A Small Thought About Some Big Numbers: A Reply

 

A reply to the always thoughtful Henry Racette’s recent post.

I used to be impressed with the Carl Saganesque notion that billions and billions (insert “stars,” “years,” “galaxies,” whatever) means that anything can come into being and that theories of simple abiotic origins of life are probably right. I don’t (can’t) believe that anymore. Rolling a pair of dice a few billion times does not alter the probability of rolling a 13.

Around 70 years ago, the Miller-Urey experiment generated amino acids from an electric charge in a container of water, hydrogen ammonia, and methane. From this result, we were taught in our basic biology textbooks that science was thus already on the verge of recreating the accident that created life on earth.  (In that same era, we were also urged to expect the replacement of the creaky markets and democratic institutions with central planning done by experts because … science.)

A coherent, confident worldview came into being in which even that which science could not explain would be explained in short order, so we should act as if it already did.

In the seven decades since those amino acids appeared in a flask, nobody has abiotically created even a single protein, much less a system that replicates proteins. While the science of finding abiotic origins has stalled, our understanding of living structures has become vastly more complex and makes the lightning strike in the primordial ooze model even less satisfying.

The orthodox model of natural selection plus random mutation is becoming almost tiresome because of its limitations. A marvelous presentation of the disarray of biological science and the challenges to Darwinian orthodoxy can be found in this informative, must-read article:  Do we need a new theory of evolution?

It is not that natural selection does not work.  The problem is that it is overrated as an explanatory hypothesis if we ask, “Who will survive?” Answer: “The Fittest!” And if we ask, “How can we identify The Fittest?” Answer: “They are the ones who survive.” Thanks a pantload, Nostradamus.

And I have never been comfortable with point mutation as the author of speciation. I enjoyed Stephen Jay Gould’s explorations (such as Goldberg’s notion of a “hopeful monster”) of the topic of traits that were unlikely to be aided by natural selection if gradually presented to the court of natural selection (feathers, for example).  Therefore larger, more complete leaps are logically necessary, leaps unlikely to be the result of random point mutations. The fact that the fossil record seems to include long periods of stable systems followed by rather sudden change is generally not consonant with a gradualist paradigm. How did those entirely new forms emerge? The fact that they did not die off does not explain how they came to be here in the first place.

Not to sound like Ian Malcolm, but more than just “life always finding a way.” I will speculate that many living things have a built-in capacity for giving rise to novel forms (e.g., the Senegal bichir) while others appear to be end-points with no further destiny.  Environmental challenges call forth that which was always potentially there (I lost both Aristotle and Darwin on that one, but I am undeterred…) and such changes are coordinated across interrelated adaptable species.  Maybe too much focus on species instead of ecosystems is a conceptual limitation, maybe influences of change are mutual.

None of this requires a theological explanation (though a sense of wonder is never a bad thing spiritually or intellectually) but it does require an admission that our understanding of life’s nature and origins is nowhere as complete as some would have us believe and perhaps less compelling than it once was.  And that saying “billions and billions” grounds or even is an explanation for the nature and origin of life is somehow so very 1970s.  

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  1. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Old Bathos: (such as Goldberg’s notion of a “hopeful monster”)

    When writing on Ricochet you should probably specify Goldbergs.

    • #1
  2. Henry Racette Member
    Henry Racette
    @HenryRacette

    OB, thanks very much for the response. You are as eloquent as ever.

    Old Bathos: None of this requires a theological explanation…

    That is my impression.

    Old Bathos: …but it does require an admission that our understanding of life’s nature and origins is nowhere as complete as some would have us believe and perhaps less compelling than it once was.

    I readily admit that there is much we don’t know. As I mentioned to Fritz: “Meanwhile, we slowly grasp some of the incredible nuance of the universe we can actually see. And we know that there are holes in what we know, perhaps large holes. We haven’t exhausted the scientific method just yet.”

    Old Bathos: And that saying” billions and billions” grounds or even is an explanation for the nature and origin of life is somehow so very 1970s.

    You know, I never watched the Sagan specials back then. I keep meaning to: I can still hear his “billyuns and billyuns.”

    I think the specifics of the explanation (of the origins of life) elude us. However, if one is inclined toward a naturalistic explanation, then the case is strengthened by the presence of a vast number of potential settings in which the the origination may have occurred.

