Professor John C. Walton is a scientist who holds not one but two doctorates. He is a Research Professor of Chemistry at St. Andrews University, and he is a Chartered Chemist. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry and also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. In a recent talk for the Edinburgh Creation Group entitled, The Origin of Life, given on September 21, 2010, Professor Walton outlined his reasons for believing that the first living cell was the product of Intelligent Design. I would like to invite readers who genuinely believe in pursuing truth for truth’s sake to spend 56 minutes of their valuable time watching this video. To those who ask, “Why bother?” I would reply: “The insights you acquire as a result of viewing this video may well change your entire life.”
(VERY IMPORTANT: Before you play this video, press the PAUSE button and wait about two minutes, until the gray bar at the bottom has finished scrolling across to the right. Then press the PLAY button to start the video. Enjoy!)
Or watch the video on this link .
Highlights of Professor Walton’s talk
For those who really can’t spare the time to watch the 56-minute video, here are the main highlights, taken from a slide displayed near the end of Professor Walton’s talk:
- Statistically, the chance of forming even one “useful” RNA sequence can be shown to be essentially zero in the lifetime of the earth.
- The complexity of the first self-replicating system, and the information needed to build it, imply intelligent design.
- Hope of beating the colossal odds against random formation of replicating RNA is based on ideology rather than science.
- As lab experiments on model replicators become more complex they demonstrate the need for input from intelligent mind(s).
- Acceptance of an early earth atmosphere free of oxygen atoms strains belief beyond breaking point!
- No chemically or geologically plausible routes to nucleotides or RNA strands have been developed.
- Geological field work shows no support for a “prebiotic soup.” It favors little change in the atmosphere over time. Living things have been present since the first crustal rocks.
- After over 50 years of sterile origin of life research it is time to give intelligent design a fair hearing.
Alonso and Szostak’s speculative origin-of-life scenario
I would now invite readers to contrast Professor Walton’s thoughtful conclusions with the breezy self-assurance exhibited in an article entitled, Life on Earth by Alonso Ricardo and Jack W. Szostak in Scientific American (September 2009, pp. 54-61). The authors are, like Professor John Walton, highly distinguished scientists. Alonso Ricardo, who was born in Cali, Colombia, is a research associate at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at Harvard University. He has a long-standing interest in the origin of life and is now studying self-replicating chemical systems. Jack W. Szostak is Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical school and Massachusetts General Hospital. He was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, along with Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol W. Greider, for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres.
In the “Key Concepts” segment at the beginning of the Scientific American article, Life on Earth, the editors confidently proclaim that “Researchers have found a way that the genetic molecule RNA could have formed from chemicals present on the early earth,”and that “Other studies have supported the hypothesis that primitive cells containing molecules similar to RNA could assemble spontaneously, reproduce and evolve, giving rise to all life.” Towards the end of their article, the authors outline their scenario for the origin of life. For the benefit of readers, I have bolded the qualifying phrases used by the authors, in order to highlight the level of uncertainty which attaches to their proposed scenario:
This process would not have started on its own, but it could have with a little help. Imagine, for example, a volcanic region on the otherwise cold surface of the early earth (at the time, the sun shone at only 70 percent of its current power). There could be pools of cold water, perhaps partly covered by ice but kept liquid by hot rocks. The temperature differences would cause convection currents, so that every now and then protocells in the water would be exposed to a burst of heat as they passed near the hot rocks, but they would almost instantly cool down again as the heated water mixed with the bulk of the cold water. The sudden heating would cause a double helix to separate into single strands. Once back in the cool region, new double strands — copies of the original one — could form as the single strands acted as templates [see box on page 59].
As soon as the environment nudged protocells to start reproducing, evolution kicked in. In particular, at some point some of the RNA sequences mutated, becoming ribozymes that sped up the copying of RNA — thus adding a competitive advantage. Eventually ribozymes began to copy RNA without external help.
It is relatively easy to imagine how RNA-based protocells may have then evolved [see box above]. Metabolism could have arisen gradually, as new ribozymes enabled cells to synthesize nutrients internally from simpler and more abundant starting materials. Next, the organisms might have added protein making to their bag of chemical tricks.
With their astonishing versatility, proteins would have then taken over RNA’s role in assisting genetic copying and metabolism. Later, the organisms would have “learned” to make DNA, gaining the advantage of possessing a more robust carrier of genetic information. At that point, the RNA world became the DNA world, and life as we know it began. (p. 61)
I sincerely hope that after viewing Professor Walton’s 56-minute video on the origin of life, readers will be permanently inoculated against this kind of speculation.
