Another physician displays crippling ignorance about evolution

Pharyngula posted a very good criticism of yet another newcomer to the ranks of the proudly ignorant in an article on OpenSalon’s new beta. Hopefully the profound lack of knowledge displayed in the original anti-evolution post is not representative of the clientele in which OpenSalon intends to specialize. The original author of the OpenSalon post appears to be both complimented and annoyed to be critiqued by PZ Myers, even to the point of offering a veiled legal threat. Apparently the author doesn’t realize that posting on the Internet opens oneself to critique from potentially all quarters. So, for the sake of propriety, and to preserve the precious and fragile ego of the insufferable moron, let’s call him “Dunsel” in lieu of his true name.

PZ Myers does an excellent job of dismantling the hopeless stupidity ejaculated by “Dunsel” in his OpenSalon post, but once more I have to shake my head in amazement that people like “Dunsel” are capable of existing without flying apart spontaneously into screaming, cognitively dissonant shards. How is it possible that adult humans can go through the intense, rigorous and unforgiving regimen of training required to become a physician, and still misunderstand so profoundly how biological and genetic systems function? In the USA, no less. True, this nation is diseased with more creationists than most other nations, but I’d have thought our medical schools would be generally above such idiocy. Are medical students simply drilled on nomenclature and how to match a list of symptoms against a list of treatments? Really?

“Dunsel” holds forth:

Assuming current scientific thinking to be correct, then all life evolved from matter created at the Big Bang, and all life has a common ancestor going back in time to the first instant of the Big Bang when all matter was created from nothing.

This is how “Dunsel” begins his screed against the sum of biological, genetic, geological and paleontological knowledge accumulated over the last 150 years. Where to begin? First let me say that I’m not a fan of quoting people out of context and arguing against those isolated quotes. But there is just so much that is utterly wrong embedded in that one sentence. My attention is drawn to it, perversely, as one is drawn to examining the fresh wreckage of an automobile.

First, all life did not evolve from matter created in the Big Bang. The Big Bang resulted only in primordial H and He, with a dash of Li. The matter comprising my (and your) body includes mostly C, N, O, P, S and other elements formed after the Big Bang in the hearts of stars. Stellar fusion operating for billions of years prior to the formation of our Sun resulted in the matter making up the Earth and its residents. This might be a pedantic point to make, because the H and He that later fused into C, N, O, etc. did indeed congeal out of the primordial cosmic expansion. Still, “Dunsel’s” wording is poor.

Second, all life does not have a common ancestor going back to the Big Bang. My objection here isn’t based on pedantry. “Dunsel” is simply, utterly wrong. All life on Earth appears to have a common ancestry in a line of primitive microbes that arose on the early Earth, probably around 4.0 billion years ago, give or take. The earliest life on Earth was much simpler even than this common ancestral cell line, which scientists today refer to as the LUCA – Last Universal Common Ancestor. The LUCA itself had a history, deriving from a now largely unreconstructable bestiary of very simple proto-cells that populated the late Hadean Earth. These protean founders most likely arose from one or more strains of crude organic bubbles packed with RNA, amino acids and polyphosphate ions floating in salty water and glued with sticky organic muck against the inner surfaces of hydrothermal vent plumbing beneath the ocean floor. The LUCA did not bounce intact, like Galactus, out of the Big Bang. There “Dunsel’s” wording is not only poor, it is catastrophically ignorant.

Third, all matter in the universe was not created from nothing in the instant of the Big Bang. This is a common complaint from unlearned people who haven’t the time to check their facts before blundering forward. The event initiating our universe resulted in a rapid expansion of spacetime, but it began with a specific quantity of energy already inside it. It didn’t contain nothing, nor did it arise from nothing. The physics of this is complex and frankly beyond my training, but unlike “Dunsel” I’m not going to simply pretend I’m qualified to comment authoritatively on the subject. I actually do have some physics training… enough to know when to shut up and let the experts take over. The universe started from something – something very large and vast and polydimensional – that does not appear to have included a sentient mind, suppositions based on childhood Sunday school lessons notwithstanding.

