Saturday, May 30, 2009

Plantinga on Evolution and Naturalism

Alvin Plantinga, the famous Christian philosopher, wrote an article for the layman on his "Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism". You can read it here.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Told You So

A few days ago I blogged on the recent fossil find, dubbed 'Ida', sensationalized in the media as our earliest fossil ancestor. I urged caution about this fossil, stating that it was still very contentious amongst experts as to whether Adapids (the primate group to which Ida belongs) are ancestral to anthropoid (humanlike) monkeys.

Wouldn't you know it? A recent letter to Nature confirmed my suspicions:

[I]n the paper the authors explicitly state that Darwinius
masillae “could represent a stem group from which later anthropoid
primates evolved, but we are not advocating this here, nor do we consider
either Darwinius or adapoids to be anthropoids”. The authors
also refrain from claiming that the fossil changes our understanding
of primate evolution.

But the circumstances surrounding the paper’s publication were
anything but normal. Before the paper had even been submitted to
the journal, Atlantic, a production company based in New York, had
commissioned a television documentary and an accompanying book
about the find. Just a week after the paper appeared, the book has been
published and the documentary has been aired on the History Channel
in the United States, as well as Britain’s BBC and Norway’s NRK.
Both book and documentary include the the suggestive words ‘The
Link’ in their titles. A press release associated with the New York press
conference at which the fossil was first officially described claimed
that the fossil represents revolutionary changes in understanding.
The History Channel website calls the find a “human ancestor”, and
the BBC website describes it as “our earliest ancestor”.

To be fair, the authors’ claims at the press conference were appropriately
measured. Nonetheless, the researchers were fully involved
in the documentaries and the media campaign, which associate them
with a drastic misrepresentation of their research.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Skeptical Christian on Intelligent Design

The blogger Skeptical Christian wrote up a rather interesting post on ID which I thought I'd comment on. His words are italics, mine are not.

First of all, I view the whole issue as somewhat unneeded as far as a defense of Christianity is concerned. From my perspective, even the truth of full-blown evolutionary theory is fully consistent with theism and is quite possible on Christianity. Indeed, many great Christian philosophers, theologians, scientists, pastors, and laypeople believe the evolutionary account. Although this may bring up questions of interpretation concerning the book of Genesis, it seems to me that this difficulty would hardly prove fatal to the entire Christian worldview. Christianity, at root level, requires the existence of God and the resurrection of Jesus Christ for our sins.

I agree.

It is my thesis that none of the philosophical and polemical arguments raised against Intelligent Design are successful, so that the debate must lie in the realm of scientific facts. Please note that this does not constitute an endorsement, for I am mostly agnostic on this issue. But this debate must be resolved using scientific reasoning.

I disagree: As Richard Dawkins has argued, ID could never explain organized complexity because the designer's organized complexity is unexplained. Dawkins has, of course, been criticized, but I've found that the criticisms of his argument are weak. Although it might be possible to avoid this dilemma by positing alien designers, their existence would still have to explained ultimately (such as through some form of evolution).

One of the most common criticisms is that Intelligent Design does not count as science. If Intelligent Design is not even a scientific theory, than it simply is not a contender, it is disqualified from competition. Does this claim have any merit?

...First, let’s consider the criterion of falsification. Many critics claim that a theory must be capable of being falsified if it is to count as a scientific theory. The philosophy of falsificationism, according to which theories are never really confirmed but can only be falsified by contradictory evidence, is usually identified to have originated with Karl Popper, a philosopher of science born in the early 1900s. But is it true that a theory must be falsifiable in order to be scientific?

Although Popper has been very influential, his thesis has not gone unchallenged. For example, Carl Hempel has argued that falsificationism fails with regard to certain scientific claims, such as the following;
“For every metal, there is a temperature at which it will melt.”

This statement cannot be either falsified or justified by any possible scientific observation. Yet, it certainly seems to be a scientific hypothesis.

I agree completely. However, I still believe that falsificationism is useful. If a theory is falsifiable, it makes a negative prediction: A prediction about what we won't find. Although negative predictions add to a theory's strength, I don't believe that theories which only make positive predictions are not science (For example, the theory that a meteor hit the earth 65 million years makes no negative predictions, to my knowledge, but it does make positive predictions like: We may find an impact site from about that time) nor do I have a problem with theories that are simply inferences to the best explanation, such as endosymbiotic theory, which explains a wide range of facts yet is not (at least to my knowledge) falsifiable.

In any case, Intelligent Design theory is eminently testable, easily satisfying this criteria of science. All it takes to refute ID theory is to demonstrate that a plausible naturalistic account of irreducibly complex structures in biological organisms is available. In fact, many critics of ID argue that this has been done! This would obviously nullify the charge that ID is unfalsifiable. Indeed, many critics seem to claim both that Intelligent Design is unfalsifiable and actually falsified by the evidence. You can have one or the other, but you cannot have both. Scientific criticisms of ID are implicit recognitions that the theory is testable.

I think SC is confusing falsification with vulnerability to refutation. Falsification, as I understand it, has to do with making some observation which proves a theory wrong. Refutation is broader: Refutation is simply showing that someone's reasoning is incorrect.

In fact, ID seems to be, in this regard at least, much more falsifiable than Darwinian evolution. In order to falsify the Darwinian hypothesis, you would have to prove the universal negative that no naturalistic, evolutionary pathway could possibly lead to the development of the irreducibly complex structure. Proving a universal negative like this is obviously impossible. On the other hand, the Darwinian can refute Intelligent Design merely by offering one possible and plausible naturalistic, evolutionary explanation for the irreducibly complex structure.

Think about this: If I were to give a plausible, step-by-step account of how the bacterial flagellum evolved, would that disprove intelligent design? Not at all. IDers have plenty of other structures they claim are irreducibly complex, and if defeat all those they would simply go looking for another one. How can I refute irreducible complexity when doing so could potentially mean drawing up a plausible naturalistic pathway for every complex biological system on earth? And even if I refuted irreducible complexity, it's not like that would totally destroy intelligent design.

Allen Orr wrote a critique of Darwin’s Black Box, in which, among other things, he compared the development of an organism to the writing of a computer program. He says,

“Indeed, because the very act of revising a program has a way of wiping out clues to its history, it may be impossible to reconstruct the path taken. Similarly, we have no guarantee that we can reconstruct the history of a biochemical pathway. But even if we can’t, its irreducible complexity cannot count against its gradual evolution any more than the irreducible complexity of a program does—which is to say, not at all.” 3

Thus, under Darwinism, the inability to find any sort of plausible reconstruction for an organism or a biological feature is no evidence against the theory. Therefore, when it comes to explaining the actual development of organisms, Intelligent Design theory is remarkably more falsifiable than Darwinian evolution. But as mentioned before, this is largely irrelevant, because falsifiability is not required of a good scientific theory, particularly historical theories that attempt to reconstruct the past.

