Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Making Mud Pies

Yesterday's news contained one story that threatens to rock the world … at least that’s what “they” say. Before I address specifics I'd just like to say that this story is an object lesson in man's desire to "play god." That proclivity is the force behind Enlightenment Humanism and the Fall of Man. In each case, it is the ultimate idolatry. But in any case, it unveils the idea that we humans have insatiable desires that only God can fill. Keep that idea in mind as you consider the announcement and the implication it offers that if these scientists can "create life" in a lab, it surely cannot be a big deal that life showed up here on planet earth. That's a pretty bold statement to make. But when you break it down, it turns out that both the scientists and their announcement suffer from mega-sized delusions of grandeur. You don’t have to read deep into the story to see that. The lead-in goes like this:
Around the world, a handful of scientists are trying to create life from scratch, and they're getting closer … Experts expect an announcement within three to 10 years from someone in the now little-known field of "wet artificial life."
Create life from scratch, eh? We can put that notion to bed pretty quickly. What these scientists are really starting with are the chemical compounds adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine, (C) and thymine (T). These are the "base" chemicals that make up DNA. Here are just a few points an untrained knucklehead like me can come up with when considering whether these scientists are really "starting from scratch."

Each of these (A, G, C and T) are chemical compounds. Specifically, A consists of 5 carbon, 5 hydrogen and 6 nitrogen atoms combined in a three-dimensional arrangement that must not only allow for the proper internal bonding of those atoms, but also for the external bonding that A does with, and only with, T. T consists of 5 carbon, 6 hydrogen, 2 nitrogen, and 2 oxygen atoms and is likewise constrained in its ability to bond with A. At the same time, G (5 carbon, 5 hydrogen, 5 nitrogen, and 1 oxygen) pairs with, and only with, C (4 carbon, 5 hydrogen, 3 nitrogen, and 1 oxygen). But wait, I almost forgot uracil (U):
Found in RNA, it base pairs with adenine (A) and is replaced by thymine (T) in DNA. Methylation of uracil produces thymine. It turns into thymine to protect the DNA and to improve the efficiency of DNA replication. Uracil can base pair with any of the bases depending on how the molecule arranges itself on the helix, but readily pairs with adenine because the methyl group is repelled into a fixed position.
Got it?

I don't like to get bogged down in the overwhelming complications that go into this subject -- mostly because I can't begin to understand them all. I am simply making the point that the chemicals that are needed to even begin this process are, in themselves, highly complicated entities. Just try to think back to high school chemistry class (ouch!) and the confusing, intricate details that go into simple chemical bonding between atoms (electron orbitals, covalence, spin, etc.). That was enough to fry my brain in itself.

Any claim to "start life from scratch" must first be able to account for the existence and proper operation of all the "stuff" that comes before it. Not doing so is like claiming to have baked a cake "from scratch" when you dumped a load of Betty Crocker cake mix into a pan and stuck it in the oven.

Also inherent in the entire process are the following considerations:
  • Leaving neutrons and electrons out of the discussion, just the protons that make up matter are themselves composed of up and down quarks and gluons. Likewise, other subatomic particles and their characteristic qualities are required to make the whole system work.
  • Hydrogen was produced in the first moments after the creation of the universe. It is the simplest form of matter (only 1 proton). But the carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen needed to support these life-producing chemicals are heavier elements that did not form until after the birth, life and death of several generations of stars.
  • The forces (electromagnetism, gravity, weak and strong nuclear) which hold all this stuff together must be in place and properly tuned or not even the simplest elements would be able to form.
  • The laws of physics and chemistry are in place that allow the chemistry to work.
  • The inherent attractions, and limits to attraction, between these compound chemicals is hardly to be expected and begs for an explanation. Why is it that these bonding proclivities just happen to work so well?
Perhaps I'm belaboring the point but it is an important one that is easy to take for granted -- these scientists are hardly "starting from scratch."

