Posts Tagged ‘Natural Selection’

Radio 4 Series Challenging Stereotype that Religion and Science Are at War

June 12, 2019

According to next week’s Radio Times there’s a new, three-part series beginning on Radio 4 next Friday, 21st June, at 11.00 am, Science and Religion about the relationship between the two disciplines. From the pieces about in the magazine, it attacks the idea that science and religion are at war. The blurb for the programme’s first part, ‘The Nature of the Beast’, on page 131, says

Nick Spencer examines the history of science and religion and the extent to which they have been in conflict with each other. Drawing on the expertise of various academics, he begins by exploring what the relationship says about what it means to be human.

The paragraph about the programme on the preceding page, 130, by Sue Robinson, runs

Are science and religion at war? In the first in a three-part series, Nick Spencer (of Goldsmith’s, London, and Christian think-tank Theos) takes a look back wt what he terms the “simplistic warfare narrative” of these supposedly feuding disciplines. From the libraries of the Islamic world to the work of 13th-century bishop Robert Grosseteste in maths and natural sciences, Spencer draws on the expertise of a variety of academics to argue that there has long been an interdependence between the two. I felt one or two moments of consternation (“there are probably more flat-earthers [believing the earth to be flat] around today than there were back then…”) and with so many characters in the unfolding 1,000-year narrative, some may wish for a biographical dictionary at their elbow… I certainly did. Yet somehow Spencer produces an interesting and informative treatise from all the detail. 

We’ve waited a long time for a series like this. I set up this blog partly to argue against the claim made by extremely intolerant atheists like Richard Dawkins that science and religion are and always have been at war. In fact no serious historian of science believes this. It’s a stereotype that comes from three 19th century writers, one of whom was reacting against the religious ethos of Harvard at the time. And some of the incidents that have been used to argue that science was suppressed by the religious authorities were simply invented. Like the story that Christopher Columbus was threatened by the Inquisition for believing that the world war round. Er no, he wasn’t. That was all made up by 19th century author Washington Irvine. European Christians had known and accepted that the world was round by the 9th century. It’s what the orb represents in the Crown Jewels. The story that Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, in his debate on evolution with Charles Darwin, asked the great biologist whether he was descended from an ape on his mother’s or father’s side of the family is also an invention. It was written years after the debate by Darwin’s Bulldog, T.H. Huxley. A few years ago historians looked at the accounts of the debate written at the time by the students and other men of science who were there. They don’t mention any such incident. What they do mention is Wilberforce opening the debate by saying that such questions like evolution needed to be carefully examined, and that if they are true, they have to be accepted, no matter how objectionable they may be. Wilberforce himself was an extremely proficient amateur scientist himself as well as a member of the clergy. Yes, there was opposition from many Christians to Darwin’s idea, but after about 20 years or so most of the mainstream denominations fully accepted evolution. The term ‘fundamentalism’ comes from a book defending and promoting Christianity published as The Fundamentals of Christianity published in the first years of the 20th century. The book includes evolution, which it accepts.

Back to the Middle Ages, the idea that this was a period when the church suppressed scientific investigation, which only revived with the Humanists of the Renaissance, has now been utterly discredited. Instead it was a period of invention and scientific discovery. Robert Grosseteste, the 13th century bishop of Lincoln, wrote papers arguing that the Moon was responsible for the tides and that the rainbow was produced through light from the sun being split into various colours by water droplets in the atmosphere. He also wrote an account of the six days of creation, the Hexaemeron, which in many ways anticipates the ‘Big Bang’ theory. He believed that the universe was created with a burst of light, which in turn created ‘extension’ – the dimensions of the cosmos, length, width and breadth, and that this light was then formed into the material and immaterial universe. Medieval theologians were also often highly critical of stories of demons and ghosts. The 12th century French bishop, William of Auxerre, believed that nightmares were caused, not by demons, but by indigestion. If you had too big a meal before falling asleep, the weight of the food in the stomach pressed down on the nerves, preventing the proper flow of vital fluids.

The Christian scholars of this period drew extensively on the writings of Muslim philosophers, scientists and mathematicians, who had inherited more of the intellectual legacy of ancient Greece and Rome, along with that of the other civilisations they had conquered, like Persia and India. Scholars like al-Haytham explored optics while the Bani Musa brothers created fascinating machines. And Omar Khayyam, the Sufi mystic and author of the Rubaiyyat, one of the classics of world literature, was himself a brilliant mathematician. Indeed, many scientific and mathematical terms are taken from Arabic. Like alcohol, and algorithm, which comes from the Muslim scholar al-Khwarismi, as well as algebra.

There have been periods of tension between religion and particular scientific doctrines, like the adoption of the Copernican system and Darwin’s theory of evolution by Natural Selection, but the relationship between science and religion is rich, complex and has never been as simple as all out war. This should be a fascinating series and is a very necessary corrective to the simplistic stereotype we’ve all grown up with.

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Karl Wilhelm Nageli and Purposeful Mutation

November 11, 2018

I found this very interesting piece on the 19th century biologist, Karl Wilhelm Nageli, and August Weismann in Richard L. Gregory’s Mind In Science (London: Penguin 1981). The modern theory of evolution, NeoDarwinism, is essentially a mixture of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection mixed with Mendelian genetics. Roughly speaking, it views evolution as proceeding through random mutations. These supply the variations in species on which natural selection works, weeding out those varieties that don’t help the species to survive. Those that do, or at least don’t stop it surviving, are preserved and retained. Thus the little alterations in the characteristics of different species are created, which gradually accumulate over millennia and millions of years to produce new species of creature.

Darwin, however, didn’t know about heredity, which was introduced into his evolutionary theory by Weismann. He had developed the germ plasm theory, which was the precursor to the modern theory of DNA, famously discovered by Crick and Watson. Darwin also didn’t know about mutations either. He believed that heredity was a blending of the characteristics of the parents. I’ve got a feeling this was one of the arguments his opponents may have used against his theory, and that Darwin probably recognized the weakness of his theory there. At the time Darwin proposed his theory of evolution, I don’t think he was properly able to account for the emergence of novel characteristics in living creatures, on which natural selection acted.

It was Karl Wilhelm Nageli, who did this by introducing mutations into evolutionary theory, while rejecting Darwin’s idea of Natural Selection. Unlike evolutionary biologists after him, however, Nageli believed that these mutations had a purpose. It was the Dutch biologist Hugo de Vries, who introduced Mendelian genetics and the variation of characteristics into Darwinian evolutionary theory. Gregory explains it thus:

Neo-Darwinism adds to Darwinian Natural Selection a theory of heredity, which is itself derived from the, at the time (and perhaps still), controversial writings of the German biologist August Weismann (1834-1914). His papers (1868-76), translated into English as Studies in the Theory of Descent, (1882) proposed properties of a germ plasm which are similar to the fundamental doctrine of molecular biology, that information can only genetically pass from coded DNA to messenger RNA, and not the other way round. This genetic ‘diode’ rejects Lamarckian inheritance of individually acquired knowledge, or adaptive behavior. But we jump ahead, for Darwin had no knowledge of genes or mutations of genes.

