New Trouble for Wells’s “Icon of Anti-Evolution #1”…

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On the website for Jonathan Wells’s book Icons of Evolution, there’s a page titled “Ten questions to ask your biology teacher about evolution.”

All are about supposed flaws in the “Icons of Evolution” - the Miller-Urey experiments, Darwin’s Finches, Horse Evolution and more.

Here is Question #1:

ORIGIN OF LIFE. Why do textbooks claim that the 1953 Miller-Urey experiment shows how life’s building blocks may have formed on the early Earth – when conditions on the early Earth were probably nothing like those used in the experiment, and the origin of life remains a mystery?

This week, NASA’s Astrobiology Institute and Washington University in St. Louis made an announcement that should, once again, sound the death-knell for this particular “Icon of Anti-Evolution.”

Before discussing the new work, it’s worthwhile to review a few points:

As Alan Gishlick points out in his article on the Miller-Urey experiment,

…Wells’s claim that researchers are ignoring the new atmospheric data, and that experiments like the Miller–Urey experiment fail when the atmospheric composition reflects current theories, is simply false. The current literature shows that scientists working on the origin and early evolution of life are well aware of the current theories of the earth’s early atmosphere and have found that the revisions have little effect on the results of various experiments in biochemical synthesis. Despite Wells’s claims to the contrary, new experiments since the Miller–Urey ones have achieved similar results using various corrected atmospheric compositions …Even if Wells had been correct about the Miller–Urey experiment, he does not explain that our theories about the origin of organic “building blocks” do not depend on that experiment alone. … In fact, what is most striking about Wells’s extensive reference list is the literature that he has left out. Wells also fails to cite the scientific literature on other terrestrial conditions under which organic compounds could have formed. …

There are other problems with Wells’s argument - Miller got a high yield of bio-molecules in just a week (think what he could have done with a few hundred million years at his disposal); perhaps life did not begin in the atmosphere, but in anoxic or reducing environments like undersea volcanic vents; and so on.

Miller’s major breakthrough was that he showed amino acids could form outside of cells - not by carefully synthesizing them, as some had done by then, but simply by mixing naturally-occurring gasses and adding some energy. Finally, the Miller-Urey experiment is more of an Icon of OOL (Origin Of Life) than of evolution per se.

So, what’s the new work that adds another nail to this anti-evolution icon’s coffin?

The September 7, 2005 announcement, titled “Calculations favor reducing atmosphere for early Earth,” says

Was Miller-Urey experiment correct? Using primitive meteorites called chondrites as their models, earth and planetary scientists at Washington University in St. Louis have performed outgassing calculations and shown that the early Earth’s atmosphere was a reducing one, chock full of methane, ammonia, hydrogen and water vapor.

In making this discovery Bruce Fegley, Ph.D., Washington University professor of earth and planetary sciences in Arts & Sciences, and Laura Schaefer, laboratory assistant, reinvigorate one of the most famous and controversial theories on the origins of life, the 1953 Miller-Urey experiment, which yielded organic compounds necessary to evolve organisms. … “Geologists dispute the Miller-Urey scenario, but what they seem to be forgetting is that when you assemble the Earth out of chondrites, you’ve got slightly different gases being evolved from heating up all these materials that have assembled to form the Earth. Our calculations provide a natural explanation for getting this reducing atmosphere,” said Fegley.

Schaefer presented the findings at the annual meeting of the Division of Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society, held Sept. 4-9 in Cambridge, England. The Miller-Urey experiment featured an apparatus into which was placed a reducing gas atmosphere thought to exist on the early Earth. The mix was heated up and given an electrical charge and simple organic molecules were formed. While the experiment has been debated from the start, no one had done calculations to predict the early Earth atmosphere.

“I think these computations hadn’t been done before because they’re very difficult; we use a special code” said Fegley, whose work with Schaefer on the outgassing of Io, Jupiter’s largest moon and the most volcanic body in the solar system, served as inspiration for the present early Earth atmosphere work. …

Another Icon of Anti-evolution down - again. But never fear - it’ll be back. Like my dad always said,

Creationist arguments are like ducks in a shooting gallery. No matter how many times you shoot them down, they just pop right up again.

