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The History Channel: “How Life Began”


I watch very little television, but I enjoy The History Channel (THC). I’ve learned a lot from it. When it comes to hard science and engineering they do a very good job. I’ve particularly enjoyed their programs about the history of aviation, since I’m a software engineer in the aerospace R&D industry with hundreds of hours of airtime in hang gliders and have a special interest in aerodynamics and aviation history.

When it comes to aviation, THC gets it right, virtually all of the time.

It was thus with trepidation that I watched “How Life Began” last evening. The title of the show was a dead giveaway about what I would see, hear, and experience. The title of the show should have been “How Did Life Begin?” and the answer should have been, “No one has the faintest idea.”

But no, we are presented with endless speculation that doesn’t withstand even the most trivial scrutiny, and are given the impression that “science” has the solution well in hand, with only minor details to be filled in.

We are also greeted with the usual obligatory assurances that “religion” and “evolution” are perfectly compatible, if one has a proper intellectually and materialistically enlightened interpretation of religion*. White-collared Fr. Coyne is prominently displayed as an apologist for this thesis, and assures viewers that “intelligent design” is superbly unnecessary as an explanation for the origin of life. Eugenie Scott would be proud of him.

The big problem with “How Life Began” is that no hard questions are ever asked, much less addressed. We take a journey into the Life, Inc. factory, where all the mysteries of the origin of life are explained.

In the life factory we are given an introduction to basic chemistry. The simple chemical elements — hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon (with a few trace elements) — are mixed in a vat with liquid water. We are also given a grade-school education about the temperature range under which water is a liquid. We are then told about the marvels of the carbon atom, which can produce millions of chemical compounds.

We are then treated to a discussion about amino acids and how they make up proteins. (The obvious implication, presented through computer-generated graphics showing increasingly complex molecules forming spontaneously in an aqueous environment, is that proteins can be generated by stochastic processes.)

We then learn about the DNA molecule, and how it engenders self-replication, with no explanation as to how it could have possibly originated.

We then learn about the cell wall, with no explanation as to how it could have possibly originated.

We also learn about the energy producing systems of the cell, with no explanation as to how this could have possibly originated.

We now exit the life factory. All the essentials of the origin of life have been explained: energy production, proteins, self-replication, and the cell wall.

But wait! Proteins are manufactured by a highly complex and sophisticated machine that operates by interpreting a code in the DNA molecule. Where did the machinery come from? Where did the code come from? These questions are never asked, much less addressed, for obvious reasons.

We are then told about how random mutation and natural selection explains all the rest. We are even assured with no hesitancy that sexual reproduction was an innovation produced by random mutation, which helped provide even more variation upon which natural selection could work. This explains the Cambrian explosion.

Last, but certainly not least, we are taught about the scientific principle of “emergence” — the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. As an example of emergence we are shown waves in shallow water producing symmetric ripples in sand. Just as the physics of fluid dynamics can produce ripples in sand, so too can the laws of chemistry, physics, and probability explain all of the emergent properties of living systems, all of biology, and ultimately human existence.

After watching this History Channel program all I could do was stare at the floor and shake my head in disbelief that such transparent BS could be presented as hard science.

*The reason for this obligatory disclaimer is obvious: If modern evolutionary theory were known for what it is — the creation story of atheism that has little scientific, mathematical, evidential, or logical support — it would be banned in the public schools as an instance state-supported anti-religion.

