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Imagine How It Happened! "Evolution Presents" the Ribosome, "Nature’s Masterpiece"

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NASA and Georgia Tech have joined up to make a really tedious animated short film about ribosome evolution, posted on NASA’s Astrobiology Magazine website: "Evolution Presents: Nature’s Masterpiece, the Ribosome." But what the video lacks in production quality, it makes up for in self-contradiction.

The diagrams of ribosomal subunits in the clip are fine, but they do nothing to support the contention that the ribosome evolved by unguided processes before life appeared. Each of the six subunits is composed of thousands of parts, exhibiting specified complexity for function. The film acknowledges that the ribosome:

  • is found in every living system on earth,
  • synthesizes all protein in all biology,
  • uses the same genetic code always,
  • has the same 3D structure in all living systems.

And the point is? Without the assertions of evolution, nothing in the article or video would lead a neutral observer to conclude that the ribosome is the product of gradual, unguided processes. One might just as well assume that because an internal combustion engine is found in every gasoline-powered vehicle on Earth, a motorcycle, a three-wheel car, a small sedan, a station wagon, a limousine, and a bus emerged from each other by small, gradual variations.

It’s important to remember that chance alone is all these astrobiologists have to work with. No natural selection was possible until a cell existed with a genetic code already in place, capable of accurate replication. The ribosomal RNAs are encoded by genes, using the same genetic code that evolution needs to explain. How did that happen?

Loren Williams, the mastermind of this animation shot "on location in the prebiotic Earth" (obviously untrue), presents himself as the "Voice of Reason" in the credits. He studied ribosomes in archaea, yeast, fruit flies, and humans. Because the "bus" version has more parts than the "motorcycle" version, he assumes one evolved out of the other:

The common core of the ribosome is essentially the same in humans, yeast, bacteria and archaea — in all living systems. The Georgia Tech team has shown that as organisms evolve and become more complex, so do their ribosomes. Humans have the largest and most complex ribosomes. But the changes are on the surface — the heart of a human ribosome the same as in a bacterial ribosome.

"The translation system is the operating system of life," Williams said. "At its core the ribosome is the same everywhere. The ribosome is universal biology." (Emphasis added.)

Williams must be oblivious to how unconvincing these statements are. Let us point out some of the ways:

  • "Universal biology" can imply universal design just as easily as it might imply universal common ancestry. If the "heart of a human ribosome" includes a "common core" that is the same as that in a bacterial ribosome, one could rationally conclude that both refer back to the same intelligent cause.
  • No "operating system" in the world is the product of blind, unguided processes. Intelligent designers produced DOS, Windows, iOS, Linux, and all the rest. Even early "machine language" was intelligently designed. We can carry this history back to Turing and even Babbage, the early pioneers of programmable code. They were highly intelligent men who would be insulted by the idea that operating systems emerge by chance.
  • A system that can translate one code into another code requires even more intelligent design.

To this we might add that Bach’s organ music that the production team used in their film was intelligently designed, too. Was there anything about this film clip that was not intelligently designed? (Aside from the evolutionary assertions, that is.)

The only toe-hold for Darwinian theory is the observation that all the ribosomes studied have a "common core" —

"We learned some of the rules of the ribosome, that evolution can change the ribosome as long as it does not mess with its core," Williams said. "Evolution can add things on, but it can’t change what was already there."

Even that assertion is suspect. Why could not evolution change what was already there? Evolution seems capable of doing anything its supporters imagine it can. If the cores had been found to differ between archaea and humans, Williams would undoubtedly use that as evidence for evolution. Besides, there are no "rules of the ribosome" that force unguided, blind processes into obedience.

This "common core" argument is unconvincing as well, because the needs of humans, yeast, bacteria, and archaea are different. A modern SUV might need a navigation system, four-wheel drive, air-conditioning, and other systems that a Model T got along without, even if the common core (internal combustion engine) is similar.

There are even more reasons to reject the evolutionary hypothesis in the PNAS paper on which the film was based. The authors provide no evidence that the "common core" (Phase 1 in the film) of the large ribosomal subunit (LSU) was able to do anything on its own. There is a small ribosomal subunit (SSU) that has to match it. Even more important, a ribosome is useless without a genome! How do they handle that? "In our model, the LSU has evolved in distinct phases," the paper speculates. "This process started with the formation of the P site, possibly in an RNA world, and continues today in eukaryotes." So they lean on the RNA world scenario, which we have shown many times is untenable. This is recognized even by evolutionists, such as Niles Lehman, whom Casey Luskin quoted as saying, "The odds of suddenly having a self-replicating RNA pop out of a prebiotic soup are vanishingly low." This stops the tale before it even starts.

The authors try to make the "common core" look small and simple, but the LSU of the simplest bacterium contains on the order of 3,000 nucleotides. The small rRNA subunit (SSU) contains another 1,500 more. These are much larger (and more complex) than anything that origin-of-life researchers could ever hope for in an RNA world.

Even more problematic for evolution, both ribosomal subunits for the simplest bacterium contain dozens of protein parts integrated with the RNA parts. But the proteins had to be translated by the very ribosome the evolutionists are trying to explain! It’s a profound chicken-and-egg problem that Williams and his co-authors gloss over in their paper.

A unifying theme of LSU evolution is the continuous extension, stabilization, and elaboration of exit tunnel structure and function. The exit tunnel is formed, extended, stabilized, and elaborated continuously in nearly all phases of ribosomal evolution.

We can well ask, what good is an exit tunnel? For one thing, it needs an entrance tunnel. For another, a tunnel needs to go somewhere. It also needs passengers that can find the tunnel (and need to). Inside the tunnel, if nothing happens, the passenger goes in and out, none the better for the experience. Just a little reflection shows how stupefyingly simplistic this description is.

Further knowledge of ribosomal function, though, tosses the scenario out of court. Recall the animation in the film Unlocking the Mystery of Life where a messenger RNA enters the ribosome, then matching transfer RNAs line up to assemble amino acids according to their triplet-sized matches of the genetic code. Even in that simplified depiction, the inference to "intelligent design and manufacture" is inescapable.

The translation system fits another criterion for intelligent design: it is irreducibly complex. Nothing works without the genetic code, the ribosome, the messenger RNA transcription system, and the transfer RNA translation system all cooperating together. This is true for the simplest "common core" the authors present in their paper. Why doesn’t NASA tell us these things? Why do Williams and Petrov gloss over these details?

As in Cosmos, imagination is the key to NASA/GT’s presentation. "IMAGINE how it happened," the film teases as it begins its deceptive story. Their viewers deserve better science.

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Evolution News & Science Today (EN) provides original reporting and analysis about evolution, neuroscience, bioethics, intelligent design and other science-related issues, including breaking news about scientific research. It also covers the impact of science on culture and conflicts over free speech and academic freedom in science. Finally, it fact-checks and critiques media coverage of scientific issues.



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