That reminds me, has this topic come up on the Thumb before? Of course!

Will Wells correct his book? Don’t hold your breath!

19 Comments

Wells hasn’t bothered answering quite a lot of his false claims actually. For example, he still hasn’t answered RLC’s textbook challenge:

I doubt he’ll bother correcting this one either.

I think this new research, and similar work that was reported before in Science Magazine, is a very useful tool. Of course, Wells’ stuff is crap. But this new work does several important things, beyond just adding to counter-arguments against “Icons.”

1. It shows how scientists make real progress in the real world. 2. It shows how some evidence can be overturned by new evidence, which in turn is overturned by even newer evidence. 3. It demonstrates the shallowness and temporal nature of ID thinking. Their gaps will often be filled, sometimes as fast as they can create them. (Recall Behe and the “missing links” in whale evolution.) 4. It can be used to make the Gishlick’s NCSE response on Miller-Urey even stronger and more relevant. 5. It can be used by science teachers who may be forced to discuss “evidence against evolution.”

This is very useful science.

Marshall

If i were a biology teacher, i would probably keep on hand the wonderful Index of Creationist Claims from Talk Origins.

CB035. Miller’s experiments had an invalid assumption of the type of atmosphere.

* CB035.1. Earth’s early atmosphere had abundant oxygen. * CB035.2. Earth’s early atmosphere had no reducing gases. * CB035.3. Amino acids are not generated from just CO2, nitrogen, and water.

What are the chances that a brainwashed high schooler’s religious objections to evolution will take a form missing from that exhaustive list? Slim to none. A kid would walk in, pumped up about Wells’s claim, and get this in response:

Claim CB035.2: Reducing gases likely were not present in the early, prebiotic earth’s atmosphere. Source: Discovery Institute. 2003. A preliminary analysis of the treatment of evolution in biology textbooks currently being considered for adoption by the Texas State Board of Education. http://www.discovery.org/articleFil[…]asPrelim.pdf Wells, Jonathan. 2000. Icons of Evolution. Washington DC: Regnery. Response:

1. The claim is false. Current evidence indicates that the early earth had a mildly reducing atmosphere (Kasting 1993). It was probably rich in hydrogen due to the escape of hydrogen from the atmosphere being much lower than previously thought (Tian et al. 2005).

2. Even if the earth’s overall atmosphere were neutral, there would have been many local areas that were reducing, such as areas near active volcanism (Delano 2001; Kasting 1993).

References:

1. Delano, J. W. 2001. Redox history of the Earth’s interior since ~3900 Ma: Implications for prebiotic molecules. Origins of Life and Evolution of the Biosphere 31: 311-341. 2. Kasting, J. F. 1993. Earth’s early atmosphere. Science 259: 920-926. 3. Tian, F., O. B. Toon, A. A. Pavlov and H. De Sterck. 2005. A hydrogen-rich early Earth atmosphere. Science 308: 1014-1017. See also: Chyba, C. F. 2005. Rethinking Earth’s early atmosphere. Science 308: 962-963.

Further Reading: Ellington, Andrew D. and Matthew Levy. 2003. Gas, discharge, and the Discovery Institute. Reports of the National Center for Science Education 23(3-4): 39-40.

And I can understand why many christians are unhappy with the ID people. If such a kid, pumped up with pseudoscience by creationist christians, gets embarrassed in biology class, he might not just resent creationists…he might resent the christianity which inspired them. (while I think that’s a fine consequence, that’s neither here nor there)

Wells has a choice. He can either revise his ‘book’ a parrot the nonsense as Bill D does in a different garb each time or he can use some of that hoard stashed away with his sponsor and haul himself into a lab and conduct the experiment that the folks at WUSTL have written about. OK maybe he wants to review their work. Scientists are patient as a rule. OK with the DI paying his salary Wells could spend a few weeks at WUSTL working with this research team. But would he do it? Even forgetting the DI’s and ID/Cists’ quackery; their very method suggests that they would rather not get into experimentation. They would have to establish that abiogenesis is not possible in any circumstances. That’s going to be very, very, difficult. And then what is the nature of ‘intelligent agency’? Is it possible to invoke it when ‘designing’ something? We know that’s baloney. It’s the same old alchemy, vitalism and 5th Element fakery. Wells, Bill D & Co. know that only too well. They will rave and rant all they can but that’s about it.

