Intelligent Design

Putting Humpty Dumpty back together again: why is this a bad argument for design?

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In a recent post, Professor Larry Moran takes exception to a Youtube video by Intelligent Design advocate Dr. Jonathan Wells, who uses the illustration of a leaking cell to rebut scientific claims that life on Earth could have arisen naturally from non-living matter, via an unguided process.

The Youtube video did not mention God. Instead, Dr. Wells began with a discussion of Stanley Miller’s 1953 experiment, which simulated the conditions thought at the time to be present on the early Earth, and which managed to produce more than 20 amino acids, as well as some sugars. Here’s the complete transcript of Dr. Wells’ video:

Even if Miller’s experiment were valid, you’re still light years away from making life. It comes down to this. No matter how many molecules you can produce with early Earth conditions, plausible conditions, you’re still nowhere near producing a living cell, and here’s how I know. If I take a sterile test tube, and I put in it a little bit of fluid with just the right salts, just the right balance of acidity and alkalinity, just the right temperature, the perfect solution for a living cell, and I put in one living cell, this cell is alive – it has everything it needs for life. Now I take a sterile needle, and I poke that cell, and all its stuff leaks out into this test tube. We have in this nice little test tube all the molecules you need for a living cell – not just the pieces of the molecules, but the molecules themselves. And you cannot make a living cell out of them. You can’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again. So what makes you think that a few amino acids dissolved in the ocean are going to give you a living cell? It’s totally unrealistic.

At the conclusion of his video, Dr. Jonathan Wells noted that if a living cell cannot arise from a test tube containing all of the molecules required for life, then how much less could an organism be expected to emerge from the primordial soup, where all you have is “a few amino acids dissolved in the ocean”? Readers with a philosophical background will recognize at once that the argument that Dr. Wells was making here is what is known as an a fortiori argument, of the form, “If A, then how much more surely B”. For instance, if Tom is not fit enough to run a mile, then how much more certain is it that he will be unable to run a full marathon.

Dr. Wells elaborated on the science underlying his argument, in a recent article for Salvo magazine:

Even if biologically functional DNAs, RNAs, and proteins could assemble spontaneously from their molecular building blocks, OOL [origin of life] researchers would not be able to explain the origin of a living cell.

If we place a small amount of sterile salt solution in a test tube at just the right temperature and acidity, add a living cell, and then poke a hole in that cell with a sterile needle, the contents will leak out. We will have in our test tube all of the molecules needed for life, in just the right proportions (relative to each other) and already assembled into complex specified DNAs, RNAs, proteins, lipids, and carbohydrates. But we will not be able to make a living cell out of them. We cannot put Humpty Dumpty back together again…

(Is There a Conflict Between Science & Faith over the Origin of Life?, in Salvo 26 Science & Faith Supplement, Fall 2013).

In the course of his article, Dr. Wells also mentioned that a recent meeting of origin-of-life researchers at the Princeton Center for Theoretical Science in January 2013 had failed to reach agreement on any of the ideas that were presented. Curiously, however, this failure did not dent their optimism that the origin of life problem would be solved in a few decades. The reason, as Dr. Wells pointed out, was purely ideological: the scientists had an unshakable commitment to materialism, a doctrine which rules out in advance any explanations that invoke spirit, mind, or the activity of God, in order to account for the origin of life. However, Dr. Wells made no attempt in his article to mount an argument for the existence of God, or even for Intelligent Design, from the fact that scientists are currently unable to explain the origin of life. Instead, he merely noted that scientists’ adherence to materialism creates an ideological bias which prevents them from exploring certain solutions to the problem of life’s origin.

Professor Moran misrepresents Dr. Wells’ video

Since Professor Moran’s post was entirely about Dr. Jonathan Wells’ video, it is mystifying that Moran chose to title his post, Jonathan Wells proves that life must have been created by gods. As we’ve seen, Dr. Wells made no attempt to do any such thing. This, I have to say, constitutes an egregious misrepresentation: Professor Moran is putting words into Dr. Wells’ mouth.

Commenting on the Youtube video, Professor Moran wrote:

This YouTube video is described as “The most ignorant 82 seconds you’ll ever see.” I don’t know about that. I been around IDiots for quite a long time. It may not be the “most ignorant” but it’s surely in the top ten.

Which prompts me to ask an obvious question: what’s wrong with the argument in Dr. Wells’ video, Professor Moran? Would you care to enlighten us?

