Science Trudges On Towards Origins of Early Life, Heedless of Creationist Kvetching

Another veil in the mystery of life on earth has been pulled back: scientists at Purdue and the University of Texas have uncovered a sort of ancestral history of RNA offloading some of its cellular functions to proteins.

This is fascinating stuff… and the fact that such new insights are constantly being generated is a big ongoing slap in the face for creationists of all stripes, who insist that we should just give up looking and experimenting. If we can’t explain exactly how in detail everything evolved, we should give up and admit that it happened by magic, right? Well, Dr. Barbara Golden and her colleagues decided not to give up, and as a result of applying evolutionary principles, they have increased our understanding of the world. And possibly even cast new light on our evolutionary past.

How does it all work?

The basic idea is that if life on Earth really is all part of a sort of biological family tree, then modern life should preserve some intelligible record of the various past branchings. Some species will come from branches that originated after a particular evolutionary change took place. Others will come from branches that are rooted prior to that change, meaning that they and all their descendants will lack that particular trait.

Thus, by looking in the right places (informed by the patterns that common descent suggests), you can potentially get real insight on just how particular innovations evolved, step by step. If we’re lucky, there will be modern representatives each major branch before and after some change. And because any one evolutionary change is unlikely to repeat in the same way twice in two or more different lineages, these genetic contingencies are often still distinctive no matter how much additional time and change has occurred.

Here’s my artless illustration of the sort of patterns these researchers are looking at:

Tree Example

Now, creationists and Intelligent Design fans are welcome to scoff and dismiss this sort of research. No, this isn’t the same as certain proof that this is definitely how it happened historically: it’s just an illustration of why the idea is plausible. And no, it doesn’t explain everything. It may not even pan out in and of itself.

But this naysaying is still just defensiveness: if the creationist/intelligent design spin on biochemistry is correct, research like this shouldn’t even be possible, much less plausible, much less real.

If the RNA in various species never evolved, in some actual historical progression of events, from performing chemical functions itself to having proteins take over its tasks, then there’s simply no reason at all for the sorts of harmonies and ancestral patterns that these researchers are describing. There should be no hint of branching differences revealing intermediary steps in precisely the order that common descent would imply. There shouldn’t even be a way to form a family tree of life out of both living and extinct species. There’s really no reason any of it should fit together at all, much less in the very, very distinctive pattern of ancestry.

And it’s not like they have anything better to offer in comparison…

Creationism

Creationism Tree

Intelligent Design

ID Tree

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16 Responses to Science Trudges On Towards Origins of Early Life, Heedless of Creationist Kvetching

  1. bbbertie says:

    What are little girls made of? Sugar and spice and all things nice?
    What are little boys made of? Slugs and snails and puppy dogs’ tails?

    What is DNA made of?
    Sugars, Phosphates and Nitrates. Oh my!
    All highly unstable in any kind of uncontrolled environment or “primordial soup”.
    Anyone with basic organic chemistry knows that these are some of the primary ingredients in explosives! – Not stable in natural environment.

    I admire your faith in those fallable men who dreamed up the fairy tales for grownups that is the religion of Evolution and the also as big a fairy tale of millions of years.

    • BobSmith says:

      Well, someone clearly doesn’t understand organic chemistry or explosives or natural selection or evolution or how to objectively parse evidence.

      I could start off explaining that evolution isn’t a theory on origins, moving on to explain that DNA isn’t where we started, and go on to explain everything else that’s wrong with what you posted, but it’s just easier to call you stupid.

  2. Bad says:

    It never really surprises me how little creationists know of biochemistry: what I find astounding is how proud and certain they are that a few misremembered tidbits make them experts on the subject. I don’t know how many times I’ve had to explain to people that chemistry is not as simple as “chlorine is a deadly gas, therefore anything with chlorine is deadly” when in fact table salt contains tons of chlorine atoms. Now apparently I’m in the unenviable position of trying to explain to something that just because certain chemicals are similar to those found in explosives doesn’t mean that any concentration of them close to each other is prone to explore (especially not in water!) Chemical reactions are specific and contextual.