The concept of evolution by mutational jumps is due to a Swiss botanist, Karl Wilhelm Nageli (1817). Nageli however rejected Darwin’s theory, for he supposed that there is a purpose in the direction of the jumps. He is heavily criticized for failing to appreciate the significance of Mendel’s work. He was shown the manuscript of Mendel’s paper describing his experiments on the breeding of giant and dwarf peas; his lack of interest is supposed to have prevented the work becoming known so that genetics was held up by some fifty years. Nageli’s concept of mutational jumps, but without built-in directional purpose, was developed by De Vries early in the present century.

Gregor Johan Mendel (1822-84) was an Augustinian monk. At the Abbey of St Thomas in Brunn, [Brno] he carried out his plant-breeding experiments, which depended on counting the proportions of tall and dwarf peas obtained by self-pollination. He found that the varieties did not converge to a medium-height pea plant, but that the tall and dwarf characteristics were maintained, and potentially present, in each variety. This was immensely important for Darwin’s theory, but unfortunately Darwin never came to hear of it.

The mutation theory was developed by the Dutch botanist Hugo De Vreis (1848-1935) who approached Mendel’s discovery by seeing that something like it was needed to give the variataion necessary for Natural Selection. He proposed that different characteristics might vary independently, and recombine in different ways. So was born the atomic-characteristic theory of inheritance, which later was embodied in gene and chromosome code structures – from which in turn developed modern molecular biology with the discovery by Francis Crick (b. 1916) and James Watson (b. 1928) of the structure of the long helical molecules of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). This, by replication, gives the physical basis of inheritance. Random change of the DNA structure give the variation necessary for Natural Selection. The drama of this discovery is superbly presented by Watson in The Double Helix (1968). (pp. 170-1).

Back in the 1980s, the astronomers Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe attacked Darwinian evolutionary theory in their book, Evolution from Space. In their previous book, Life Cloud, they had argued that life on Earth was seeded on Earth from space. While it’s an unorthodox theory, many scientists do believe that such panspermia, as it’s called, is a possibility. And the amino acids which form the basic building blocks of organic life has been found in meteorites, on Saturn’s moon, Titan, and in the nebulae, the clouds of dust and gas in space. What is far more controversial, and has been rejected by nearly all scientists, is their theory in Evolution from Space that the chance of organic life arising on Earth, and developing through Darwinian evolution, is so minute that evolution has to be directed by alien civilisations seeding space with the necessary genetic material.

In one passage in Evolution from Space, Hoyle and Wickramasinghe take the incidence of mutations in every generation, only a minority of which could be beneficial, and the combined length of time from the split, early in our evolutionary history, between the hominid lineage and the common ancestor of chimpanzees and gorillas 9 million years to argue that even this amount of time is insufficient to produce modern Homo Sapiens Sapiens, modern humanity. I’ve no doubt that this was immensely controversial and has been widely criticized and dismissed. It’s been taken up again more recently by the Intelligent Design people. And it wasn’t the weirdest of Hoyle’s and Wickramasinghe’s ideas. I think they also believed that the civilisations seeding this genetic material were computers in parallel universes. But if they are right after all, and random mutation can’t account for the development of the vast variety of living creatures we see around us, then it may be that it proceeds through purposeful mutations after all.

Going back to Nageli, even if his own theory of evolution has been discarded except for the idea of mutational jumps, I would far, far rather believe that evolution and the mutations necessary for it were shaped and guided by a loving creator, than are simply the result of blind chance as describes by Richard Dawkins in his book, The Blind Watchmaker.

Prager University Tries to Argue the Alt-Right Is Left-Wing through Semantics

December 4, 2017

This is another great little video from Kevin Logan. This time he’s attacking Prager University, which, as he points out, isn’t actually a university, but a right-wing propaganda site on the Net. It pumps out Christian fundamentalist, militaristic, neocon, reactionary propaganda.

They’re one of the various groups on the American right, who’ve tried to discredit Socialism by claiming that the Nazis were also socialists, because they had the word in their name. I’ve already put up several pieces about that, reblogging material showing that Hitler deliberately put the term ‘Socialist’ in the party’s name as a provocation to the genuinely socialist left. The Nazis, of course, were very definitely anti-Socialist, and the decision to adopt the word ‘socialist’ was strongly opposed by many in the early party, including its founder, Anton Drexler. Going further back, the nationalist intellectuals in the 1920s, who began publishing books about how the First World War was an ennobling experience, and who looked forward to a coming Reich, did indeed talk about ‘socialism’, but they made it clear that they were talking about the integration of the individual into society, in which people would work for the good of the great whole. They called it the ‘socialisation of men’, which they carefully distinguished from the socialisation of property and industry.

Apart from rounding up genuine socialists, communists and trade unionists as ‘Marxist Socialists’, along with other left-wing radicals, the Nazis also strongly supported free enterprise. They privatised a number of state enterprises during the Third Reich, and hailed the business elite as the biologically superior type of human, who had won their right to rule through the forces of Darwinian selection in the business world.

They were not at all socialist.

Now Prager U tries the same trick with the Alt-Right. The argument runs that because the ‘Alt’ stands for ‘Alternative’, it is therefore different from traditional American Conservativism, and so has more in common with the left. This is another lie. As Kevin Logan here states, the Alt-Right are just an even more poisonous version of Conservatism, and have nothing in common with the left.

This is just part of a long-running strategy the Republicans have been running for a few years now, in which they’re trying to deny the rampant and very obvious racism in their own ranks, and project it back on to the Democrats and those further left. In the case of the Democrats, this party was indeed the more right-wing of the two originally, and was the party of the Klan. But this was before Lyndon Johnson won over the Black vote by introducing Medicare, Medicaid and other welfare programmes. However, the Republicans have used this to try to argue that ‘progressive’ are responsible for racism, because of the racist history of parts of the Democrat party. Even though this was before Johnson’s reforms of the late ’60s.

Social Darwinism in the 19th Century and in Cameron’s Britain

October 13, 2014

Very many bloggers and political commenters, such as Mike over at Vox Political, Johnny Void, the Angry Yorkshireman and myself, have made the point that the Tories are Social Darwinists. This is the ideology, founded in the 19th century by the philosopher Herbert Spencer, that demanded total laissez-faire capitalism and promoted the ‘survival of the economic fittest’. Just as Darwin’s theory of evolution by Natural Selection was held to prove that in nature, evolution proceeded through the survival of the fittest in a state of competition and conflict between individuals and species, so Social Darwinists believed that human social and biological evolution should be promoted through unrestrained economic competition, which should allow people of superior talents to rise to the top of society and keep the less talented masses in their place. Millionaire industrialists were thus celebrated, and attempts to improve the conditions of the poor through legislation, such as regulating working conditions, housing and medicine decried as detrimental to the proper, beneficial working of capitalism.

