Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Origins of Life


This is my first ever blog. It is primarily to make a discussion from Huffington Post with suebeedue easier as HuffPo is not very conducive to long discussions.

It is about the Jehovah's Witness publication The Origin of Life. I found this available for download online. Whilst looking for it it became clear there are a number of critiques already available. But I try to be fair so I'm reading the publication first and making my own analysis as I go along. I'll add links to other sources later.

So, what is it about?

The purpose of this brochure is to examine claims made by those who teach that life appeared spontaneously and assert that the Bible's account of creation is a myth.

You will also be asked to analyze the assumptions that underpin the theory of evolution.

This brochure will present just some of the evidence that has led many to believe that life was created”

In saying that evolution has assumptions, whereas creation has evidence, the language is loaded in favour of creation. But I knew this would clearly be a pro-creation piece. I'll be aware of this intended bias, but still even-handed.

some scientists seem reluctant to discuss an even more fundamental question -Where did life come from?
The use of language, 'some' 'seem', is rather vague. I've never come across anyone reluctant to discuss the question. Is this setting the tone for the piece? A claim that scientists fear this question? Loaded language again but perhaps there'll be evidence later.

What do many scientists claim?
It talks about what some scientists 'feel' without references. It says that some believe that life started when chemicals spontaneously assembled into bubblelike structures [and] formed complex molecules. I've never heard that hypothesis. I don't think any scientist ever claimed that complex structures spontaneously sprang into existence.

The sole reference is a quote from Alexandre Meinesz. The quote itself is interesting and is given to support the claim that life on earth could not occur by itself. I googled and found an interview with Meinesz:
Did you authorize the Watchtower to make reference to your book ? Of course, not !
Do you support the creationist view of JW ? Absolutely not !
Is this quote correct? They’re making reference to my book on page 32 to 60 but this is not what I wrote. The sentence they are mentioning appears on page 47 but taken out of its context.
They’re promoting my book in their publications but if Jehovah's followers will read it, they will be very very disappointed !

Not a good start for the validity of this piece. So far one reference made, and it is misused.

All scientific evidence to date indicates that life can come only from previously preexisting life”
I know this to be false because of various hypothoses about abiogenesis. It is just plain false to say all evidence indicates this. The pamphlet comes back to this when discussing Miller.

If the theory of evolution is true, it should offer a plausible explanation of how the first "simple" cell formed by chance”
This misrepresents what evolution is. The pamphlet later argues that evolution relies on creation as a foundation. This is not so. Evolution is the ongoing development of the animal kingdom. It does not say how life first started. The pamphlet tries to undermine the wealth of facts about evolution by saying it cannot stand without an explanation for the very first form of life. But this is like arguing that I watched you walk towards me, but because I didn't see you leave your house, I must believe that you just appeared here in front of me.

The pamphlet goes on to discuss the Miller-Urey experiment in 1953 as evidence that early life could not start without God's intervention. I'm disappointed to find that this section uses a double-bind argument. Firstly it says that experiments are unsuccessful, therefore God did it. But secondly it also claims that if the experiments were successful it would only show that the role of scientist, as played by God, is needed. Heads I win, tails you lose
 I've done some research into the Miller-Urey experiment. The pamphlet has misrepresented the facts. The experiment actually showed that there was the possibility that the early earth had everything needed to start life. Also, this experiment was in 1953. Incredible advances have been made in the 60 years since. For example...

The 1953 Miller-Urey experiment, simulated early Earth's atmosphere with nothing more than water, hydrogen, ammonia, and methane and an electrical charge standing in for lightning, and produced complex organic compounds like amino acids. Now, scientists have learned more about the environmental and atmospheric conditions on early Earth and no longer think that the conditions used by Miller and Urey were quite right. However, since Miller and Urey, many scientists have performed experiments using more accurate environmental conditions and exploring alternate scenarios for these reactions. These experiments yielded similar results - complex molecules could have formed in the conditions on early Earth

The pamphlet then quotes from other scientists, but does a strange thing. It quotes Shapiro and Cleland but then, as a footnote, explains that they do not believe in creationism. Now, if the scientists were being quoted in context surely they wouldn't also refute creation. This clearly suggests that they are quoted out of context, so I again did some further research.

The footnote for Shapiro makes reference to a discovery by Manchester University in 2009 and says Shapiro did not support it. The report in Nature quotes both sides. It explains that Manchester used methods “consistent with early-Earth scenarios. It goes on to say that Shapiro believes “simpler metabolic processes, which eventually catalysed the formation of RNA and DNA, were the first stirrings of life on Earth”. So Shapiro definitely does not support the creationist view.

The Cleland quote is also out of context. She went on to say, in the same 2002 interview that: “I suppose that if I had to pick a favorite theory, it would be Freeman Dyson's double origin theory, which postulates an initial protein world that eventually produced an RNA world as a by-product of an increasingly sophisticated metabolism.