Off Topic Video: Quotes on evolution ; music video http://www.godtube.com/view_video.php?viewkey=68f608cada2244865227 bornagain77
StephenB, "Eyes beaming with wonderment, he slowly breaks into a smile and shares his newfound wisdom: “Life found a way.” That’s the argument from naturalism, plain and simple." That is a good nutshell description actually. It seems to be the working assumption of OOL. Do some assumptions never need revisiting? When companies decide to abandoned certain technological paths because of infeasibility, maybe they are not being 'scientific' enough. redox
GilDogen, et al: Off Topic -- I wonder if you at UD might post this: http://scienceblogs.com/grrlscientist/2008/06/hippocratic_oath_for_scientist.php "I promise never to allow financial gain, competitiveness or ambition cloud my judgment in the conduct of ethical research and scholarship. I will pursue knowledge and create knowledge for the greater good, but never to the detriment of colleagues, supervisors, research subjects or the international community of scholars of which I am now a member." Interesting to read that this "Hippocratic Oath," allegedly circulating in Canada, maintains it's "ethical standards" found within the scientific community itself. toc
I had a similar reaction as you did GilDodgen. 2 main jaw droppers were: 'The movie was different than the book'. It wasn't at all a respesentation of the actual state of chemistry and the technical discussion of OOL. No indications why research has moved from one theory to the next; guess researchers just like multiplicity of ideas? The worst and most amazing of the jawdroppers was how it portrayed each theory. A presenter discussed what their research was about and then they or the voice over basically said those who disagreed with their theory 'didn't like it'. No technical reasons about why others thought there wasn't much merit in the path they were taking. The most egregious example was how they talked about Stanley Miller. Paraphrasing: "He was a crass man", and "didn't like new ideas or ideas that aren't his own". Wow. Hmm, so his published technical critiques must have been my imagination. They painted opposition as 'those who have given up' or irrational. At one point, one scientist (I forget which) said (paraphrasing): "instead of saying: "it can't be done" or "it's too hard to think about these things" I prefer to ..."". By implication those who disagree with your theory are those who think its "too hard to think about how it would work"? What a presenation I must say. redox
I wonder, is it possible to trivialize grandly?
Apparently so. This was a case of truly virtuosic trivialization.
Gil, I am amazed you were able to endure the program from beginning to end. Your ability to tolerate facile blithering and trivialization on a grand scale is astonishing.
Apparently I'm a masochist. This is undoubtedly a vestigial remnant of my heathen past. It is illuminating, however, to see what the opposition has to offer in the way of apologetics. My comment is that of the big bad mutant dude after being slammed around by the Incredible Hulk: "Is that all you got?" GilDodgen
Barry A: "I wonder, is it possible to trivialize grandly (a nice turn of phrase) The character that Sam Neil played in Jurassic Park made the point as eloquently as anyone. He and the two kids are sitting around looking at the freshly laid egg of a tyrannosaurus Rex and trying to make some sense of it. Suddenly, the answer to an age old question breaks into his consciousness. Eyes beaming with wonderment, he slowly breaks into a smile and shares his newfound wisdom: “Life found a way.” That’s the argument from naturalism, plain and simple. StephenB
Thanks for slogging through the show and giving us an overview. I tried to watch it, intending to do that very thing. But after about 15 minutes the boredom meter reached “stupefying,” and I gave it up as no good. Gil, I am amazed you were able to endure the program from beginning to end. Your ability to tolerate facile blithering and trivialization on a grand scale is astonishing. I wonder, is it possible to trivialize grandly? If so, the producers of this show achieved it. BarryA
IMO, this is the current status of OOL research and all: 1. Metabolism first people refuted the replicator first hypothesis. 2. Replicator first people refuted the metabolism first hypothesis. So the best answer they have right now is based on emergence (of the gaps): Gather a bunch of chemicals in some environment and then life appears as an emergent property of the system. They have no idea how did this happen, but hey, “we don’t like cdesign proponentists nor their designer, so shut up or else!" Or maybe there’s an even easier solution: life just had to happen in at least one of those infinite multiverses (of the gaps) right? ;p MaxAug
Nobody understands the origin of life. If they say they do, they are probably trying to fool you. ~ Kenneth Nealson bevets
Did they give the Time magazine (Jeff Kluger) recipe for "cooking" up life: "He [Stein] makes all the usual mistakes nonscientists make whenever they try to take down evolution, asking, for example, how something as complex as a living cell could have possibly arisen whole from the earth’s primordial soup. The answer is it couldn’t–and it didn’t. Organic chemicals needed eons of stirring and slow cooking before they could produce compounds that could begin to lead to a living thing." Granville Sewell
All I have to say is ... Can Nature make a rock so big it can't move? QuadFather
As Gil said, no one has any plausible idea of how life began, or even how any of the individual systems might have developed. About three months ago, I heard Professor George Whitesides, a world-famous organic chemist who is part of Harvard's Origin of Life project say this at a national chemistry meeting (as much of a quote as I can remember): "I was trained as a sophist, and I can postulate explanations for things as well as anyone. And I do not have a single religious corpuscle in my body. But I have to say that I have absolutely no idea how life began." He went on to say that there are "some really intelligent people in the ID camp", and that dismissing them with derision was "not a useful response". Chemfarmer
Gil... thank you for that. It is sad. Let them tell their gospel and call it science. Mt 24:24 For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect--if that were possible. Robert Lockett
I remember seeing this show come up when I was channel surfing. I just clicked the "info" button, read it, rolled my eyes, and watched something else that wasn't a waste of time...although I was indeed curious how intellectually bankrupt the broadcast would be. Berceuse
Thanks, Gil. Too bad that this nonsense is still passed off as serious programming, particularly when some very interesting and challenging questions could have been asked. I didn't get a chance to watch it, but from your description, it sounds like a propaganda piece, more than a scientific documentary. Eric Anderson
In relation to this topic, in this video, Dr. Hugh Ross, gives a fairly good overview of the crushing blows, not counting the stunning complexity in the simplest cell, that have been handed to OOL research in the past few decades by astro-physics and geology. http://www.godtube.com/view_video.php?viewkey=f3d6399f561e1263c949 bornagain77

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