    And as a recent saltwater aquarium owner, it’s particularly amazing to hear that phosphates and nitrates are “unstable,” given how gosh darn hard it is for me to keep levels of those chemicals down in my tank. :)

  3. Buzz says:

    An honest person would at least present the arguments of ID fairly instead of the childish ad hominem attack you publish.

    Sad, really.

  4. Bad says:

    An honest person would at least present the arguments of ID fairly instead of the childish ad hominem attack you publish.

    It’s charming how you reference “ad hominem” as a fallacy without any obvious understanding of what it means. Ad hominem is not synonymous with “parody” or even “open insult.” Ad hominem is the fallacy of arguing that because some person is bad, then their ideas are not worth considering or answering: ironically, this is the fallacy that you have been guilty of in every single post here so far.

    The only potentially correct fallacy I might be accused of here is actually “poisoning the well” though this is really a pretty informal fallacy, and its generally a judgment call on case by case guilt. I think it’s pretty clear to most readers that I’m being playful and silly, and doing so quite openly, so I think I’m in the clear on all angles. Somehow you’ve managed to miss this, so I apologize for not making it clearer that charts which include a character from a comedy movie and a Groucho Marx mustache are not, in fact, meant to been seen as comprehensive scholarly refutations of any position.

    As to your point about “presenting arguments fairly” I and many people far wiser than I have given ID plenty of fair hearing: some even in good faith, and others believers who really wanted to find something worthwhile in the idea, but were disappointed. I’ve argued directly with plenty such ideas in all seriousness: I don’t think anyone but yourself that I could imagine would seriously consider an artless yuk-yuk graphic as my one big serious answer to ID arguments. These arguments have been addressed and answered ad nauseam here and elsewhere. If you’d care to actually MAKE some of these arguments yourself, then we could certainly debate them and see how they shake out yet again. Such debate is always welcome!

    And in any case, what we have gotten back from the ID movement is a vast PR campaign of lies, vast conspiracy theories, and misrepresentations at every turn. I think more than a little snark is due towards the movement, which leans so far towards self-parody so often that it dwarfs my meager efforts. My cheerful sucker punches seem positively polite in comparison to the serious case made that all people who happen to be unconvinced by ID are Nazis.

  5. Buzz says:

    No, Bad, it’s ad hominem because you accuse those with whom you disagree of being racists. (See your line implying Creationists think non-whites are a separate species, perhaps mixed with animals.) Nothing “playful” in that.

    By the way, I am not a Creationist in the fundamentalist religious sense. But I have yet to see an adequate answer to the most basic question: how did it all start? After all, Darwin called his book “The ORIGIN of Species.” Yours and others’ explanations make sense only if you accept the unstated premise, which itself is not scientifically testable. It’s just simply assumed.

    I have seen “Expelled,” by the say. Ben Stein, being the good lawyer he is, simply lets people like Richard Dawkins babble on until their natural arrogance and idiocy manifest themselves. Incredibly, Dawkins, presented with the evidence, admits that life on this planet appears to have been designed by an intelligent being, but being the blinkered idiot that he is, he explains that it was probably designed by a being from another planet that ITSELF evolved. (I kid you not. Wait for the film.) Such an admission shows that Dawkins is not the objective scientist he claims to be, following the evidence where it takes him. He is absolutely wedded to one and only one explanation of things and concocts a “Just So” story a la Rudyard Kipling get around it.

  6. Bad says:

    No, Bad, it’s ad hominem because you accuse those with whom you disagree of being racists. (See your line implying Creationists think non-whites are a separate species, perhaps mixed with animals.) Nothing “playful” in that.

    Actually, buzz, that’s a historical reality. Prior to Darwin, the two basic creationist schools on race were that non-whites were a form of white people that had degraded over time (the Ham theory), or that they had been created separately (where did other peoples come from? theory). These were treated as deep theological insights into the matter. I was poking fun at that.