Agreed, with the addition that ID suffers similar problems because it can always take a seemingly inexplicable fact under the theory of evolution and claim it as evidence for ID. If the "inexplicable" fact is explained, is does not falsify ID, or even refute it. I also agree that this discussion is somewhat irrelevant since we both agree falsification has been overrated as a criterion for science.

SC goes on to talk about methodological naturalism: The idea that science is restricted to natural explanations. I agree with him that there are possible scientific proofs of God (finding the King James Bible written in the genome) and therefore science is not restricted to the natural. However, until rock-solid evidence for the existence of God is demonstrated, it would violate the empirical principles on which science is based. I'm not going to rule out the possibility of the supernatural, but so far all we have observed is the natural, and we shouldn't appeal to anything else as an explanation until rock-solid evidence of the supernatural exists.

He also mentions "Directed Panspermia"; The hypothesis that life on earth was sent over by an intelligent alien race:

Crick and Orgel mention the possibility that life was seeded on the planet earth over 4 billion years ago. This may strike many people, myself included, as absurd and contrived, but it is hard to deny that it is a theoretical possibility. If Crick and Orgel are allowed to mention this possibility, why cannot Intelligent Design advocates do the same?

I think this misses the point that natural designers are already empirically verified while supernatural designers are not. By the way, I have been writing an article on "Directed Panspermia" and I must say that the paper on it said nothing about explaining "complexity" or "information". Why is that? I suspect that Crick and Orgel, being the staunch Darwinists they are, understood that natural selection explained that much already. So Crick and Orgel moved on to other things that they thought design might explain. For example, take a look at what they said in their classic paper:

“The chemical composition of living organisms must reflect to some extent the composition of the environment in which they evolved. Thus the presence in living organisms of elements that are extremely rare on the Earth might indicate that life is extraterrestrial in origin.

“Molybdenum is an essential trace element that plays an important role in many enzymatic reactions, while chromium and nickel are relatively unimportant in biochemistry. The abundance of chromium, nickel, and molybdenum on the Earth are 0.20, 3.16, and 0.02%, respectively. We cannot conclude anything from this single example, since molybdenum may be irreplaceable in some essential reaction-nitrogen fixation, for example. However, if it could be show that the elements represented in terrestrial living organisms corelate closely with thosethat are abundant in some class of star molybdenum stars, for example-we might look more sympathetically at 'infective' theories."
-- FHC Crick and LE Orgel, “Directed Panspermia” Icarus 19 341-346 (1973)

Dawkins offers a classic objection in his book The Blind Watchmaker. He claims that “[To explain via] a supernatural Designer is to explain precisely nothing, for it leaves unexplained the origin of the Designer. You have to say something like ‘God was always there,’ and if you allow yourself that kind of lazy way out, you might as well just say ‘DNA was always there,’ or ‘Life was always there’ and be done with it.”

...The main problem with this argument is that it makes a fundamental mistake about the nature of explanation. In order to offer a good, compelling explanation of some phenomena, one does not need to offer an explanation of the explanation. If you think carefully about this, then you may notice that we could never explain anything using the Dawkins approach. Such an approach leads to an infinite regress. Any explanation you offer would need an explanation, that explanation would require an explanation, and so on forever. It would literally be impossible to have any knowledge.

Not quite. As I discuss in chapter 7 of my book, "Atheism and Naturalism": When we posit an intelligent designer to explain an arrowhead, we implicitly understand that we have not explained everything: The indian who fashioned the arrowhead needs to be explained, and we do not deny that he (and the whole human race) need to be explained. The same goes for alien designers: They still need an explanation. However, when it comes to God, there could never be an explanation: If god evolved, or was designed, he would not be god. The only way to 'explain' God is to say that his existence is logically necessary (I have examined the arguments for the necessity of God in chapter 2 of my book and find them severely lacking, and I believe most philosophers agree). The very thing God is summoned to explain (organized complexity) is something which God himself possesses and therefore could never 'explain'.

[I]t seems false that Intelligent Design theory makes no predictions, or at least it is false that Intelligent Design cannot make any predictions. For example, ID predicts that some biological organisms will have features that exhibit irreducible complexity and specified complexity. ID predicts that no plausible naturalistic account of irreducibly complex mechanisms will be forthcoming. This is an extremely risky prediction, as noted above, all it takes is one plausible naturalistic account and ID is overturned, while a Darwinian may rest easy in his convictions because nothing short of a logical disproof of the possibility of evolution will suffice to overthrow his paradigm.

No, ID does not predict 'irreducible complexity'. A designer could have easily created life in a simple and effecient way that did not involve "irreducibly complex" arrangements or "specified complexity" (whatever that is). As for the alleged vulnerability to falsification due to the fact that someone might find a naturalistic account of irreducible complexity, please see my previous comments for a refutation.

Now, to wrap up: What merit does ID have? The most common answer I hear is that ID has the power to explain the 'information' in the genome or the complexity of living things. Yet Darwinian Evolution explains this just as well: Computer Simulations of Natural Selection as well as real life observations show that evolution can and does produce complexity.

So Evolution and ID, it would seem, are neck-and-neck right now. Unless one can explain much more than the other, or unless one has made far more verified predictions than the other.

So what might ID predict? Well, that depends very much on what the goals, desires, and means of the designer were. I was tempted to say that ID might predict that everything would be designed as efficiently as possible, but Michael Behe has already addressed that argument by replying that, essentially, efficient design would assume that we know what the designer's goals were.

So what could ID explain? Well, if you are thinking of an alien designer then it might explain one or two of the peculiar biochemical properties Crick and Orgel mentioned (and even this does not challenge evolution, but only an unguided origin of life). But a supernatural designer could not explain anything except complexity and information, which evolution already explains.

So, the question is, can evolution explain more than ID? Absolutely:

Charles Darwin predicted we would find human-ape intermediates. We did. He said they'd be in Africa, since according to evolutionary reasoning, they were unlikely to be anywhere else. We did. Scientists used the theory of evolution to predict that the genetic code would be universal (with the possibility of a few minor variations). It is. Evolutionary theory predicts that we will not find animals with adaptations not directly or indirectly beneficial to their own reproductive success. 10 million species later, we haven't. See here:

Monday, May 25, 2009


Hey Everyone,

I'm going to be on vacation in Gulf Shores for the next several days, so there won't be any updates until then. So for now, here are some things you should definitely check out if you haven't already:

* Excerpt from my book published on Internet Infidels (Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?).

* Article published on DB Skeptic called "Evolution, the Genetic Code, and Message Theory".

