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Intelligent Chemical Design

I haven’t commented on the controversy about including “Intelligent Design” in school curricula, but I don’t want that to be interpreted as any kind of approval. On the contrary – until it offers some testable predictions, which would seem an unlikely thing to hope for, I don’t see how ID even rises to the level of a preliminary theory, much less one that can compete with the level of evidence backing up evolution. Many of ID’s advocates, to a greater or lesser degree, strike me as intellectually dishonest.
Intelligent Design proponents are fond of arguing about “irreducible complexity”, the idea that some structures are too complicated to have been generated through stepwise evolution. They argue this on the anatomical level, which I don’t buy, but I’m not going to debate that one in this forum. (Allow me to refer the curious to my fellow Corantean Carl Zimmer, who’s had plenty of run-ins with these folks, and his fine introduction to evolution. Those interested in the latest news on the ID/evolution battles should check out The Panda’s Thumb. For sheer mockery, often irresistible in these cases, try this.)
But when they start making arguments at the chemical level, the what-are-the-odds stuff about proteins and DNA, well, that’s when I come out of my lair. A paper in the latest issue of the journal ChemBioChem got me thinking about this today. (If you have access to Wiley journals, it’s here as a PDF.) It’s an update of the analytical work still being done on the Murchison meteorite (a href=”http://www.publish.csiro.au/?act=view_file&file_id=AS03060.pdf”>PDF), which fell in Australia in 1969. The more than 100 kg of recovered Murchison material have been attacked over the years with just about every instrument of the constantly shifting state of the art in analytical chemistry.
Why all the interest? Well, a short answer is that the pieces of this meteorite reek. Even now, they smell like low-grade gasoline, and they had a powerful odor indeed when they were freshly collected. The Murchison fall is a wonderful example of a rare class of meteorites called carbonaceous chondrites. Many people don’t realize how much organic gunk is floating around out in space, but there are surely millions of tons of this stuff wandering around our solar system alone.
What’s in the Murchison pieces? The list continues to lengthen. We’re up to at least 500 different soluble compounds, but much more of the material is dark polymeric asphalty stuff that’s hard to analyze. Most famously, the meteorite contains many amino acids. Save glycine, those come in left- and right-handed isomers, and a major find is that the Murchison material is slightly biased toward the left-handed ones, which happen to be the ones that life on Earth is built around. This is an important point: the chemicals that life as we know it is composed of are not at all odd or unlikely. They’re all over our solar system, they’re in interstellar clouds, and there’s every reason to think that they’re smeared and splatted all over the universe.
And more of the stuff is being made all the time. In 2002, several research groups took icy mixtures of water, methanol, ammonia, HCN, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide (just the sort of mixtures that you see in cometary ices and the above-mentioned interstellar clouds.) They irradiated them with ultraviolet light – as would come from the Sun or untold billions of other stars – at cold outer-space temperatures, and obtained over a dozen of the most common amino acids – here are some more details.
So, here’s another key point: the really big step is between making random chemical combinations and having carbohydrates and amino acids as inevitable products. Believe me, the molecules of life are an infinitesmal sliver of all the possible backbones of up to ten or twelve carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen atoms. But organic chemistry, with no active hand on the controls, turns out uncountable heaps of them. Compared to that, the gaps that need to be filled in on the way to living systems don’t seem so large.
This, to me, is one of the major stories of the last few decades. Starting hundreds of years ago, astronomy gradually moved the Earth out of its supposed spot in the center of the universe and placed it in the huge (and hugely strange) context of the universe that we now know. Now chemistry is moving us away from the view of life as a strange and precious anomaly – granted, perhaps, by a divine being? – to something that could be everywhere and may well start of its own accord. The building blocks are ubiquitous, and if you give them half a chance they start to stack themselves up.
For better or worse, the presence of an active Designer does not suggest itself. That may not seem right to some people, for many different reasons. But if there’s one thing that science has been showing us, it’s the the universe doesn’t much care what we think about it.