    By the way, I am not a Creationist in the fundamentalist religious sense. But I have yet to see an adequate answer to the most basic question: how did it all start?

    I’m sorry, but you can’t use a pronoun prior to using a descriptive noun. It what? Everything ever? No biologist or scientist has or claims to have such an answer, at least a scientifically conclusive answer. The origin of species: more than adequately answered. The origin of life on earth: again: many intriguing possibilities, but no one claims to have it all figured out in the first place.

    After all, Darwin called his book “The ORIGIN of Species.”

    Have you actually read his book? If you had, you’d know that this refers (as all his readers at the time, used to his particular parlance) to the origin of life’s diversity (i.e. many different species), not the origin of life.

    Yours and others’ explanations make sense only if you accept the unstated premise, which itself is not scientifically testable. It’s just simply assumed.

    I wish you’d state this purported premise more openly, because I have no idea which particular accusation you are referring to here.

    I have seen “Expelled,” by the say.

    OMG, you typed “say” instead of “way”! I guess it’s curtains for you and everything you’ve ever said, ever.

    Ben Stein, being the good lawyer he is, simply lets people like Richard Dawkins babble on until their natural arrogance and idiocy manifest themselves.

    It’s quite possible that Dawkins would fail to be particular convincing or on the ball in a hostile interview. So what?

    However, the preview clip I’ve seen so far that includes Dawkins very clearly chops up his quote to make it sound worse than it likely was: so we’ll see whether Dawkins is just a mess himself (certainly possible) or whether creative editing played a big role.

    Incredibly, Dawkins, presented with the evidence, admits that life on this planet appears to have been designed by an intelligent being, but being the blinkered idiot that he is, he explains that it was probably designed by a being from another planet that ITSELF evolved.

    From what I know of Dawkins, I suspect the film is here turning a hypothetical digression into a supposed final answer on a topic.

    Such an admission shows that Dawkins is not the objective scientist he claims to be, following the evidence where it takes him.

    Not really, because such a clip can hardly cover whatever Dawkins thinks all of the evidence rules and rules out, even in this one case, nor encompass of his arguments for this or that.

  7. Buzz says:

    Bad, because SOME religionsts (and I’ll apologize here for not knowing how to do italics; I don’t mean to shout) had screwy theories on race does not mean all do. In fact, one can easily point to other parts of Scripture to show how racism is wrong (e.g., Moses’ brother and sister being stricken for crumbling about his marrying a dark-skinned Cushite or the apostle Paul saying there is no Jew or Greek in God’s kingdom, the vernacular equivalent of saying no black or white).

    But the racist eugenics movement used sound Darwinian reasoning to say that we should work to eliminate the “inferior” dark-skinned people. In fact, the Nazis used sound Darwinian reasoning to eliminate the infirm, the mentally ill and the mentally retarded. But where in scientific, Darwinian thinking can we find the objection to these acts? How does a Darwinist say “Murder is wrong”? Wrong compared to what in a world where nature rewards the strong and eliminates the unfit? Why should we not attempt to breed out the weak and infirm?

    Indeed, here is Darwin himself, in “The Descent of Man,” complaining about how we take care of the weak: “With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardy anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.”

    He does go on to say that, thankfully, the “weak and inferior” (his words, not mine) members of society tend not to marry and, therefore, reproduce.

    I’m sorry, but you can’t use a pronoun prior to using a descriptive noun. It what? Everything ever? No biologist or scientist has or claims to have such an answer, at least a scientifically conclusive answer.

    What? What grammar are you referring to? And you’re wrong: witness Carl Sagan confidently stating, “Al that is or ever was or ever will be is the cosmos.” That is not a scientific statement, although he wanted us to believe so; it is a metaphysical statement with zero scientific reasoning behind it.

    OMG, you typed “say” instead of “way”! I guess it’s curtains for you and everything you’ve ever said, ever.

    Nope, I said ONCE is a typo, anything else is ignorance. If you’d typed BRAYLOR only once, I wouldn’t have commented on it; you repeat the error several times, though.