And hey Sal, surf’s up! Come start your act.

Will Wells correct his book? Don’t hold your breath!

I don’t want him to change that. I want him to keep that erroneous claim in his books, on his website, on his lips. It’s a claim which is clearly refuted by the existence of those papers. The refutation is written up and indexed on an easy to find website. I think if the creationists must exist, it’s better to have them say things which are easier to refute, than things harder to refute.

It would be nice to have the DI put a warning sticker in Wells’ book to keep the ignorant rubes from trying to use it for anything that they have to defend in court. Just look how embarassed the Ohio board was when the used the “no moths on tree trunks” line in the draft of their model lesson plan. It was almost as good as the web links to ARN as a science site.

Are there any ICONS which have withstood scrutiny left? Haeckel’s embryos may be the only minor ‘icon’ left…

Ron Okimoto Wrote:

Just look how embarassed the Ohio board was when the used the “no moths on tree trunks” line in the draft of their model lesson plan.

The Ohio Board of Education was not embarrassed at all by its “Icons”-based lesson plan, and Wells’ nonsense is still in there. The approved version of the lesson plan is this pdf file at the Ohio Department of Education website. On page 13, read:

Scientists have learned that peppered moths do not actually rest on tree trunks.

The lesson plan’s bibliography noticeably omits the Majerus book Melanism: Evolution in Action that provides evidence refuting this claim..

Hmm… a DI book warning sticker:

“Any resemblance between the contents of this book and science is purely coincidental. Use of the ideas from this book in a genuinely scientific or legal setting will get you laughed out of court as an embarrassment to thinking beings and also excommunicated from the next incarnation of the DI church’s front-line, for revealing their dishonesty and vacuousness.”

The Ohio Board of Education was not embarrassed at all by its “Icons”-based lesson plan, and Wells’ nonsense is still in there. The approved version of the lesson plan is this pdf file at the Ohio Department of Education website. On page 13, read:

Scientists have learned that peppered moths do not actually rest on tree trunks.

The lesson plan’s bibliography noticeably omits the Majerus book Melanism: Evolution in Action that provides evidence refuting this claim..

Was this portion in the draft version that was on the DI web site? I don’t recall a reversion to the slock statement even if it isn’t the direct quote of “no moths on tree trunks.”

Leonard must have been working overtime. Just think what his thesis looks like.

Denton’s first book is in the references. Why not his second book? Why have the book with the junk that even the author doesn’t agree with anymore? Why did they drop Wells’ book when they used his bogus arguments, and keep Denton’s book in? Isn’t it sad that Denton is the only one that the scam artist could cite and the big tent wasn’t big enough to include his version of ID? At least, Denton isn’t scooping up his stipend anymore over at the DI, but they still pay off guys like Berlinski. How do they justify the stipends? Who verified that the junk in Denton’s book was worth looking at? Why is it in the lesson plan references?

Hmmm. A few questions for OhioGuy to address (though it occurs to me that McE might just be a certain OhioGuy of my acquaintance, in which case, “Hi McE”):

Ron Okimoto wrote: Just look how embarassed the Ohio board was when the used the “no moths on tree trunks” line in the draft of their model lesson plan.

McE: The Ohio Board of Education was not embarrassed at all by its “Icons”-based lesson plan, and Wells’ nonsense is still in there.

Here’s the intriguing thing. I know for certain there are members of the board who are embarrassed by the DI-friendly positions the board as a whole has taken. And yet some of the votes for these positions were unanimous. That’s why, at the time, some of us tin-foil hat conspiracy theory types thought “apparently the Governor is twisting arms behind the scenes to score a DI victory”. Lo and behold, memos that surfaced in the course of recent corruption investigations revealed just that.

Leonard must have been working overtime. Just think what his thesis looks like.

We may never know. The university’s investigation into these matters is apparently still in progress; Leonard’s thesis defense - originally scheduled for June 6 -is still on hold.