The philosopher Mary Midgley includes examples of the statement of Social Darwinist attitudes from Spencer’s closest followers themselves in her book, Evolution as a Religion: Strange Hopes and Stranger Fears. Midgley herself isn’t an opponent of evolution. The book was written against the way Darwin’s theory had, in her view, been distorted into a quasi-religious form to support malign and dehumanising ideologies like Social Darwinism, or the belief that human culture and action are somehow ultimately the product of our genes.

The first quote comes from George Sumner’s The Challenge of Facts of 1887:

The millionaires are a product of natural selection, acting on the whole body of men to pick out those who can meet the requirement of certain work to be done … It is because they are thus selected that wealth – both their own and that entrusted to them – aggregates under their hands … They may fairly be regarded as the naturally selected agents of society for certain work. They get high wages and live in luxury, but the bargain is a good one for society. There is the intensest competition for their place and occupation. This assure us that all who are competent for this function will be employed in it, so that the cost of it will be reduced to the lowest terms.
(P. 118).

This could well come from a Tory in Britain, or Republican spokesman in America today. There’s the same idealisation of the rich, and the demands that they are the socially and biologically superior ‘creators of wealth’, who should be allowed to enjoy their riches unconstrained by the state. Hence the demands by the Right, including UKIP, that the rich should have their tax burden reduced.

She then quotes the American historian, Richard Hofstadter, on the way Social Darwinism was invoked to prevent any legislation that would improve the lot of the poor by placing constraints on the power of the wealthy:

Acceptance of the Spencerian philosophy brought about a paralysis of the will to reform … Youmans (Spencer’s chief American Spokesman) in Henry George’s presence denounced with great fervour the political corruption of New York and the selfishness of the rich in ignoring or promoting it when they found it profitable to do so. ‘What do you propose to do about it?’ George asked. Youmans replied ‘Nothing! You and I can do nothing at all. It’s a matter of evolution. Perhaps in four of five thousand years evolution may have carried men beyond this state of things’. (p. 119).

The role of Social Darwinism and its malign conception of evolution are too well-known, and too connected to Nazism, for politicians to openly make comments like this in today’s society. Nevertheless, the idea that intense, unrestrained competition somehow conforms more to human nature than Socialism, regardless of the form it is in, nevertheless forms a strong component of Conservative ideology on both sides of the Atlantic even today.

Have Scientists from Sheffield University Found Life from Outer Space?

September 19, 2013

A team of scientists from Sheffield University believe that they may have discovered extraterrestrial life. According to this story on MSN News http://news.uk.msn.com/uk/has-life-from-space-just-accidentally-arrived-on-earth/ a group from the University’s department of molecular biology and biotechnology under Professor Milton Wainwright sent a balloon 27 km up into the stratosphere during the recent Perseid meteor shower. The balloon was launched from Chester and came down near Wakefield. The balloon carried microscope studs, which were set to open between 22 and 27 km above the Earth. To ensure that the results were not contaminated by organisms from the Earth’s surface, the equipment was sterilised before it was launched.

When it returned, it was found that the studs had collected a variety of microscopic organisms. Some were diatoms, a form of algae, along with more unusual life-forms. Prof Wainwright said “It is generally accepted that a particle of the size found cannot be lifted from Earth to heights of, for example, 27km. In the absence of a mechanism by which large particles like these can be transported to the stratosphere, we can only conclude that the biological entities originated from space. Our conclusion then is that life is continually arriving to Earth from space. Life is not restricted to this planet and it almost certainly did not originate here. If life does continue to arrive from space then we have to completely change our view of biology and evolution. New textbooks will have to be written!”

Disease Space

The team’s finding appears to corroborate the highly controversial views of the origin and evolution of life on Earth of the late Sir Fred Hoyle and his colleague, Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe. Panspermia is the theory that life originated in space and later colonised Earth. It was first put forward in the 19th century by the Swedish astronomer, Svante Aarhenius. In the late 1970s and early ’80s Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe wrote a series of books Lifecloud (London: Dent 1978), Diseases from Space (London: Sphere 1979) and Evolution from Space (London: J.M. Dent 1981), reviving and expanding the theory. They suggested that not only had life come to Earth from space, but that it was viruses and bacteria continued to arrive from space to infect humans and another creatures here on Earth.

Most controversially, they suggested in the last book that Darwin’s theory of evolution was inadequate to explain the evolution of the Earth’s creatures. They argued that the process of evolution was actually too rapid to be cause by what they viewed as they slow processes of Natural Selection operating on random mutation. They considered instead that evolution was actually driven through viruses and other genetic material entering and mutating terrestrial organisms from space. More speculatively still, they suggested that the seeding of such genetic material on Earth was done deliberately by advanced extraterrestrial civilisations. They suggested that these would artificial, machine intelligences from another cosmos in the multiverse. Their theory that evolution has been consciously directed is extremely similar to Intelligent Design, proposed and supported by the mathematicians and scientists William Dembski and Michael Behe. Most of the supporters of Intelligent Design are religious, and the theory has been severely attacked as a form of Creationism.

Evolution Space

This is not the first time a scientific balloon has returned from the stratosphere containing what was suggested was extraterrestrial microbial life. A few years a balloon sent up by scientists in India returned to Earth with red slime. Like Prof Wainwright, the Indian scientists believed this material had been collected from too high an altitude for it to have come from the Earth. They came to the conclusion that it must therefore have come from space. Fred Hoyle died twenty or so years ago in the 1990s. The media did contact Chandra Wickramasinghe, who was then working at Cardiff University, if I recall correctly. Prof Wickramasinghe was delighted that there was now further evidence to support his and Sir Fred’s theory.

Meanwhile, Prof Wainwright’s team intend to repeat the experiment in October, when there is a meteor shower associated with Halley’s Comet. This will spread further cosmic dust. If the balloon returns again with similar material, it will confirm the team’s theory.

All this is fascinating and highly controversial. I don’t think, however, there’s any remote chance of them finding anything like the horrific extraterrestrial disease in Michael Creighton’s book and film, The Andromeda Strain.

The Descent of Man and the Ascent of Faith: Darwinism as Aid to 19th century Apologetics

May 28, 2013

One of the great myths of the history of science is that Darwin’s theory of Evolution by Natural Selection was strongly opposed by the Christian church. There was indeed much opposition, but what is often neglected is that much of this was on scientific, rather than theological grounds. There were also a number of theologians who positively welcomed Darwinian evolution as an aid to faith.

