The RNA world lives on the TLS letter page

by Matthew Cobb

Over at the Times Literary Supplement, Stephen Fletcher comes back on the debate over Meyer’s Signature in the Cell, focusing on the question of the ancient “RNA world” which Meyer has argued is implausible.  A fine letter! For previous installments see here, here and here. Good to see that the TLS is not a victim of “the two cultures” (UK novelist C.P. Snow’s description of the science/arts divide within the upper echelons of UK society).

Sir, – Stephen C. Meyer and Thomas Nagel are both sceptical of the chemical theory of evolution (Letters, January 15). Nagel suggests no alternative, but Meyer advocates a theory known as Intelligent Design, which proposes that certain features of living things were introduced by a supernatural being at various times in the past. He has also written a book about it. Nagel initially puffed the book using quasi-scientific quotations, but now confesses that he took “the presentation of the data largely on trust”.

The theory of Intelligent Design makes some outlandish claims about DNA and proteins. Concerning DNA, the theory makes the following assertions (despite much evidence to the contrary). (1) ancient molecules of DNA were introduced on to the Earth by a supernatural being (not necessarily God); (2) all of the chemical components of the modern cell evolved uniquely from this original DNA; and (3) modern DNA sequences are, in the main, too complicated to have arisen by natural selection.

Concerning proteins, the assertions are even stranger. In contrast to the Bible, which tells us that God has intervened on Earth on very few occasions, Meyer’s book tells us that the Intelligent Designer intervened every time a new gene or a new protein appeared. Well, human beings have 23,000 protein-coding genes. That is a very large number of supernatural interventions. Among bacteria, which live in soil and which outnumber human beings by trillions to one, it follows that the Intelligent Designer is actively intervening every few seconds. It seems there really are fairies at the bottom of Meyer’s garden.

In the prologue to his book Signature in the Cell, Stephen Meyer states that it is an attempt to make a comprehensive, interdisciplinary argument for the Intelligent Design view of the origin of life. But as the author himself concedes (in an appendix on page 496), the discovery of a precursor to DNA (such as RNA) would demolish the whole edifice. A “key prediction” is that “Future experiments will continue to show that RNA catalysts lack the capacities necessary to render the RNA world scenario plausible”. It is Stephen Meyer’s bad luck to have published his book in 2009, the very year that the RNA world scenario became eminently plausible. In February of that year came the discovery of the self-sustained replication of an RNA enzyme, by Lincoln and Joyce (Science, Vol 323, pp1,229–32). In March came the identification of the prebiotic translation apparatus (a dimer of self-folding RNA units) within the contemporary ribosome, by Yonath et al (Nature Proceedings, Posted March 4, 2009). Finally, in May came the discovery of the synthesis of activated pyrimidine ribonucleotides in prebiotically plausible conditions, by Powner et al (Nature, Vol 459, pp239–42). I am afraid that reality has overtaken Meyer’s book and its flawed reasoning.

Scientists do not yet have a detailed model of how primeval RNA came into being, or how it evolved. They are, after all, trying to reconstruct molecules that disappeared from the face of the Earth about 4 billion years ago. Nevertheless, they have already shown that one tiny part of the ancient “RNA world” didn’t actually disappear. It survived and evolved into our own human protein-making factory, and continues to make our fingers and toes. Think about that the next time you bounce a baby on your knee. Genuine science makes discoveries that fake science can only dream of.

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

24 Comments

  1. SeanK
    Posted February 3, 2010 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    “It is Stephen Meyer’s bad luck to have published his book in 2009, the very year that the RNA world scenario became eminently plausible.”

    I love it! Horrible timing indeed. Does Meyer still stand by his original concession stating the discovery of a DNA precursor would demolish the edifice?

  2. Insightful Ape
    Posted February 3, 2010 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    Nice.
    Not that anything will ever work with the dyed in the wool creationists.

  3. Rixaeton
    Posted February 3, 2010 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    “Genuine science makes discoveries that fake science can only dream of.”

    Very nice way to finish. Exactly why I love science.

    • Nicolas Keller
      Posted February 4, 2010 at 10:10 am | Permalink

      luv it :D

  4. Posted February 3, 2010 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    There is nothing in any ID “theory” that could entail a prediction that RNA catalysts won’t prove capable of making the RNA world plausible. Obviously God the Designer whom they worship could have made life either way.

    Since they have no evidence for God (no falsifiable predictions from ID theory, or even proto-theory), they wish to pretend that if abiogenetic ideas thus far proposed do not work, then God did it. That doesn’t work, but even this familiar creationist false dilemma is allowed, it is unlikely that the RNA world is the only manner in which abiogenesis could occur.