    And the interview with Dawkins was anything but hostile. One can’t even imagine Ben Stein even faking being hostile. It was a simple conversation across a table. No camera tricks, no tricky editing. No need to. As I said, Stein is a very good lawyer, and he simply lets Dawkins hang himself with his own screwy thinking.

    Dawkins hangs himself frequently with his own words; Stein didn’t need to prod. For example, Dawkins is careful to warn his readers that while the world around us and life itself might APPEAR to be designed, we should really remember that it just evolved. In other words, ignore the evidence and ignore Dr. Occam and remember our little bit of dogma.

  8. Buzz says:

    And my obvious attempt at basic HTML got really screwed up. Hope it’s still understandable.

  9. Bad says:

    Bad, because SOME religionsts (and I’ll apologize here for not knowing how to do italics; I don’t mean to shout) had screwy theories on race does not mean all do. In fact, one can easily point to other parts of Scripture to show how racism is wrong (e.g., Moses’ brother and sister being stricken for crumbling about his marrying a dark-skinned Cushite or the apostle Paul saying there is no Jew or Greek in God’s kingdom, the vernacular equivalent of saying no black or white).

    But I didn’t say that all do: and if Ben Stein is going to make a movie he wanted to title “from Darwin to Hitler” or you that Darwin (like everyone in his day) saw some races as inferior, then fair is fair in pointing out that creationism’s track record contains plenty of stains in equal or greater measure. And my main point was that what creationist and ID have offered in the way of insight and knowledge into the world are pitiful compared to science. The fact that various interpretations of Bible stories were once considered scientific insight on race, when these interpretations turned out to be utterly groundless nonsense, is certainly worth a nudge and a wink to a blind bat. That you can read the Bible now to support your own beliefs on race is nice of you, but not really relevant to the point.

    But the racist eugenics movement used sound Darwinian reasoning to say that we should work to eliminate the “inferior” dark-skinned people. In fact, the Nazis used sound Darwinian reasoning to eliminate the infirm, the mentally ill and the mentally retarded. But where in scientific, Darwinian thinking can we find the objection to these acts? How does a Darwinist say “Murder is wrong”? Wrong compared to what in a world where nature rewards the strong and eliminates the unfit? Why should we not attempt to breed out the weak and infirm?

    Sadly, you are operating under the delusion that there is some single view “Darwinism” to which all scientifically minded people subscribe as a value system. Descriptive science is not normative. Normative goals and judgments are something that people hold and have, not that scientific theories mandate.

    Indeed, here is Darwin himself, in “The Descent of Man,” complaining about how we take care of the weak: “With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated;… leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardy anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.”
    He does go on to say that, thankfully, the “weak and inferior” (his words, not mine) members of society tend not to marry and, therefore, reproduce.

    You also forget to mention the following paragraph in which he says that our noble qualities prevent us from bowing to the seeming harm. Indeed this passage is actually part of an long argument of how it might be that human beings could come to have moral values in spite of what seemed to many as a contradiction to evolutionary pressures. Darwin is here doing what he does often in his books: developing a seemingly strong argument against evolutionary theory but then showing why that perception is false. And of course, it would probably be better to read the work in whole, and know something about Darwin, than tossing this or that quote around. Darwin was, as every person of his time, a racialist. But given his context in the two Biblical views of races that I mentioned, he was pretty far from the worst, and was in fact a strong supporter for his day of civil rights for Africans and the abolition of slavery. Darwin was far from perfect by modern standards, but there’s no evidence at all and plenty against it that he would have supported what was called Social Darwinism, let alone genocide and enforced eugenics.

    But this is all pretty much relevant only for the accuracy of history in any case. What Darwin believed what should or should not be done is not what any other person must believes should or should not be done. And none of those things are relevant to the question of what is factually true about life on earth.

    I’m sorry, but you can’t use a pronoun prior to using a descriptive noun. It what? Everything ever? No biologist or scientist has or claims to have such an answer, at least a scientifically conclusive answer.

    What? What grammar are you referring to?