Darwin’s Theory Not Proven Scientifically at Time of Proposal; Support of Theory by Some Clergy

At the time Darwin’s theory was still highly speculative, a fact that Darwin himself acknowledged. He was confident, however, that further facts and fossil evidence would be found to support his theory. Alister McGrath, the theologian and microbiologist, notes in his book, The Twilight of Atheism, that Bishop Samuel Wilberforce opened his legendary debate with Huxley with the statement that if Darwin’s theory of evolution were true, Christians would have to accept it, no matter how uncomfortable they found it. Furthermmore, while Huxley 31 years later remembered the debate as a great triumph, others were certainly not so sure. Sir Joseph Hooker believed that Huxley had turned the tables on the Bishop. He had failed, however, to deal with the weak points in Wilberforce’s arguments and had not convinced the rest of the people there. Indeed, Wilberforce actually convinced some of the scientists that evolution was actually wrong. One of these was Henry Baker Tristram, who was an early convert to Darwin’s theory. He had applied Darwin’s theory to the development of larks and chats in the Sahara desert. Witnessing the debate, he came to reject the theory. In 1867 the Guardian newspaper attacked the view, first proposed by F.W. Farrar, that the clergy as a whole were enemies of science. Its review of Darwin’s Descent of Man was critical. The reviewer nevertheless stated that viewed man as part of the evolutionary process, and considered that evolution would soon be as uncritically accepted as gravity. It stated that there was no ‘reason why a man may not be an evolutionist and yet a Christian. That is all that we desire to establish’. It then went on to state that ‘Evolution is not yet proved, and never may be. But … there is no occasion for being frightened out of our wits for fear it should be.’In 1874 T.G. Bonney’s book, A Manual of Geology, which argued for the vast age of the Earth, was published by the religious publishing house, the S.P.C.K. ON Darwin’s death in 1882, Huxley considered requesting that he be buried in Westminster Abbey. To his surprise, not only was his request not refused, but Canon F.W. Farrar declared to him that ‘we clergy are not all as bigoted as you suppose’ and asked him to make a formal application. Despite some opposition, Darwin was buried in Westminster Abbey with full Christian rites. The following Sunday he was the subject of an appreciative sermon by Harvey Goodwin, the bishop of Carlisle. A memorial fund was set up for him that included not only the scientists Galton, Hooker, Romanes, Tyndall ahnd Herbert Spencer, but also the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and the Bishop of London. Near the end of the century Asa Grey told the Bishop of Rochester that looking back on the controversy, ‘he could not say that there had been any undue or improper delay on the part of the Christian mind and conscience in accepting, in such sense as he deemed they ought to be accepted, Mr. Darwin’s doctrine’s’. This contrasts strongly with the attitude of some Anglican clergy a few years ago, who issued an apology for the Anglican Church’s ‘misunderstanding’ of Darwin’s theory. Clearly, many of those at the time did not believe it had been misunderstood, or that the opposition had been excessive.

Use of Darwin in Christian Apologetics: Drummond

Some churchmen even viewed Darwin’s theory as an aid to Christian evangelism and apologetics. One of these was Henry Drummond, a minister of the Free Church of Scotland and professor of Natural Science at the Church’s College in Glasgow. In 1871 he hailed Natural Selection as ‘a real and beautiful acquisition to natural theology’, and declared that the Origin of Species was ‘perhaps the most important contribution to the literature of apologetics’ to appear in the 19th century. Taking the laws of nature as his inspiration and model, in 1883 he published Natural Law in the Spiritual World. Drummond used examples from the natural world to illustrate the same processes that he believed were present in the world of the spirit. This confusion between natural and spiritual was condemned by his those readers with philosophical inclinations. Nevertheless, it was also highly successful. This success was partly due to the use of illustrations from Darwin and Spencer, and scientific terminology and concepts such as biogenesis. In the view of Drummond’s biographer, G.A. Smith, his readers were not so much concerned whether he made a convincing case, but simply by the fact that he expressed and reinforced their deep religious convictions using the then dominant intellectual methods.

Darwin’s Theory and God’s Immanence in Creative Process

And Drummon was not the only clergyman who believed that Darwin actually aided faith. Some Christians, such as Charles Kingley, believed that the model of a mechanistic universe in which God only occasionally acted to introduce novelty served to separate the Almight from His creation. It stressed God’s transcendance at the expense of His immanence. For Kingsley and other like him, the doctrine of God’s Fatherhood and His Incarnation also meant that God was actively and creatively involved within His creation as well. In his contribution to the volume of theological essay, Lux Mundi, in 1881, the British theologian Aubrey Moore, used Darwin’s theory to attack the Deist notion of a God, who was not involved with His creation:

‘The one absolutely impossible conception of God, in the present day, is that which represents Him as an occasional visitor. Science has pushed the Deist’s God further and further away, and ata the moment when it seemed as if He would be thrust out altogether, Darwinism appeared, and, under the disguise of a foe, did the work of a friend.’
For Moore, there was a simple choice. Either God was present everywhere, or he was nowhere.

Carpenter: Theistic Evolution without Natural Selection

Some of the believers in theistic evolution held something very similar to modern Intelligent Design. Asa Grey himself suggested to Darwin that, as no-one knew the true source of variation, it was wise to believe that the Lord was involved. William Carpenter, a British physiologist, believed he had found proof of this view in his study of the marine shellfish Foraminifera. In his hypothetical family tree, Carpenter demonstrated how a simple spiral shell had become circular through a regular progression. This had occurred following a definite evolutionary course in which each stage was in preparation for the next. He also pointed to the fact that all the members of the series still existed to demonstrate that their evolution could not be explained by Natural Selection. If the various members of the Foraminifera family still existed, then clearly they could not have been produced through a struggle for fitness, as this would have resulted in at least some of the species becoming extinct.

Emergence of Man too Accidental for Random Chance
James McCosh, a professor at Princeton University, wrote extensively attempting to reconcile evolution with Christian belief. One of his arguments that evolution actually pointed to a belief in the Lord came from the evolution of humanity itself. If humanity’s evolution was entirely due to chance, then our existence was an even more remarkable accident than even the atheists believed. On the other hand, it could also show that all these evolutionary accidents through which humanity was formed were hardly accidental. Indeed, humanity had evolved through ‘adjustment upon adjustment of all the elements and the all the powers of nature towards the accomplishment of an evidently contemplated end.’

Wallace: Evolution Argues against Intelligent Life in the Universe

Alfred Russell Wallace was also deeply impressed with the apparently chance emergence of humanity. In his 1903 book, Man’s Place in the Universe, he used it to attack those physicists and scientists searching for earth-like planets on which intelligent life may have evolved. In a similar argument to Stephen Jay Gould’s on the uhniqueness of terrestrial evolutionary history, Wallace suggested that no matter how similar the environment on another planet may be to the Earth’s, it’s own evolutionary history would be very different. Minor differences in the evolutionary history of that planet’s creatures would mean that they would definitely not be like those on Earth, making intelligent life extremely unlikely.

C.S. Peirce: Evolution Proves Existence of Personal God

For the American philosopher of science, C.S. Peirce, the element of chance in natural selection also pointed to the involvement of a personal God. The manufacture of pre-determined features was a purely mechanical process, which excluded development or growth. If the universe was not the result of pre-determined sequence of events, but he creation of a living personality, then it should show spontaneity, diversification and the potential for growth.