Why did they drop Wells’ book when they used his bogus arguments ,and keep Denton’s book in?

I believe the stench rising from Wells’s reputation is more noticeable than Denton’s flakiness.

At least, Denton isn’t scooping up his stipend anymore over at the DI, but they still pay off guys like Berlinski. How do they justify the stipends?

Justify? to whom? Howard Ahmanson?

Who verified that the junk in Denton’s book was worth looking at?

A state school board committee dominated by (Rev.) Michael Cochran. The same committee that, after searching far and wide, decided that creationist Bryan Leonard was the one Ohioan most qualified to write a lesson plan on evolution. The same committee that rejected, with no explanation, an alternative lesson written by scientists actually working in the field.

Why is it [Denton’s “Evolution: a Theory in Crisis”] in the lesson plan references?

Because the committee in question, and the school board as a whole, decided to adopt the DI’s “teach the controversy” approach. And, unfortunately, despite many hours of testimony and letter-writing of the scientific community to explain to the school board the difference between a scientific controversy and a political controversy, they either didn’t get it, or were prevailed upon by forces more politically persuasive than “a bunch of paranoid, egotistical scientists afraid of people finding out [they] don’t know anything.” [actual quote from Ohio state BoE vice president Richard Baker]

Scientists have learned that peppered moths do not actually rest on tree trunks.

The lesson plan’s bibliography noticeably omits the Majerus book Melanism: Evolution in Action that provides evidence refuting this claim..

I feel a new Wells book coming on: “Those Lying Moths!”

Regarding the origin of life (abiogesis), I found the following from

The Woodstock of Evolution by Michael Shermer http://www.skeptic.com/eskeptic/esk[…]5-06-24.html

Day Two : Evidence for Evolution

The first session the following morning began with a lecture on the origins of life by Antonio Lazcano, President of the International Society for the Study of the Origins of Life and a scientist at the Universidad Autónoma de México, who theorized that there were three sources for the primordial soup: a reducing atmosphere from volcanic outgassing, high-temperature submarine vents and fumaroles, and space — the 4.6 billion-year-old Murchison meteorite, discovered in Australia in 1969, for example, was loaded with amino acids, aliphatic and aromatic hydrocarbons, hydroxy acids, purines, pyrimidines, and other chemical building blocks of life. “The evidence strongly suggests that prior to the origin of life the primitive Earth already had many different catalytic agents, polymers with sequences of nucleotides, and membrane-forming compounds,” Lazcano concluded. This prebiotic soup led to a catalytic and replicative RNA world, which led to the DNA world of today.

So it would seem that there are numerous possibilities. My own preference was for life’s origin being in the high-temperature submarine vents where naturally-occuring lipid capsules would provide an enclosed space for chemical reactions, but now it seems that something closer to the surface is still a very real possibility. While I have little doubt that there was an RNA World which preceded the DNA World, it seems reasonable to assume that something (such as autocatalytic polypeptides) would have preceded the RNA World.

Scientists have learned that peppered moths do not actually rest on tree trunks.

The lesson plan’s bibliography noticeably omits the Majerus book Melanism: Evolution in Action that provides evidence refuting this claim..

I feel a new Wells book coming on: “Those Lying Moths!”

One of the best laughs that I had at ARN was when someone tried to defend the Wellsian lie as an “exaggeration.” Could it be that the IDers believe that fictional Star Trek Vulcan movie logic is valid? Is that why they think that it is OK to “exaggerate” about having a scientific theory of ID? It does seem plausible that that they may have watched too much TV, but all of them? How could a group of “thinkers” all come to the conclusion that accepting “exaggerations” was reasonable, when “exaggerations” is all they seem to have? At some point you would think that they would notice that the basis of their beliefs was all exaggeration.

Could their reasoning be that it is OK because Spock says so? It sort of makes sense to use fictional logic to support a fictional scientific theory.

So it would seem that there are numerous possibilities. My own preference was for life’s origin being in the high-temperature submarine vents where naturally-occuring lipid capsules would provide an enclosed space for chemical reactions, but now it seems that something closer to the surface is still a very real possibility. While I have little doubt that there was an RNA World which preceded the DNA World, it seems reasonable to assume that something (such as autocatalytic polypeptides) would have preceded the RNA World.

