Okay, as much as I enjoy telling the development saga, it’s past time for a rant against ignorance. It’s like running for charity, only replace the foot blisters with throat ulcers and the happy children with offended denialists.
Upon what topic of irredeemable stupidity should we feed this rant monster, so it can grow into a big and healthy eldritch abomination whose only desire is to see this world die in internet flame wars? Irreducible complexity? Second law of thermodynamics? Micro vs macro evolution?
No… I’m going to go earlier than that, to a pet hate of mine. The claim: “A cell can’t form by chance.”
From experience, this claim is often accompanied by a bit of good ol’ statistical abuse. The claimant will find a protein, calculate the probability of that protein being that protein, and show off the result as if adding enough to the exponent somehow makes a number important. Here’s a good example from Talk Origins:
”The proteins necessary for life are very complex. The odds of even one simple protein molecule forming by chance are 1 in 10113, and thousands of different proteins are needed to form life.”
Watchtower Bible and Tract Society. 1985. Life–How Did It Get Here? Brooklyn, NY, pg. 44.
Of course, anyone with a basic understanding of statistics and a good pair of heavy boots can kick your ass over this. It’s possible to use the same logic to “prove” that Hydrogen can’t possibly be more common than all the other elements, because each naturally occurring atom only has a 1 in 91 chance of being hydrogen. Besides, the sheer extent of lies upon misinformation upon things-deliberately-overlooked involved in getting these sort of numbers normally indicates the person using them is either a professional charlatan or copy-pasting from the website of a professional charlatan. If you’re interested, check out Lies, Damned Lies, Statistics, and Probability of Abiogenesis Calculations on Talk Origins. I know it’s a little dated, but it’s a fine start. I’ll stay here and deal with the simpler aspect of the claim, using slightly smaller words, not least because I don’t understand all the big ones.
A common answer to the cell-forming-by-chance claim (aside from the fact that the original reproducer is believed to have been far simpler than a modern cell, and was probably little more than a fairly complicated molecule in the right solution to allow it to “reproduce”) is that the forming of the “first cell” has nothing to do with evolution. And that’s perfectly true: this is the domain of abiogenesis, and an acceptance of the still-relatively-young science behind abiogenesis has bugger all to do with accepting the oversized mountains of evidence for evolution. Even if abiogenesis turns out to be a load of rubbish when it comes to explaining the existence of life on earth, evolution remains a highly convincing explanation for the diversity of life on earth.
But that answer is also a cop-out. Abiogenesis is still the most likely method by which life arose on our planet, and as a hypothesis it’s a heck of a lot more complete than the juvenile concept anti-evolutionists so often seem to have of it: namely, that the pieces of a cell “rolled together” purely by chance.
As already stated, the original reproducer was most likely little more than a complicated organic molecule that made copies of itself. Even so, this still sounds like a complex thing to have come about at first, (well, not really: “Self-replicators can be incredibly simple, as simple as a strand of six DNA nucleotides (Sievers and von Kiedrowski 1994)”) until you realise that it didn’t just “come about”: it was the end product of a long chain of natural biochemical reactions, which are far from uncommon. They’re everywhere, reacting with each other and with the results of their own reactions.
Given the size of our planet, and the incomprehensible time-frames we’re talking about, is it really so hard to believe that the right sequence of biochemical reactions could result in some sort of imperfect chemical replicator?
Now if you’re a denialist, there’s a good chance you are even now rolling your eyes and saying “it’s all just speculation, he has no evidence”. To which I say: Yes. You’re right, it is speculative. That’s the nature of abiogenesis. We’re talking about microscopic chemical reactions that happened billions of years ago: what “evidence” could we possibly produce aside from a plausible, reproducable path from chemestry to life? We don’t have a TARDIS. But we do have the ability to reason, and sometimes the similarities are striking.
The ‘evidence’ for abiogenesis is that there is life on earth now, and that it wasn’t always there. From these two facts, we can offer plausible explanations, and try to prove them wrong one by one until we’re left with only one option. This is where denialists fail at science. They offer implausible explanations, then try to prove the plausible ones wrong.
I’m not saying there wasn’t a deity who intervened directly and breathed life onto our dead earth 4 billion years ago, or a race of organic engineers who designed the earliest life, or a temporal traveller who accidentally dropped his sandwich in a rock pool. All of these things are possible, in the same way that me being a brain in a jar, or having been created memories-and-all last Thursday, is possible.
But they are not the most likely, plausible, or scientifically supported explanation. That would be Abiogenesis.
* * * * * *
“The year is 2033. The last survivors of the Flame War have fled into underground bunkers beneath the shattered remnants of the once great social networking sites. The surface world is given over to unrestricted porn and 4chan mutants. Humanity teeters on the dark brink of extinction.
But we are those who will never give in to despair. We will return to our shattered internet, though it costs us our lives, our very identities. We do not forgive. We do not forget. But we will rebuild.”