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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Friday, June 29, 2018

Specious Spin of the "Easy Life" Crowd

What we may call the “easy life” crowd is a group that wants to persuade us that it's easy for life (primitive or advanced) to appear by chance. A few weeks ago the “easy life” crowd was telling us that “building blocks of life” had been found on Mars, and that this greatly increased the chance that life once existed on that planet. However, as discussed here, the actual organic molecules found on Mars were neither the building blocks of life nor the building blocks of the building blocks of life.

This week the “easy life” crowd is at it again. For one thing, they are telling us that the “building blocks of life” have been found on Enceladus, a moon of Saturn. A page on Fox News has the headline “Scientists have found the 'building blocks for life' on Saturn's moon Enceladus.” But this claim is as inaccurate as the claim about building blocks of life on Mars.

The claims are based on a scientific paper that does not claim to have discovered any molecules with a molecular weight much larger than about 200 atomic mass units. The building blocks of life are things such as proteins and nucleic acids. The average protein has hundreds of amino acids, and an amino acid has a molecular weight of about 100 atomic mass units. So a protein has a molecular weight of about 20,000 or more. That's 100 times bigger than the molecules detected on Enceladus. 

Enceladus (Credit: NASA)

Until some scientist reports detecting something with a molecular weight of more than 10,000, no one should be claiming that “building blocks of life” have been detected on Enceladus. Although the organic molecules detected on Enceladus have a molecular weight about the same as the molecular weight of an amino acid (one of the building blocks of proteins), the exact nature of these molecules is unknown, so we don't know whether any of them is actually an amino acid. So it cannot even be truly said that even the building blocks of the building blocks of life have been detected on Enceladus.

This week's other example of specious spin by the “easy life” crowd comes in the form of an article in Science magazine entitled “The momentous transition to multicellular life may not have been so hard after all.”

The article begins by stating the following:

Billions of years ago, life crossed a threshold. Single cells started to band together, and a world of formless, unicellular life was on course to evolve into the riot of shapes and functions of multicellular life today, from ants to pear trees to people. It's a transition as momentous as any in the history of life, and until recently we had no idea how it happened.

The statement “until recently we had no idea how it happened” in reference to the appearance of multicellular life will come as a surprise to those who have been told for many decades by scientists that Darwin's theory of natural selection explained this and all other biological innovations occurring after the origin of life. So after many decades of telling us that the appearance of multicellular life could be explained by mere natural selection and random mutations, now scientists are claiming “until recently we had no idea how it happened.” Very fishy indeed.

Our Science magazine article then states this about the origin of multicelluarity:

Now, Nagy and other researchers are learning it may not have been so difficult after all. The evidence comes from multiple directions.

So what is this evidence? The first bit of alleged evidence that multicellularity was easy is described as follows: “The evolutionary histories of some groups of organisms record repeated transitions from single-celled to multicellular forms, suggesting the hurdles could not have been so high.” There is no actual fossil evidence of any such transitions, and the article gives no example to back up this claim. Even if we assume that there were multiple cases of life transitioning from single-celled life to multicellular life, this would not show that it was easy or something other than fantastically improbable. When we see two examples of some thing that seems fantastically improbable, that does not show such a thing is easy, although it may show that more than luck is involved. For example, if you ask me to guess a 15-digit number you are thinking of, and I do that successfully not once but twice, that may suggest that something more than luck is involved (such as ESP), but does not at all suggest that it is easy to guess randomly chosen 15-digit numbers.

Here according to the article is the second item of evidence that the appearance of multicellularity was easy: “Genetic comparisons between simple multicellular organisms and their single-celled relatives have revealed that much of the molecular equipment needed for cells to band together and coordinate their activities may have been in place well before multicellularity evolved.” But this is no evidence that the appearance of multicellular macroscopic life was easy. It's kind of like arguing that it's easy for a tornado to blow through an auto parts store and assemble an automobile, because many of the parts needed for the automobile are lying around in the auto parts store.

Here according to the article is the third item of evidence that the appearance of multicellularity was easy: “And clever experiments have shown that in the test tube, single-celled life can evolve the beginnings of multicellularity in just a few hundred generations—an evolutionary instant.” The article gives a visual of the type of experiments it is talking about. They are experiments in which a few microscopic cells are seen to clump together to make an equally microscopic blob consisting of a few cells adhering together. But such experiments do nothing at all to suggest that it might be easy for microscopic life to evolve into visible macroscopic life such as fishes, trilobites and crabs. You can compare such experiments to someone waving around a big magnet at an auto parts store. After getting a few random auto parts stuck to his magnet, the person might say, “You see – it's easy to form a car by random accumulations of auto parts.” But such a stunt would not at all prove such a thing.

On the basis of these pathetically weak evidence claims, the Science magazine article claims “multicellularity comes so easy.” No, the appearance of multicellular organisms such as the many that appeared suddenly in the Cambrian Explosion is a vast explosion of information that is not explained by orthodox theories in biology. Big life forms may exist all over our galaxy and the universe, but not if only random, mindless processes are involved. 

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