More on Nagel, Meyer, and the origin of life

In today’s TLS, a chemist from the UK protests Thomas Nagel’s choice of a creationist screed  (Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell) as a 2009 book of the year:

DNA

Sir, – The belief that we share this planet with supernatural beings is an old one. Students of magic and religion have identified innumerable varieties of them – gods, devils, pixies, fairies, you name it. A familiar motif is that they operate at the very fringes of perception. While the scullery maid sleeps, they are busy in the kitchen making the milk go sour. For a society with no concept of bacteria, this is, perhaps, a forgivable conceit. But for a modern university professor to take this idea seriously is, I think, mind-blowing.

In the recent TLS “Books of the Year” (November 27), Thomas Nagel recommends Stephen C. Meyer’s Signature in the Cell: DNA and the evidence for Intelligent Design. “Intelligent Design” is of course a code phrase to obscure a malicious and absurd thesis; namely, that a supernatural being has interfered in the evolution of life on this planet. If Nagel wishes to take this notion seriously, very well, let him do so. But he should not promote the book to the rest of us using statements that are factually incorrect.

In describing Meyer’s book, Nagel tells us that it “. . . is a detailed account of the problem of how life came into existence from lifeless matter – something that had to happen before the process of biological evolution could begin” (my italics). Well, no. Natural selection is in fact a chemical process as well as a biological process, and it was operating for about half a billion years before the earliest cellular life forms appear in the fossil record.

Compounding this error, Nagel adds that “Meyer takes up the prior question of how the immensely complex and exquisitely functional chemical structure of DNA, which cannot be explained by natural selection because it makes natural selection possible, could have originated without an intentional cause” (my italics again). Again, this is woefully incorrect. Natural selection does not require DNA; on the contrary, DNA is itself the product of natural selection. That is the point. Indeed, before DNA there was another hereditary system at work, less biologically fit than DNA, most likely RNA (ribonucleic acid). Readers who wish to know more about this topic are strongly advised to keep their hard-earned cash in their pockets, forgo Meyer’s book, and simply read “RNA world” on Wikipedia.

STEPHEN FLETCHER
Department of Chemistry, Loughborough University, Ashby Road, Loughborough.

17 Comments

  1. John
    Posted December 2, 2009 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    Nagel is a nut. Here’s Jeffrey Shallit on Nagel from last week: Stupid Philosopher Tricks: Thomas Nagel. The first commenter notes this nutty paper:

    http://philosophy.fas.nyu.edu/docs/IO/1172/papa_132.pdf

  2. Posted December 2, 2009 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    Hahahaha.

  3. Posted December 2, 2009 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    Nagel would have only had to be slightly informed to know how woefully ignorant of the issues of abiogenesis Meyer’s book is.

    Obviously Nagel’s long-standing bias against understanding life according to physics (in the reductive sense–not the only one possible, of course) prejudiced his praise of pseudoscientific dreck.

    As to whether or not natural selection precedes life, well, that depends upon what you call life. Certainly some processes in abiogenesis would occur without the benefit of natural selection, but NS would kick in much earlier than Meyer suggests.

    Luskin stated (in the comments) on Mooney’s & Kirshenbaum’s blog that he wished for some good strong criticisms of Meyer’s book. Clearly that was as disingenuous as Casey’s normal fare, as we get reports from PZ and others that they never received any copies to review. Is it any wonder, since only someone as ignorant of science as Nagel could praise it?

    Glen Davidson

    http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p

  4. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted December 2, 2009 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    DNA, which cannot be explained by natural selection because it makes natural selection possible,

    This type of “chicken or egg first” problem has been solved before of course, as in the prototypical problem. (The prior system was neither chicken nor laid eggs.) It is a bad creationist tactic to rely on the assumed ignorance of its readers.

    Actually I have come to appreciate the powerful predictions that results from identifying and resolving such conundrums that (biological) history leads to. From “chicken or egg first” you can predict that evolution occurred. And from “DNA or protein first” you can predict that ribozymes and the RNA world occurred.

    Therefore I was especially interested when Mulkidjanian et al proposed the RNA world ancestor the Zn world, as it resolves the “ribozymes or metallo-organic catalysts first” conundrum. As in, how can ribozymes get metal ions to work for them, if metal ions are necessary for ribozymes in the first place. Yet again, the earlier system differs, but are a little of both.

    As in the two previous problems this solution resolves a lot of related conundrums at the same time, and it turns out the resulting chemistry reaches all the way back to formic acid synthesis from the primordial CO2 atmosphere.

    Seems we have run out of conundrums in the process. And yes, selection goes all the way back in that scenario, from replicators back to reproducers (metabolic ZnS compartments) back to synthesizers (photosynthetic ZnS surfaces).

    [According to Mulkidjanian the "unique" photostability of nucleobases (along with the ubiquitousness of Zn, when other metals are "optimal") is the "fossil" (palimpsest) analogue to the ribosome RNA.]

    This points out another problem with this tactic for creationists. Hard questions tend to have powerful answers, and apparent paradoxes due to contingency the most powerful of them all. They knock the socks off the creationists, but they also knock the whole area off the field as solved. (At least in the layman perspective of “close enough for government work”.)

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted December 2, 2009 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

      That was supposed to be “the” [from selection] “resulting “unique” photostability”.