    For instance, if I were told that life, or even relatively complex precursors of life, must arise after half a century of laboratory experimentation, I’d probably express skepticism: however many folk in white lab coats are on the case, that’s still a pretty small N.

    When speaking of the chance occurrence of the very improbable, having a truly enormous number of chances is a non-trivial factor. I don’t know how improbable it is that organic compounds arise through chance, that simple membrane-forming molecules encapsulate them, etc. — nor even if those are the particular steps involved.

    But, having once accepted that a natural and undirected process seems most probable, having a few billion trillion planets on which that process can occur makes it all seem a bit more possible.

    Great post, OB. Thanks.

    • #2
  3. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    Old Bathos: While the science of finding abiotic origins has stalled, our understanding of living structures has become vastly more complex and makes the lightning strike in the primordial ooze model even less satisfying. 

    This. 

    • #3
  4. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    MarciN (View Comment):

    Old Bathos: While the science of finding abiotic origins has stalled, our understanding of living structures has become vastly more complex and makes the lightning strike in the primordial ooze model even less satisfying.

    This.

    Even if you have a somewhat-infinite number of lightning strikes on somewhat-infinite samples of primordial ooze?

    • #4
  5. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    kedavis (View Comment):

    MarciN (View Comment):

    Old Bathos: While the science of finding abiotic origins has stalled, our understanding of living structures has become vastly more complex and makes the lightning strike in the primordial ooze model even less satisfying.

    This.

    Even if you have a somewhat-infinite number of lightning strikes on somewhat-infinite samples of primordial ooze?

    Yes. 

    • #5
  6. Henry Racette Member
    Henry Racette
    @HenryRacette

    MarciN (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    MarciN (View Comment):

    Old Bathos: While the science of finding abiotic origins has stalled, our understanding of living structures has become vastly more complex and makes the lightning strike in the primordial ooze model even less satisfying.

    This.

    Even if you have a somewhat-infinite number of lightning strikes on somewhat-infinite samples of primordial ooze?

    Yes.

    And yet, and yet…

    Old Bathos: None of this requires a theological explanation

    Once one has discounted the theological explanation, whatever remains — however improbable — seems likely to be the truth. (With apologies to Sir ACD).

    • #6
  7. Justin Other Lawyer Coolidge
    Justin Other Lawyer
    @DouglasMyers

    Henry Racette (View Comment):

    I think the specifics of the explanation (of the origins of life) elude us. However, if one is inclined toward a naturalistic explanation, then the case is strengthened by the presence of a vast number of potential settings in which the the origination may have occurred.

    For instance, if I were told that life, or even relatively complex precursors of life, must arise after half a century of laboratory experimentation, I’d probably express skepticism: however many folk in white lab coats are on the case, that’s still a pretty small N.

     

    Here’s the thing, though.  It’s not a half century of N random experiments.  It’s half a century of explicitly trying to overcome the randomness of it all, knowing and striving for a very specific desired and known end.  Yet the outcome remains elusive.

     

    • #7
  8. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Henry Racette (View Comment):

    MarciN (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    MarciN (View Comment):

    Old Bathos: While the science of finding abiotic origins has stalled, our understanding of living structures has become vastly more complex and makes the lightning strike in the primordial ooze model even less satisfying.

    This.

    Even if you have a somewhat-infinite number of lightning strikes on somewhat-infinite samples of primordial ooze?

    Yes.

    And yet, and yet…

    Old Bathos: None of this requires a theological explanation

    Once one has discounted the theological explanation, whatever remains — however improbable — seems likely to be the truth. (With apologies to Sir ACD).

    The basic problem may be the people who don’t have much understanding of what “billyuns and billyuns!” actually means.

    I suppose it could be related to the Anthropic Principle.  I have my own version that may be somewhat unique.  But I only get glassy stares when I try to explain it.

    • #8
  9. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Justin Other Lawyer (View Comment):

    Henry Racette (View Comment):

    I think the specifics of the explanation (of the origins of life) elude us. However, if one is inclined toward a naturalistic explanation, then the case is strengthened by the presence of a vast number of potential settings in which the the origination may have occurred.

    For instance, if I were told that life, or even relatively complex precursors of life, must arise after half a century of laboratory experimentation, I’d probably express skepticism: however many folk in white lab coats are on the case, that’s still a pretty small N.