    It should be noted that the RNA world has some evidence for its existence, but it is not obviously the case that the hypothesized RNA world would be the “first life” (reproducing molecules) regardless of its existence or non-existence. The RNA world itself may simply be a between the DNA-RNA-protein world now, and something that existed previous to RNA.

    Most of all, what would the lack of a plausible RNA world do to indicate that there is some God, or some exceedingly strange alien that produced life on earth and no observable artifacts for 4 billion years or so?

    Nothing at all. The best for which the IDiots could hope is that such a lack could be part of an indication that science is lacking a good explanation of abiogenesis. It does not tell us that life existed before life and made it in some infinite loop, or that some God magically breaks that loop.

    Glen Davidson
    http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p

    • Posted February 3, 2010 at 9:03 pm | Permalink

      Since they have no evidence for God (no falsifiable predictions from ID theory, or even proto-theory), they wish to pretend that if abiogenetic ideas thus far proposed do not work, then God did it.
      That’s hit the nail on the head. Somehow they think that if all cars aren’t red, then they all must be blue. To take this argument 200 years ago, they are “proving” a designer by disproving Lamarkian inheritance.

      The logic doesn’t work, yet they persist in making this flawed argument. So sad…

    • Posted February 4, 2010 at 7:25 am | Permalink

      “it is unlikely that the RNA world is the only manner in which abiogenesis could occur.”

      I’m amazed at how many plausible hyphothesis exist on the field of origins research. The RNA world is gaining acceptance, however.

  5. Jonn Mero
    Posted February 3, 2010 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    As good as this is, it is sadly just pissing against the wind as far as convincing or piercing the armour of the IDiots.

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted February 3, 2010 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

      True, but we can still smile and secretly gloat over Stephen Fletcher’s and others who have shown Meyer’s “Signature in the Cell” to be nonsense from premise to appendix.

  6. Posted February 3, 2010 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    That is a very well done letter. It might not persuade the hard-core creationist moron, but those readers of the TLS who don’t think of these RNA-based issues but understand the difference between science and nonsense will certainly fall to the proper side of the fence after reading this letter.

  7. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted February 3, 2010 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    Very enjoyable.

  8. BaldApe
    Posted February 3, 2010 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    In contrast to the Bible, which tells us that God has intervened on Earth on very few occasions, Meyer’s book tells us that the Intelligent Designer intervened every time a new gene or a new protein appeared.

    So the “intelligent designer” is not necessarily God, but is necessarily here all the time, invisible, and intervening in each and every protein coding mutation?

    Once again, the hypothesis of an intelligent designer is more difficult to support than the hypothesis of the lack of a designer.

  9. Potco
    Posted February 3, 2010 at 10:24 pm | Permalink

    Is anyone else wondering why this book is listed in the science section at all in Amazon? I found it when I was searching for a Kindle book on cosmology. This book should be in the religion section.

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/search/ref=sr_nr_n_3?rh=n%3A133140011%2Cn%3A!133141011%2Cn%3A154606011%2Cn%3A158597011%2Cn%3A158610011%2Cn%3A158614011&bbn=158610011&ie=UTF8&qid=1265257243&rnid=158610011

    • MadScientist
      Posted February 4, 2010 at 4:53 am | Permalink

      That’s simple – the publishers claim it’s science. I’ll bet a case of beer you’ll also find Rupert Sheldrake’s dreck in Amazon’s “science” section.

    • Posted February 4, 2010 at 8:19 am | Permalink

      Every time I’m in a Barnes and Noble I reshelve “Darwin’s Black Box” and other associated books from the Science section to the Humor section. I hate when books are placed in the wrong section. Putting “Darwin’s Black Box” in the Science section is like shelving “Pnin” in the College Humor section. Wrong!

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted February 4, 2010 at 9:31 am | Permalink

      Some book stores have a special section where such material could be reshelved. It’s called “religious fiction.” (redundant, I know.)

  10. Neil Taylor
    Posted February 4, 2010 at 4:00 am | Permalink

    Professor Fletcher’s comments are an excellent antidote to IDiocy. I was fascinated to read his remarks about recent research into RNA origins.

    Has this research been popularized anywhere? I would love to get some understanding of it – especially as IDiots insist it is pointless – a defeatist attitude which at its core is unscientific – how would they know? Has their intelligent designer revealed it to them?

  11. MadScientist
    Posted February 4, 2010 at 4:52 am | Permalink

    How militant – how strident – how uncivil! (Oh no, I’m channeling the contents of the Mooney blog).

