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Intelligence Is Not Magic. It's a Cause We Know.


Thought experiment: You are a science writer for the Land of Ozma (Ozma being a fictional queen of note in the history of SETI). Your assignment is to explain the origin of life without reference to intelligent design for your munchkin readers, who are all looking to you for enlightenment. The munchkins have a natural inclination to believe in a designer behind the life they see all around them, but they have been taught in school that life emerges naturally. Your job is to reassure them that it does.

One big problem stares you in the face before you write. It's the hard, cold mathematics of probability. As Illustra Media shows in their recent film Origin, getting one functional protein to self-assemble without design is so outrageously, mind-blowingly, inconceivably improbable that it will never happen in uncountable quintillions of universes under the most ideal conditions imaginable -- and that's an understatement! Even if it did happen, it would be one lifeless protein. The same problem exists for DNA, RNA, and the other information-rich molecules of life. Tim Standish is overly kind when he remarks in the film that getting all the components for life in one little membrane-bound compartment at the same place and time is "the next best thing to impossible."

Facing this small difficulty, what do you do? The smart thing would be to quit, saying, "Take this job and shove it" as you storm out the door. Assuming this is your chosen livelihood, however, you can still get paid by using some rhetorical tricks (remember, the job is not to prove it happened, but just to reassure the munchkins it might have happened). If you're looking for a master magician to show you the ropes, you can hardly do better than to follow the example of Michael Gross, a science writer in Oxford, England, who pulls multiple rabbits out of hats in a feature for Current Biology, "How life can arise from chemistry." He tells readers that rabbits naturally emerge from hats without magic. Here are some principles extracted from his article.

Ridicule anyone else's position. Munchkins may become unsettled if they see any other teachers around, so all other contenders must be disqualified. Gross dispenses with them right in his first paragraph, using the straw man tactic. "Life, in many people's view, is special and different from all non-living matter to an extent that ancient cultures tended to credit its existence and astounding diversity to an almighty creator" (emphasis added). No modern munchkin wants to identify with "ancient cultures." In one masterful stroke, Gross equates belief in a creator with being behind the times. He rubs it in with a medieval-looking painting of God calling life into being.

Roll call some heroes. Name-dropping helps you appear to be in good company, even if the names did nothing to help solve the origin of life. Gross conjures up some familiar faces: "Since then [ancient times, that is], Darwin and his successors have rationalised the diversity, Wöhler [who synthesized urea] has shown that the molecules of life are chemicals like everything else, and science has abandoned the ancient concept of a vis vitalis or life force that was supposed to set living matter apart." Notice the use of ancient again.

Side with science, not philosophy. Don't let on that science and philosophy are inseparable. The munchkins need to feel that you intend to tell them about "science" as opposed to "philosophy," which Gross lumps in with religion -- a matter of faith, not fact. Here's how Gross gets the ID folk out of the way, lumping them with the other throwbacks from ancient times:

And yet, to this day, some philosophically inclined authors like to emphasize the 'sense of purpose' of living beings, a resurgent vis vitalis now known as teleonomy, and argue that Darwin does not reveal how organisms 'purposefully' using energy to counter the unifying effects of entropy may have arisen from purely chemical systems simply obeying the laws of thermodynamics.

Cultivate the imagination. We see Gross tickling the imagination in the previous quote, suggesting life "may have arisen" on its own. He continues this practice throughout the article, using may have ten times and could another ten times, along with a smattering of superwords that leap tall impossibilities in a single bound, using the power of suggestion.

Hide your materialism. Materialism? What materialism? I'm not doing philosophy, Gross thinks, when he says that life "may have arisen from purely chemical systems simply obeying the laws of thermodynamics." That's just simple chemistry, not philosophy.

Promise progress. A good rhetorician helps the audience feel they are getting warmer solving a puzzle together. Long forgotten are those laughable probabilistic odds. We're better than those who need that medieval God, he assures the munchkins. We stand with progress! We stand with science! We're getting closer to our goal of understanding! "Rapid progress in investigations into the origin of life is adding to our understanding of how the emergence of evolving systems from prebiotic chemistry may have happened -- without the need for magic." Emergence. Interesting word. Sounds kind of magical.