     

    Here’s the thing, though. It’s not a half century of N random experiments. It’s half a century of explicitly trying to overcome the randomness of it all, knowing and striving for a very specific desired and known end. Yet the outcome remains elusive.

     

    So you’re saying we only need a few trillion experiments, not several quadrillion?  Well, why didn’t you say so!  That’s easy!

    • #9
  10. Justin Other Lawyer Coolidge
    Justin Other Lawyer
    @DouglasMyers

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Justin Other Lawyer (View Comment):

    Henry Racette (View Comment):

    I think the specifics of the explanation (of the origins of life) elude us. However, if one is inclined toward a naturalistic explanation, then the case is strengthened by the presence of a vast number of potential settings in which the the origination may have occurred.

    For instance, if I were told that life, or even relatively complex precursors of life, must arise after half a century of laboratory experimentation, I’d probably express skepticism: however many folk in white lab coats are on the case, that’s still a pretty small N.

     

    Here’s the thing, though. It’s not a half century of N random experiments. It’s half a century of explicitly trying to overcome the randomness of it all, knowing and striving for a very specific desired and known end. Yet the outcome remains elusive.

     

    So you’re saying we only need a few trillion experiments, not several quadrillion? Well, why didn’t you say so! That’s easy!

    Ha!  Not really.  Just saying that the experiments were designed to overcome randomness, and presumably, eliminating multitudes of dead ends.

    But then I find it pretty likely that the appearance of design in the universe reveals an actual designer of the universe.  I just have a really hard time coming to the place of finding a perfectly designed hammer (replete with the perfect wooden handle and expertly shaped head) and then assuming that thing wasn’t designed, but rather, through the passage of time, found its way into existence.  And a hammer is a whole lot less complex than DNA.  But that’s pretty difficult to prove scientifically.  I guess it’s either intuitively understood or it’s not.

    • #10
  11. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Justin Other Lawyer (View Comment):
    And a hammer is a whole lot less complex than DNA.

    That assertion seems problematic.

    • #11
  12. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    A couple of years ago I read a book that focused on the Cambrian Explosion, and I can’t seem to find my copy. I found it to be very credible, although the author was attacked mercilessly. As I review books on the topic, it might have been Darwin’s Doubt, by Stephen C. Meyer. But then I’m not a scientist. . .

    • #12
  13. Old Bathos Moderator
    Old Bathos
    @OldBathos

    kedavis (View Comment):

    MarciN (View Comment):

    Old Bathos: While the science of finding abiotic origins has stalled, our understanding of living structures has become vastly more complex and makes the lightning strike in the primordial ooze model even less satisfying.

    This.

    Even if you have a somewhat-infinite number of lightning strikes on somewhat-infinite samples of primordial ooze?

    Again, it does not matter how many times you roll the dice, the potential for a 13 is not there.  Spontaneous self-assembly of spontaneously created amino acids into proteins which then spontaneously replicate is a 13.  

    I do not deny that a naturalistic cause must be there but the addiction to random-accident models is tiresome.  It inhibits productive thinking.

    • #13
  14. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Old Bathos (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    MarciN (View Comment):

    Old Bathos: While the science of finding abiotic origins has stalled, our understanding of living structures has become vastly more complex and makes the lightning strike in the primordial ooze model even less satisfying.

    This.

    Even if you have a somewhat-infinite number of lightning strikes on somewhat-infinite samples of primordial ooze?

    Again, it does not matter how many times you roll the dice, the potential for a 13 is not there. Spontaneous self-assembly of spontaneously created amino acids into proteins which then spontaneously replicate is a 13.

    I do not deny that a naturalistic cause must be there but the addiction to random-accident models is tiresome. It inhibits productive thinking.

    Dice are not comparable because they are a human-created thing.

    You also can’t get 3.14159265358979… from rolling dice.

    So what?

    • #14
  15. Old Bathos Moderator
    Old Bathos
    @OldBathos

    I have always been irked by creationist arguments that features like water being less dense when frozen (otherwise ocean and lake bottoms would be useless for living things) are evidence of a creator intervening.  The notion of a designer who needs to keep coming back in to tweak the limitations in the original design is not consonant with omniscience.

    I am also tired of quasi-Marxist sensibilities that nothing is really sciency unless it’s really pointless and random at the root.

