Progressive. Queer. Feminist. Opinionated.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Christianity v. Science

I like to read ultra-fundamentalist Christian sites because I cannot reconcile the fact that the Fundamentalists are so keen to dismiss the parts of science they don't like and keep the bits that they like (i.e. modern medicine, cars, ect). It bothers me a lot because I am a chemist, I work hard, and I am uncomfortable with people using things that I have worked so hard on when they don't really believe in science.

I suppose it all boils down to the fact that Science is almost its own religion. You have your dogma and your nice little stories chock full of metaphor to describe what you can't explain (like the idea of chemical bonds as neat little sticks...). To the Fundamentalists we are competition because they don't understand that we all believe in God, though in some cases it is a deist view of God. There is nothing wrong with Deism. It does circumvent the whole Jesus-as-a-son-of-God thing, but God is there. If it's Jesus they're really wanting, they need to understand that Jesus was God's PR guy; God was the scientist. God made things. He/She/It may or may not exert control over time over his/hers/its creations. It is a common belief in the back of scientists' minds that we are studying God's creations and sometimes trying to emulate his processes. We were, after all, made in God's own image, right?

This whole semi-obsession started when I read this article on The Barbados Advocate via The Raw Story. Here is the article I was linked to. The same site also had this article in response to the original one. In the original article there is a section with a broken link, which when I followed the URL led me to Answers in Genesis. AiG, as they abbreviate themselves, is a site devoted to interpreting the Bible almost totally literally and running every issue of modern times through that narrow moral sieve. They seem affiliated to a number of Creationist/Fundementalist/ect publications, including some scientific journals that support their philosophies. They have a whole slew of scientists that agree with their ideals too. Find more in their Q&A section.

Now here's what really riles me up. They have these organic chemists, like Dr. Dwain L. Ford and Dr. Royal Truman, who claim to have scientific evidence for creationism. If you look in Dr. Ford's bio, linked under his name, he makes the claim that

Chemical evolution, based on random activity of molecules, fails to adequately account for the origin of the proteins required for even the simplest known free-living organism, Mycoplasma genitalium. This bacteria has one chromosome, a cell membrane, but lacks a cell wall and has the smallest genome of any known self-replicating organism. It has 470 genes, which contain an average of 1,040 nucleotide base pairs (bp). This implies that the average size protein coded for by these genes contains about 347 amino acids. The probability of forming, by a random assembly method, one such average-size protein molecule containing the amino acid residues in a required sequence is only 1/10^451.

If the earth were made of pure carbon it would contain only about 10^50 carbon atoms, but more than 10^451 carbon atoms would be needed in order to make enough amino acids to form the proteins to achieve the probability of producing one protein molecule with the prescribed sequence. In other words, it would require an amount of carbon about 10^401 times the size of the earth in order to achieve the probability of forming one required protein molecule with the specifications above! Realizing that the probability of producing proteins by a random assembly method is exceedingly small, some have proposed that DNA was formed by chemical evolution first and then it was used to direct the synthesis of the protein. This trades one problem for another. The random assembly of a gene containing 1,040 bp to code for a specified protein would be likely to require as much or more carbon than it would to make the protein directly by a random assembly method.

What he's saying is that there isn't enough carbon hanging around to form enough random compounds to hit on the right biomolecules to make the simplest organism.

The trouble he gets into asserting this is that he's only thinking of chemistry as what has only been discovered so far as part of organic reactions. For example, organic chemistry researchers have been looking into alternative methods to do common reactions. In recent chemistry history whole new branches have been added, such as solid state chemistry (chemistry done on solids instead of aqueous or organic solutions) and even "green" chemistry where reactions are done in solvent that is then completely recycled to even no solvent at all. The other thing he doesn't seem to be taking into account is that at no point in Earth's history were any of the elements floating free, all pH's within biological limits, all temperatures mild, or anything. Young Earth, as most scientists have it, had an oxygen-rich atmosphere, water on the surface and a multitude of temperatures and pH's depending on the environment (for example, volcanic activity under water creates acids and dissolution of certain rocks and minerals can make basic solutions.) He is looking at the problem in a linear fashion instead of the big picture. When any reaction is run, even with just two reagents, unless the conditions are just right a mix (sometimes a horrific mix) of products can form. So even starting from simple reagents, huge polymers can form. In an aqueous environment, big organic molecules aggregate, or clump up. Eventually you get nice little organic pockets (though also "tar," a mix of organics that are irreparably stuck together) that have any molecule that they come in contact with. Over millions of years and exposure to all sorts of nice energy sources (even light can cause some amazing chemistry so imagine what a volcano or a lightning bolt can cause) some really amazing stuff can form.

In fact in organic teaching lab my sophomore year, we did a Freidle-Crafts alkylation (this reaction attaches a carbon chain to an aromatic molecule, in my case p-xylene, which is benzene with two methyl groups positioned opposite each other) experiment under both kinetic and thermodynamic control to demonstrate just what adding alot of energy will do. The kinetic control was kept at a mild temperature and yielded mostly the desired single alkylation. The other reaction was blasted at high heat and yielded...well...magic. It was processed through a GC/MS machine. GC/MS stands for Gas Chromatograph Mass Spectrometer. Basically what it does is separate the sample by mass and then hit it with special particles to make the molecules break down. Each molecule has a signature breakdown pattern so you can try and figure out what you have. After analyzing my spectra, I discovered I had all of my expected products and them lots and lots of others with splitting patterns that made no sense. Like, we're talking loss of aromaticity (a very very unfavorable change if we're talking strict bond energies) and other crazy crazy rearranging tricks.