  5. Flea
    Posted December 2, 2009 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    This is why most philosophers hate scientists: It’s too easy for an average scientist to pwn the ramblings of ANY philosopher. Only REAL philosophers (Hi D.Dennet!) are able to swim in the lake of science without being viciously devoured by the piranhas!

  6. Bill
    Posted December 2, 2009 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    Oh, sweet reply! -cut and paste and keep-

  7. newenglandbob
    Posted December 2, 2009 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    When someone like Stephen C. Meyer is a Liar for Jesus™ then they give themselves license to fabricate any nonsense they please and try to pass it off to the average person. Nagel should know better than to be taken in.

  8. Question
    Posted December 2, 2009 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    I’m not an expert here, so I’m having a bit of a problem with the below paragraph from the blogpost.

    – FLETCHER:

    “In describing Meyer’s book, Nagel tells us that it “. . . is a detailed account of the problem of how life came into existence from lifeless matter – something that had to happen before the process of biological evolution could begin” (my italics). Well, no. Natural selection is in fact a chemical process as well as a biological process, and it was operating for about half a billion years before the earliest cellular life forms appear in the fossil record.”

    I don’t know Meyer’s book, nor have any interest in reading. I’m not a creationist.

    However, I’m not sure what Fletcher said actually follows from the quote by Nagel. Saying something happened before “biological evolution” does not say Natural Selection started at that point, necessarily. It is true there is a twain process, but biological evolution is the point when discussing life in terms of NS. It is a problem in understanding this chemical process that lead to life, a scientific problem, the quote is not a denial of this fact.

    No?

    • Sigmund
      Posted December 3, 2009 at 9:33 am | Permalink

      There’s nothing wrong with Nagels point – especially when he ties it with the second quote about Meyer suggesting the necessity of DNA for natural selection to occur.
      There is a real controversy in evolution between the more historical viewpoint of those who say biological evolution started after the first cell developed and those who use a more chemical based description of evolution. I think the latter viewpoint is winning out since the RNA world hypothesis has provided plausible and logical pathways that completely fit in with the idea of natural selection.
      The cell is a complicated structure. The vast majority of evolution of life on earth has involved just single cells with only a minority of time when more complicated organisms with more than one cell have been around.

      • Sigmund
        Posted December 3, 2009 at 9:35 am | Permalink

        Ooops – I meant Fletchers point
        (there’s a lot wrong with Nagels point!)

  9. efrique
    Posted December 2, 2009 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

    Fletcher did that very well – short, sweet, and utter destruction.

    It’s never been clear to me why ignorant waffle gets so much “air-time” when real information is so readily at hand.

  10. anthonzi
    Posted December 3, 2009 at 1:10 am | Permalink

    pwnt. Beautifully humiliating. (is this working?)

  11. ennui
    Posted December 3, 2009 at 8:04 am | Permalink

    Natural selection is in fact a chemical process as well as a biological process, and it was operating for about half a billion years before the earliest cellular life forms appear in the fossil record.

    See also: cdk007’s video on abiogenesis.

  12. Michael
    Posted December 3, 2009 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    Just a couple of simple questions on this from a layman:

    In Fletcher’s reply to Nagel he states it as “fact” that natural selection operated at a chemical level before operating at a biological level. He then refers to the wikipedia entry on “RNA world” for further enlightenment for the uninitiated.

    However there is no wikipedia entry on “RNA world.” There is a wikipedia entry on “RNA world hypothesis” which makes it very clear that this is a controversial proposal at this point.

    So, what is the current state of play concerning this proposal? Is it accepted fact, like evolution of species, or controversial hypothesis?

    Moreover, it is not clear to me how, even if accepted fact, this theory fundamentally changes the state of the argument. The question is just pushed back — whence RNA? What is needed is an explanation of how molecules capable of supporting evolution by natural selection (information encoding self-replicating molecules capable of mutation, I guess) arise in a universe devoid of such molecules. I do not say that no such explanation is possible by any means. I am a layman and willingly accept what my betters in this area tell me. I am just asking about the logic of Fletcher’s reply to Nagel.

    • Sigmund
      Posted December 3, 2009 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

      The essential message to take home from Fletchers reply is that Nagel has missed out some of the most important developments in abiogenesis research over the past two decades. If the first ‘life’ required a functioning cell similar to a simple bacteria (with its associated RNA, DNA and proteins) then the creationists would indeed have a point. It is mathematically enormously unlikely that such a replicator could have come about by chance. What Fletcher points out is that much simpler replicators can and do exist. We can now construct them in the laboratory where they show the characteristics required for natural selection (replication, mutation, recombination, ligation etc). Being chemically based there is little chance of fossils surviving to show us the exact sort of simple replicator existed on the early Earth but there are strong clues in all modern life (namely within the ribosome) that functioning RNA enzymes preceded protein based enzymes. An RNA based life was therefore likely, although it probably was not the first simple replicator.
      The controversy is over this final question – what simple replicator preceded RNA?

  13. Posted December 4, 2009 at 3:16 am | Permalink

    My favourite thing about the creationist books so far has been reading H Allen Orr’s review of such books. Reading those reviews is an education experience in themselves, I hope he’s got a review of this book coming.


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  1. [...] Meyer has argued is implausible.  A fine letter! For previous installments see here, here and here. Good the see that the TLS is not a victim of “the two cultures” (UK novelist C.P. [...]

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