Temple: Evolution Proves God the Only Lord

Frederick Temple also argued that Darwinian evolution also demonstrated the existence of a single, creator God. Temple believed that the doctrine of separate creation was vulnerable to HUme’s argument that the universe’s design showed that it could also have been created by a number of separate deities. If Darwinian evolution was interpreted as a single process in which potential was realised in higher organic forms, it pointed to a single Designer.

Thus not only was the reception of Darwin’s theory of evolution more balanced than simple outright opposition, the theory was also used by some clergy to argue for and strengthen their faith. In his book, Darwinism and the Divine, Alister McGrath demonstrates that, in contrast to the received view that Darwinism ended natural theology, such speculation continued after the theory’s adoption. The theological arguments had been changed under the theory’s impact, as Huxley himself recognised and argued, but nevertheless, they continued.

Bill Bailey’s Jungle Hero Pt. 2

April 29, 2013

Yesterday saw the last part of Bill Bailey’s programme exploring the work of the Victorian explorer, Alfred Russell Wallace, and his independent discovery of the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. The show followed Wallace’s expedition through Indonesia, Malaya and Sarawak collecting specimens, and the creatures that spurred his discovery of the motor of evolution. In Darwin’s case, this was the famous finches he found in the Galapagos islands. In Wallace’s case, it was the different varieties of macaque and a species of tree-climbing kangaroo. Bailey pointed out the dividing line in that part of the eastern Pacific dividing the types of animals in that part of the world. Still called the Wallace Line after him, it separated animals characteristic of Indonesia and Malaya to the east, while to the west were those of Australia. The macaques Wallace found in the rest of the Indonesian and Malayan islands were grey with tales. On the island of Ternate, they were black without tails. They also had a tuft of hair which Bailey described as a mohican. In a piece of self-deprecating humour Bailey posed for the cameras, showing the apparent similarity between his own features and those of the macaques. Like David Attenborough with the gorillas in Life on Earth way back in 1979, Bailey seemed to get on well with primates. He sat very still while the macaques came up to him, investigated and sniffed him, and accepted him as one of their own. In the Australian ecological zone, Wallace discovered the tree-climbing kangaroos. With their smaller front paws and large hind legs, these animals weren’t well adapted to the arboreal existence. The programme showed a few of them gingerly making their way up the trees, with several mis-steps. This conflicted with the Natural Theology of the day, which, according to the programme, declared that each species of animal had been separately created. When the environment changed, and the animals died out, God simply created a new species of that particular animal which was better suited to its environment. Wallace also noted that some of the animals on different islands differed strongly from their cousins elsewhere. Looking at maps of the sea depth in the Indonesian and Malayan achipelagos near Irian Jaya, he theorised that whwere the sea was shallow there were once land bridges allowing species to cross from one island to another. The ease of access between 5these islands meant that these species remained closely related. The much deeper waters around the other islands meant that these islands were colonised by castaways, which drifted there. Cut off from the rest of the world, the creatures there evolved into markedly more different forms. The question remained of the actual motor of evolution, the process that brought these species into being. A bout of acute malarial fever led Wallace to remember Malthus’ Theory of Population, and he realised that quite small differences in an animal’s constitution could give it an advantage in the struggle for existence, such as larger eyes for finding insects in the case of lemurs. He thus discovered Natural Selection.

Attempt to Restore Wallace to Prominence with Darwin

Bailey was keen to take his hero out from under Darwin’s shadow, and the shadow the maneouvering that had taken place to make sure Darwin was not pre-empted by Wallace. Wallace was delighted when Darwin accepted him as one of his collectors. However, when Wallace sent Darwin a letter discussing his activities and his formation of a new theory of evolution, Darwin sent a polite reply telling him that he was working on his own, and implying that he should stay away in the tropics and not hurry back. When Wallace sent Darwin his letter outlining his theory of Natural Selection, Darwin was shaken. He had spent the last eight years working on barnacles to support his own theory, which he still had not published. Quickly consulting his friends, including the geologist Charles Lyell, Darwin decided to rush his own account, The Origin of Species, into print. He also read out a paper he wrote on evolution to a meeting of the Royal Society with Wallace’s paper. He did not ask Wallace’s permission, and Wallace was not even aware this had occurred until he returned to Britain. Bailey stated that, depending on your point of view, it was either a delicate compromise or a highly shameful episode.Nevertheless, after over a century of undeserved relative obscurity, Wallace was being accorded the honour that rightfully was his. At a meeting in the Natural History Museum, Bailey unveiled a portrait of the great man to hang alongside Darwin’s statue.

Bailey and Wallace in Ternate

It was a fascinating programme. As I said in my review of the first episode, Bailey is an affable, knowledgable host. Not only did the programme have some superb footage of the animals in Indonesia and Malaya, it also showed some equally interesting episodes with the human inhabitants of these islands. Bailey attempted to recreate the style of Wallace’s expedition, including what he ate, and his historic meeting with one of the countries’ rulers. When on his expedition, Wallace was forced to eat what he found in the rainforest. Thus, in another moment worhty of Ray Mears, he was shown eating a fruit bat. Bailey picked delicately at it, while his Indonesian hosts downed it with gusto. Wallace had had to get the permission of the Sultan of Ternate before he could travel there on his collecting mission. So Bailey also sought an audience with his highness. He therefore appeared outside the Sultan’s palace dressed in white linen suit, cravat and panama hat, while liveried courtiers and guards ushered him in. Eventually he was allowed into the Sultan’s presence. As you’d probably expect, the Sultan himself spoke excellent English, and was voluble on the subject of Wallace. Wallace himself appears to have been the subject of local pride.
In a street near the waterfront Bailey found a mural of the eminent Victorian on the wall of a building. Beneath it, in Indonesian, was the legend ‘Alfred Russell Wallace, Ternate scientist born England’. Ternate clearly viewed him as one of their own.

Victorian Society Increasingly Inclined towards Evolution not Mentioned

It was an excellent programme, but as I mentioned in my previous post, I have a few, major objections to it. Firstly, it didn’t mention how Wallace’s theory differed from Darwin’s. Unlike Darwin, Wallace believed that evolution was teleological, working towards higher and better forms of life. He also believed that human intelligence and our moral sense could not have been shaped by Natural Selection, but were the result of the intervention of spiritual entities. The programme stressed that Wallace’s theory was in conflict with Natural Theology and the scientific and religious establishment. It did not mention how scientific and theological opinion in Britain was actually turning away from Natural Theology and embracing evolution. I mentioned some of the reasons for this in my last blog post on the subject. In addition to these there was the influence of John Henry, later Cardinal Newman. Natural Theology was closely associated with William Paley, whose book was the major work on the subject at the time. Paley, however, was linked with the Benthamite Utilitarians. By the 1840s there was a reaction against Utilitarian philosophy. Newman rejected Natural Theology as it reduced the existence and operation of the Lord to a purely scientific question. At the time Darwin and Wallace were working, there was already a large body of opinion, both inside and outside the church, that was favourably inclined towards evolution.