Dr. James Tour’s Humpty Dumpty argument: we don’t have a clue how life started

Dr. Jonathan Wells isn’t the only scientist who has used the example of a leaking cell to discredit scientific theories regarding abiogenesis. The same illustration was also used by Professor James Tour, who in 2009 was ranked one of the top 10 chemists in the world over the past decade, by Thomson Reuters. That year, he was also made a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Professor Tour won the ACS Nano Lectureship Award from the American Chemical Society in 2012. He has authored or co-authored about 500 scientific publications and he holds more than 60 United States patents, as well as many non-US patents. Professor Tour is not an Intelligent Design proponent, but he is skeptical of macroevolution (i.e. evolution at or beyond the species level), for reasons discussed here. Incidentally, it was Professor Tour who was largely instrumental in getting Nobel Laureate Richard Smalley, winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, to reject Darwinian evolution and accept Old Earth creationism, shortly before he died in 2005. It was Tour who persuaded Smalley to delve into the question of origins. After reading the books “Origins of Life” and “Who Was Adam?”, written by Dr. Hugh Ross (an astrophysicist) and Dr. Fazale Rana (a biochemist), Dr. Smalley explained his change of heart as follows:

Evolution has just been dealt its death blow. After reading “Origins of Life”, with my background in chemistry and physics, it is clear evolution could not have occurred. The new book, “Who Was Adam?”, is the silver bullet that puts the evolutionary model to death.

Interested readers can find out more about Professor Richard Smalley’s change of views here.

In an interview with Lee Strobel, Professor Tour used the image of a leaking cell to explain his skepticism of claims by scientists that they can explain the origin of life:

I have trouble with the Darwinian account because it doesn’t fit; it doesn’t fit the process in which molecular structure can change to build one entity and transform it into another, into another, into another. I don’t see the process for the life generation. We [scientists] don’t even understand what goes on in a cell. We don’t even understand the little machinery that goes on…. We do not understand what goes on in the nucleus of a cell to the degree that we need. We just can’t understand it. The knowledge isn’t there.

I can’t build a machine. I don’t even know how to understand life on that basis. I had a group of scientists sit in my living room in front of my kids (I wanted them to see this), and I said, “Take a cell. You have a cell. And that cell just died. No more life. Can you bring it back to life? Everything is there. Everything is in place. Everything is there.” And they started arguing about this. “Well, what really is life?” “It’s ionic potential,” one person said. And the microbiologist said, “No, no, it’s much deeper than that.” And I said, “You guys can’t even define life for me. You can’t even bring that little cell back that has everything in place. It just died, and you are going to tell me that you understand a whole lot about this?” And they said, “No, we understand very little.”

(Quoted in Why Mike’s Not a Christian: Honest Questions about Evolution, Relativism, Hypocrisy, and More by Ben Young [with Sarah Fuselier], Harvest House Publishers, Eugene, Oregon, 2006; Chapter 4, p. 60.)

In the passage quoted above, Professor Tour made no attempt to argue for the existence of God, but he clearly thought that his illustration of the leaking cell undermined the scientific respectability of abiogenesis, or the notion that the first life-forms on Earth originated from non-living matter by a natural process.

Bad refutations of Dr. Wells’ argument, and why they fail

Now, I have no wish to be accused by Professor Moran of not having done my homework on the “leaking cell” argument, so I have tried to marshal all the objections to it that I know of, in this post, in order to objectively assess their merits.

1. Is there a “God of the gaps” fallacy in the video?

One commenter, writing under the name of Diogenes, charged Dr. Jonathan Wells with committing an elementary fallacy:

God of the Gaps fallacy. Jonathan Wells, you, and other Discovery Institute hoaxers are invoking god of the gaps logic. You have no evidence that any non-human intelligent designer has ever mutated a single nucleotide in any genome of any species, ever. Without such evidence, it’s god of the gaps all the way down.

It should be quite clear from the foregoing remarks that Diogenes has misconstrued the intent of Dr. Wells’ video. In the video, Dr. Wells was engaging in destructive rather than constructive argumentation: his goal was simply to discredit the widely held view that the primordial soup is a plausible explanation for the origin of life. Nowhere did he attempt to argue for a Designer. Dr. Wells cannot be accused of “god of the gaps” logic, as he was not even trying to plug the gaps.

2. Is Dr. Wells guilty of misrepresenting origin of life models?

Commenter Diogenes also claimed that Dr. Wells was misrepresenting current origin of life (OOL) models, in his short video:

Wells misrepresents OOL models, in particular RNA world. No OOL researcher today asserts that a complex living cell was formed by spontaneous assembly of its parts… Reverend Jonathan Wells is telling his church audience (not a scientific audience, he’d never go near them) that OOL scientists believe molecules spontaneously assemble to form modern living cells, which in fact no OOL scientists believe.