Like most creationists, “Dunsel” does a fantastic job of squeezing the maximum number of logical fallacies, arguments from ignorance, unsupported claims and flat-out wrong statements into the smallest possible number of words.

3) How could the first living cell arise spontaneously to get evolution started? It couldn’t.

The number on that quote is “3” because “Dunsel” precedes it with two other expostulations of sheer inept stupidity, focusing on his denial of mutations ever leading to greater adaptability and his ignorance of how the Cambrian Explosion worked. PZ dealt with those already in his post. This third burst of dimwittedness was also addressed by PZ, but because my research specialty treats with abiogenesis I’ll have my own go at this particular embarreled fish.

“Dunsel’s” argument stems from personal incredulity, but that doesn’t stop him from making a flat, categorical statement that succeeds wonderfully in embarrassing himself in front of the planet. The science of abiogensis is a fascinating and vigorous field of research, where new results are constantly emerging that flesh out the fine details of how geochemistry led to biochemistry in Hadean oceans. I recently posted about a new study showing sustained RNA self-replication in vitro, which not only demonstrates a plausible mechanism through which RNA can begin to show biological qualities such as reproduction and enzymatic catalysis, it also illustrates quantitatively how mutation and selective pressures can operate within something as simple and abiotic as a molecule swarm. That study is only the latest of a vast experimental, theoretical and field-based body of literature on the geochemistry of abiogenesis. It’s a pity “Dunsel” couldn’t take the time to do a literature search.

Life is not magical, it’s chemical. Chemical reactions produce spontaneous self-organization all the time. That much is first-year chemistry, demonstrable with the simplest household ingredients. Soap bubbles self-organize from fatty acids in water, apparently without angels forming each one. Snowflakes crystallize by the billions from water vapor, all without the dainty touch of snow-faeries (“Dunsel” does mention this, but seems to miss the point). Organic molecules assemble in deep space, and within comets and meteors orbiting the Sun. Baby animals self-organize inside uteri according to a complex recipe of molecular titrations… although this example is a very complex one, and therefore likely to cause simpletons like “Dunsel” to throw up their hands and declare such processes the result of benevolent sorcery.

And of course, “Dunsel” arrives eventually at his true destination, Intelligent Design.

I.D. or the concept of intelligent design in the universe is actually a pre-supposition of Science, and therefore rightly included in a classroom course covering philosophy, linguistics or semantics.

Actually, no. The concept of ID is a thinly disguised attempt to make closet creationists feel good about themselves. There might be room for ID in science (or perhaps even Science) if its proponents could come up with a testable hypothesis or two. In principle I have no problem with someone presenting a hypothesis that powerful aliens seeded life on Earth, for example, as long as the presenter is ready to make substantive, testable claims that make predictions that can be falsified. The study of biological evolution does that, why can’t ID?

Despite loud and gusty protestations to the contrary from ideologues, evolution routinely makes testable predictions that are later shown to be accurate. Evolutionary science predicted basically what the intermediate forms would be in the progression from land mammals to whales… and those predictions were found to be accurate when the intermediate fossils of that sequence were found. Evolutionary science predicted huge swaths of the relational tree of ancestry linking all life… and most of those predictions were verified when DNA and RNA sequencing became available. Where predictions of phylogeny based on phenotype required slight reformulation in the light of genetics, people didn’t discover Zeus behind the discrepancies, people discovered new and interesting facts that added to the depth and sophistication of our understanding. Evolutionary science predicted there was a deep genetic root to the Cambrian Explosion… and later sequencing studies, and new fossils, verified that expectation to be accurate. The list goes on…. in fact the list fills whole libraries, worldwide, and today comprises the functional basis of the entire science of biology. “Dunsel” would best serve his patients by taking some remedial night courses, and joining the rest of us in the modern era.

Where is the evidence for ID? Where are the clearly-stated hypotheses guiding ID “research”? What would such hypotheses predict? How might those predictions be tested? Until ID can answer those questions honestly and without simpering appeals to ignorance or personal incredulity, it will remain at best a joke, and at worst a deliberate lie.


~ by Planetologist on January 29, 2009.

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