    The one where you can’t refer to an “it” before specifying what this “it” is that you are talking about. Are readers meant to read your mind? First you’re talking about evolution, but then suddenly it seems like you are talking about universal ontology. These are some very different subjects, and there’s no clarity to be found on which you mean.

    And you’re wrong: witness Carl Sagan confidently stating, “All that is or ever was or ever will be is the cosmos.” That is not a scientific statement, although he wanted us to believe so; it is a metaphysical statement with zero scientific reasoning behind it.

    Actually, it’s a definition, not a metaphysical hypothesis. But this is common understanding of Sagan. In any case, what does this have to do with Sagan claiming to know how everything began? Anyone who’s read Sagan’s books or seen Cosmos knows that he was a deeply humble guy insofar as repeating over and over how little we know, and how great the mystery of reality (in fact, that’s what he goes on to say in so many words right after your quote).

    OMG, you typed “say” instead of “way”! I guess it’s curtains for you and everything you’ve ever said, ever.

    Nope, I said ONCE is a typo, anything else is ignorance. If you’d typed BRAYLOR only once, I wouldn’t have commented on it; you repeat the error several times, though.

    Your theory makes little sense, given that typos and misspellings tend to repeat. As I noted on the about page (apparently this misspelling got so angry that you had to rush around to more than one venue!) I even typed “Braylor” reflexively while responding to your correction about the proper spelling! I think you’re on some pretty thin and elaborately desperate ice here, if your best argument against me was that I am a poor copy-editor. I’m happy to mea culpa on mistakes (especially since this is a common one for me which I’ve made over and over for plenty of words I’m quite familiar with), but making such a big todo over a repeated typo that had no actual bearing on any of my arguments makes you look pretty petty and excitable.

    And the interview with Dawkins was anything but hostile. One can’t even imagine Ben Stein even faking being hostile. It was a simple conversation across a table. No camera tricks, no tricky editing.

    But we already saw both in the very first clip of Dawkins from the start of the movie. So there were pretty clearly at least some. We’ll have to see what else shakes out in the full film (where did you see it by the way, since its only being screened to very specific audiences?), but you’ll forgive me if I put little trust in your interpretation and relation of things, and need to see for myself.

    For example, Dawkins is careful to warn his readers that while the world around us and life itself might APPEAR to be designed, we should really remember that it just evolved. In other words, ignore the evidence and ignore Dr. Occam and remember our little bit of dogma.

    Except that this characterization is almost certainly a lie (on your part, or Stein’s part). Even you should admit that Dawkins believes the evidence is on his side: claiming that he wants people to “ignore the evidence” is thus pretty absurd, even if you disagree with what he thinks the evidence is and shows.

    As far as I can tell, Dawkins sounds like he was using the common rhetorical device of framing the argument your opponents are making, conceding that their case appears compelling (since something has to explain why so many think it is compelling), but then showing why it is wrong. Expelled, no doubt, simply cuts away from most of the latter part of the argument.

    But again, even if Dawkins makes some lousy arguments in this interview… so what? What does that say about anything other than Dawkins?

  10. bbbertie says:

    Hey Bad, the Bible talks about people like you…
    It says “thinking themselves wise they became fools”
    “The fool has said in his heart ‘there is no God’”

    You have engaged in constant ad hominem attacks rather than defending your position, choosing to deliberately sidestep the issues by picking on typos and gramattical errors. A person who is a true intellectual would be able to see past those issues to the heart of the matter and actually defend their position.

    Of course I wasn’t saying that your dna is explosive, only somone fully uninformed would think that. You are deliberately (or foolishly) picking up up meaning from my post which isn’t in it.
    The point is that Nitrates, Phosphates and Sugars are each, in their own right, unstable compounds so much so that when combined correctly (with additional energy input) can be used to form explosives.

    I’m surprised that any one who claims the ability of critical thinking could ever take the stance that evolution is defendable. It is not, it is a relegion. Speciation is the only form of “evolution” ever observed, and that does not create anything new!