Links between Darwin-Wallace Theory and Lamarckianism

The programme also claimed that ‘Natural Selection’ was a radical theory. This is also open to question. Some of the Lamarckians, like Geoffroy, were also including it as an evolutionary mechanism before Darwin and Wallace. The Lamarckians had also discovered the theory of ‘adaptive radiation’, in which different species emerge as the parent species spreads out to colonise new territories before Darwin. Darwin even had one of their books on his shelf on the Beagle. The programme did mention that an earlier letter Wallace had written about the subject was dismissed as ‘nothing new’. There is therefore the question of how novel Wallace’s and Darwin’s theories actually were. In the case Darwin’s theory, it was still quite Lamarckian as Darwin believed in the inheritance of acquired characteristics.

Subtext of Programme against Intelligent Design?

The other problem with the programme is that it seems to be subtly written against Intelligent Design. The view that God creates new, improved species after the extinction of their predecessors sounds close to the modern Intelligent Design view that new species are created through an intelligence generating or inserting new information into the genome. For theists, this intelligence is the Almighty, though the official ID position is that the identity of the Designer is unknown.

Medieval Natural Philosophers accepted Some Speciation due to Natural Forces

Now I have to say, I don’t know how prevalent this theory of speciation by divine action was at the time of Darwin. It sounds like the views of Richard Owen, the great Victorian naturalist whose statue used to stand in the Natural History Museum until ousted by Darwin four years ago. But previous generations of Natural Philosophers had also accepted that some speciation was due to natural forces. Ancient Greek anthropologists, including the medical authority Hippocrates, believed that the different races of humanity and their different temperaments were the result of differing climates and geographical influences. In the Middle Ages authorities such as the 15th century bishop of Paris, Pierre d’Ailly, stated that new species had emerged after the Flood when different animals moved into different environments. The types of animals were roughly fixed, but new species could arise from these types through natural, environmental influences. I have to say, I don’t know if this view was still current at the time of Darwin and Wallace, but it certainly had been present in evolutionary thought before them. It would have been good if the programme had mentioned this. In this case the programme looks less like a simple attempt to restore a forgotten Victorian scientific hero and more like another piece in the attack on Creationism and Intelligent Design.

Wallace still Scientifically Disreputable

As for Wallace himself, Bailey stated that there seemed to be still some reluctance to be seen mentioning him. He said that while he was making the series, he had various scientists sidle up to him saying, ‘If you want any information on Wallace, here’s my card’, while looking around to see that they were not overheard. Bailey wondered why it was that the great Victorian should still be seen as somewhat disreputable and a danger to the careers of contemporary scientists. Though the programme didn’t say it, this might have been due to the fact that Wallace’s own theory of evolution still left explicit room for the operation of the supernatural.

Bailey’s exploration of Wallace and his almost forgotten contribution to evolutionary theory was a fascinating programme, and well worth watching. But it omitted the larger debates on the nature of the evolutionary process and the growing willingness of parts of the Church to accept evolutionary theory in favour of a simplistic narrative of lonely outsider battling class prejudice and religious ignorance. I hope that future programmes on the development of evolutionary theory will correct this view, and do more to place Wallace, Darwin and their predecessors into the context of the wider changes in scientific and theological opinion of which they were apart.

Bill Bailey on Alfred Russell Wallace and the Origins of Evolution by Natural Selection

April 27, 2013

Last Sunday the BBBC began a new 2-part series in which the musician and comedia, Bill Bailey, followed in the footsteps of the great Victorian biologist, Alfred Russell Wallace to discover how he indpendently came to the theory of Natural Selection at about the same time as Charles Darwin. Russell’s been overlooked as the co-discoverer of the theory. Bailey points out that at the time, Natural Selection was known as the ‘Wallace-Darwin Theory’. It was Russell’s letter to Darwin discussing his theory of Natural Selection that prompted Darwin, after decades of independent research, to finally publish his own results. AS time went on, Wallace receded into the background until finally the theory was completely dominated by the towering figure of Darwin. Bailey went to the Natural History Museum in London to show the great statue of Darwin that was installed four years ago during the Darwin bicentennial celebrations. Wallace, he noted, was nowhere to be seen. He then briefly talked with David Attenborough, who duly paid tribute to Wallace’s genius and perserverance in researching and formulating the theory.

Unlike the aristocratic and university-educated Darwin, Wallace came from a humbler background. His education stopped when he was about 12 or 14, and he was forced to fund his expeditions by selling the specimens he collected. It was during his trip to Indonesia that he began to formulate his theory of Natural Selection by noting how the species very gradually shaded into each other.

It’s a fascinating story. Bailey’s a musician and comedian, as well as Rocker and SF/ Fantasy geek. His shows incorporate music, wittily playing on the different styles and genres. One of the funniest of his pieces about how the Dr. Who theme, when you slow it down, sounds like Belgian Jazz. He then does a Belgian Jazz song, to the amended Dr. Who theme, with vocals in French, about the Doctor defeating the Daleks ’cause they can’t climb stairs. A enthusiast of the theremin, he managed to seriously freak out Jonathan Ross by playing it on his show. In the programme, Bailey’s a genial, articulate and knowledgable host. He’s done some of the same pursuits Wallace did, such as butterfly collecting, and first travelled to Indonesia several decades ago. He fell in love with the place, and the programme shows him not only trekking through the Indonesia rainforest in search of exotic animal and poring over Wallace’s books and specimens, but also staying and talking with an Indonesia family. He talked about how Indonesians also ate dragonflies, downing a kebab skewer of them. He thus followed Ray Mears in eating insects and what westerner’s would consider revolting in the name of bushcraft and cross-cultural understanding.

Criticism of Programme for Presenting Evolution as Leading to Atheism

DEspite that, I have serious reservations about the programme. It’s underlying theme is that evolution naturally leads to atheism, and conflict with the Church. Bailey several times talked about how Wallace would eventually lose his faith, and the Church’s opposition to evolution, or transmutation as it was then called. The show presented a picture very much of the lonely genius ploughing his way to scientific truth against opposition from the religious Establishment.

Yet here and there there are hints to contrary. Bailey noted the setback to Wallace’s own research on evolution with the publication of Chamber’s Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. As well as angering the Church, it was also scientifically rubbish, with tales of a Platypus being produced by a bird. Bailey notes that the Vestiges was massively popular, and was even read by Queen Victoria. Wallace was afraid that without further research, his own theory of evolution would similarly suffer ridicule.