Sadly, Diogenes has completely misunderstood the character of Dr. Wells’ argument. Nowhere in his video did Dr. Wells even so much as hint (let alone suggest) that current origin of life models involve biological molecules rapidly coalescing into a living thing, like a “Hey presto!” magic trick. The point made by Dr. Wells is completely independent of the time taken for the transition from non-living matter to a living organism. Rather, what Dr. Wells is saying is that no rational person would expect such a transition to occur, no matter how many billions of years were available. As I pointed out above, Dr. Wells’ argument is actually an a fortiori one: if it would be utterly irrational to expect all the components of a cell, when placed in close proximity to one another, to reassemble themselves into a living cell, then how much more irrational would it be to expect that something like the primordial soup or an alkaline event, where these ideal conditions are not even close to being realized, to generate life.

The same kind of a fortiori argument can be found in Dr. Eugene Koonin’s paper, The cosmological model of eternal inflation and the transition from chance to biological evolution in the history of life (in Biology Direct 2007, 2:15 doi:10.1186/1745-6150-2-15). Dr. Koonin is a highly respected evolutionary biologist who rejects Intelligent Design, but regards the origin of life as such a fantastically improbable event that it can only be accounted for by postulating that our observable universe (or O-region, as he calls it) is just one of a vast (and perhaps infinite) number of universes, inside a multiverse that includes them all. According to Koonin, we’re here because our universe got lucky – if it hadn’t, we obviously wouldn’t be here talking about it! I have frequently cited Dr. Robin Collins’ 2009 paper, The Telelogical Argument when arguing that the multiverse cannot remove the need for God, but let’s leave that aside for now. The following passage illustrates the tenor of Dr. Koonin’s argument:

In the Appendix, I provide a rough, toy calculation of the upper bound of the probability of the emergence of a coupled replication-translation system in an O-region [i.e. an observable universe – VJT] – this probability is, indeed, vanishingly small…

In the Appendix, I present such calculations for two versions, the RNA World with a ribozyme replicase, and the coupled translation-replication system. Under the assumptions of this toy model (idealized to the extreme in that an unrealistically high rate of abiogenic RNA production is assumed), the emergence, by chance, of a ribozyme replicase in a finite universe consisting of a single O-region like ours, in principle, could be considered… In particular, the emergence of a coupled replication-translation system is unlikely to the extent of being, effectively, impossible. For such a complex system to be a viable candidate for the breakthrough stage, an infinite multiiverse, such as the one depicted by MWO [the “many worlds in one” model – VJT] or, in the very least, a universe with a vast number of O-regions, is, indeed, a must.

It should be apparent that the kind of argument that Dr. Koonin is making here is fundamentally no different from that employed by Dr. Jonathan Wells in his video. If Koonin’s argument is allowed to appear in the pages of a peer-reviewed scientific journal, then I see no reason in principle why Dr. Wells’ argument should be excluded.

Finally, while we’re on the subject of the RNA world mentioned by Diogenes, here is what the eminent biologist Robert Shapiro, professor emeritus of chemistry and senior research scientist at New York University, had to say about it at a 2007 symposium called “Life! What a concept” organized by Edge:

I looked at the papers published on the origin of life and decided that it was absurd that the thought of nature of its own volition putting together a DNA or an RNA molecule was unbelievable.

I’m always running out of metaphors to try and explain what the difficulty is. But suppose you took Scrabble sets, or any word game sets, blocks with letters, containing every language on Earth, and you heap them together and you then took a scoop and you scooped into that heap, and you flung it out on the lawn there, and the letters fell into a line which contained the words “To be or not to be, that is the question,” that is roughly the odds of an RNA molecule, given no feedback — and there would be no feedback, because it wouldn’t be functional until it attained a certain length and could copy itself — appearing on the Earth.

The late Professor Robert Shapiro favored another model for the origin of life, which warrants serious consideration in its own right. However, Shapiro’s criticisms of the RNA world, and of variants such as a hypothetical “pre-RNA world,” are devastating.

3. Does the “leaking cell” argument prove too much?

Some of the people who wrote comments on Professor Larry Moran’s recent post attempted to discredit Dr. Jonathan Wells’ “leaking cell” argument, by a reductio ad absurdum strategy: they attempted to construct parallel arguments, whose conclusions were clearly fallacious. Obviously, if the parallels are genuine, then the validity of Dr. Wells’ “leaking cell” argument is also thrown into doubt. Let’s have a look at three alleged parallel cases that were put forward by these commenters.

