Gold of the gaps

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Does gold have a purpose? asks an unnamed author in Evolution News & Science Today. The author goes on to observe that there is more gold on earth than astrophysicists can account for and also that gold has risen to the surface of the earth faster than might be expected. They go on to note the “availability of many essential elements at the surface of the earth …” and also discuss the use of gold in medicine. They are somewhat breathless at the discovery that the body can metabolize gold:

Gold nanoparticles, which are supposed to be stable in biological environments, can be degraded inside cells, [boldface in original]

even though, as they note, gold salts have been used for decades in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis.

At any rate, the article stresses the “mystery of biological gold” and claims several hints why gold may have a purpose: its abundance and seemingly unlikely transport to the surface of the earth, the ability of cells to “metabolize” [sic] gold, the fact that gold persists in the body, and the usefulness of gold for therapeutics. The conclusion of the article is

Since ID advocates are better equipped to think outside the box than are the paradigm-locked materialist scientists, they are more free to consider a positive answer — showing once again that intelligent design is not a “science stopper” but a fruitful way to pursue interesting questions. If the answer is “Yes, gold has a purpose,” the applications could be profound.

Au boy! The author seems a little Au-struck by what seem to me relatively unrelated scientific discoveries and is trying Au-fully hard to weave them together into a fine-tuning argument. Here is my translation of the conclusion:

Since intelligent-design creationists are desperately searching for “hints” of design, they are more likely than empirically based scientists to come up with a positive answer — showing once again that intelligent-design creationists can pretend that any unanticipated scientific discovery leads to “interesting questions.” If the answer is, “Yes, gold has a purpose,” no practical applications will result.

Actually, the answer to the question is, “Yes, gold, like anything else, has whatever purposes we assign to it.”


Thanks to Glenn Branch, who apparently reads Evolution News, so I generally do not have to.

Platalea ajaja L.

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Roseate spoonbill, by C. Joseph Long.

Photography contest, Honorable Mention.

Roseate spoonbill
Platalea ajaja L., roseate spoonbill, with young. The photographer writes, "This shot was taken at the Alligator Farm in St. Augustine, Florida. This is a popular place (among the birds, as well as humans) because, while nestlings that fall to the surface are lost, the nests are safe from such predators as raccoons, bobcats, and snakes due to the inaccessibility of the trees’ bases. The color is due, as in flamingos, to carotenoids in the diet. According to Wikipedia, the roseate’s closest relative is the yellow-billed spoonbill, which is found in southeast Australia. They do get around."

Protein chimeras are evidence against ID claims!

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Where do novel functional proteins come from? It has become something of a staple of the ID-creationism movement that proteins with novel functions and structures are practically impossible to evolve.

Why? In part because functional protein sequences, that is, protein sequences with functions that are useful to living organisms (such as protecting DNA from damage or promoting essential chemical reactions), are supposedly hyper-astronomically rare among all possible protein sequences. So rare, ID-creationists argue, that even with unrealistically huge population sizes and rates of mutation, not a single functional protein sequence could be expected to evolve in the entire history of the universe.

The intended message is, of course, that since we know of millions of functional protein sequences within the diversity of life on Earth, and since supposedly none of them could have evolved, Intelligent Design becomes the only other plausible explanation for why they exist. And so, you know, evolution must be false and there must be an Intelligent Designer.

Biology Journal Gets Conned

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In 1977, the Journal of Theoretical Biology (JTB) published a paper by Hubert Yockey called A calculation of the probability of spontaneous biogenesis by information theory. The paper became something of an embarrassment for the journal, since Yockey’s calculations, which purported to show that a naturalistic origin of life was effectively impossible, were both biologically and mathematically ridiculous. Of course, this didn’t stop the creationists from crowing about the paper.

JTB is normally a well-respected journal, but history has now repeated itself. The journal has just published a paper by Steinar Thorvaldsen and Ola Hössjer called Using statistical methods to model the fine-tuning of molecular machines and systems. Once again, the creationists are crowing about having slipped some of their dreck into a respectable venue. But as with Yockey’s paper, the authors’ mathematics is naïve to the point of being silly.

The authors characterize fine-tuning in physics like this: “The finely-tuned universe is like a panel that controls the parameters of the universe with about 100 knobs that can be set to certain values. … If you turn any knob just a little to the right or to the left, the result is either a universe that is inhospitable to life or no universe at all.” However, whether this constitutes fine-tuning, by some reasonable definition of that term, is going to depend on a lot more than just the number of knobs.

ID article in the Journal of Theoretical Biology

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The Journal of Theoretical Biology appears to have published an article on intelligent-design creationism. Specifically, Steinar Thorvaldsen of the Department of Education, University of Tromsø, Norway; and Ola Hössjer of the Department of Mathematics, Stockholm University, Sweden, recently published a paper, Using statistical methods to model the fine-tuning of molecular machines and systems, which attempts to apply fine-tuning arguments to biology. I read the paper comparatively cursorily and did not fully understand it, not because it is above my pay grade, but because it is in a different department. It appears, though, to be applying arguments that reiterate William Dembski’s specified complexity and Michael Behe’s irreducible complexity, and repurposing them as a fine-tuning argument for biology.

And sure enough, within days, three biologists from Georgia Tech, Joseph Lachance, Corinne N. Simonti, and Joshua S. Weitz, submitted a rebuttal, Large sample spaces do not imply biological systems are ‘fine-tuned’, which has apparently already been accepted for the December 7 issue of the journal. Both the original article and the rebuttal are open access.

The editors of the journal, Denise Kirschner, Mark Chaplain, and Akira Sasaki, jointly penned a Disclaimer, also for the December 7 issue. Unlike the original article and the letter to the editor, the disclaimer is, oddly, behind a paywall, even though the original article now displays a prominent link to that disclaimer. At any rate, the disclaimer is only one paragraph and was posted in Peaceful Science:

The Journal of Theoretical Biology and its co-Chief Editors do not endorse in any way the ideology of nor reasoning behind the concept of intelligent design. Since the publication of the paper it has now become evident that the authors are connected to a creationist group (although their addresses are given on the paper as departments in bona fide universities). We were unaware of this fact while the paper was being reviewed. Moreover, the keywords “intelligent design” were added by the authors after the review process during the proofing stage and we were unaware of this action by the authors. We have removed these from the online version of this paper. We believe that intelligent design is not in any way a suitable topic for the Journal of Theoretical Biology.

It appears that the article has slipped past the editors, and they are trying to do damage control. I cannot fault the editors: the authors had legitimate university affiliations, and they have no obligation to state all the organizations they belong to, unless they perceive a conflict of interest. I doubt that the editor-in-chief of any journal reads all the articles in their entirety. I wonder, however, about the reviewing process and specifically about the reviewers: how were they chosen, and were they all suggested by the authors of the paper? Even more, I wonder whether the authors deliberately withheld the key word intelligent design until the paper was in print and outside the purview of the editors.


Thanks to Joshua Swamidass for alerting us to the original article and the disclaimer at Peaceful Science, and also for commenting on and improving this article.