The story goes on to point out that Mark Bedau, chief operating officer of ProtoLife of Venice (the organization making the announcement) figures there are three major hurdles to creating synthetic life:
  1. A container, or membrane, for the cell to keep bad molecules out, allow good ones, and the ability to multiply.
  2. A genetic system that controls the functions of the cell, enabling it to reproduce and mutate in response to environmental changes.
  3. A metabolism that extracts raw materials from the environment as food and then changes it into energy.
Two points. First, in their efforts to "create" a cell membrane, the group predicts that:
within the next six months, scientists will report evidence that the first step — creating a cell membrane — is "not a big problem." Scientists are using fatty acids in that effort.
Once again, the scientists' blithely proclaim that the creation of a cell membrane "not a big problem," while they use pre-existing, complex compounds to make it happen. A "fatty acid," it should be noted, is again a complex chain of chemical compounds with all the characteristics noted above already "built in" to its makeup. To imply that creating such a membrane is as simple an act as mixing some fatty acids together in the right way is at best a misrepresentation of what even neo-Darwinian evolution would say happened.

Second, the setting up of a "genetic system" to control the cell and a metabolic system to power it, are both highly complex, unexpected qualities of living cells for which naturalistic scientific theories have no explanation. While they pass these off as just being additional steps in a simple process of "creating life," both of these efforts have the following in common:
  • They are both information-based aspects of cellular life. Information does not occur spontaneously in the real world. To invoke a "system" capable of controlling the highly complex functions of movement, replication, manufacturing and metabolism that go on within even the simplest object is the business of a programmer who designs those processes into the system. Some refer to this as intelligent design.
  • The research team knows the outcome they are searching for and can therefore manipulate the system to the end they desire. Natural Selection, the so-called "Blind Watchmaker," has no such foreknowledge.
Sweeping past the staggering improbability that a cell membrane could have just formed by Darwinian fiat, the scientists further proclaim that:
once the container is made, if scientists add nucleotides in the right proportions, then Darwinian evolution could simply take over. "We aren't smart enough to design things, we just let evolution do the hard work and then we figure out what happened."
Notice that the scientists "make the container," then just "add nucleotides in the right proportions," to initiate the process of "creating life." This involves three steps that no unbiased observer of how things are manufactured in the real world would ever assume just happen by chance. Even the verbiage they use here assumes prior knowledge and intelligent action in the process. The prior existence of the container is assumed. Nucleotides, which themselves are rich in information content, are assumed to be present. Finally, the designers of the system already know the proportions needed to make the thing work.

Prediction: Allowing "evolution to do the hard work" will either produce an abject failure of the project or -- and this is the most likely outcome -- the team will intervene to make it work "properly." In either case, the actual results of the experiment to "create life" will do nothing but confirm the necessity for an intelligent agent in the process -- even if it is never reported that way.

Having said all that, maybe the most audacious line in the announcement is this one:
"Creating protocells has the potential to shed new light on our place in the universe ... This will remove one of the few fundamental mysteries about creation in the universe and our role."
Even if this project somehow manages to succeed, the idea that it will "shed new light on our place in the universe" is laughable. Our place in the universe is a unique and utterly unexpected one both physically and teleologically. The fact that we are here, that we are able to discover our uniqueness, and that we are able to produce experiments that do nothing but confirm the incredible complexity of even the simplest forms of life, does not "remove the mystery of creation" or our role in it. It only serves to prove two things:
  1. That Naturalism is comically lacking in its ability to explain the actual evidence for the origin of life on this earth and ...
  2. That without all the elements that must pre-exist our efforts to put together even simple synthetic formations, we could never do anything that approaches actually "creating life."
At best we can attempt to mimic the real Creator by our own puny efforts and then rollick in the pitiful delusion of having made a great accomplishment. In that sense we find contentment, as C. S. Lewis pointed out in The Weight of Glory, "like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased."

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