One commenter (Diogenes) who was mentioned above, wrote:

Oh yeah? Consider this: if you put a baby in a lovely, fluffy crib, and then stab it until all its insides spill out, the parts do not spontaneously re-assemble. Moreover, no scientist on Earth can put the baby back together again. Since no scientist can put the parts back together, that proves that no natural process could ever explain how babies are formed.

Another commenter named Jem invoked the humorous example of the chicken and the egg to turn the leaking cell argument on its head:

OK, scientists, HAVE YOU EVER SEEN A CHICKEN COOKING SCRAMBLED EGGS? No. You haven’t. And if scrambled eggs are really made from eggs, then let’s see a scientist take some and turn it back into an egg.

SEE?!!

Another commenter named Keith Elias appealed to the scientifically impossibility of resuscitating the freshly dead corpse of a complex organism to show that by the same token, all huan beings must have been created by God:

I have considered a few ways of demonstrating the absurdity of Well’s claim: That the inability of a complex organism to spontaneously reassemble itself after death proves that abiogenesis is impossible and thus by inference that evolution is also false and thus all life was instantaneously created by God.

All of these alleged parallel cases share two commmon flaws. The first flaw is that no scientist has ever claimed that non-living matter could assemble itself into a chicken, a newborn baby or a complex living organism, whereas most biologists would seriously argue that billions of years ago on the primordial Earth, non-living matter assembled itself into a living cell. All scientists agree agrees that a chicken, a baby and a complex organism can only be produced by another living thing, or actually, two living things: the organism’s parents. And if we lived in an eternal cosmos where these kinds of organisms had always existed, the argument for an Intelligent Designer Who originally produced these organisms would clearly be redundant. But we don’t live in such a cosmos: we know that life in our universe (and on our Earth) had a beginning. There must, therefore, have been a time when life was produced from non-living matter; the question that arises, then, is whether non-living matter could have assembled itself into a living thing without the need for any guidance, or whether a supervising Intelligence, co-ordinating the whole process, was involved. Of course, if an Intelligence was involved, then it must have been an Intelligence from beyond our universe, since if it were part of this universe (which had a beginning), it too would require a Creator.

The second flaw in these alleged parallel cases is that they fail to distinguish between the individual and the species. The fact that non-living matter cannot assemble itself into an individual chicken, a newborn baby or a complex living organism does not constitute a problem, if one is trying to explain how chickens or humans first arose as a species, or for that matter, the more general problem of how complex organisms first arose. All it tells us is that chickens (or humans), as a species, definitely did not originate directly from non-living matter – which still leaves the possibility that the species somehow arose from other kinds of organisms. The same goes for the general problem of how complex organisms originated: one could still hypothesize that they arose from some simpler organisms. But when it comes to the first living cell, we can’t make that argument: all life on Earth is cellular (with the exception of viruses and other secondary life-forms which can only live inside living cells).

4. Are arguments for an Intelligent Designer infinitely elastic?

Fuligo, a common slime mold. Image courtesy of Algirdas and Wikipedia.

Commenter Keith Elias attempted to discredit Dr. Wells’ argument by a very skillful use of logic: if you argue that a fact (call it F) proves a certain conclusion C, and if someone else can show that the negation of that fact (i.e. not-F) can also be used to prove C, then that would show that anything can be used to prove C – in which case, we should no longer trust the original argument that F proves C. Applying this logic to Dr. Jonathan Wells’ “leaking cell” argument, if we can show that a philosophical argument for a Designer could still be constructed if cells – or for that matter, complex organisms – did possess the ability to put themselves back together again after everything inside them is emptied out, then that should be enough to undermine the claim that we can infer a Designer from the fact that cells don’t have the ability to put themselves back together again, when they are pierced with a needle and their contents are allowed to leak out. In Elias’ words:

The shortest demonstration I can think of is to use one [of] Kant’s standard methods and consider how the argument could be framed if the opposite were true; if Larry could spontaneously reassemble himself after being cut in two by a defender of the faith. In that case Christians could argue that God had created beings that had an ability (spontaneous regeneration) that could not have arisen by natural processes.

Elias’ argument would be an extremely clever one, if it actually worked. However, his argument suffers from a number of problems.

First of all, as I have pointed out previously, Dr. Wells is not arguing for the existence of a Designer. He is merely attempting to show that naturalistic scenarios for the origin of life as a result of unguided processes lack credibility.

Second, we already know that there are some organisms that can reconstitute themselves if their parts are separated from one another. One well-known example is the slime mold, Physarum polycephalum. Despite lacking a nervous system, this highly resourceful organism can find the quickest way between two points, solve mazes, hunt for food, and reconstitute itself if its parts are chopped up! However, there is nothing deeply mysterious about this, as Professor Emeritus John Bonner, a leading world expert on slime molds, explains:

Slime molds are “no more than a bag of amoebae encased in a thin slime sheath,” Bonner said. “Yet they manage to have various behaviors that are equal to those of animals who possess muscles and nerves with ganglia — that is, simple brains.”