* I was on "The Infidel Guy Show" to talk about my book.

I'd just like to mention that through the month of May you can get ten percent off of my book. Just enter MAYCONTEST10 at the checkout. Click the link below to purchase:

Evolution, the genetic code, and ‘message theory’: A response to Walter Remine

New article I published on some intelligent design nonsense.

You can read it here.

Discussion Between Richard Dawkins and Paul Davies

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Greatest Show on Earth (Dawkins' Upcoming Book)


Coming September 2009

Charles Darwin's masterpiece, "On the Origin of Species", shook society to its core on publication in 1859. Darwin was only too aware of the storm his theory of evolution would provoke but he would surely have raised an incredulous eyebrow at the controversy still raging a century and a half later. Evolution is accepted as scientific fact by all reputable scientists and indeed theologians, yet millions of people continue to question its veracity. In "The Greatest Show on Earth", Richard Dawkins takes on creationists, including followers of 'Intelligent Design' and all those who question the fact of evolution through natural selection. Like a detective arriving on the scene of a crime, he sifts through fascinating layers of scientific facts and disciplines to build a cast-iron case: from the living examples of natural selection in birds and insects; the 'time clocks' of trees and radioactive dating that calibrate a timescale for evolution; the fossil record and the traces of our earliest ancestors; to confirmation from molecular biology and genetics. All of this, and much more, bears witness to the truth of evolution. "The Greatest Show on Earth" comes at a critical time: systematic opposition to the fact of evolution is now flourishing as never before, especially in America. In Britain and elsewhere in the world, teachers witness insidious attempts to undermine the status of science in their classrooms. Richard Dawkins provides unequivocal evidence that boldly and comprehensively rebuts such nonsense. At the same time he shares with us his palpable love of the natural world and the essential role that science plays in its interpretation. Written with elegance, wit and passion, it is hard-hitting, absorbing and totally convincing.

I'm looking forward to it! The cover is very cool.

New Article

Hey Readers!

I just got back from the Montgomery, AL Jubilee City Fest. It was a blast! Three Doors Down was there!

Anyway, An excerpt of my book was published on : "Was Jesus Raised from the Dead? : A Response to William Lane Craig's Resurrection Argument"

Also, I'd just like to mention that through the month of May you can get ten percent off of my book. Just enter MAYCONTEST10 at the checkout.

Finally, if you didn't hear me on The Infidel Guy Show, you can still listen to the mp3 at

ID Fallacies

Saturday, May 23, 2009

More Time for Biogenesis

Several months ago I blogged on some research that suggested the earth wasn't so hostile to life over 4 billion years ago (It's usually thought that the earth was not habitable before 3.9 billion years ago). Now research suggests that the massive asteroid impacts of 4 billion years ago would NOT have wiped out life (as is usually thought). See the report from News Daily.

Since the first traces of life are 3.8 billion years old, this means that there was about 600 million years for life to originate and evolve into the ancient single-celled organisms we find.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Ida Who?

I think you ought to know that it is very controversial as to whether this fossil is transitional. It's an adapid, the view that adapids gave rise to anthropoids (and consequently humans) is controversial:

"Researchers have been trying to trace the origins of anthropoids--a group of higher primates that include apes, monkeys, and humans--for decades. The earliest undisputed fossils of anthropoids lived in Egypt between 32 million and 35 million years ago. In the past 15 years, researchers have found older fossils, including Eosimias, that lived 45 million years ago in China and India--and most researchers argue that these diminutive fossils either are the earliest anthropoids or are their close relatives. A few researchers, however, argue instead that anthropoids arose from a more primitive group of primates--so-called adapids."

Honestly, I think the folks who found this fossil are hyping it up a bit for cash (they're selling a book on it called 'The Link') and are not seriously sending the message that their views are minority (For example, the website presents nothing but the view that this fossil is unquestionably of a group ancestral to us).

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Infidel Guy

Tonight at 8/7 Central I will be appearing on The Infidel Guy Show, to discuss my new book "Atheism and Naturalism".

If you've listened to the show (or are currently listening) you can read excerpts from my book here.

If you're new to my blog, here are some of my classic debunkings of creationism:

AiG's response to the recent primate fossil discovery.

Hopeful Monsters, Stephen J. Gould, and AiG

Archaeopterx: Flipping AiG the Bird

Debunking the 'Fourteen Evidences' of a Young Earth

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Creationism Makes Predictions?

The other day someone in a certain forum I belong to posted some predictions of creationism. I responded to him. Quotes from him are in italics, my words are in bold:

1. Common designs among diverse species – if a designer is in view, one would expect similar designs to appear in species that are not related. If evolution is true, nearly identical designs would necessarily be related. (examples which prove this prediction are the eyes of the chameleon and sandlance (fish), and the bill of the duck and platypus. (regarding this is a wonderful quote from Stephen Jay Gould who unwittingly insists that design convergence is impossible)

Evolution predicts that the chameleon and the sandlance inherited that similarity from a common ancestor. The fact they both have similar eyes is of no consequence to either creationists or evolutionists because it fits just fine in both views. However, creationists can't really use the "common design" argument. Why would God create the wing of the bird, the flipper of the whale, the paw of a dog, and the hand of a man with the same underlying structure? Why not give the whale a propeller? It makes more sense if the common ancestor of all these creatures had a five-fingered hand that was modified for different uses as time went on. Besides, even if there were some reason god would want to make things the same, why didn't he design the wings of the bat, bird, and pterosaur the same? See here.
An evolutionist would solve that problem by arguing that there are lots of ways to make a wing from a five digit hand, and since each lineage (bats, birds, and pterosaurs) evolved separately, each one evolved its wing a slightly different way. How do you explain it, without being inconsistent with your idea of "common design"?

2. Fine tuning – honestly, if the weak refutations of the “fine tuning” argument have caused you to dismiss this argument, fine. But one should consider that this aspect of the universe is predicted by a design model and in opposition to a naturalistic model. So predicting future scientific discoveries based on the premise of a creator must mean that more fine-tuning characteristics will be discovered, the degree of fine tuning discovered will increase, evidence of fine tuning regarding humans will be far more pronounced than for life in general, and most significantly, ALL life on earth both past and present will be found to serve some purpose directly related to the needs or pleasures of humanity.

The fine-tuning of the universe was never predicted by theism. Don't get me wrong, its still possible that theism is the best explanation for the fine-tuning, but it is not a prediction of theism.
The reason I reject the fine-tuning argument for God is because:

1. It just raises the question of where such a complex and fine-tuned creator came from (and if his complexity existed forever, or with no explanation, we may as well say the same about the universe). It is possible that the universe existed forever, as there are lots of cyclic cosmologies that are plausible (See here).