The moral of that science-heavy anecdote is that we know nothing about chemistry outside of controlled lab experiments.

Well, that was actually hyperbole. There was the Miller-Urey Experiment. Basically, in 1953, some scientists wanted to see what would happen in a similar young Earth environment. They made up the atmosphere and water with all of the right stuff in it to be a reasonable model. Then, they applied electrical current to the system analogous to the current that flowed through the atmosphere of Young Earth. What happened? Amino Acids happened. Just like that. The implications? A bad enough lightning storm or, really any kind of huge energy jolt, could have jump started life.

What's worse is that these scientists are openly hostile to "non-believing" scientists. Take this link. Someone write rebutting their position and they answer in scripture and half-answers instead of facts. I hate to be elitist, but these chemists aren't published in any journals aside from their own narrow religiously monitored ones. Not only that, but if you read their publications, they don't read terribly professionally. They are geared to emotionally manipulate. Science is based on unemotional judgement, not jerking around people with honest religious convictions. Dr. Truman seems to make a hobby of this, publishing for True.Origins here and here.

The half-answers really get to me too. Let's look at some of those half-answers.

The creationists' favorite game, even out of their own territory (they actually made it to Scientific American and offered up a decent article advocating intelligent design, though the Evolutionists actually had scientific data), is bringing up parts and mechanisms in nature "too complex" to occur by chance. Here are some Dr. Ford offers up:

Evidence for intelligent design is widespread in nature. For example:
a The motorized rotating flagellum of some bacteria.
b Blood clotting and its control.
c The high degree of organization within a typical cell.
d Cell division and its control.
e The system for protein synthesis.
f The human eye.
g The respiratory chain based in the highly organized mitochondria.
h The biosynthetic pathway in which acetyl CoA is the key compound.

You'll notice that many of these only really apply to higher organisms where they could have devoloped by normal old evolution; something doesn't work, you die before you breed. That can also explain the flagellum; one day some bacteria mutated and got a stalky thing. A couple million generations later, the stalky thing can wiggle. And so on and so forth. Cell division and organization can also be adequately reconciled if you buy into the accepted theory that advanced cells began as symbiotic colonies of all different organisms (ala Volvox). This also explains why mitochondria have genetic material. I will concede that I have no answer to the Acetyl CoA pathway. I'm not the greatest biochemist so to me enzymes are like magic little reagents. The human eye is my favorite though. Both sides have adopted it because it's complicated but highly flawed. For instance, no other animals that I know of have blind spots. Those blind spots are caused by the fact that our eyes are wired inside-out, resulting in a break in the receptors. More arguments against this "irreducible complexity," as Intelligent Design advocates call it, can be found at Talk Reason here.

Ah, I'm tired. I think that's enough. My brain is all melty.


Blogger julianatheorize said...

Hee. The word "volvox" amuses me.

You've probably been here, but This site is pretty cool.


12:06 PM

Blogger Hipkitten said...

Well said! It's nice to know there are other thinking people in this world.

1:02 PM

Anonymous vt_slayer said...

I have an uncle who loves to argue in pseudo-scientific terms. One of his favorite arguments is a misapplication of the principle of entropy, claiming that it is impossible to get something more complex from something less so. When I pointed out that it was entirely possible to create localized decreases in entropy by applying energy he said "Well, I don't understand all the science of it. But my brother, who is one of the most brilliant people I know, has done a serious study of this, and he's satisfied that..." Ah, the good ol' appeal to authority.

4:57 PM

Anonymous David said...

I liked your post; i'm in the evolutionary biology side of things, and don't know nearly enough about abiogenesis. I was taken aback slightly by one thing you said about scientists;

"To the Fundamentalists we are competition because they don't understand that we all believe in God, though in some cases it is a deist view of God."

I am definitely not a deist; i don't beleive in any kind of god at all, and there are many others like me in the sciences, so i found that section a bit perplexing. I know that atheism doesn't have as much publicity as Christianity et al., but i'm surprised that you haven't come across someone with no interest or beleif in a deity at all, and am wondering if i've misinterpreted that part of your post.

3:44 AM

Blogger Ion said...

I was referring to the fact that underneath all the "atheism" in science, most people believe that one unstoppable driving force began everything and then things went from there. I.E. something caused the Big Bang and then everything went from there. If you believe that matter was always there and that nothing caused the Big Bang and that it just happened (possiblly because it was entropically very favorable) then you are truly an atheist, I guess. But that gets into physics, which is not my area.

In short I was trying to look at it from a perspective where Science and Christianity really go toe to to and that underneath it all, the God created everything versus something caused the Big Bang theories are not all that dissimilar aside from the specifics. A professor of mine once pointed that out to me and it's an interesting notion.

10:26 AM


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