    The astonishing precision of the Big Bang (the exact amount of matter in the universe has to be within the weight of a dime in order for this whole thing to work) and the very fact that an infinitely dense particle existed before there was space or time (can you really say “before” in this context?) and that it expanded within a few thousandths of a second into billions and billions of whatever including all the laws rules natures of thing that makes life and us possible is a creation story more awesome than the seven-day thing.

    Given that improbable yet spectacularly ordered Stephen Hawking creation story, it would be strange if the potential for life was not built-in.  Not a bug, not a side effect born of probabilistically constrained accidental events but an almost teleological feature.  

    The discovery of new, spectacular degrees of order in nature is not proof of God but the tiresome tendency to squelch looking for such order solely to preserve the last century win against biblical literalists is becoming a hindrance to science.

     

    • #15
  16. Old Bathos Moderator
    Old Bathos
    @OldBathos

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Old Bathos (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    MarciN (View Comment):

    Old Bathos: While the science of finding abiotic origins has stalled, our understanding of living structures has become vastly more complex and makes the lightning strike in the primordial ooze model even less satisfying.

    This.

    Even if you have a somewhat-infinite number of lightning strikes on somewhat-infinite samples of primordial ooze?

    Again, it does not matter how many times you roll the dice, the potential for a 13 is not there. Spontaneous self-assembly of spontaneously created amino acids into proteins which then spontaneously replicate is a 13.

    I do not deny that a naturalistic cause must be there but the addiction to random-accident models is tiresome. It inhibits productive thinking.

    Dice are not comparable because they are a human-created thing.

    You also can’t get 3.14159265358979… from rolling dice.

    So what?

    The point is not whether it is human-created.  But whether the potential is there at all.  A model that assumes lightning magically created lumps of proteins that spontaneously increased in complexity is kinda stupid. 

    I can accidentally mix chemicals that result in concrete.  That does not explain the Empire State Building.  It is the sheer magnitude of the assumed outcomes tacked onto the abiotic conceptualizing that is largely divorced from actual scientific thinking.

    • #16
  17. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    This is my favorite of all of Dr. Bastiat’s essays: “Heisenberg Was Right About the Theology of Frightened Warts.” :-) 

     

    • #17
  18. Justin Other Lawyer Coolidge
    Justin Other Lawyer
    @DouglasMyers

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Justin Other Lawyer (View Comment):
    And a hammer is a whole lot less complex than DNA.

    That assertion seems problematic.

    It’s a type of argument from the lesser to the greater.  If we reasonably assume a designer of a simple tool, what should we conclude as we learn more and more about the amazing complexity of a tree or DNA.  The more we learn, the more we realize we really don’t (or didn’t) understand how the systems truly worked.

    Thus, if I assume a designer when I see a hammer, I assume the same thing for a double helix.

    • #18
  19. Henry Racette Member
    Henry Racette
    @HenryRacette

    Old Bathos (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    MarciN (View Comment):

    Old Bathos: While the science of finding abiotic origins has stalled, our understanding of living structures has become vastly more complex and makes the lightning strike in the primordial ooze model even less satisfying.

    This.

    Even if you have a somewhat-infinite number of lightning strikes on somewhat-infinite samples of primordial ooze?

    Again, it does not matter how many times you roll the dice, the potential for a 13 is not there. Spontaneous self-assembly of spontaneously created amino acids into proteins which then spontaneously replicate is a 13.

    I do not deny that a naturalistic cause must be there but the addiction to random-accident models is tiresome. It inhibits productive thinking.

    OB, I think the idea of “random” gets misused just a tiny bit.

    One can look at a snowflake under a microscope and conclude that such beautiful symmetry wouldn’t come about through the random arrangement of molecules. And, of course, it isn’t random: it’s a large structure that emerges from simple patterns expressed at a very small scale.

    Similarly, a protein — vastly more complicated than a snowflake — isn’t a product of randomness. It’s a product of some evolved assembly process that itself likely wasn’t the product of randomness either. The randomness was way down at the bottom, in the chance encounters of primitive membranes and simple organic compounds of carbon and hydrogen and nitrogen and phosphorus. Improbable? I’m sure. But impossible? I’ve no reason to think so.

    Old Bathos: Rolling a pair of dice a few billion times does not alter the probability of rolling a 13.

    We understand the rules that govern dice pretty well. Do we have similar confidence in our understanding of the range and variety of organic chemistry? Are we certain enough in our understanding of those rules to be absolutely sure that no simple self-replicating organic molecules can assemble through truly random processes and, having assembled, replicate?