2. Testable multiverse theories (such as Smolin's cosmological natural selection hypothesis) have been put forward.

3. Multiverse theories are not less preferable than God. Some critics object that the multiverse violates occam's razor, but if it does, so does God: The god hypothesis requires positing a brand new kind of entity, while the multiverse only demands that we posit more of the same type of entity that we know exists (the universe).

3. Astronomers will continue to find new evidence which shows that the Milky Way Galaxy is unique in its capacity for a solar system like ours, our solar system is unique in its capacity to have a planet like earth, and the earth is unique in its capacity to support life (no matter how may trillions of galaxies are discovered).
I've got more where these came from, but I'd really like to hear an argument to the "fine-tuning" of the universe that doesn't involve an untestable theory without a shred of evidence (I am of course referring to the infinite shrinking and expanding of the universe).

I don't see how prediction 3 follows from theism. In any case, the evidence so far shows otherwise. I've written a great deal on all these matters, you can check out my writings in book, "Atheism and Naturalism".

Alvin Plantinga on the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism

The philosopher wrote an article for the layman on his "Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism". It may be read here.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

More Bullshit from Answers in Genesis

Wouldn't you know it? AiG has written up a "preliminary report" on the newly discovered fossil 'Ida'. Although Ida is claimed to be ancestral to anthropoid primates (like Gorillas, Chimps, and Us) there is a lot of controversey over this in the scientific community, and so I think we should be very cautious before claiming anything.

On the other hand, Answers in Genesis' comments on this are so full of shit that they deserve debunking. Their comments are in italics, mine are in bold:

1. Nothing about this fossil suggests it is anything other than an extinct, lemur-like creature. Its appearance is far from chimpanzee, let alone “apeman” or human.

Correct. However, this fossil is only claimed to be a precursor to anthropoid primates, not an "apeman". This fossil would came way, way, before the emergence of humans.

2. A fossil can never show evolution. Fossils are unchanging records of dead organisms. Evolution is an alleged process of change in live organisms. Fossils show “evolution” only if one presupposes evolution, then uses that presupposed belief to interpret the fossil.

Bullshit. The theory of common descent is that all living things share common ancestors. Therefore, if it is true we ought to find fossils showing intermediate characteristics between older species and younger species, between older genuses and younger genuses, older families and younger families, etc. etc.

3. Similarities can never show evolution. If two organisms have similar structures, the only thing it proves is that the two have similar structures. One must presuppose evolution to say that the similarities are due to evolution rather than design. Furthermore, when it comes to “transitional forms,” the slightest similarities often receive great attention while major differences are ignored.

"Similar structures" may be evidence of evolution if they are used for completely different purposes (See my upcoming post on this). Furthermore, we know that deep similarity is indicative of a relationship. I look like my Dad. My sisters all look very similar.

4. The remarkable preservation is a hallmark of rapid burial. Team member Jørn Hurum of the University of Oslo said, “This fossil is so complete. Everything’s there. It’s unheard of in the primate record at all. You have to get to human burial to see something that’s this complete.” Even the contents of Ida’s stomach were preserved. While the researchers believe Ida sunk to the bottom of a lake and was buried, this preservation is more consistent with a catastrophic flood. Yet Ida was found with “hundreds of well-preserved specimens.”

How is this "more consistent with a flood"?!? And why can't hundreds of fossils be well preserved in a single lake?

5. If evolution were true, there would be real transitional forms. Instead, the best “missing links” evolutionists can come up with are strikingly similar to organisms we see today, usually with the exception of minor, controversial, and inferred anatomical differences.

This contradicts the earlier claim that transitional fossils are just a matter of interpretation. How can a creationist demand transitional forms on the one hand, but on the other hand refuse to 'interpret' any fossil as transitional? That's dishonest. Besides, there are lots of unambiguous transitional fossils (See here and here).

6. Evolutionists only open up about the lack of fossil missing links once a new one is found. Sky News reports, “Researchers say proof of this transitional species finally confirms Charles Darwin's theory of evolution,” while Attenborough commented that the missing link “is no longer missing.” So are they admitting the evidence was missing until now (supposedly)?

I think this is a good example of bad science journalism. One fossil does not make or break the theory of evolution (you need lots and lots of 'em to know about how life evolved or even whether it evolved). There will always be gaps in the fossil record, and paleontologists have been open about this. However, filling in these gaps does not imply that they the gaps used to be some fatal flaw in Darwin's theory.


I just wanted to make a post to summarize all the important posts I've made lately:

* New Experiments showed how RNA could form on the early earth. Richard Carrier made a post on statistics and biogenesis. Richard Carrier wrote a good blog post on statistics and biogenesis.

* I've posted a lot of my old books for sale on eBay. Books on evolution, atheism, theism, science and philosophy.

* Jason Rosenhouse wrote a good blog post on the topic of whether human evolution was likely and how this affected Christianity. I provide my comments.

* I wrote a chapter by chapter summary of my book, Atheism and Naturalism. Also, you can save 10% of the purchase of my book when you enter the code MAYCONTEST10 at the checkout. Buy it here.

* Something I haven't blogged on yet: I'll be appearing on The Infidel Guy Show this thursday, May 21 to talk about my book.

Ida: Revealing the Link

A new transitional fossil, between lemurs and anthropoids, nicknamed "Ida". She is very complete, and has her own website here:

Fascinating videos and info!!

Update: Blogger Laelaps has written an article on this that suggests this primate may not be our ancestor after all.

Update 2: I read an article in Science, and it seems that there is even more skepticism about this new find than I had thought. Apparently it is a matter of debate as to which group we evolved from:

Researchers have been trying to trace the origins of anthropoids--a group of higher primates that include apes, monkeys, and humans--for decades. The earliest undisputed fossils of anthropoids lived in Egypt between 32 million and 35 million years ago. In the past 15 years, researchers have found older fossils, including Eosimias, that lived 45 million years ago in China and India--and most researchers argue that these diminutive fossils either are the earliest anthropoids or are their close relatives. A few researchers, however, argue instead that anthropoids arose from a more primitive group of primates--so-called adapids.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Comments on Dinesh D'Souza

I just wanted to make some comments about some rather dumb comments Dinesh D'Souza made in his latest debate with Christopher Hitchens (you can watch the video by clicking here).

"The Israelis and the Palestinians aren't fighting about God, they're fighting about land. "

No, they're fighting over land that they believe was given to them BY god.

"Aren't we fortunate to live on a planet with a sun eight light minutes away?" (if the sun was much furth or much closer it would not permit life on earth)

We have to live on a planet that can support us. A planet capable of supporting life is, even assuming estimates set by creationists, highly probable given the age and size of the universe (exact numbers and references are given in chapter 3 of my book).