Philosophical and Theological Trends leading to Acceptance of Evolution

What the programme does not show or mention, is that attitudes at the time were changing. Victorian society was becomming much more open to evolutionary theory. This was due to a number of factors. Firstly, the work of the German explorer Humboldt in South America had made the Victorian public aware of the great variety of species in that part of the world, and the possibility that evolution may have played a role. A further boost came from Hegelian philosophy. Hegel believed that society advanced and evolved through a dialectical process of thesis, antithesis, synthesis. While his theory was confined to human societies, it nevertheless opened up the Victorian public to the possibility that other aspects of the world also similarly evolved. In the 1820s the Bridgewater Lectures led to Liberal theological opinion in the Anglican Church considering that the world and its creatures may similarly have been produced by natural law. In the 1840s Baden-Powell, the Savillian professor of Mathematics at Oxbridge set out his view considering that the world’s creatures had also evolved in a process similar to the contemporary manufacturing process. Just as the way an article was shaped and formed during manufacture by different industrial processes, so organisms were shaped and formed by the world. And just as the industrial techniques that produce a table, coat or pot are the products of an intelligent creator, so the evolutionary processes that create a living creature also indicated the presence and direction of a supreme intelligence: the Almighty. A number of other Anglican clergy, such as F.D. Maurice, also accepted evolution because it made the creation of the world less mysterious, and pointed to the action of a divine intelligence.

Wallace, Teleology and Spiritualism

Although he lost his Christian faith, Wallace’s own views departed considerably from a completely materialist view of evolution. He was a Spiritualist, who believed that evolution was teleological, working towards a predestined end. He also believed that the higher faculties in humanity – our intelligence and moral sense, could not have been the product of unguided evolution. Because of this there has been interest in him from the Intelligent Design movement. Yet Wallace’s unorthodox opinions were not mentioned in the programme, even if just to dismiss them. It will be interesting to see if they are mentioned in tomorrow’s programme.

In short, Bailey’s series is an excellent programme in many ways as an introduction to Wallace’s life and thought. There are some stunning footage of the plants and animals of the region, and eye-catching animated sections which bring Wallace’s notes to life. The series suffers, however, from the simplistic notion that evolution must always lead to atheism and its doctrinaire and uncritical acceptance of the belief that religion and science are in conflict. Very few historians of science accept this view, but it has been loudly promoted by Dawkins and many of his followers. The programme follows this line, thus distorting and obscuring oen of the most profound intellectual developments of the Victorian Age.

New Study Claims Environment Does Not Affect Evolution

July 18, 2009

According to a study by evolutionary biologists discussed at Io9 at http://io9.com/5317283/species-diversity-not-caused-by-natural-selection, a study by the New England Complex Systems group published in Nature suggests that evolution can occur without any major influence from the environment. Instead, the origin of speciation is viewed simply as creatures having offspring and the effects of sexual selection. The authors don’t claim that environmental factors don’t affect evolutionary process, but they believe from their computer simulations that it is not the major cause. This seems to attack the very basis of Darwinism in that Darwin considered that it was competition for resources in the environment that drove evolution.

Now this study clearly does not support Creationism or Intelligent Design, as it seems to assume that naturalistic, materialist processes are the only forces involved in the emergence of new species and the process of evolution itself. Nevertheless, it does attack one of the most fundamental tenets of Darwinian evolutionary theory, that of Natural Selection itself. It also supports the observations of other critics of evolutionary theory, who were not Creationists or supporters of ID, such as the British science journalist and former producer of the BBC science series, Horizon, Gordon Rattray Taylor. In his The Great Evolution Mystery, Taylor considered the various cases of different species who shared the same environment, such as the various species of cichlid fish in the Great Lakes in Africa as part of his general argument that Natural Selection was unable to explain the development and emergence of different species. That, however, does not necessarily mean that the new theory is correct, and that all that is required for evolutionary process is sexual selection. It will, however, be interesting to see how this new study is accepted by scientists.

‘Focus’ Magazine on the ‘Dawn of Life’

March 16, 2008

There’s an interesting item over at Atheism Sucks at http://atheismsucks.blogspot.com/2008/03/john-horgan-in-beginning.html on an article the science journalist John Horgan wrote some time ago on the problems of current theories on the origin of life.  Five years ago in 2003 the British popular science magazine, Focus, also did a feature on the origin of life by their writer, Robert Matthews. This covered the famous Miller-Urey experiment, various extremophiles such as Deinococcus radiodurans, a bacterium discovered in 1956 by the American microbiologist Arthur Anderson that can survive levels of radiation that will kill a human instantly, and four of the major figures in the discussion of the origin of life. These were Anaximander, who considered that life had spontaneously emerged from mud to produce fish, and then every other creature when the fish moved onto dry land; Leeuwenhoek for his discovery of microscopic creatures, confirmed by Hooke; Louis Pasteur, for proving that spontanous generation did not occur and that disease was caused by germs passing from organism to organism; and Oswald Avery, Colin MacLeod and Maclyn McCarty. The article credited Avery, MacLeod and McCarty for showing in 1944 at the Rockefeller Institute in New York that ‘a simple molecule called deoxyribonucleic acid – or DNA – found in the nucleus of living cells is the key to life’ for carrying the genetic instructions for organisms to reproduce themselves. 1 This is quite remarkable, given the way that Crick and Watson’s work on DNA is usually mentioned to the exclusion of all the other researchers. It also included a brief interview with Graham Cairns-Smith, one of the foremost researchers on the origin of life. It also briefly discussed Dr. Freeman Dyson’s theory that life evolved twice. It also included a brief overview of ‘seven of the most popular theories currently being debated’ – the RNA world, primordial soup, life from clay, PNA theory, hydrothermal vents, panspermia and Creationism. These overviews were just a paragraph long, though the piece on the Miller-Urey experiment, ‘A Landmark Experiment’, ran over four pages. 2

The Miller-Urey Experiment

The article was certainly not pessimistic about the possibility of discovering the origin of life. While it stated that ‘as a demonstration of how to create life, Miller’s experiment could be dismissed as a heroic failure’ it considered that ‘its real significance lies not in results, but in its approach. For millennia the solution to the mystery of the origin of life seemed beyond reach. It was Miller who brought it into the lab – a nd began one of humanity’s most exciting scientific quests.’ 3 Nevertheless, the feature noted the same problems with the theories as John Horgan. Although Time magazine declared when Miller and Urey’s results were published in Science in 1953 that ‘If the apparatus had been as big as the ocean, and if it had worked for a million years instead of one week, it might have created something like the first living molecule’, the results were not nearly as good as was believed. 4

The article notes that while the experiment did create six types of amino acid, only two – glycine and alanine – had any known relevance. As for amino acides, while they’re life’s building blocks, by the 1950s they were, as merely constituents of proteins, far from ‘living molecules’ and had lost their status as the master molecules of life to DNA. Specifically, they were not self-replicating, a key feature of any ‘living molecule’. Miller did not produce any DNA, nor even the A, C, G and T nucleotides. ‘As Miller himself acknowledged, the chemicals produced were as far from life as a pile of bricks is from being a humming metropolis.’ 5 Instead of the reducing atmosphere of hydrogen, methane and ammonia, astronomers instead theorised that the atmosphere on the early Earth was probably composed of nitrogen, carbon dioxide and water. Any methane and ammonia was probably destroyed by the light of the primordial sun. ‘When Miller and others ran the experiment with this chemically neutral mix, they only produced traces of glycine, the simplest amino acid.’ 6