    Where has progressively more complex evolution ever been observed?
    Please tell me because I’d sure like to know?
    How come this assumed to have happened evolution seems to have stopped in the past 6000 years of recorded history? Around the time that the Bible says that God created everything?

    Lets see if you can resist just poking fun at spelling or grammer issues and actually produce an intelligent and concise response to the questions posed?

  11. Bad says:

    Hey Bad, the Bible talks about people like you…

    The Bible makes many self-sealing accusations like this. So what? Anyone can run around claiming that those who don’t agree with it are fools for not seeing it. Heck, crackpots of every stripe do this all the time. So what? The accusation is still only as good as the merits of its arguments.

    You have engaged in constant ad hominem attacks rather than defending your position, choosing to deliberately sidestep the issues by picking on typos and gramattical errors.

    Didn’t I already explain what an ad hominem attack was? Why are you still misusing the term?

    And it’s pretty darn silly to accuse me of harping on typos and grammatical errors: actually, it’s me defending myself from that accusation. You don’t seem to have actually read the discussion you are commenting on.

    Of course I wasn’t saying that your dna is explosive, only somone fully uninformed would think that. You are deliberately (or foolishly) picking up up meaning from my post which isn’t in it.

    Then why mention explosives at all? It isn’t relevant to chemistry if you weren’t trying to make the implication that this meant something, and I think you pretty clearly were, even now when you claim otherwise. And you even go on to repeat the same implication!:

    The point is that Nitrates, Phosphates and Sugars are each, in their own right, unstable compounds so much so that when combined correctly (with additional energy input) can be used to form explosives.

    Or, when combined in OTHER combinations, and additional energy, can form OTHER organic molecules: ones that happen to be more stable. Again, “unstable” makes no real sense here: different things are stable in different environments. Even many explosives are actually fairly stable in neutral environments. You simply can’t generalize in chemistry like you are doing, or mention explosives and really have it mean anything about other compounds formed from the same components.

    I’m surprised that any one who claims the ability of critical thinking could ever take the stance that evolution is defendable. It is not, it is a relegion. Speciation is the only form of “evolution” ever observed, and that does not create anything new!

    Odd that you admit speciation has been observed: most creationists haven’t come quite that far yet. But speciation is inherently evidence of something new, almost by definition. For speciation to happen, two populations, or at least one population from its former, have to have changed enough that they are no longer genetically or otherwise reproductively compatible.

    Where has progressively more complex evolution ever been observed?

    Well, for direct observation, we’ve seen entire metabolic pathways evolve in bacteria and all sorts of things like that. In just recent human history, we’ve seen all sorts of new traits emerge and start to spread into the population: and that’s just humans, just recently. And so on.

    It’s pretty much exactly what the fossil record shows. What the genetic record shows. What all the physical evidence of the past shows. The idea that everything must be observed with eyeballs is a common creationist misconception.

    Of course, you need to understand what you mean by “complex” because that concept isn’t so simple and obvious as most people think. There are many technical definitions, in fact, that are somewhat contradictory. Evolution doesn’t, in fact, predict that everything must steadily become more complex over time in any case: that’s actually a fairly contentious issue amongst biologists still.

    How come this assumed to have happened evolution seems to have stopped in the past 6000 years of recorded history?

    It hasn’t. Where did you get the idea that it had? Which scientists have suggested that it has stopped?

    Lets see if you can resist just poking fun at spelling or grammer issues and actually produce an intelligent and concise response to the questions posed?

    Again, it’s really sort of embarrassing that you think I’m actually guilty of this.

  12. [...] differences that way to figure out whether there was evidence of selection bias.  Much like the RNA researchers I discussed a little while ago.  But the article, primarily via omission, leaves the impression that the researchers actually [...]

  13. [...] tool for triangulating ancestral relationships, especially when combined with geological and genetic techniques. Don’t get us very far? They’ve gotten us a coherent tree of life that matches up to [...]

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  15. hihi says:

    Anyone find it ironic how Darwin himself started out as a religious man?

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