But they are not animals, or fungi, bacteria or plants. They belong to the fifth kingdom of life, the one least understood by scientists, known as Protists.

Bonner likes to point out that slime molds possess a fascinating repertoire of behaviors. They can be chopped in two and reconstitute two versions of themselves. They exhibit a form of intelligence: When separated, they will put themselves back together and start to move. They avoid dead ends and are oriented by gases, such as oxygen.

It is the ability of various parts of a slime mold to send chemical signals to one another that accounts for their ability to reconstitute themselves, after being chopped up. But the ability of an organism to reconstitute itself requires no complex specified information unless the parts of that organism were to come together in a very specific manner, after being chopped up.

And that brings me to my third point. Since Intelligent Design arguments eschew metaphysical arguments for a Designer, and since “ability” (or disposition, if you like) is a metaphysical concept, ID advocates would never appeal to an argument based purely on a thing’s natural abilities, when making their case. Rather, it needs to be shown that the thing in question exhibits complex specified information – which is not possible without a mathematical calculation showing that the thing exhibits a highly improbable yet highly specific pattern. Keith Elias is therefore mistaken in believing that Intelligent Desig advocates would ever put forward the kind of argument he proposes, were it to be shown that a leaking cell – or for that matter, a human corpse – could reconstitute itself.

5. Is Dr. Wells’ argument unfair, insofar as it robs biological molecules of any protective membranes?

When Intelligent Design advocate and philosopher of science Dr. Paul Nelson quoted from a highly acclaimed science article which also invoked the illustration of a leaking cell (The First Living Systems: a Bioenergetic Perspective in Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews, June 1997, pp. 239-261, by Professor David Deamer, of the Depertment of Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of California), one commenter named John Harshman accused Dr. Nelson of missing the point of Deamer’s illustration:

Oh, I see that the author’s point is quite different from Wells’, as he states in the very next paragraph:

“The high degree of molecular order and energy metabolism characteristic of life could not spring full-blown into a primitive planetary environment. Instead, a variety of chemical and physical processes could lead to relatively simple molecular assemblies that utilize available energy sources and were plausibly on the evolutionary pathway to the first living cells. Part of the argument here is that certain components of the prebiotic mixture of organic molecules could form microscopic compartments bounded by membrane-like structures and that the compartments could capture energy and make it available for encapsulated systems of replicating macromolecules. If so, it follows that living systems did not necessarily precede membrane encapsulation but would have had access to cellular microenvironments from the beginning of life on Earth.”

Or is that what Wells meant?

On John Harshman’s reading of Deamer’s argument, Dr. Jonathan Wells’ use of the “leaking cell” illustration to refute scientific origin of life theories was inherently unfair, as any leakage would leave key components of the cell exposed to the mercy of the elements, which would, according to Deamer, prevent them from combining into anything as robust as a cell. In reply, Dr. Paul Nelson argued that Dr. Wells was fully in agreement with Deamer on the importance of compartmentalization:

Deamer’s point, John, is that cellular compartmentalization — not the accumulation of biomolecules — is a sine qua non of the living state (omnis cellula ex cellula). Wells would agree, of course, despite their differences in philosophical outlook.

A thought experiment: Deamer’s demon

But there is another reply that Dr. Wells could make here: suppose we change the experiment, and assume that there is some supernatural being – let’s call him Deamer’s demon – who, at the very moment that the cell is pierced with a needle, waves his magic wand and makes a protective membrane for each and every cellular component, just before it leaks out of the cell. In this way, all of the components of the cell avoid damage: each is surrounded by a membrane. But at the same time, wrapping a membrane around each and every component has its drawbacks, too: for some components, it will inhibit their ability to react with neighboring molecules. When Deamer’s demon waved his magic wand, he guaranteed the stability of the cellular components, but at the cost of making them unable to react with one another, with the same level of freedom.

We can thus strengthen Dr. Wells’ a fortiori argument by posing the following rhetorical question: if the co-presence of all of the molecules required for the cell, in just the right proportions, is not enough to guarantee (or even render probable) the emergence of life, and if in addition, an act of special intervention to protect these molecules from breakdown by surrounding each of them with a protective membrane isn’t enough to bring about the emergence of life, then how much less should we be inclined to believe that the various scenarios by scientists for the origin of life – such as the primordial soup, alkaline vents, and clay crystals – will achieve this goal! Stated in this way, the argument is rhetorically very effective – and as far as I can see, scientifically sound.

