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#10 of Our Top Stories of 2015: Researcher Is Caught in a Wonderful Freudian Slip on Intelligent Design

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Editor's note: Welcome to the traditional recounting of our Top 10 evolution-related stories of the past year, as compiled in a rigorous, peer-reviewed, strictly scientific manner by Evolution News staff. Sit back and enjoy the most amusing, the most enlightening, and the most important news to come our way in 2015. The countdown will culminate on New Year's Day.

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Published originally on July 1, 2015.

Here is a video of a lecture, delivered last year at Case Western University, by University of Akron origin-of-life researcher Nita Sahai. Her subject is "The Origins of Life: From Geochemistry to Biochemistry." She starts by making a comment that I agree with: "One of the most fundamental and profound questions that all human societies have asked from prehistory until now is where did we come from." She then gives a highly competent presentation of various issues in the origin of life, including a nice discussion of the "chicken and egg" problem of "which came first: replication or metabolism?"

Offering more criticisms of the RNA world hypothesis, she admits that RNA self-replication has never been achieved, nor has monomer polymerization to yield RNA enzymes. Dr. Sahai seems to like the model that minerals led to the origin of life -- something like the infamous "on the backs of crystals" model that Michael Ruse prefers.

Towards the end of the video (around 48:30) she lists some of the different types of molecules that would need to be coordinated to form life, including (as she puts it), "four nucleotides, twenty amino acids, ... a few lipids ..., several clays and other minerals." She then calls the task of getting just the right components to form life in a lab experiment "a combinatorial nightmare" and says "we need to use intelligent -- not intelligent design," at which point she looks a tad bit embarrassed and is immediately and abruptly interrupted by another professor who wants to rescue her and help her find better wording. He tells her to say "careful selection," so she then settles on the wording: "We need to carefully select which nucleotides to start with, which amino acids and minerals..."

But if you look up the etymology of the word "intelligence" then we find that it comes from the Latin word intellegentia which has the roots "inter" (meaning "between") and "leg?" (meaning "choose, pick out, read") which together translate literally, as "the act of choosing between." The meaning of "intelligent design" might just as well be rendered as "to carefully choose or select."

So we have here an origin-of-life researcher admitting the "combinatorial nightmare" faced by researchers trying to model the origin of life in the lab, and then admitting that "intelligent design" -- I mean "careful selecting" -- is needed to do this.

But if this is such a nightmare for smart researchers like Nita Sahai working in the lab, what makes us think that blind and unguided processes can do the job? The answer, classically, is time. Yet during her talk, Sahai admits that life arose "very early" in earth's history. The combinatorial nightmare and the lack of time to solve it via undirected chemical reactions is perhaps the biggest problem facing origin-of-life theorists.

Image: Sigmund Freud, by Ferdinand Schmutzer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.