Dinesh also mentions that Jupiter is strategically placed so as to protect earth from asteroids. But why did god create the asteroids in the first place? The fact that we live on a planet that is fortunately protected from asteroids makes more sense on the view that there are trillions and trillions of planets, and we happen to live on one which is conducive to our survival.

Dinesh goes on to admit that his arguments aren't valid since there are billions of planets. But then why bring it up in the first place? He goes on to make the same argument about the universe: The physical constants have to be precisely what they are in order to permit life, blah blah blah. Once again, this is addressed in chapter 3 of my book, as well as in Victor Stenger's God: The Failed Hypothesis and Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion.

He also said something very curious: The universe has to be exactly as old as it is, and exactly the size that it is, to produce life. What the hell? How does the universe have to be 13.7 billion years old to host life? I do recall reading somewhere that the number of particles had to be exactly what they were at the big bang, or it would screw things up and make what followed from the Big Bang inhospitable to life. But why did God have to create the world with the Big Bang?

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Inevitable Humans?

Jason Rosenhouse wrote an excellent, right-on-target post about Christianity, Evolution, and the inevitability of humans:

Jerry Coyne has a post up on the subject of whether a highly-intelligent, self-aware species is the inevitable end result of the evolutionary process. He begins:

Over at that hilarious goldmine of accommodationism, Francis Collins's BioLogos website (generously supported by The Templeton Foundation), they have posted an answer to the question, “Did evolution have to result in human beings?” Now if you know anything about this history of faith/science accommodationism, you know that the answer has to be “yes”, at least if you construe the question to mean “Did evolution have to result in a rational, highly intelligent being that was capable of apprehending and worshiping its creator?” If God is running the evolutionary process, as the accommodationists maintain, then the evolution of humans (who are, after all, the goal of this process -- the one species made in God's image) could not have been left to chance.

Get the idea? See the original for appropriate links.

I think Coyne is right both about humans not being inevitable and about the importance of this question to religious folks. If Stephen Jay Gould was right about humans being unlikely to evolve a second time were we to replay the evolutionary process, then Christianity is really in some very serious trouble. It's pretty hard to argue that humans are the point of creation if it's a serious possibility that evolution would never have gotten past the trilobite.

Rather than reahsh that argument, however, I'd like to make a different point. Let us grant for the moment that humans really were the inevitable end result of the evolutionary process. Does that really make Christian theism seem plausible?

I think Christianity has a serious problem either way. If humans were not inevitable, them our cosmic significance is greatly reduced. But if we were inevitable, then why the four billion year preamble to our emergence?

Accepting the Francis Collins / Simon Conway Morris / Ken Miller thesis means that God set in motion four billion years of savage, wasteful bloodsport to reach an endpoint that was foreordained. Why did he do that? Why not simply get to the point and create humans right from the start (just as the Bible says He did)?

Friday, May 15, 2009

New Support for the 'RNA World' Hypothesis

From Nature:

"An elegant experiment has quashed a major objection to the theory that life on Earth originated with molecules of RNA.

John Sutherland and his colleagues from the University of Manchester, UK, created a ribonucleotide, a building block of RNA, from simple chemicals under conditions that might have existed on the early Earth."

"Sutherland points out that the sequence of steps he uses is consistent with early-Earth scenarios — those involving methods such as heating molecules in water, evaporating them and irradiating them with ultraviolet light. And breaking RNA's synthesis down into small, laboratory-controlled steps is merely a pragmatic starting point, he says, adding that his team also has results showing that they can string nucleotides together, once they have formed. 'My ultimate goal is to get a living system (RNA) emerging from a one-pot experiment. We can pull this off. We just need to know what the constraints on the conditions are first.'"

However, another website reported that,

"'But while this is a step forward, it’s not the whole picture,' Ferris points out. 'It’s not as simple as putting compounds in a beaker and mixing it up. It’s a series of steps. You still have to stop and purify and then do the next step, and that probably didn’t happen in the ancient world.'"

I'm curious about how this stopping and purifying affects things. I assume purifying means removing chemicals not related to those involved in RNA synthesis. Do these chemicals prohibit any reactions related to RNA synthesis? I have no clue, though I would assume that these researchers are competent enough to either know that they don't or to have proposed a natural mechanism that would remove such chemicals. Maybe these chemicals can also bind to RNA precursors. In that case the odds of RNA production on the early earth would be lower than in the lab, but of course the early earth is vastly larger than any lab setup and has millions of times more time than any experimenter could afford to spare.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

For a Limited Time, Save 10%

When you order my book, Atheism and Naturalism. Just enter the code MAYCONTEST10 at the checkout when you purchase. That'll bring the price down to $2.70 for the download version or $13.49 for the paperback version.

Denyse O'Leary Sinks to a New Low

On that godawful blog "Uncommon Descent" Denyse O'Leary interviews Harun Yahya, that idiot Islamic Creationist (Click here to see Richard Dawkins debunk him). Here is one of the gems of the conversation:

"The number of people in Turkey who believe in Darwinism has fallen almost to nothing over the last 30 years. Turkey is the country with the lowest level of belief in Darwinism in the world, because the Turkish people are highly intelligent and foresighted."

If O'Leary is willing to associate with dishonest scum like this (Click here and here to read about some of the legal bullshit Yahya has gotten himself into) then all I can say is that she is good for nothing but a laugh.

Dembski's Latest Serving of Horse Shit

Is Debunked over at "Good Math, Bad Math" here and here.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Chapter by Chapter Synopsis of My Book

Here is a chapter by chapter synopsis (summary) of my book, Atheism and Naturalism:

1. Grouding Your Worldview

Concerns how we know things (epistemology) and defeats some epistemic arguments against atheism (such as presuppositionalism).

2. The Philosopher's God

Concerns arguments for God popular amongst philosophers such as the Kalam Cosmological Argument, the Ontological argument, the Argument from Consciousness, and many more.

3. The "Miracle" of Life

Rebutts arguments for God concerning Biology, such as the "Fine tuning" argument, Irreducible Complexity, the Argument from Biogenesis (Origin of Life), etc.

4. Revelation

Provides reasons and examples of why Holy Books like the Bible and Qu'ran do not contain any verified prophecies or advanced scientific knowledge. Also argues that Jesus was a false prophet who predicted that the end of the world would come within the lifetime of his followers.

5. The Case Against Christ

Rebutts Arguments surrounding Jesus of Nazareth, such as the argument that Jesus fulfilled many Old Testament prophecies (and therefore must be the messiah), Arguments for Jesus' resurrection, and more.

6. Someone to Hear Your Prayers?

Argues that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are definitely false.

7. Arguments Against God

Presents arguments against God (such as the Argument from Evil and the Argument from Nonbelief) and shows why theistic responses to these arguments are failures.