An example of how laypeople are lulled into an accepting the sufficiency of unguided natural processes in accounting for the origin of life
On page 58 of their article, in Scientific American, Alonso and Szostak state that “genetic polymers, if they are made of the right sequences of nucleotides, can fold into complex shapes and can catalyze chemical reactions, just as today’s enzymes do.” Yes, but that’s a very big “if.” The authors continue: “Hence, it seems plausible that RNA in the very first organisms could have directed its own replication” (bold emphases mine). We can see here how the reader is being conditioned to accept the conclusion that the authors are promoting (or should I say begging?), that “the gaps in our understanding of the chemistry of life’s origin will someday be filled” (p. 59).
Alonso and Szostak’s origin-of-life scenario: a brilliant example of Intelligent Design
But wait, there’s more! Apparently results obtained by (human) Intellligent Design also count automatically as evidence for unguided evolution on the primordial Earth, four billion years ago! How can methodological naturalists possibly lose, with a strategy like that? To quote Alonso and Szostak:
We started with trillions of random RNA sequences. Then we selected the ones that had catalytic properties, and we made copies of those. At each round of copying some of the new RNA strands underwent mutations that turned them into more efficient catalysts, and once again we singled those out for the next round of copying. By this directed evolution we were able to produce ribozymes that can catalyze the copying of relatively short strands of other RNAs, although they fall far short of being able to copy polymers with their own sequences into progeny RNAs. (pp. 58-59) (Emphases mine – VJT.)
I would like to commend the authors for their honesty in this passage. Lesser scientists than they might have glossed over these awkward facts, but Alonso and Szostak were decent enough to acknowledge that nothing short of Intelligent Design can make their favored scenario work, at this point in time.
What does a leading evolutionary biologist think of Szostak’s work?
I would also like to quote some remarks (which were kindly forwarded to me recently) made by Dr. Eugene V. Koonin, a recognized expert on evolutionary biology, regarding Jack Szostak’s origin-of-life model in his latest book, The Logic of Chance: The Nature and Origin of Biological Evolution (FT Press, 2011, p. 340):
The lipid vesicles scenario is attactive because, in this case, the abiogenic membranes would be direct ancestors of the modern biological membranes. This possibility is being extensively studied experimentally, primarily in the laboratory of Jack Szostak, and interesting results on transport of polar compounds, including nucleotides, across lipid membranes have been reported (Mansy et al. 2008). However, the difficulties this model faces remain formidable. These problems are obvious enough and include not only the transport of monomers at rates sufficient to support the replication of genetic elements and translation inside the vesicles prior to the emergence of protein transporters, but also generation and maintenance of membrane potential for energy production. Furthermore, the vesicle model does not seem to be conducive to extensive HGT [horizontal gene transfer – VJT], which is an essential aspect of all microbial evolution but would have been specially important at the precellular stage. (Emphasis mine – VJT.)
So there we have it. According to Koonin, even if Alonso and Szosak’s model actually managed to create a living thing, the vesicle structures generated would inhibit its subsequent evolution. So much for microbe to man. How ironic.
”How do I decide?”
Some readers, witnessing the spectacle of eminent chemists clashing on the feasibility of life originating from non-living matter, may be inclined to shrug their shoulders and say, “I’m just a layperson. Who am I to judge between these scientists? I think I’ll go with the majority. That seems to be safer.” But to my mind, that kind of thinking is slavish, and ignores two things. One is the prevailing Zeitgeist, which means that scientists advocating Intelligent Design are openly hooted at – or worse. The other thing that this “majority rules” thinking ignores is the Big Picture. The problems associated with the origin of life from non-living matter have been neatly summarized above, in non-technical language taken from the last slide in Professor John Walton’s talk. All of us are capable of understanding the key issues at stake here, whether we have doctorates in chemistry or not. I have exposed the gaping uncertainties in the speculative scenario put forward by Alonso and Szostak above. To my mind, the two authors simply fail to address Walton’s key points. If I were adjudicating the debate so far, I’d say that Walton is winning.
When attempting to study unique events from the past that can’t be taken into the laboratory, then the element of subjectivity becomes very large. Origin events can’t be studied in the laboratory. The models that are developed depend critically on the assumptions that go into them, and these are often strongly influenced by ideology. Science has no valid right to supremacy in these areas. Of course, we can listen to what the scientists have to say, but they have no automatic right to supremacy in these areas.
We as individuals, whether we have a scientific training or not, are perfectly entitled to accept or reject their conclusions in this area. So I think it’s a great pity when popular scientists – influential scientists like Richard Dawkins – claim that those who reject the molecules to man scenario are either ignorant, stupid, insane or wicked… Now many people have picked up on his views and have echoed his remarks. Now I’m one who does reject that molecules to man scenario. I do reject it.
I am delighted to see a highly respected scientist speak out publicly against the “high priesthood of science” in the debate over origins. It’s time for ordinary people to stop feeling cowed by the pretentious assertions of the explanatory sufficiency of Naturalism which are regularly issued by the scientific elite, and point out to the “priests” the rather obvious fact that they are stark naked.