    That remains, for me, the simplest seeming explanation.

    • #19
  20. Henry Racette Member
    Henry Racette
    @HenryRacette

    Justin Other Lawyer (View Comment):

    Henry Racette (View Comment):

    I think the specifics of the explanation (of the origins of life) elude us. However, if one is inclined toward a naturalistic explanation, then the case is strengthened by the presence of a vast number of potential settings in which the the origination may have occurred.

    For instance, if I were told that life, or even relatively complex precursors of life, must arise after half a century of laboratory experimentation, I’d probably express skepticism: however many folk in white lab coats are on the case, that’s still a pretty small N.

     

    Here’s the thing, though. It’s not a half century of N random experiments. It’s half a century of explicitly trying to overcome the randomness of it all, knowing and striving for a very specific desired and known end. Yet the outcome remains elusive.

     

    Sorry, but I’m not impressed. Diligent and clever as they may be, I don’t expect a few thousand clever chemists to recreate what a billion trillion trillion tide pools of organic slurry managed do pull off. The scales are simply too vastly different, and the wisdom of men, as great as it is, isn’t that great.

    Old Bathos (View Comment):
    The discovery of new, spectacular degrees of order in nature is not proof of God but the tiresome tendency to squelch looking for such order solely to preserve the last century win against biblical literalists is becoming a hindrance to science.

    Again, I think random only takes you so far. The great challenge of naturalistic explanations of the origins of life is, I think, the improbability of the bootstrap process. The most plausible explanation — absent a designer — is a felicitous combining of simple parts into something that can engage in self-replication at the most basic level. The very large numbers simply make that more plausible — to me, at least.

    But, OB, I am intrigued. I haven’t observed the tiresome tendency you describe (though it may well be there). But what do we have between an origin that is “designed,” on the one hand, and one that arises through initial random encounters followed by chemically-driven replication, on the other?

    You seem to be hinting at something, something that bridges the gap between the deliberate and the implausibly unlikely. Can you expand on that?

    • #20
  21. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Henry Racette (View Comment):

    Justin Other Lawyer (View Comment):

    Henry Racette (View Comment):

    I think the specifics of the explanation (of the origins of life) elude us. However, if one is inclined toward a naturalistic explanation, then the case is strengthened by the presence of a vast number of potential settings in which the the origination may have occurred.

    For instance, if I were told that life, or even relatively complex precursors of life, must arise after half a century of laboratory experimentation, I’d probably express skepticism: however many folk in white lab coats are on the case, that’s still a pretty small N.

     

    Here’s the thing, though. It’s not a half century of N random experiments. It’s half a century of explicitly trying to overcome the randomness of it all, knowing and striving for a very specific desired and known end. Yet the outcome remains elusive.

     

    Sorry, but I’m not impressed. Diligent and clever as they may be, I don’t expect a few thousand clever chemists to recreate what a billion trillion trillion tide pools of organic slurry managed do pull off. The scales are simply too vastly different, and the wisdom of men, as great as it is, isn’t that great.

    Yes, that’s part of what I was trying to think of.  Also, it’s a bit of chutzpah for the chemists to think they have an accurate read on what the “primordial ooze” consisted of, etc.

     

    Old Bathos (View Comment):
    The discovery of new, spectacular degrees of order in nature is not proof of God but the tiresome tendency to squelch looking for such order solely to preserve the last century win against biblical literalists is becoming a hindrance to science.

    Again, I think random only takes you so far. The great challenge of naturalistic explanations of the origins of life is, I think, the improbability of the bootstrap process. The most plausible explanation — absent a designer — is a felicitous combining of simple parts into something that can engage in self-replication at the most basic level. The very large numbers simply make that more plausible — to me, at least.

    But, OB, I am intrigued. I haven’t observed the tiresome tendency you describe (though it may well be there). But what do we have between an origin that is “designed,” on the one hand, and one that arises through initial random encounters followed by chemically-driven replication, on the other?

    You seem to be hinting at something, something that bridges the gap between the deliberate and the implausibly unlikely. Can you expand on that?

     

    He’s not saying that it’s aliens, but it’s aliens.