8. Naturalism

Defines "Naturalism" extensively and argues that it is true through arguments such as the argument from Mind/Brain Dependency.

9. The Big Bang, Being, and Beginnings

Explains the Big Bang, Origin of Life, Natural Selection, and speculations on what occured before the Big Bang.

10. Evolution: The Evidence

Argues from fossil and genetic evidence that all life is descended from a common ancestor.

11. Some Objections Considered

Argues that Meaning and Morality are not destroyed by an atheistic worldview, and considers the argument that God is not to be found through arguments or evidence.

Also, don't forget that excerpts can be read here.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Books For Sale

I finally got around to posting some of my old books on eBay. If you're into science, philosophy of religion, or atheism, you definitely want to check these out. You can view them here:

Penn Says: Skeptic Article

Idiot America

PZ Myers posted something about a new book, Idiot America, and I'm reposting it with my own comments:

"The rise of Idiot America, though, is essentially a war on expertise. It's not so much antimodernism or the distrust of the intellectual elites that Richard Hofstader teased out of the national DNA, although both of these things are part of it. The rise of Idiot America today reflects — for profit, mainly, but also and more cynically, for political advantage and in the pursuit of power — the breakdown of the consensus that the pursuit of knowledge is a good. It also represents the ascendancy of the notion that the people we should trust the least are the people who know the best what they're talking about. In the new media age, everybody is a historian, or a scientist, or a preacher, or a sage. And if everyone is an expert, then nobody is, and the worst thing you can be in a society where everybody is an expert is, well, an actual expert.

This is how Idiot America engages itself. It decides, en masse, with a million keystrokes and clicks of the remote control, that because there are two sides to every question, they both must be right, or at least not wrong. And the words of an obscure biologist carry no more weight on the subject of biology than do the thunderations of some turkeyneck preacher out of Christ's Own Parking Structure in DeLand, Florida. Less weight, in fact, because our scientist is an "expert" and therefore, an "elitist." Nobody buys his books. Nobody puts him on cable. He's brilliant, surely, but no different from the rest of us, poor fool."

I must say this is long overdue. I have run into many a creationist fool who thinks she knows more about the age of the earth than the consensus of geologists who have studied it their entire lives. We all know the creationist fools who are sure that they have the theory of evolution all figured out, and can't see why biologists who have studied this their entire lives just don't see the simple truth they do. Of course, many of them realize how absurd this is and so they cover by saying that these folks keep quiet because they'll be thrown out of academia if they dare to disagree, or they simply uphold these things because they want to have the freedom to sin without fear of hellfire.

I, and many other atheists, have no right to be smug: In the past I have thought that perhaps the scholarly community was wrong about the existence of Jesus. Or at least, that New Testament scholars were overblowing the case for an historical Jesus. I now realize what a mistake I made. Rest assured that this did not come out of the blue, for the past several weeks I have been thinking and have made up my mind that it is probable that Jesus really was. I have two primary pieces of evidence for this:

1. Galatians 1:19, in which Paul claims to have met James, the brother of the Lord. This was written about 20 years after Jesus died. The plainest reading of the text would suggest this was a flesh and blood brother of Jesus (not to mention the fact that a James is named as a blood brother of Jesus in the gospels). So Paul must have, at very minimum, thought that he was conversing with a brother of Jesus, and by implication he thought Jesus was real. Furthermore, it is hard to see how Paul's letters would have been accepted by the Christian community if they did not also believe that Jesus was real. Now why would these folks, just twenty years after Jesus supposedly lived, think he was an earthly person? The best explanation is that he was.

2. If you read the end of the gospel of Matthew, you will notice that Matthew tells of a report amongst the Jews that the disciples stole Jesus' body, to which Matthew replies that the guards were paid to say this. Let's think about this for a minute: If the gospels are symbolic fiction, as mythicists believe, wouldn't Matthew have reacted to this rumor amongst the Jews by saying that the empty tomb was not literal, but only a symbolic expression meant to convey some spiritual truth? I suppose a mythicist could argue that the story of the Jews' rumor and its reply all have some symbolic meaning. That's fine. But the burden of proof is on them to show that this interpretation is correct, since the plainest, simplest reading of the text does not indicate any such thing. The best explanation is that the gospels were not (completely) symbolic myths, and that there was a real person who inspired the gospel stories.

What about the arguments for Jesus mythicism? Well, the primary piece of evidence cited in favor of mythicism is that Paul said almost nothing about the historical Jesus, and that the very few passages in his writing which appear to refer to a historical Jesus can also be interpreted as having some symbolic meaning. I think the fact that Paul says little about Jesus as an actual person means nothing, because Paul tells us that he recieved his info on Jesus not from men, but from visions and reading OT scripture. A person relying on sources like these wouldn't say much about the gospel Jesus, whether he existed or not.

The other argument commonly used in favor of mythicism is the fact that there are no references to Jesus outside of the New Testament. While this may disprove a miracle-working Jesus, it does not disprove a poor, apocalyptic prophet named Jesus (who was an ordinary man) who gave rise to the gospel stories.

A forum post

Got a hilarious post from a Christian in my forum over at godriddance (which is unusual, because my forum has been dead for months). Anyway, here's his post, and my rebuttal (in bold):

"1. You mentioned Dr. Miller's experiment. That's a problem in and of itself--you were claiming that as the basis of the entire theory you presented. But Miller's experiment was entirely wrong. I will cover this in several subtopics.

1. His conditions were wrong. How many test tubes did they have billions of years ago?"

None. The chemicals and energy source (lightning), however, were around. I'm not so sure that being contained in glass makes any difference. At least, the chemists performing this experiment didn't think so, and they should know: They're chemists!

"2. The environment was wrong. This is similar to the first: there were no labs, no sterile environments. Everything was just kinda...there."

No sterile environments? Sterility means the absence of living things. Before life originated, I'm pretty sure there was no life.

"3. He had the wrong results. First of all, there were veeeery few amino acids at al. Second, he had the wrong type of amino acids that don't link to make proteins. Third, they were all in tar, which would destroy the acids before they could link together."

Oh no, amino acids were produced in abdundance. Stanley Miller himself said this on the subject:

"The surprise of the experiment was the very large yield of amino acids. We would have been happy if we got traces of amino acids, but we got around 4 percent. Incidentally, this is probably the biggest yield of any similar prebiotic experiment conducted since then. The reason for that has to do with the fact that amino acids are made from even simpler organic compounds such as hydrogen cyanide and aldehydes."

Secondly, Miller got thirteen types of amino acids found in life today.

"Even Miller himself admitted this in a debate that an atheist and creationist were having on the topic. The moderator invited him up and he said that he had stopped believing that years ago."

Love to see a reference.