20 comments on “Intelligent Chemical Design”

  1. steve says:

    Good post. I visit Panda’s Thumb every day. It’s great.
    ID is a set of claims designed to sneak creationism past the guards. It emerged in the late 80’s, immediately following a few cases like Edwards v. Aguillard, where creationists lost bigtime.
    As for the content of ID, there have been two arguments. First, Michael Behe said that anything which was IC (a term whose definition keeps changing) is in principle unevolvable. Scientists quickly showed at least two different ways IC things could evolve. Next, William Dembski said that anything which has CSI (also a protean term) was unevolvable, because of the NFL theorems in math. One of the authors of the NFL theorem has said Dembski’s work is fatally flawed crap. That’s more or less where the ‘science’ of ID stands. Both authors have vaguely admitted that their claims are somewhat less than proven, but then they turn around and sell it to believers as scientific revolution in progress. I can’t quite tell if they’re really dishonest, or deluded. Dembski has said, for instance, that any scientific theory which does not incorporate christ, is incomplete. That just seems like craziness, more than dishonesty.
    Most sensible christians (I’m an atheist, so this is anecdotal) don’t seem to have a problem with evolution. It’s just the various fundamentalists. Though ultrafundamentalists like Ken Ham of AiG don’t like ID, because they think it even sells out too much to evolution.

  2. steve says:

    once more, with formatting:

    Good post. I visit Panda’s Thumb every day. It’s great.

    ID is a set of claims designed to sneak creationism past the guards. It emerged in the late 80’s, immediately following a few cases like Edwards v. Aguillard, where creationists lost bigtime.

    As for the content of ID, there have been two arguments. First, Michael Behe said that anything which was IC (a term whose definition keeps changing) is in principle unevolvable. Scientists quickly showed at least two different ways IC things could evolve. Next, William Dembski said that anything which has CSI (also a protean term) was unevolvable, because of the NFL theorems in math. One of the authors of the NFL theorem has said Dembski’s work is fatally flawed crap. That’s more or less where the ‘science’ of ID stands. Both authors have vaguely admitted that their claims are somewhat less than proven, but then they turn around and sell it to believers as scientific revolution in progress. I can’t quite tell if they’re really dishonest, or deluded. Dembski has said, for instance, that any scientific theory which does not incorporate christ, is incomplete. That just seems like craziness, more than dishonesty.

    Most sensible christians (I’m an atheist, so this is anecdotal) don’t seem to have a problem with evolution. It’s just the various fundamentalists. Though ultrafundamentalists like Ken Ham of AiG don’t like ID, because they think it even sells out too much to evolution.

  3. daen says:

    Proponents of intelligent design argue that it be accepted on pure scientific terms but they are hoist by their very own petard when it comes to irreducible complexity. Either an intelligent designer Itself is irreducibly complex or not. If the former, then there must either a) be a designer of the designer etc (cf Hofstader’s God of Djinn) and all the way up – hardly the simplest explanation or b) intelligent design reduces to creationism. If the latter, then intelligent design proponents face the problem which is equivalent to the one that they pose to supporters of Darwinian evolution : how could a more complex system arise from a less complex one? But actually, the Darwinian problem is more amenable to solution because it factors out the notion of having to incorporate any kind of designer. Of course, Occam’s Razor could be the wrong tool to use here, but if intelligent designers insist on doing battle in the arena of science, then they must use the weapons that science has provided.

  4. LNT says:

    The stereotypical “religious beliefs” of most scientists is atheism and agnostisism. But I wonder if that really is true? I’m a PhD chemist in the biotech industry — and from my few years in the industry, I’ve found that about half of the scientists I’ve encountered believe in some sort of higher power.
    To be quite honest, my growing knowledge of science over the years is the main reason that I still believe in a “Designer”. In spite of the posts previous, when I try to be as “unbiased” as I can and I look around at all the marvelous processes that are part of life, I can’t help but believe in a God! I have no intellectually viable choice — and I’ve found many highly educated scientists that agree.

  5. Derek Lowe says:

    I actually don’t have a problem with believing in a designer who set up a very particular sort of universe and sat back to watch how it worked. Note, similarly, the long-running controversy over the anthropic cosmological principle.)

    Where people lose me is when they invoke “and then a miracle occurs” steps, or when they argue from religious or philosophical principles for physical laws and distinctions that don’t seem to exist – things like “microevolution is fine, but no species can change into another one.”

