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On Origin of Life and More, Ideological Correctness Plagues Science

Michael Egnor

science

There’s an interesting essay at Live Science by Ian O’Neill, asking “Was the Origin of Life a Fluke? Or Was it Physics?” He discusses origin-of-life research, but the restriction of the possible explanations to either “fluke” or “physics” is bizarre:

Understanding the origin of life is arguably one of the most compelling quests for humanity. This quest has inevitably moved beyond the puzzle of life on Earth to whether there’s life elsewhere in the universe. Is life on Earth a fluke? Or is life as natural as the universal laws of physics?

He discusses the work of Jeremy England, an MIT physicist who, says O’Neill, has advanced an argument that spontaneous emergence of life from inorganic matter can be explained by “dissipation-driven adaptation,” which is the ability of molecules to self-organize and absorb and release heat. The impression one takes away of England’s work is that it reflects diligence in public relations and self-marketing.

O’Neill:

Jeremy England, a biophysicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is trying to answer these profound questions. In 2013, he formulated a hypothesis that physics may spontaneously trigger chemicals to organize themselves in ways that seed “life-like” qualities.

Now, new research by England and a colleague suggests that physics may naturally produce self-replicating chemical reactions, one of the first steps toward creating life from inanimate substances.

This might be interpreted as life originating directly from the fundamental laws of nature, thereby removing luck from the equation. But that would be jumping the gun.

Life had to have come from something; there wasn’t always biology. Biology is born from the raw and lifeless chemical components that somehow organized themselves into prebiotic compounds, created the building blocks of life, formed basic microbes and then eventually evolved into the spectacular array of creatures that exist on our planet today. [7 Theories on the Origin of Life]

“Abiogenesis” is when something nonbiological turns into something biological and England thinks thermodynamics might provide the framework that drives life-like behavior in otherwise lifeless chemicals. However, this research doesn’t bridge life-like qualities of a physical system with the biological processes themselves, England said.

“I would not say I have done anything to investigate the ‘origin of life’ per se,” England told Live Science. “I think what’s interesting to me is the proof of principle – what are the physical requirements for the emergence of life-like behaviors?”

O’Neill explains some of England’s work in more detail, but he is unconvincing. England’s work seems to have nothing to do with the origin of life: the emergence of life from inorganic matter is such an astonishing leap that “self-organization” doesn’t even begin to offer a credible explanation. It’s like trying to explain the origin of computers by pointing out that silicon crystallizes naturally. If you want to know how computers came about, you need to know about Turing and von Neumann and Shannon and Gates. Silicon self-organization doesn’t explain a lot.

The most parsimonious explanation for the origin of life is that it was designed. And of course, design should be included in any intelligent honest discussion of origin-of-life theories. Why is it not? Why is design almost universally excluded from ideologically correct scientific discourse?

It’s remarkable how much the turmoil today in the political world mirrors the turmoil that we in the ID movement have been living with in the past few decades in the scientific world. Just as people who express politically incorrect opinions are now targeted for personal and professional ruin, scientists who express ideologically incorrect opinions about the information and obvious design manifest in nature and in biology have been targeted for personal vilification and professional ruin. Expressing the wrong opinion on political topics can get you expelled from your job or your social circle, just as expressing the wrong opinion about design in biology or astronomy could get you excluded from “consensus science” or get you expelled from your job.

Just as political correctness stifles honest productive political discourse, ideological correctness stifles honest productive science. Darwinist Richard Lewontin famously expressed this ideological correctness with an astonishing candor:

Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.

In the ideologically correct world of origin-of-life science, materialism is indeed absolute. Its constructs, such as the nonsense that life must have arisen from non-life by a mere undirected unintelligent physical process, are indeed “patently absurd,” to use Lewontin’s remarkably honest phrase.

The evidence for intelligent design is everywhere in nature. Intelligent design is manifest in the very creation of the universe ex nihilo, in the natural laws that govern inanimate matter, in the origin of life from inorganic matter, in the genetic code and the intricate nanotechnology inside every cell of every living thing, in the human mind with our astonishing ability to contemplate the most profound abstractions and to ask the most fundamental questions about our own origins and purposes, and in our implicit and inescapable recognition of a Moral Law that stands independently of our passions and desires.

All of nature, from atoms to man’s highest aspirations, manifests design.

Ideological correctness plagues and limits science. It is a relatively new impediment — the great scientists of the Scientific Revolution, almost to a man, scoffed at atheism and materialism and understood their work as a quest to understand the mind of God.

Origin-of-life researchers should acknowledge that design, rather than unintelligent physical processes, is the most scientific reasonable explanation for the emergence of life from inorganic matter. Design is the inference most consistent with the form and purpose that permeates all of nature and the inference that best satisfies Occam’s razor. Inference to design has enormous explanatory power, which is a hallmark of good science.

Just as political correctness has no place in our free society, ideological correctness has no place in honest science. We need to keep calling out ideological correctness in science for what it is, and we need to keep defying it by just telling the truth about design in nature.

Photo: Clownfish and sea anenomes, by Jan Derk [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.