"And even if you do have amino acids, what good is it? You need a good long chain of them to make ONE PROTEIN. And it has already been proven by others that it is statistically impossible (several times the amount that is considered statistically impossible) that a protein could just randomly form. And that, once again, is ONE PROTEIN."

You're correct that you need lots of amino acids to make a single protein. But why must life start out with a whole protein? Why not just a polypeptide?

"And you know what? A protein is nowhere near the most complex molecule in the most simple single-celled organism. And even if all those molecules happened to form, good luck putting them together. On accident."

Correct. But why must we start out with a whole single celled organism? Why not just a self reproducing polypeptide like the one discovered

"I could do this all day, but I won't. The reason people want to be atheists (I am getting this from atheists who are themselves converts to Christianity) is because they have no need for accountability, and that's why you and everyone else who is an atheist is one."

The Reason people want to be Christians (and I'm getting this from Atheists who used to be Christians) is because they are pussies who can't handle life without Jeebus.
: )

Monday, May 11, 2009

JP Holding: Dumbass for Christ

I came across something that James Patrick Holding (semi-popular internet apologist) wrote on the Internet Infidels discussion board about Evolution. Since I've posted a link, and since the post is frickin' long, I'll let you go to the link if you wanna read it. Here is my response to him:

This is so dumb. Holding is basically arguing: 'You don't know absolutely everything about how and why each step of evolution occurred, therefore God intervened or created life. '

I'm going to imitate Holding's babyish style in my rebuttal:

"1) How many mutations did it take to go from the earliest member of the tree, Hyracotheium, to the latest member, New World Equus?"

Don't know, but that's irrelevant.

"2) How many of these mutations are directly in evidence in the fossil record?"

A mutation is a change in DNA, something you can't observe in the fossil record, dodo."If I were to present a case for (say) the Resurrection of Jesus, and I only had .002% of the evidence I needed to make that case, who would think I had made a good case?"There is more than .002% of the evidence needed to make the case. There is well over 100% evidence needed to show that evolution occurred (If Evolutionists suddenly lost half their evidence, there would still be enough to make the case for evolution).

"a) How do they know that grasses of the time were harsher and more abrasive? How do they arrive at the conclusion that there were not softer, less abrasive grasses available to eat as well?"

You fool. What it says is "eating grasses", not eating certain types of grass. Grasses are harsher and more abrasive than other foods.

"b) How radical was the first mutation that increased tooth size and/or shape, or began that cement layer, etc? By natural selection theory, it must have been radical enough to make the survival of the horses who had it, more likely than those who didn't. But how do they know that the first mutation conferred such an advantage? They can't have had two horses or populations of them - one with, one without the mutation - and watched as they grazed and lived to see who survived better in a specific environment, so how can they be sure that the first mutational step provided enough of a survival advantage to be selected?"

You knucklehead. You're asking how we know that the first adaptive mutation provided enough survival advantage to spread. If it didn't have enough survival advantage, it wouldn't have spread, duh!!! And we know that advantageous variations spread because of the fossil record.

"Given the number of fossils versus the number of horses that must have lived, how can they be sure that their conclusions about the size and shape of the teeth reflect the state of the teeth of the Miocene horses as a whole? I have had two successive miniature poodles. The first, Toby, had thick, large teeth; my new one, Cocoa, has thin, needle-like teeth."

Too say that several dozen fossils all appeared to show several different trends through time, purely by chance, is stupid. Besides, wouldn't you expect a fossil to probably be an average representative of its species? Its called the Principle of Mediocrity.

Once again, given all these unanswered questions, I'm not seeing why materialist views should be pronounced so confidently. If someone wants to say, e.g.,

"God prodded the process along" that's another matter, but a pure materialist view? I can't see it working."

All you've done is ask dumbass questions. You haven't given a damn reason why evolution could not have occurred naturally.In conclusion, I'd like to ask you, Mr. Holding, some questions:

1. What do you think the probability is that the fossil record would show successive trends that appeared to be evolution (like the horse sequence) if evolution is false? How do you know?

2. If modern day, one toed horses are not descended from three toed horses, as the fossil record leads evolutionists to believe, then why do modern horses still have the genes for the other toes? (See Gould, Hen's Teeth and Horses Toes).

3. Why do human beings still have muscles for moving their ears? We can't move them much (if at all) and there seems to be no survival advantage to them. How do we explain this unless these muscles were inherited from a more primitive mammalian ancestor? (Four legged mammals, such as dogs, have muscles to move their ears because it allows them a survival advantage: They can raise their ears to focus on sound from a particular direction, which is useful if one is stalking prey and needs to make as little noise as possible)

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Debunking Jesus with Chris Hallquist

Fascinating Interview over at Minnesota Atheists. Chris makes a lot of good points, some of which I have made myself against Christian apologetics in my book, Atheism and Naturalism.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Statistics and Biogenesis

Richard Carrier has authored a fascinating post on the origin of life and statistics.

Also, Robert Hazen wrote something ideal for this discussion.

My Book has a very lengthy discussion on these issues, exposing the fallacies of creationist calculations about the origin of life. Even if it was an improbable event, conservative estimates (which I cite in my book) show that over a million life-friendly planets exist in the universe, and of course each of these planets is freakin' huge and has hundreds of millions of years to produce one simple self-replicating system that can evolve into the first living cell.

Also, I've got some good news: The producer of the Infidel Guy show has got in touch with me, and I may make an appearance on the show. We've tentatively scheduled it for May 21st.

Thursday, May 7, 2009


I finally published it!

Here is where you purchase it. It's $2.99 for download and $13.99 to purchase the paperback.

You can read excerpts from the book here.


Have you ever wondered what Atheists believe? You know what they DON'T believe in, but what positive beliefs do they have?

Are you an atheist who wants to fully explore the philosophical and scientific issues surrounding your worldview?

In either case, this book is for you. This book explores the arguments for God, why the fail, the arguments against God, and argues that Nature is all that exists (Naturalism). This book covers everything from Meaning and Morality to Creationism and Evolution.

Support independent publishing: buy this book on Lulu.

Star Trek Warp Speed: Not Implausible

The warp drive, one of Star Trek's hallmark inventions, could someday become science instead of science fiction.

From :

Some physicists say the faster-than-light travel technology may one day enable humans to jet between stars for weekend getaways. Clearly it won't be an easy task. The science is complex, but not strictly impossible, according to some researchers studying how to make it happen.

The trick seems to be to find some other means of propulsion besides rockets, which would never be able to accelerate a ship to velocities faster than that of light, the fundamental speed limit set by Einstein's General Relativity. Luckily for us, this speed limit only applies within space-time (the continuum of three dimensions of space plus one of time that we live in). While any given object can't travel faster than light speed within space-time, theory holds, perhaps space-time itself could travel.