     

    • #21
  22. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    • #22
  23. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

     There’s an old joke about human arrogance.  One day a group of scientists got together and decided that humanity had come a long way and no longer needed God.  So they picked one scientist to go and tell Him that they were done with Him.  The scientist walked up to God and said, “God, we’ve decided that we no longer need you.  We’re to the point where we can clone people, manipulate atoms, build molecules, fly through space, and do many other miraculous things.   So why don’t you just go away and mind your own business from now on?”

                God listened very patiently and kindly to the man.  After the scientist was done talking, God said, “Very well.  How about this?  Before I go, let’s say we have a human-making contest.”  To which the scientist replied, “Okay, we can handle that!”

                “But,” God added, “we’re going to do this just like I did back in the old days with Adam.”

                The scientist nodded, “Sure, no problem” and bent down and picked up a handful of dirt. God wagged a finger at him and said, “Uh, uh, uh.  Put that down.  You go find your own dirt.”

                Carl Sagan is quoted as saying, “To really make an apple pie from scratch, you must begin by inventing the universe.”

    • #23
  24. Justin Other Lawyer Coolidge
    Justin Other Lawyer
    @DouglasMyers

    Henry Racette (View Comment):

    Sorry, but I’m not impressed. Diligent and clever as they may be, I don’t expect a few thousand clever chemists to recreate what a billion trillion trillion tide pools of organic slurry managed do pull off. The scales are simply too vastly different, and the wisdom of men, as great as it is, isn’t that great.

    This is a fair criticism of my point.  As I noted elsewhere, my ignorance of this/these field(s) gets in my way.

    Perhaps because I am a believer in God, I don’t find very persuasive arguments that a universe came from nothing (and spontaneously so), then some weird interactions of “tide pools of organic slurry” organized themselves into something resembling living organisms, which occurred while sufficient atmosphere existed to support . . ., etc., etc., all the while thwarting entropy.

    I just don’t have that kind of faith.

    • #24
  25. Old Bathos Moderator
    Old Bathos
    @OldBathos

    Henry Racette (View Comment):

    Justin Other Lawyer (View Comment):

    Henry Racette (View Comment):

    I think the specifics of the explanation (of the origins of life) elude us. However, if one is inclined toward a naturalistic explanation, then the case is strengthened by the presence of a vast number of potential settings in which the the origination may have occurred.

    For instance, if I were told that life, or even relatively complex precursors of life, must arise after half a century of laboratory experimentation, I’d probably express skepticism: however many folk in white lab coats are on the case, that’s still a pretty small N.

     

    Here’s the thing, though. It’s not a half century of N random experiments. It’s half a century of explicitly trying to overcome the randomness of it all, knowing and striving for a very specific desired and known end. Yet the outcome remains elusive.

     

    Sorry, but I’m not impressed. Diligent and clever as they may be, I don’t expect a few thousand clever chemists to recreate what a billion trillion trillion tide pools of organic slurry managed do pull off. The scales are simply too vastly different, and the wisdom of men, as great as it is, isn’t that great.

    Old Bathos (View Comment):
    The discovery of new, spectacular degrees of order in nature is not proof of God but the tiresome tendency to squelch looking for such order solely to preserve the last century win against biblical literalists is becoming a hindrance to science.

    Again, I think random only takes you so far. The great challenge of naturalistic explanations of the origins of life is, I think, the improbability of the bootstrap process. The most plausible explanation — absent a designer — is a felicitous combining of simple parts into something that can engage in self-replication at the most basic level. The very large numbers simply make that more plausible — to me, at least.

    But, OB, I am intrigued. I haven’t observed the tiresome tendency you describe (though it may well be there). But what do we have between an origin that is “designed,” on the one hand, and one that arises through initial random encounters followed by chemically-driven replication, on the other?

    You seem to be hinting at something, something that bridges the gap between the deliberate and the implausibly unlikely. Can you expand on that?

    In a nutshell: (1) There is no remotely plausible abiotic origin theory or pathway in which complex molecules emerge, form and spontaneously join into complex systems to form the most basic life-form. If we allow for ten years or ten billion years, that sequence of events is not going to happen.

    (2) I also think it is highly unlikely that aliens (how did they come into being?) or that God intervened in some specific unnatural way– not His style–to jumpstart primitive life forms. 
    Whatever the sequence of originating events, those ain’t it. It had to be built-in.