Cell membranes point to a chicken-and-egg problem with origin of life scenarios

I pointed out above that Professor James Tour, one of the world’s top cited chemists, is skeptical of scientific attempts to solve the origin of life problem. Professor Tour has also highlighted a chicken-and-egg problem regarding the origin of the first cell membrane: the membrane requires DNA, but DNA requires a membrane. In a recent talk, entitled, Nanotech and Jesus Christ, given on 1 November 2012 at Georgia Tech, Professor Tour related a personal anecdote, in which he raised the question of the origin of cell membranes in a personal conversation with the Dean of his Chemistry Department – only to find that the Dean was just as perplexed as he was:

I was once brought in by the Dean of the Department, many years ago, and he was a chemist. He was kind of concerned about some things. I said, “Let me ask you something. You’re a chemist. Do you understand this? How do you get DNA without a cell membrane? And how do you get a cell membrane without a DNA? And how does all this come together from this piece of jelly?” We have no idea, we have no idea. I said, “Isn’t it interesting that you, the Dean of science, and I, the chemistry professor, can talk about this quietly in your office, but we can’t go out there and talk about this?”

Cell membranes require an Intelligent Designer

The cell membrane, also called the plasma membrane or plasmalemma, is a semipermeable lipid bilayer common to all living cells. It contains a variety of biological molecules, primarily proteins and lipids, which are involved in a vast array of cellular processes. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. I would like to invite my readers to take a good look at the images of the cell membrane, shown above. Those who find the text too small to read will greatly benefit from the much larger and clearer images available here. Readers will observe that the cell membrane contains various proteins, and that the parts of the membrane are arranged in a highly specific fashion. Moreover, the arrangement of parts is highly functional. In a nutshell: it should be clear to an unbiased observer from a brief inspection of these images, that the cell membrane is itself a product of design. Those who would question this assertion and argue that the cell membrane originated via an unguided natural process owe us a detailed account of how the cell membrane arose – an account which is every bit as detailed and specific as the components of the membrane whose existence they claim to be able to account for.

6. Turning the tables on the ID advocates: an Intelligent Designer couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again, either

Cover of a 1904 adaptation of Humpty Dumpty by William Wallace Denslow. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Finally, Alan Miller put forward an ingenious counter-argument to Dr. Jonathan Wells’ “leaking cell” argument.

I’d love to see how the ID/Creationist community envisage ‘their’ process for creating what they think is ‘minimum-spec life’ (though I doubt any even makes the attempt). You have a bunch of molecules that, if placed in a particular configuration ‘by intelligence’, would become alive. So grab one and try and move it. You need to move them all, and you have to be really quick about it. They are hellish resistant, and many explode on contact with more electronegative atoms. Try and ‘build a cell’ without them following their thermodynamic gradients and reacting as they pass close to billions of other molecules on their way to their desired place. Like the old gag about the bumpkin asked for directions, “I wouldn’t start from here”.

Miller does have a valid point here: the enterprise of assembling the molecules of life into a living organism by putting them together one by one could not possibly work, barring a miracle to make them stop them from reacting with other molecules while they were being assembled. And the notion that an aggregate of molecules being assembled step by step would even hold together briefly during the time preceding the final addition of the surrounding membrane for the new cell is simply too ridiculous for words: the aggregate would surely fall apart and dissolve, long before it was completed. As Professor David Deamer himself noted in the article I cited above, “ATP would be hydrolyzed in seconds,” robbing the cell of “a continuous source of free energy to drive the metabolism and polymerization reactions associated with life” (1997, p. 242).

It seems likely, then, that even technologically advanced aliens could not build a complete living cell in this way, although there may of course be some other method of assembly that we haven’t thought of yet. But in any case, Miller’s objection will not faze a religious believer.

What Miller appears not to realize is that a supernatural Creator exists on a different plane of reality from that of natural agents: the relation of Creator to creature s rather like that that of an author to the characters in her book. It would be absurd to ask how J. K. Rowling gets her character, Harry Potter, out of a tight fix when he is in danger: she’s the author of the novel, and she can do with her characters whatever she likes. There is no path in space through which she needs to move Harry Potter in order to get him out of trouble; as the author, she can place him instantly wherever she pleases. Similarly, a supernatural Creator would not need to move the molecules through space in order to get to some desired destination. Such a Being could simply will each molecular constituent of the living cell into existence, simultaneously, and they’d all be in their desired places at the appropriate time.