"The idea is that you take a chunk of space-time and move it," said Marc Millis, former head of NASA's Breakthrough Propulsion Physics Project. "The vehicle inside that bubble thinks that it's not moving at all. It's the space-time that's moving."

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Noah's Flood Debunked Part 2

Dialogue with a Republican on Science

The following video shows Chris Matthews and Mike Pence arguing over the Republican party's stance on science. I have to say that I agree that the Republicans have become mighty sorry when it comes to global warming and basic facts of Biology and Geology. It's a damn shame.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Statistics and the Origin of Life

Origin of Life Researcher David Deamer wrote an excellent blog post that I think is worth reposting:

Many people, perhaps most, hate the idea that life might depend on chance processes. It is a human tendency to search for meaning, and what could be more meaningful than the belief that our lives have a greater purpose, that all life in fact is guided by a supreme intelligence which manifests itself even at the level of individual molecules? Proponents of intelligent design believe that the components of life are so complex that they could not possibly have been produced by an evolutionary process. To bolster their argument, they calculate the odds that a specific protein might assemble by chance in the prebiotic environment. The odds against such a chance assembly are so astronomically immense that a protein required for life to begin could not possibly have assembled by chance on the early Earth. Therefore, the argument goes, life must have been designed.

It is not my purpose to argue against this belief, but the intelligent design argument uses a statistical tool of science -- a probability calculation -- to make a point, so I will use another tool of science, which is to propose an alternative hypothesis and test it. In living cells, most catalysts are protein enzymes, composed of amino acids, but in the 1980s another kind of catalyst was discovered. These are RNA molecules composed of nucleotides that are now called ribozymes. Because a ribozyme can act both as a catalyst and as a carrier of genetic information in its nucleotide sequence, it has been proposed that life passed through an RNA World phase that did not require DNA and proteins.

For the purposes of today’s column I will go through the probability calculation that a specific ribozyme might assemble by chance. Assume that the ribozyme is 300 nucleotides long, and that at each position there could be any of four nucleotides present. The chances of that ribozyme assembling are then 4^300, a number so large that it could not possibly happen by chance even once in 13 billion years, the age of the universe.

But life DID begin! Could we be missing something?The answer, of course, is yes, we are. The calculation assumes that a single specific ribozyme must be synthesized for life to begin, but that’s not how it works. Instead, let’s make the plausible assumption that an enormous number of random polymers are synthesized, which are then subject to selection and evolution. This is the alternative hypothesis, and we can test it.
Now I will recall a classic experiment by David Bartel and Jack Szostak, published in Science in 1993. Their goal was to see if a completely random system of molecules could undergo selection in such a way that defined species of molecules emerged with specific properties. They began by synthesizing many trillions of different RNA molecules about 300 nucleotides long, but the nucleotides were all random nucleotide sequences. Nucleotides, by the way, are monomers of the nucleic acids DNA and RNA, just as amino acids are the monomers, or subunits, of proteins, and making random sequences is easy to do with modern methods of molecular biology.

They reasoned that buried in those trillions were a few catalytic RNA molecules called ribozymes that happened to catalyze a ligation reaction, in which one strand of RNA is linked to a second strand. The RNA strands to be ligated were attached to small beads on a column, then were exposed to the trillions of random sequences simply by flushing them through the column. This process could fish out any RNA molecules that happened to have even a weak ability to catalyze the reaction. They then amplified those molecules and put them back in for a second round, repeating the process for 10 rounds. By the way, this is the same basic logic that breeders use when they select for a property such as coat color in dogs.

The results were amazing. After only 4 rounds of selection and amplification they began to see an increase in catalytic activity, and after 10 rounds the rate was 7 million times faster than the uncatalyzed rate. It was even possible to watch the RNA evolve. Nucleic acids can be separated and visualized by a technique called gel electrophoresis. The mixture is put in at the top of a gel held between two glass plates and a voltage is applied. Small molecules travel fastest through the gel, and larger molecules move more slowly, so they are separated. In this case, RNA molecules having a specific length produce a visible band in a gel. At the start of the reaction, nothing could be seen, because all the molecules are different. But with each cycle new bands appeared. Some came to dominate the reaction, while others went extinct.

Bartel and Szostak’s results have been repeated and extended by other researchers, and they demonstrate a fundamental principle of evolution at the molecular level. At the start of the experiment, every molecule of RNA was different from all the rest because they were assembled by a chance process. There were no species, just a mixture of trillions of different molecules. But then a selective hurdle was imposed, a ligation reaction that allowed only certain molecules to survive and reproduce enzymatically.In a few generations groups of molecules began to emerge that displayed ever-increasing catalytic function. In other words, species of molecules appeared out of this random mixture in an evolutionary process that closely reflects the natural selection that Darwin outlined for populations of higher animals. These RNA molecules were defined by the sequence of bases in their structures, which caused them to fold into specific conformations that had catalytic properties. The sequences were in essence analogous to genes, because the information they contained was passed between generations during the amplification process.
The Bartel and Szostak experiment directly refutes the argument that the odds are stacked against an origin of life by natural processes. The inescapable conclusion is that genetic information can in fact emerge from random mixtures of polymers, as long as the populations contain large numbers of polymeric molecules with variable monomer sequences, and a way to select and amplify a specific property.

I will close with a quote from Freeman Dyson, a theoretical physicist at Princeton University who also enjoys thinking about the origin of life:

“You had what I call the garbage bag model. The early cells were just little bags of some kind of cell membrane, which might have been oily or it might have been a metal oxide. And inside you had a more or less random collection of organic molecules, with the characteristic that small molecules could diffuse in through the membrane, but big molecules could not diffuse out. By converting small molecules into big molecules, you could concentrate the organic contents on the inside, so the cells would become more concentrated and the chemistry would gradually become more efficient. So these things could evolve without any kind of replication. It's a simple statistical inheritance. When a cell became so big that it got cut in half, or shaken in half, by some rainstorm or environmental disturbance, it would then produce two cells which would be its daughters, which would inherit, more or less, but only statistically, the chemical machinery inside. Evolution could work under those conditions.”

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Book Progress

Dear readers:

I'm almost done with my book. I've got 199 pages so far, and only one more chapter to complete. This chapter won't be difficult to complete, as it is just some concluding thoughts.

I have several people reading drafts of various parts of the book, and once they are done I will take any corrections that they think I should make and modify the book accordingly (assuming that I agree with their objections).

I am also currently re-reading the entire book. So far I've re-read the first two chapters (which I'm fairly sure I won't need to revise any further) and once this and other things I mentioned are done, the book will be too. I've created a table of contents, a cover, and can publish quickly and easily on Lulu.

If you're looking forward to the book, stay tuned, because it will most likely be available by the end of next week.