    (3) In the same way that the tiresome, lazy, aging ‘lightning in the ooze by accident’ paradigm reflects a particular sensibility more than it does available science, the ‘accidental point-mutations cause everything’ view is more of a stubborn predisposition than a distillation of the science. Why is it less scientific to opine that it is the nature of life to generate complexity and that natural selection acts on entire ecosystems which respond rapidly by the emergence of what had always been possible as if the next forms were always part of the living things that gave rise to them?

    (4) The incompleteness of Darwinism in the face of new knowledge in new fields ( I strongly urge reading the article cited in the post on this exact point) would not be so bad but for the weird religiosity of some that it be treated as a sacred endpoint.

    (5) There is a persistent sensibility/ideological predisposition that the origin of life and species NOT proceed from any ordering principle because randomness (peace be upon it) must be central otherwise the Biblical fundamentalists will rise up and kill science. Intelligent Design perspectives or analogous approaches or viewpoints must be crushed not because the paradigm doesn’t work or provide a useful alternative look at the data but because of conflicts with the god of randomness. 

    (6) I think that clever people will find a theory that explains both the origin of life and the reason why life tends towards higher complexity (I (tried to) read a piece by a mathematician explaining why chaos theory actually predicts emergence of more complex forms but it was beyond me). 

    When that new unifying theory appears, the tenured, orthodox Darwinists will briefly pout and remind us that nature will still kill short brightly-colored, fat giraffes, then quickly recover and say well it is still a non-theological naturalistic theory. Religiously inclined persons will marvel at the newly discovered order, the way in which we now know that evolution almost has a kind of teleological bent and will thus see the hand of God.

    And both will be right.

    • #25
  26. Barfly Member
    Barfly
    @Barfly

    Old Bathos: And I have never been comfortable with point mutation as the author of speciation.

    Me neither. The origin of species is one thing Darwin did not explain. Nor any kind of punctuated equilibrium, for that matter.

    • #26
  27. Barfly Member
    Barfly
    @Barfly

    David Gelernter’s review of Stephen Meyer’s Darwin’s Doubt. Gelernter, like most, used to be a Darwin believer.

    • #27
  28. Barfly Member
    Barfly
    @Barfly

    Old Bathos:

    It is not that natural selection does not work.  The problem is that it is overrated as an explanatory hypothesis if we ask, “Who will survive?” Answer: “The Fittest!” And if we ask, “How can we identify The Fittest?” Answer: “They are the ones who survive.” Thanks a pantload, Nostradamus.

     

    Yeah, that tautology was never very satisfying.

    • #28
  29. Barfly Member
    Barfly
    @Barfly

    Old Bathos: I used to be impressed with the Carl Saganesque notion that billions and billions (insert “stars,” “years,” “galaxies,” whatever) means that anything can come into being and that theories of simple abiotic origins of life are probably right. I don’t (can’t) believe that anymore. Rolling a pair of dice a few billion times does not alter the probability of rolling a 13.

    I could never get enthusiastic about Sagan, even as a kid. What does it matter how many ingredients are in the mix, when only a finite number of them can ever contribute to a hammer? The infinity of non-participants is irrelevant, and only the finite ingredients matter.

    I think Sagan was involved when NASA decided Viking didn’t find life, after it obviously did. I’m not sure what was up there, but I assume it was dishonest.

    • #29
  30. Dr. Bastiat Member
    Dr. Bastiat
    @drbastiat

    MarciN (View Comment):

    This is my favorite of all of Dr. Bastiat’s essays: “Heisenberg Was Right About the Theology of Frightened Warts.” :-)

     

    Thanks Marci! 

    And you’re right – as I tried to explain in that essay, I’ve given up trying to convince myself that life was created by random chance.

    An evolutionary researcher, I think Dawkins, once gave the following example:  If enough tornadoes go through enough junkyards, eventually one of them will leave a working 747 in the wake of its destruction. Just by random chance.

    While I concede that that is, in theory, possible, it’s a different thing entirely from me to state that I believe that that actually happened.

    It’s impossible to prove a negative, of course, but on the other hand, things that are exceedingly unlikely, are, well, exceedingly unlikely to be true.

    We’ll never know for sure probably. But gee whiz. When I travel on a 747, I don’t look at it and think to myself, “Wow –  A tornado must have gone through a junkyard and created this, by purely random chance. That’s remarkable!” 

    No, I figure that some very clever people built it. 

    I don’t know that to be true, of course.  But I like my odds. 

    • #30
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