  6. LNT says:

    Derek wrote:
    >I actually don’t have a problem with believing >in a designer who set up a very particular sort >of universe and sat back to watch how it worked.
    Food for thought: If a designer was active in creating the universe that we observe, when can’t he/she still be active in it today? Why can’t the “miraculous” occur? Once you believe in a “higher power” it seems absurd to believe that he/she is now totally disconnected from it, only “watching how it worked.”
    Sure, it isn’t the realm of science to study such things — but I don’t see how science can exclude it.

  7. Gary Anderson says:

    I guess I never understood how the “intelligent” in ID was supposed to work, given the evidence of species with vestigial organs (appendix in humans, etc) and other weird things out there. Why would such an intelligence decide the axolotl or the platypus was a good design?
    The simple fact is, ID is just a form of religion and has no place in a science curriculum. Even if the fundamentalists insist that Genesis is word for word accurate, which version do they think is more accurate? (Genesis has two quite different creation stories, in case you weren’t aware of it).

  8. Brian Frederick says:

    As always the debate on evolution veers toward the origin of life. Evolution is a theory about the origin of species NOT the origin of life. “Compared to that, the gaps that need to be filled in on the way to living systems don’t seem so large.” They may not seem large to you, but they are gaps without a current workable theory on how to get there. Natural selection (evol) works on organisms and not chemicals. If we envoke some idea of “emergence from complexity” or some such, are we not just conceding that the system was set up to produce life, and then are we that far from ID?

  9. RKN says:

    Interesting stuff on abiogenesis, thanks for the links.

    I didn’t know any scientists were still seriously researching this stuff, not since the Miller-Urey experiments anyway. The links suggest the focus of abiogenesis research is back on the Proteinoid hypothesis versus the recently popular RNA hypothesis. And it’s interesting to note that like the Miller-Urey experiments, the amino acid mixes were racemic, which if I recall correctly (though not specifically) poses a theoretical problem for this being the nascent mechanism for the creation of self-replicating (“living”) molecules.

    As for ID, I don’t think it’s so much a “back door” for creationists, as it is a spring board for scientific skeptics. And let’s be honest, there’s plenty to be scientifically skeptical of — if not at least in awe of — w.r.t evolution, but certainly abiogenesis.

    In the end, how life got here doesn’t much influence our science (physics, chemistry, biology, etc.) w.r.t. understanding how it all works.

  10. curious george says:

    Based on the previous posts we can assume abiogenesis of amino acids given the proper input of energy and raw materials. But what about peptides? Peptides are the entire basis of life — yet thier formation from amino acids is a decidedly “uphill” reaction, as all organic chemists know. Even using powerful coupling reagents, the coupling of a simple amino acid to a large peptide chain can be very problematic. How get an organic chemist seriously believe that this process took place in an aqueous environment with no “energy input” other than heat and UV light??? This is absurd! If, per chance, the coupling did take place, what then?
    My “faith” in the evolution of life might increase a bit if I ever read a paper that describes an experiment for the abiogenesis of large peptides in an aqueous environment.

  11. Presumably, there is no other way to add energy to a reaction other than heat and light. Gee, I tend to think that heat and time work pretty well in getting a reaction to go. I suppose there may be catalysts involved in the situation; there’s a lot out there in nature that does not get added to your average DCC coupling.

    I totally agree with RKN. It drives me nuts when Christian conservatives seem to be fixated on the teaching of the origin of life or species when it seems to be secondary to the main goal of teaching children the scientific method, scientific facts and principles. I know that evolutionary theory is one facet of that, but it’s not essential to buy into Darwinism to produce a good engineer, chemist or molecular biologist, for that matter. (Granted, for molbio, you’d have an awful cognitive-dissonance headache.)

  12. Daniel Newby says:

    “As always the debate on evolution veers toward the origin of life. Evolution is a theory about the origin of species NOT the origin of life.”

    No, evolution is a theory about why partially-isolated globs of molecules change over time. As such, it has to explain all the molecular evidence, including that that shows Earth formed from a soup of simple organic molecules.

    Regarding a peptide origin of life, I too find that hard to believe. The energy problem can be overcome by catalysis, at least in principle. However it is difficult to imagine how a peptide-dependent peptide polymerase would work. Not only do amino acids lack a nice hydrogen bonding system for lining up a copy along the original backbone, they tend to attract and repel promiscuously and turn themselves into a big tangle. That’s good for making proteins, but terrible for storing copyable information. If peptides were important to the start of life, it would have to be via a short list of amino acids with friendly chemical properties.