Hide your party politics. Notice his use of "believed" in the following sentence: "Recently, however, progress in understanding and recreating elements of the RNA world, believed to have been an evolutionary phase preceding and enabling the emergence of DNA and proteins, has advanced to a point where an understanding of how life might arise -- on our planet or on one of the many others that are now being discovered -- comes within our grasp." Believed? Believed by whom? By materialists, of course. Use of a passive voice verb keeps Gross from having to identify the believers. (This one sentence is densely packed with several of the rhetorical tricks above.)

Use jargon sparingly. Toss in a few unfamiliar words here and there to create an air of sophistication, even if they have nothing to do with the main problem of getting life by chance. Create a "eutectic mix" with ammonium formate; add some formidopyrimidines to the mix, etc. But don't overdo this tactic; your goal is to make everything look simple. Assure them that the "'nightmare' of highly heterogeneous mixtures of chemicals" that pioneers dealt with "may be more manageable than thought." Thought? Thought by whom? By materialists, of course. Progress is in the air! "the RNA world has emerged as a plausible and practical model enabling scientists to study many aspects of the early evolution of life and the functioning of simple life forms," Gross assures readers, furthering an "optimistic view" of the origin of life.

Use your enemy's gun. Notice this trick; he discounted the idea of a "life force," but then turns around and imagines something equivalent: "the initial spark" that ignited life. See this word in the next quote, too.

Remain confident. Gross knows that bravado can backfire, so he backpedals just a bit toward the end. It's OK to admit a little ignorance, as long as you keep the myth of progress going, and pound the pulpit as necessary. Don't ever say "I don't know." Say "We don't know." That brings the munchkins into the collective ignorance. Misery loves company, after all.

We may never know how the spark was lit [Lit? Lit by whom?] that led to some kind of molecular self-propagating, evolving system and onwards to the RNA world and more complex cellular life. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a way in which this initial breakthrough could have left a trace that we might detect.

The important part is, however, that it did happen. It may have happened multiple times in different versions, but seeing that the successful ignition meant an onwards progression of exponential proliferation, a single spark followed by four billion years of evolution would be more than sufficient to explain the entirety of today's biosphere. Even though we may never find a trace of that spark, synthetic chemical thinking can provide us with realistic models of how it may have happened on our own planet and on many others.

The important thing is that it did happen! The impossible odds were overcome! It happened somehow! No magic needed!

We could go on with other tricks of the trade in this article, but you get the point. Gross is an absolute master. He completely ignores the elephant in the room, the probability case against materialism described earlier. Not one aspect of the origin-of-life experiments he describes bears on the question of probability. That question obliterates everything else in his toolkit, making his article an exercise in pure rhetoric, convincing readers that the impossible is somehow possible, given enough imagination.

Gross champions the RNA world, neglecting to tell his readers that Harold S. Bernhardt called it "The worst theory of the early evolution of life (except for all the others)." In Origin, Discovery Institute biologist Ann Gauger explains how delicate RNA is, making it useless for origin-of-life models. Additionally, ribose is devilishly hard to synthesize in plausible early earth conditions, where all kinds of undesirable cross-reactions would quickly destroy it. But worst of all is the sequencing problem: without intelligent guidance, its only "information" must come about by chance -- the same impossibility as with proteins. With these problems in mind, look how Michael Gross explains where the RNA came from: "This could have happened directly, or via some simpler form of evolving molecular system yet to be identified." And this is to be sanctified with the name "science"? Gross has cleared the room of magicians, only to play master magician himself.

Had enough? There's more. Listen to his last sentence: "We [we?] can conclude from all of this that the emergence of life in a universe that provides a suitable set of conditions, like ours does, is an entirely natural process and does not require the postulate of a miracle birth." Take that, you Christian readers out there. Actually, your miracle is too tame for Gross. He multiplies unguided miracles ad infinitum, saying they happen everywhere all the time, by chance.

If you like scientific realism, watch Origin, along with our films Revolutionary, Fire-Maker, and The Information Enigma. Intelligence is neither magic nor a miracle. It is the only cause we know that explains the complex specified information that is abundantly evident in this phenomenon we call life.

Image credit: Strobridge Litho. Co., Cincinnati & New York; restoration by Trialsanderrors and Morn [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.