I don’t spend too much time thinking about abiogenesis. I support the guys trying to come up with something, but the field doesn’t seem to be ready for prime time.

I’d think that it would be reasonable that RNA came before the start of the genetic code, but what some might call replicating lipid blobs could have been made of anything, and not just a lipid coat. Probably any hydrophobic barrier would have done. Before the evolution of the genetic code these packets probably contained simple self replicator polymers that could have been made out of anything. As long as they self replicated they could have had other functions besides replicating themselves. We see different parts of a protein can do different things so my guess is that first semi-complex replicating lifeform was just a bag of simple individual self replicators that did various other things to help each other and themselves replicate. RNA and the DNA would have evolved later. My guess is that this is why it looks like the code evolved through some type of selection. It could do that because it wasn’t needed for coding all the functions. Individual self replicators probably did most of the work and the proteins encoded in the first RNA and DNA probably did other functions that aided the self replicator molecules. Eventually encoded proteins would evolve to replace the functions of the individual self replicators and they would be lost. Eventually you would get a lifeform that was not dependent on keeping tract of individual self replicators for its existence.

My idea is that these individual self replicators could themselves evolve and produce the first nucleotide manufacturing enzymes and the first RNA and DNA polymerases. Their self replications couldn’t have been perfect and the differences were likely heritable, or how could they self replicate? For all I know nucleotides evolved as energy transfer molecules used by the self replicators and RNA polymerization was a means of storage or structural. It turned out that RNA could have function other than structure or storage and there was a means of replicating specific sequences.

It would be nice to find some remnants of the early self replicators, but we only have ribosomes left and they were probably second generation functional unit producers. After billions of years of DNA based evolution such an early self replicator would have to have a unique function that would never have evolved again to be kept by a current lifeform. Any independent entity would be lost during cell division unless there was a very high selection for maintaining it. So it is a sort of interesting assertion, but it results in no direct evidence being left behind for the existence of the self replicating molecules. There could be something left in some backwater that acts like a parasite that may still replicate itself and not be nucleotide based.

Meanwhile, in a recent issue of ?Science

In the Forests of RNA Dark Matter Guy Riddihough

For a long time, RNA has lived in the shadow of its more famous chemical cousin DNA and of the proteins that supposedly took over RNA’s functions in the transition from the “RNA world” to the modern one. The shadow cast has been so deep that a whole universe (or so it seems) of RNA–predominantly of the noncoding variety–has remained hidden from view, until recently. …

A related issue frequently raised by Creationists is the possibility of cross reactions which might have obstructed the earliest replicators. I suggest that one of the earliest RNA replicators developed the ability to remove amino acids from RNA strands. I suggest a suitable name for this decontaminating piece of RNA would be proto-ribosome.

Like I said I don’t follow the abiogenesis literature, but I find it hard to believe that the RNA world proponents believe that RNA was the first self replicating entity. Where did all the nucleotides come from? That may sound like your usual creationist argument, but you have to manufacture the nucleotides and then polymerize them. We find carbohydrates and amino acids all over the place, but has anyone detected nucleotides in, say comets or stellar gas clouds?

It seems reasonable to me that the first self replicators were made of the most common junk around. They wouldn’t start manufacturing components that they might need until there was some kind of population of them.

We find carbohydrates and amino acids all over the place, but has anyone detected nucleotides in, say comets or stellar gas clouds?

Yes. Carbonaceous chondrites are full of all sorts of interesting stuff (OK so they’re meteorites instead of comets), and huge interstellar clouds have been detected with precursor molecules.

I’ve never heard of nucleotides in carbonaceous meteorites. The claim I’ve always heard is that certain amino acids are found in them. Nucleotides are the sugar, base and phosphate(s). Nucleosides don’t have the phosphate, but would be acceptable. It would be neat to find that they were common enough to detect, but I haven’t seen that claim. Lots of things could be precursors to the nitrogenous bases. Things like amino acids are in the biosynthetic pathway, but that probably isn’t the only way that they can be made.

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This page contains a single entry by Dave Thomas published on September 9, 2005 7:07 PM.

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