out to be on the order of 10^26 joules or about 10^10 megatons of TNT.

    For a kilogram mass to “leap over” Mt. Everest – the height of which is 8848 meters – requres an energy equal to mgh = 1 x 9.8 x 8848, which is on the order of 10^5 joules.

    (Note: ID/creationists will have no clue about what has just been demonstrated here.)

    All of ID/creationism’s “issues” with evolution and the origins of life go straight back to their profound ignorance of basic high school level chemistry and physics. In ID/creationist land, ASCII characters and junkyard parts being blown about by tornados – or dead bodies being kicked around by earthquakes – are stand-ins for the properties and behaviors of atoms and molecules.

    There is a threshold for the amount of intelligence required to understanding high school level science. No ID/creationist, including their “PhDs”, in the last 50 years has come anywhere near that threshold.

  9. I remember one of the metaphors in “Darwin’s Black Box”, when Behe has us imagining a long, wide cleft in the earth and a person claiming to have jumped across it. Of course, we don’t believe that a person can jump across it. When I first read that, I immediately thought: And Behe wants us to believe that an intelligent designer can make the jump possible. (Without telling us who, what, where, when, why or how.)

  10. michaelfugate

    Maybe god is like an enzyme?

  11. michaelfugate suggests: “Maybe god is like an enzyme?”

    More like a catalyst.

  12. The article looks like it was written by the Attack Gerbil, then stupified by O’Dreary and had the dead bodies added for color by the Slasher.

    It really is a monument to stupidity, but represents the best and brightest of the “intelligent design” creationism movement.

  13. michaelfugate

    Yeah, catalyst is more general – and like a catalyst, supposedly god can change things without itself changing. I am sure someone has thought of this before – it just hit as I was reading…

  14. That’s funny – when I was kid we GREW sugar crystals. They did it by themselves.

  15. michaelfugate

    Chris how do you know God’s guiding hand wasn’t present? Sounds like materialism to me which according to the DI violates their sacred equation science + god = science as opposed to the rest of us who use the shorthand science = science.

  16. Chris P/michaelfugate: Santa brought my daughter a crystal growing kit a few weeks ago. To make them grow, I guess I have to wait for another fictional being to visit my house.

  17. One wonders what cretinists make of viruses, which most people would consider “alive” but which can be induced to form crystals, which most people would not consider living.

  18. The DI and other creationists make a big deal about the odds against atoms randomly arranging themselves into DNA molecules. Well, if you consider the number of atomic interactions that would be possible in a billion years, or even 100 million years, it’s practically a 1:1 certainty that DNA would be formed. And since DNA is self-replicating, it would only have to happen once by random chance. After that one time, it would be alive, right?

    After all, life — all life — is nothing more than a self-perpetuating chemical reaction. It only had to happen by random chance once. Evolution took over from there.

  19. Dave Luckett

    OK, I’m now of the opinion that the DI really is on its last legs. I suspected that it had begun to unravel, before. After all, what else can it do? It tried getting ‘intelligent design” into the schools, and failed catastrophically. With its last gasp, it had one tiny achievement – the wording in some State legislature “academic freedom” bills – but this adaptation has now been superseded. Forget “academic freedom”. That was purely defensive, and anyway was never very successful. The prey swiftly developed antibodies.

    But now we have “parental oversight” and “objectivity”, which is an important advance for predatory attacks on science teaching. Using it, it might be possible not merely to defend a piece of turf – which was all “academic freedom” could achieve – but to ambush the prey. By attacking the actual teaching of science at the local level, creationists might not be able to enforce the teaching of their own religion, but they can eliminate a rival. And the DI didn’t think of it. It has invested too heavily in trying to find a counter to science, never realising that it might be possible to ban it altogether, at least locally.

    So the DI is like a species into whose environment some more efficient and aggressive species has been introduced. It will go the way of all such. I think we are witnessing the throes of its extinction.

    But alas, that means we now must deal with the new predator. Or else it will destroy the environment as surely as a cane toad in Australia.

  20. “Discovery Institute: Chemicals Are Dead”
    Of course they miss the obvious irony of their declaration. That being that ID is DEAD since it still, after all of that time, appears nowhere in the scientific literature.

  21. Discovery Insitute has been dying for some time now; they just don’t have the sense to lie down. I see them completing their degeneration by becoming more like the cesspool at Uncommon Descent.

  22. Mike Elzinga, you are so correct. For years, after reading creationists, I’ve been banging my head on the wall, screaming “Learn some chemistry!”

    I knew that one day The Controversy would come to the field of chemistry, since creationists seem to feel that the origin of life, which is basically chemical, is a much more unanswerable problem that many in biology. They just don’t know any chemistry, is all. I have a fantasy of testifying in a trial one day, like Ken Miller did for biology, and really making a difference.

    I do plead guilty to one charge, though: to me, the elements do have personalities. Titanium is simple and blunt, platinum is stolid and short-spoken, oxygen is evil, cobalt is sparkly and vivacious, etc. The Discoveroid has me there.

  23. Derek Freyberg

    You sound like the late Oliver Sacks, in the autobiography of his youth, “Uncle Tungsten” (as opposed to the autobiography of his adulthood, “Moving On”). It’s got some wonderful chemical stories.

  24. The Tute probably doesn’t realize how bad off they’re going to be without the Attack Gerbil. The one thing the Gerbil did well was to chew on stuff, and he chewed on a lot of stuff. Nobody else on the staff has even a modicum of a science background, and I’ll include Gauger in that statement having myself forgotten more chemistry than she’ll ever know. At least the Gerb understood enough science to do a reasonable job of twisting it around, especially when 100 words would suffice for one.

    This article is pure stupidity. It’s as if all of science never existed for some dolt to write this. But, this is what we’re going to see more of coming out of the Tute: pure, undiluted, abject stupidity.

  25. The origin-of-life field is often guilty of ascribing personality to molecules.”

    2c from a chemist (& “Darwinist”): Gotta love Discoveroid word games, always geared to impress nonscientists by exploiting their misconceptions of science. In fact I recall chem teachers ~40 years ago reminding us that the anthropomorphic language (electrons “like” to deocalize, etc.) is just a figure of speech because there simply is no convenient way to explain the concepts. What the ID knows, but won’t admit, is that living things are systems (where “dead chemicals” enter, react, and exit), and how those systems originate and change (e.g. speciate) is 100% irrelevant to wheter or not an external free will had any part in the process. Until a majority recognizes that bait-and-switch the DI will continue to control the conversation, no matter how low they sink.

  26. docbill1351: “…pure, undiluted, abject stupidity.”

    You know that, I know that, every Discoveroid knows that. But it still fools millions, ~half of whom are not committed evolution-deniers. We are so immersed in the language and concepts of science that it’s easy to forget that 90+% of people think very differently (& unhealthily, IMHO). In fact, even most engineers that I work with (ages 20s to 50s), all of whom took more college chemistry, biology and math than ~90% of people, shock me regularly at how many misconceptions they have. Most of what they learned was not so much forgotten, but “overwritten” by popular, but wrong caricatures, usually before they even graduate. The reason I’m so sensitive to it is because I had my own misconceptions of biology and evolution for decades.

    To imagine how the average nonscientist thinks, I remind myself that I know almost nothing about Shakespeare, and most of what little I do know is probably wrong. So almost anyone could fool me given that I don’t have the time or interest to give it a “sanity check.” If I may switch analogies, didn’t we all once believe that Humphrey Bogart said “Play it again, Sam”?