    About a year ago I was trying to explain to some folks some ‘obvious’ steps to show how an RNA world could be possible. Obviously other people have been working on it for some time – but I’m happy to see that my ideas work out (even though other people thought of them first and are putting in all the hard work).

  12. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted February 4, 2010 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    Off-topic – Have a look at this:
    The Fallacy of the God Gene by Jeff Schweitzer

  13. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted February 4, 2010 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    the ancient “RNA world” didn’t actually disappear. It survived and evolved into our own human protein-making factory,

    What really blew my mind the other week was a paper that predicts that this piece of enzymatic activity geometrically traps 2 water (!) molecules used to shuffle a proton respectively as barrier lowering catalyst, at least one of which seems to have been observed already. No transition metals involved, and maybe this pure water/substrate action mechanism points to remains of a pre-RNA world.

    At the same time it mirrors Zn world, the AFAIU only falsification tested probiotic-to-protobiotic such scenario. One if its specific predictions is that there should be ribozymes with Zn-dependent catalytic activities. A corresponding water/substrate environment would predict the above action in some ribozymes.

    [I can't but help note that here the top-down phylogenetic and divide-and-conquer approach resulting in identifying the ties to the RNA world meets the bottom-up synthesis approach of probiotic chemistry. (Divide-and-conquer as in: ("chicken and egg conundrum" - answer evolution from earlier species, "DNA and protein conundrum" - answer earlier ribozymes, "metabolism and enzyme conundrum" - answer earlier probiotic synthesis.)

    ZnS and related MnS are the only minerals that are able to synthesize organics out of primordial high pressure CO2 in the presence of UV light. And its product of formic acid is known to continue synthesize to longer carbon chains spontaneously under UV.

    The parallel photoselection of our photostable set of nucleotides and amino acids out of all possible is analogous to the ubiquitous PAH production on cosmic dust grain surfaces in the presence of carbon, water and UV light. A general prediction of photoselection products that the Zn world scientists somehow misses.]

  14. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted February 4, 2010 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    Speaking of testing and creationism, the Zn world successfully makes 6 specific predictions. That reminds me of Boussou’s et al similarly successful 6 predictions in the landscape of cosmology by using their QM and GR based causal relativistic cone measure.

    In passing, it actually manages to surpass the previous record holder of predicting physics finetuning. (Note: A posteriori likelihood, not the same as a priori religious teleological “finetuning”.) The similar anthropic principle predicts the cosmological constant over ~ 123 orders of magnitude. Here they make and falsifiably test 2 new predictions over similar or better order; predicting the volume fraction take up by radiation correctly over ~ 183 orders of magnitude, respectively predicting typical number of quanta in the observable diamond over ~ 122 orders of magnitude.

    But more importantly, together these predictions constitute a combined discrepancy of 10^-7! (I.e. the volume of predicted parameter ranges against the total possible volume in parameter space.) The odds that this would happen by chance is then tested and falsified at 20 sigma or so. This supremely kills all religious predictions of the impossibility of natural “finetuning”.

    It wouldn’t surprise me that if and when we can quantify the predictions of the Zn world to study their combined discrepancy, a similar nasty surprise awaits creationists and their fake science “predictions” of the impossibility of natural biogenesis.

  15. Jonathan McLatchie
    Posted February 6, 2010 at 7:37 am | Permalink

    I find it rather insightful that Fletcher starts by misdefining the position of design advocates and then cites a handful of papers which are completely irrelevent to the central thesis with which Meyer’s book is concerned! What does one have to lose by correctly defining the position taken by those with whom you disagree? Is the bid to save Darwinism really getting that desperate?

    How many of the folks here have actually taken the time to read Meyer’s book from cover to cover? If you had, most of the comments made above would probably not have been made.

    J

  16. Sili
    Posted February 9, 2010 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    In March came the identification of the prebiotic translation apparatus (a dimer of self-folding RNA units) within the contemporary ribosome, by Yonath et al (Nature Proceedings, Posted March 4, 2009).

    My flabber is thoroughly gasted. I wouldn’t have thought it likely that there was any remnants left of the original replicator. It seemed so much more likely that the first sparks of life would have been outcompeted and superceded by subsequent improvements.

    Awesome.

  17. James
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 6:45 am | Permalink

    I shall, as all mankind, find out who is correct in their hypothesis, Stephen Fletcher or Stephen C. Meyer. Neither position is undeniably “provable” in the strictest sense of “observable science”. Unfortunately, we all shall die to find out which position is correct.


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  1. [...] things come together from earlier this year. First, there was a lot of argument here, in the Times Literary Supplement and elsewhere over Stephen C. Meyer’s Signature in the Cell. [...]

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