    “In the end, how life got here doesn’t much influence our science (physics, chemistry, biology, etc.) w.r.t. understanding how it all works.”

    At least not until we start heavily exploring other planets and perhaps encounter life built on a different plan.

  13. brian f says:

    novice chemist: Catalysts will increase the rate but have no effect on the equilibrium and therefore wont help a whole lot with the problem of synthesizing a large peptide in aqueous conditions. Your point about what drives you nuts about conservative christians can be flipped 180. What annoys christians is when high school science teachers apply evolutionary theory beyond the origin of species to other disciplines. This seems secondary to sci. method, good math skills etc.

  14. brian F says:

    “No, evolution is a theory about why partially-isolated globs of molecules change over time.” Really. Sounds like YOUR definition of evolution to me. I thougth it had something to do with variation, heredity, fucundity and suvival, all of which requires organisms.

  15. Derek Lowe says:

    The latest ChemBioChem paper that I mentioned actually is talking about the isolation of molecules from the Murchison fragments that help out the RNA-world hypothesis. That still seems to be the dominant abiogenesis theory.

    There’s a good discussion of this (and of the peptide synthesis issue) starting on page 26 of this 100-page PDF file of Carnegie Institution / NASA research proposals: http://nai.arc.nasa.gov/library/downloads/can3proposals/CIW.pdf

  16. Ron Bracale says:

    I believe that the entire universe and the laws of math., physics, and biology are spiritual. There are tons of the raw materials present in space to produce life in all kinds of environments. I believe that there is a higher law that causes life to evolve, i.e. to increase in its perceptual abilities and intelligence (though sometimes current humanity seems to be backsliding a bit). The entire universe is a unified system and looking at little pieces as if they were separate leads to confusion. Evolution happens! The mechanisms are perhaps debatable, but not the fact. For instance, cooperation may be a more effective survival tool than competitive skills. Virus may affect our DNA in more radical ways than random mutations. Why evolution happens is beyond human knowing, but how evolution happens is discoverable. We can philosophize forever without the facts and believe all kinds of un-truths, or we can use the scientific method to understand the world around us. Those seem to be our choices.

  17. Daniel Newby says:

    “Sounds like YOUR definition of evolution to me. I thougth it had something to do with variation, heredity, fucundity and suvival, all of which requires organisms.”

    As usual the exceptions make things interesting. What of symbionts, chimeras, viroids, mobile plasmids, prions (maybe), and so forth? They certainly evolve, but calling them organisms and drawing species boundaries is tricky. For example, a viroid is naked strand of RNA so small you could memorize the nucleotide sequence if you wanted. If you want to be general-purpose, all you can talk about is identifiable globs of molecules and how their descendants differ from them.

  18. schinderhannes says:

    To me as a layed back European it seems absolutely amazing how you guys can hype up about the exact semantics of what evolution is and where any creator might come into the game……
    Have you ever considered the fact that basically only the US is discussing ID and neglection of evolution as an indicator of how absurd your home brewed pseudo problems are?
    Teach kids science and morals and get down to saving the earth (I don´t care if you start with the climate or erradicating religiuos wars, but there are definitely more severe probs around than whether to interpret the bible as a metahpor or a god send word by word true instruction manual!

  19. Sean Murphy says:

    You mentioned that “the Murchison material is slightly biased toward the left-handed ones.” I analyzed the paper reporting this data for my PhD seminar (on “The Origin of Chirality”, i.e. why living systems usually use only one enantiomer). When I looked at the paper in detail, it turns out the differences were not statistically significant and/or were within their detection error limits (sorry, I don’t remember the details since it was over 10 years ago). My final conclusion was that life itself produced the excess of one enantiomer over the other by multiplying a slight excess of one enantiomer which resulted by chance. But don’t tell the ID people about this or else they’ll claim God chose L-amino acids over the D’s.

  20. Derek Lowe says:

    Interesting! I’ll have to see if there’s any new data on this. The “founder’s bias” hypothesis is still very much in play for explaining our chiral environment. . .

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