The pamphlet says that protein needs RNA but that as protein is involved in RNA this is an inescapable Catch-22. I note the careful use of the word 'involved'. My first thoughts are that spanners are involved in the making of machines yet machines make spanners. Some research and I find about pre-RNA (which doesn't need protein) and the RNA-world hypothesis


This chapter explains how complicated cells can be. It likens it to a factory with security guards, machines and so on. It asks the reader to ask whether such a structure could happen by a series of fortunate unguided accidents. This appeal to incredulity is a very poor argument for saying it needs God.
From Berkeley site:
Living things (even ancient organisms like bacteria) are enormously complex. However, all this complexity did not leap fully-formed from the primordial soup. Instead life almost certainly originated in a series of small steps, each building upon the complexity that evolved previously:

1. Simple organic molecules were formed.
Simple organic molecules such as necleotides are the building blocks of life and must have been involved in its origin. Experiments suggest that organic molecules could have been synthesized in the atmosphere of early Earth and rained down into the oceans. RNA and DNA molecules — the genetic material for all life — are just long chains of simple nucleotides.

2. Replicating molecules evolved and began to undergo natural selection
This ability probably first evolved in the form of an RNA self-replicator — an RNA molecule that could copy itself Many biologists hypothesize that this step led to an "RNA world" in which RNA did many jobs, storing genetic information, copying itself, and performing basic metabolic functions. Today, these jobs are performed by many different sorts of molecules (DNA, RNA, and proteins, mostly), but in the RNA world, RNA did it all.”

A quote from Ruda Popa is used, even though it readily admits he is not a creationist: The Complexity of the mechanisms required for the functioning of a living cell is so large that simultaneous emergence by chance seems impossible”
However a bit of research reveals that the full quote continues: “Most scientists now believe that life originated in a number of smaller and probabilistically likelier steps. Instead of being one big chance like event, life might actually be an accretion of a series of events emerging at different moments in time.” That is a very different interpretation than that claimed by the pamphlet.

The pamphlet asks: If some scientists are willing to speculate that life came from an extraterrestrial source, what is the basis for ruling out God as that Source? Well, the answer is very simple. Evidence. There is evidence that theoretically some form of life could have survived on a meteorite that crashed into earth.

a theory of evolution that cannot explain the origin of life will crumble. Wrong, evolution and the origin of first life are different. Even without firm proof of the beginning of life, we can prove evolution beyond doubt through the examination of fossil records, DNA and embryology. But the pamphlet will try to discredit these, so let's press on.


This chapter describes theextraordinary feat of engineeringthat is DNA and again appeals to incredulity asking if we would accept that a well-organised library could occur by chance. The comparison is misleading. It goes on to say that the amount of information held in such a small amount of material is so far beyond man's ability that it must be God.

It makes the claim that scientists cannot replicate DNA. Wrong, they can now - Researchers have succeeded in mimicking the chemistry of life in synthetic versions of DNA and RNA molecules. -

"What I cannot create, I do not understand." Again a quote out of context. This was a message for Feynman's students reminding them that they understand something better when they can explain it to someone else.

The pamphlet quotesFrancis Crick. a scientist who helped to discover DNA's double-helix structure, decided that this molecule is far too organized to have come about through undirected events. He proposed that intelligent extraterrestrials may have sent DNA”
However, in a retrospective article,"Crick noted that they had been overly pessimistic about the chances of abiogenesis on Earth when they had assumed that some kind of self-replicating protein system was the molecular origin of life.”
Furthermore, “Crick joined a group of other Nobel laureates who advised that, "'Creation-science' simply has no place in the public-school science classroom." Crick was also an advocate for the establishment of Darwin Day as a British national holiday”

Anthony Flew is also quoted. But yet again, a quick bit if research shows that he said:
 "I'm quite happy to believe in an inoffensive inactive god." When asked whether or not he has kept up with the most recent science and theology, he responded with "Certainly not," stating that there is simply too much to keep up with. Flew also denied that there was any truth to the rumours of 2001 and 2003 that he had converted to Christianity”


This chapter claims that “recent research continues to contradict Darwin's theory of common descent" quoting Baptiste. But the article referred to went on to say thatBoth he and co-researcher Dr Ford Doolittle stressed that downgrading the tree of life doesn't mean the theory of evolution is wrong just that evolution is not as tidy as we would like to believe”

Dr Doolittle, of California University, said: "We understand evolution pretty well it's just it is more complex than Darwin imagined. The tree isn't the only pattern.” So not a contradiction of evolution at all.

It refers to a quote from David Raup but Raup went on to say “we still have a record which does show change”. What he is saying is that 'natural selection' may not give the complete picture. Raup concludes “Darwin was correct in what he said but that he was explaining only a part of the total evolutionary picture. The part he missed was the simple element of chance!” Again, quoted out of context. Do the authors really think people are too stupid to check the sources?

Genetic research shows that life did not originate from a single common ancestor.” This is not only a misinterpretation of the 'evidence' given in the pamphlet, it completely contradicts the truth of the research.
All life today must descend from one single entity, the Last Universal Common Ancestor or Luca. The evidence for this is that all organisms share not only the same genetic code but the same detailed biochemistry” from Creation: The Origin of Life / The Future of Life, by Adam Rutherford.

I'll continue with the pamphlet in another post. But it is clear that that authors have wilfully misused the words of scientists, by taking their words out of context or presenting only partial quotes, in order to present a misleading opinion. It is one of the most blatant pieces of misinformation I have come across.