At the very most, then, Miller’s argument would prove only that the Creator of the first living cell could only have been a supernatural Being. But even this is uncertain: it assumes that a natural intelligent agent would have to create a cell by assembling the parts. We don’t know that for sure.

I have examined six objections to Dr. Wells’ “leaking cell” argument, of varying degrees of merit, and found them wanting. Perhaps Professor Moran has a seventh, master objection that he would like to share with us. In that case, the ball is in his court.

18 Replies to “Putting Humpty Dumpty back together again: why is this a bad argument for design?

  1. 1
    Mung says:

    In the course of his article, Dr. Wells also mentioned that a recent meeting of origin-of-life researchers at the Princeton Center for Theoretical Science in January 2013 had failed to reach agreement on any of the ideas that were presented. Curiously, however, this failure did not dent their optimism that the origin of life problem would be solved in a few decades. The reason, as Dr. Wells pointed out, was purely ideological: the scientists had an unshakable commitment to materialism…

    AVS? Where’s AVS?

  2. 2
    Eric Anderson says:

    My primary question in all of this is:

    Where the heck do you find the time to write all this?!

    I know how time consuming it can be to put together a post, particularly a lengthy one addressing multiple issues. Holy cow, man, you’re eating us all under the table! 🙂

  3. 3
    Mung says:

    As VJT points out in the OP, the cell membrane is not some simple lipid bilayer.

    The functions of most membrane proteins are traditionally described as enzymes, transporters and channels, and receptors, although the demarcations of these groups are blurred.

    – Membrane Structural Biology p.127

    How did these groups arise? If we subtract these groups, how did these groups arise?

    The description of a lipid bilayer on Wikipedia is instructive:

    The lipid bilayer is the barrier that keeps ions, proteins and other molecules where they are needed and prevents them from diffusing into areas where they should not be.

  4. 4
    Mung says:

    Essential for the compartmentalization that defines cells and organisms, biomembranes are fundamental to life.

    – Membrane Structural Biology p.1

  5. 5
    Mung says:

    Biological membranes consist of lipids, proteins, and carbohydrates.

    – Membrane Structural Biology p.1

    Setting aside for now the lipids and carbohydrates, where do the proteins come from?

  6. 6
    Mung says:

    The prediction that up to a third of the proteins encoded in the genome are membrane proteins has spurred the development of of high-throughput tools for their structural analysis, as well as powerful computational approaches for proteomics and modelling.

    – Membrane Structural Biology

  7. 7
    SteRusJon says:

    Mung suggests we set aside the lipids for the moment. But it seems to me that there is something interesting going on there, too.

    We, at least I, have just kind of envisioned the expansion of the cell’s outer membrane as somewhat like a balloon stretching as it is inflated. But after just a little thought, I realize that the membrane needs to be opened up and some phospholipids inserted in order for the cell membrane to grow.

    Does anyone know of a description of this process or, better yet, an animation of it? How are additional protein channels inserted, as well? Does it occur at a single locus in the cell’s membrane or is it distributed along a line? Multiple points or multiple lines? How is the membrane opened up for new components without it “ripping apart” and the contents spilling out or “springing a leak” and having the surrounding ocean pour in?

    Just some musing on another maybe not so trivial process in the day to day life of a run of the mill cell.

    Stephen

  8. 8
    Joe says:

    Vincent- It’s the untestable claim of emergence- that being on the road to becoming a living cell different properties emerge along the way and these emerging properties then accumulate and cause other emergent properties.

    So once you empty a cell of its contents you also empty it of all those emergent properties.

    That is their story and obvioulsy they are sticking to it.

  9. 9
    Axel says:

    Does anyone doubt that metaphysics of matter has not advanced beyond Max Planck’s antique appraisal:

    ‘As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear- headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter.’

    With the subsequent, unremittingly-successful progress of of quantum mechanics, and its mathematically-proven unimprovability as a paradigm – the ultimate paradigm, therefore – why, on the tax-payers’ tab, are these people permitted to go down blind alleys, on the basis of nothing more than their extremely fanciful, materialist-inspired conjectures. Why have the universities not given them an ultimatum:

    Just STOP IT! Materialism is ‘dead meat’ – not wholly dissimilar to your own brains, according to those self-same, materialist beliefs of yours. Get over it!’

    Surely, now that it has, well, in fact, long been established by the likes of the same Planck, Bohr and others that consciousness precedes matter, and that the ultimate mystery must always be beyond us, since our own consciousness is ultimately a part of it – at best, materialists seem like those Japanese ‘bitter-enders’, emerging, blinking from the jungle canopy into the sunlight and onto the beach. Except that the bitter-enders, finally, finally, understood that they’d been beaten.