The ‘Double Origin’ Theory

The ‘double origin’ theory for the emergence of life, as formulated by Freeman Dyson, suggests that the first lifeforms were protein-like molecules, which gradually evolved more sophisticated metabolisms, passing on their abilities to other proteins using enzymes as a primitive form of genetics. Later, more sophisticated genetic molecules like DNA emerged that were able to reproduce their traits much more accurately, but still lacked sophisticated metabolisms. However, eventually the proteins and the genetic molecules fused in a symbiotic relationship that produced life forms with a sophisticated metabolism and genetics. However, Dyson admits ‘that his ‘double origin’ theory is a highly speculative one, but scientists concede that today’s cells do show combinations of simpler life-forms’. 7 Thus, the paragraph on the ‘Primordial Soup’ concluded that ‘while teh primordial soup expected on the early Earth can create some of the most basic building blocks for life, it seems incapable of generating the crucial self-replicating molecules like DNA.’ 8

The RNA World

Most of the other theories discussed also had serious flaws. The RNA world, proposed in the 1980s, after it was discovered that RNA could act as catalyst and not just a carrier of genetic information, considers that the earliest life forms were naked genes of RNA. However, the article noted that while RNA can be persuaded to evolve new abilities, such as limited self-replication and the ability to link amino acids together, it so far has not demonstrated itself able to replicate itself completely as required for life on Earth. 9

Life from Clay

Graham Cairns-Smith’s own theory was that life was originally based on chemicals more robust than DNA, such as the clay mineral, kaolite. In this view, the first genes were defects in the crystal structure of these clays that were passed on to successive generations of crystals as they formed. However, there is no experimental evidence, according to the article, that clays really can replicate in this way. 10

Interestingly, the brief interview with Cairns-Smith suggests that the distinction drawn by some opponents of Intelligent Design between the origin of life and Darwinism is not accepted by all scientists. While Darwin himself did not discuss the origin of life, but merely speculated in a letter to a friend in 1871 that it may have occurred ‘in some warm little pond, with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, light, heat, electricity present’, Cairns-Smith himself stated that the process involved Natural Selection. 11 In answer to the question ‘What is your advice to anyone thinking of entering this area of research?’, Cairns-Smith answered ‘Oh, to forget about the chemistry of life as it is now and look creatively for the simplest real chemical systems that can evolve through natural selection, whatever they are made of.’ 12 It thus appears from Cairns-Smiths comments that however different the process of the origin of life may be from the evolution of living organisms, it is still held to be the product of Natural Selection.

The PNA World

The PNA theory arose from the work of Peter Nielsen of the University of Copenhagen in 1991. Nielsen used computers to design a molecule – Peptide Nucleic Acid, or PNA – that had the both the structure of DNA and the chemical abilities of proteins. He was intending to use it for cancer therapy, but its combination of the genetic quality of DNA and the resilience of proteins appealed to scientists struggling to discover the compounds that would have been suitable for the origin of life on Earth. PNA does share with DNA some limited capability for self-replication, but nothing on the scale of DNA. 13

Hydrothermal Vents

Regarding the origin of life around hydrothermal vents, while these do have iron sulphide, which performs a key process in living organisms by linking up amino acids, the extreme heat inside the vents, which exceeds 300 degrees Celsius, rapidly tears apart amino acids and DNA. Nevertheless, William Martin and his colleagues at the University of Dusseldorf in 2003 suggested that key reactions may still occur in cavities inside iron sulphide cells in the vents. 14

Panspermia

The paragraph on panspermia – the theory that life was seeded on Earth by comets and meteors from elsewhere in the cosmos –  noted that it was first proposed by Victorian scientists, and that its supporters included Francis Crick and Fred Hoyle. Its propnents argued that the discovery of amino acides in meteorites and bacteria high up in the Earth’s atmosphere support the theory. However, although this solved the problem of the origin of life on Earth, it was considered to be a ‘cop-out’ by many scientists because it pushed the problem away into deep space. 15

Creationism

As for Creationism, the article merely stated that it was ‘the oldest theory for the origin of life – and the simplest to explain: God did it.’ 16

Conclusion: Materialist Solutions of the Origin of Life Problematic

Thus, while the article certainly wasn’t as pessimistic about the possibility of discovering a materialist solution to the origin of life, it was clear that all the scientific theories presented had major flaws. The mention of Creationism alongside the materialist scientific theories is interesting. It’s clear that the article wasn’t written from a Creationist standpoint, and broadly supported the search for a materialist solution to the problem of the origin of life. Nevertheless, it seems extremely unlikely to me that many science magazines would ever have even mentioned Creationism as a solution at the time, even if merely for the sake of completeness, because of the threat that it is held to present to materialist science, which is construed and presented as genuine science in opposition to non-materialist approaches. It might have been because Creationism has, until very recently, been very much a minority point of view in Britain, though one that has been vigorously attacked over the past decades by Richard Dawkins, amongst others. With the growth of interest in Intelligent Design since the 1980s, I do wonder if Creationism would now be mentioned without an explicit condemnation, even in passing, in a British popular science magazine.

Notes

1. Robert Matthews, ‘History of Pondering Life’s Origins’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 39.

2. Matthews, ‘A Landmark Experiment’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, pp. 38-41.

3. Matthews, ‘A Landmark Experiment’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 41.

4. Matthews, ‘A Landmark Experiment’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 40.

5. Matthews, ‘A Landmark Experiment’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, pp. 40-41.

6. Matthews, ‘A Landmark Experiment’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 41.

7. Matthews, ‘Has Life Originated More than Once on Earth?’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 41.

8. Matthews, ‘How Did Life Get Started – Seven of the Most Popular Theories Currently being Debated’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 42.

9. Matthews, ‘How Did Life Get Started – Seven of the Most Popular Theories Currently being Debated’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 42.

10. Matthews, ‘How Did Life Get Started – Seven of the Most Popular Theories Currently being Debated’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 42.

11. Matthews, ‘Meet the Origin of Life Expert’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 41.

12. Matthews, ‘Meet the Origin of Life Expert’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 41.

13. Matthews, ‘How Did Life Get Started – Seven of the Most Popular Theories Currently being Debated’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 42.

14. Matthews, ‘How Did Life Get Started – Seven of the Most Popular Theories Currently being Debated’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 43.

15. Matthews, ‘How Did Life Get Started – Seven of the Most Popular Theories Currently being Debated’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 43.

16. Matthews, ‘How Did Life Get Started – Seven of the Most Popular Theories Currently being Debated’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 43.