December 2009


Now that we have established what needs explaining (biological information, and the origin and functional interrelatedness of cellular machinery) and the scientific method biologists employ to formulate an explanation, we turn our attention to the four possible explanations for life’s origin: (1) Chance; (2) Necessity; (3) Combination of chance and necessity; (4) Intelligent agency.  In this post I will examine the possibility that life can be explained in terms of chance processes alone.

Just like the lottery, specific probabilities can be assessed for the origin of life by chance.  To illustrate how probabilities are assessed, consider a combination lock.  What are the chances of someone guessing the correct combination of a lock with four dials containing 10 digits each?  To determine the chances one must multiply the number of digits on each dial (10) by itself four times (because there are four dials): 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 = 10,000 different possible combinations.  The chances of guessing the correct combination, then, are 1 in 10,000.  If one more dial was added to the lock, it would decrease the odds by a factor of 10 (1 in 100,000).  If one is given only one try, the odds of getting the right combination are overwhelmingly against him—so much so that if the lock opened everyone would suspect that his selection was not random, but based on intelligence, or that the lock was faulty.  The odds of cracking the combination increase, however, as one increases the number of attempts.  If one is given 100,000 tries to guess the combination, then the odds are that he will eventually guess the combination through random attempts alone (if each try took 10 seconds, you could crack the 4-dial code in about 28 hours, and the 5-dial code in about 11 days).

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In May of this year the District of Columbia passed a law recognizing the legality of same-sex marriages performed in states where they are legal.  Today, they voted 11-2 to legalize same-sex marriages performed in D.C.  The mayor of D.C., Adrian Fenty, has vowed to sign it.  Because of D.C.’s unique status, the U.S. Congress has 30 legislative days to review the bill.  If they do not act to overturn it during that time, it becomes law (and there’s not much chance they will).  It looks like D.C. will be the sixth jurisdiction in the U.S. to legalize same-sex marriage.

What is the scientific method?  Everyone who sat through grade-school science class knows the answer to this question, right?: observation, hypothesis, prediction, experimentation, conclusion.  What may surprise you is that there is no such thing as the scientific method.  There are a variety of methods scientists employ in their quest to discover the truth about the natural world, none of which can be claimed as the scientific method.  Which method a scientist uses depends on what he is studying.  While the method outlined above works well for “experimental scientists” such as chemists and physicists, it doesn’t apply to “historical scientists” (i.e. those who study the past) such as paleontologists, astronomers, and evolutionary biologists.  Those in the historical sciences require a different method.

Historical scientists study the past, not the present.  They seek to discover the historical causes responsible for past events – effects that we observe in the present.  For such a task the scientific method outlined above simply won’t work.  It’s the wrong tool.  To explain the structure of the fossil record, for example, one cannot engage in experimentation.  Likewise, there is no need for making predictions since predictions address the future, not the past.  How, then, do historical scientists test their theories?

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In my first post on Meyer’s Signature in the Cell I discussed information theory, and claimed that the cell exhibits functional information—information that cannot be explained in terms of the physical machinery of the cell.  In this post I want to provide some background on the machinery and inner workings of the cell to provide evidence for the claim that the cell contains complex specified information (functional information), and explain why biologists have come to recognize that DNA stores and transmits “genetic information,” contains a “genetic blueprint” with “assembly instructions,” and expresses a “digital code.” 

The two most basic components of the cell are DNA and proteins.  DNA is made up of a 4 character chemical alphabet: adenine, thymine, guanine, cytosine (these are called nucleotides).  These nucleotides always appear in complimentary pairs: adenine is paired with thymine, and guanine is paired with cytosine. 

Proteins—the workhorses of the cell—are composed of amino acids.  The cell contains 20 different kinds of amino acids.  To create functional proteins, these amino acids must be sequenced together in a specific order, forming a “chain” of amino acids (proteins come in varying lengths, with shorter proteins consisting of ~100 amino acids, most proteins consisting of several hundred, and some as large as 34,350 [titin]).  While there are a number of ways in which amino acids can be sequenced, the vast majority of combinations are functionless.  They sequence must be specified if the protein is to have function (functionality also requires the protein to be folded into a particular shape).

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If you are interested in the history of when the celebration of Christmas began and how the date was determined, this article from Biblical Archaeological Review is a good one.  And if you think the answer is that Christians co-opted the Roman feasts of Saturnalias and/or Sol Invictus, you need to read the article.

One of the regular visitors/commentators on this blog made me aware of a video on YouTube titled “You can’t prove God doesn’t exist (lies Christians tell #4), featuring a couple of quotes from yours truly.  The video is posted below, followed by my response.

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It’s not often that a book on Intelligent Design becomes a best-seller, or is opined (in print) to be one of the best books of the year by a prominent atheist philosopher.  And yet that is true of Stephen Meyer’s book, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design.  I must say it’s one of the best books I have read on the topic of the evidence for intelligent design in biology.  The information was presented in a very logical, systematic order, with each chapter building naturally on the former.  Not only was Meyer’s approach systematic, but he presented difficult concepts in very understandable ways.  Coming in at 561 pages of text, it is not a quick read, but the time spent is well worth it.

Meyer’s thesis is that the origin of life is best explained by an intelligent cause.  He begins his book by telling how the mystery of life’s origin was not recognized in Darwin’s day, but came to be realized in the decades that followed as knowledge of life’s complexity began to emerge.  That mystery has not been solved over the decades, but rather looms larger and larger the more we discover about the internal workings of the cell, and what is required for even the simplest of life. 

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I must say I am a little shocked at this one given how liberal NY is, but the NY Senate rejected a same-sex marriage (SSM) bill that passed in the NY House.  The voted it down by a vote of 38-24.  

So as of December 2009 five states allow for SSM: Iowa, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont.  California was once on the list when the CA Supreme Court forced the CA legislature to legalize SSM (of course, SSM was already legal in practice, although not in name), but the CA voters amended their constitution in November 2008 to overturn the Supreme Court’s ruling.  Maine was also on the list until last month, when the voters of Maine overturned a congressional law that passed in May of this year legalizing SSM.

The NJ Senate is expected to vote on a SSM bill next week, so we’ll have to wait and see what happens there.

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