  10. 10
    scordova says:

    Thanks for the James Tour quote, that’s a real Gem. How do you find this stuff. Amazing.

  11. 11
    bornagain77 says:

    As to the belief that what is dead can’t possibly come back to life, Don Piper was run over by a semi-truck in his sub-compact car while he was on his way to church, (of all places he could have been going to). He was mutilated to such an extent that his leg and arm were both amputated. His arm had to be recovered from the backseat of his crushed car. He should have have bled out due to the amputations but didn’t because his heart was stopped. He was also declared dead by not 1 but 4 paramedics. Another man on his way to church stopped at the site of the wreckage. God, who normally does not speak to that man, made it clear to that man that he was to pray for Don Piper. Don Piper, although being dead for 90 minutes, came back to life after that man’s prayer. Most people would say that such a return from the dead is completely impossible, and it would be completely impossible if we lived in a materialistic/atheistic universe, but it did happen. Don Piper’s testimony of God bringing him back from the dead, and the struggle he endured in his recovery, has been a source of hope and strength for millions of people worldwide.

    90 Minutes in Heaven – Don Piper – video – 2013
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q0aJFu-GlYg

  12. 12
    Mung says:

    Mung suggests we set aside the lipids for the moment. But it seems to me that there is something interesting going on there, too.

    Absolutely!

    The main point is that there is nothing simple about biomembranes. They are both complex and dynamic structures. They lack any Darwinian “explanation.” The more I read about them the more amazed I become. The average “ID Skeptic” has no clue.

    Most “skeptics” probably have a concept of biomembranes as a simple bilayer that is a simple outcome of a “natural” process. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    Biomembranes are chock full of proteins, which are encoded in DNA. It’s not just a question of which came first, the chicken or the egg, but now it’s a question of which came first, the egg or the egg shell!

  13. 13
    The Karaite Heretic says:

    “But at the same time, wrapping a membrane around each and every component has its drawbacks, too: for some components, it will inhibit their ability to react with neighboring molecules.”

    Cam someone give examples of these components? Thanks.

  14. 14
    kevnick says:

    Dr. Trolley,
    You made me think about the subject since you posted it, and I think that since the Bible account says that God created Adam and Eve as living beings, the act of creation of an adult human can be explained in the similar way that quantum leap would work; sort of.

    If you are interested, please watch the video starting at about 41 min mark

    Quantum Leap

    then try to imagine how this phenomenon can be incorporated in the act of creation. Remember though, that it is possible, that the Creator may have to use some sort of energy we may not know about to boot up this digitally created device. I hope I have not confused you?

  15. 15
    Mung says:

    …the cell is a complex, highly integrated system, whose components are constantly exchanging information with each other using a multitude of different languages, which are embodied into physical entities in widely different ways. No part of the cell could exist and function separately from the surrounding environment produced by it’s other parts, and the system can only develop and evolve as a whole; you cannot build a cell by assembling separately produced parts.

    Alberto Riva

    Should we apologize for being right?

    Not only are molecular machines within the cell irreducibly complex, the cell itself is irreducibly complex.

    Punching a hole in the membrane is just another “knockout” experiment. Are knockout experiments just inherently unreliable? If so, what should we make of Behe’s Irreducible Complexity argument?

  16. 16
    Mung says:

    …the diversity of membrane lipids is amazing. A typical biomembrane contains more than a hundred species of lipids, which vary in general structure and in the length and degree of saturation of their fatty acyl chains.

    …The chapter ends with studies of lipid metabolism in Escherichia coli that address the biological need for diversity of lipids and support a role for non-bilayer-forming lipids in maintaining the elasticity of the membrane.

    – Membrane Structural Biology. Chapter 2: The Diversity of Membrane Lipids

    It’s just not as simple as the “it just happened, that’s all” crowd would have us believe. Maybe they just don’t know themselves. Maybe they have been misinformed by their “leaders.” Right Larry?

  17. 17
    Mung says:

    Phospholipids provide sources of second messengers for signaling across the membrane and enhance the activity of membrane enzymes and transport proteins.

    How convenient. At what point does “it just happened, that’s all” become a religious mantra divorced from actual reality?

  18. 18
    AVS says:

    Oh don’t worry mung, I’m here. Somebody has to remind you how clueless you are when it comes to biology.
    Case in point:
    “punching a hole in a cell is just another KO experiment”
    …genius.

    You point to the complexity of membranes and make it seem as if science is claiming that these membranes just arose on their own to how we find them today. You couldn’t be further from the truth.

    Your quotes from that book don’t even support anything you have to say, they’re just a basic explanation of membranes.

    Why am I not surprised?

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