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Prominent Retraction Vindicates Stephen Meyer and Signature in the Cell

David Klinghoffer

Jack Szostak

Ann Gauger struck the right note here yesterday with the news of a major retraction of a 2016 paper by Nobel laureate Jack Szostak, of Harvard Medical School, in Nature Chemistry. He and his postdoc Tivoli Olsen, who showed that his results couldn’t be duplicated, deserve kudos for candor and self-correction.

Of interest, too, is that the retraction serves to vindicate an argument Stephen Meyer made back in 2009 with Signature in the Cell. See, especially, Chapter 14 (“The RNA World”) which discusses Szostak’s work. The 2016 paper, obviously, isn’t covered by Meyer there. But at the time, criticism suggested that Szostak and others were fast closing in on a solution to the origin-of-life problem with the “principle of RNA self-replication,” touted by Szostak in, for example, a 2009 Scientific American article. Following the publication of Meyer’s book, Szostak himself criticized “anti-evolution ID” for science “denial.” He observed, “this kind of denial is a dangerous thing; denial of reality is extremely bad for the future of our country (and our world).”

So we’ve heard. Yet his own preferred solution to life’s origin, “non-enzymatic replication of RNA,” exists on what appears to be an ever-receding horizon. Szostak and his colleagues wrote:

The non-enzymatic replication of RNA is thought to have been a critical process required for the origin of life. One unsolved difficulty with non-enzymatic RNA replication is that template-directed copying of RNA results in a double-stranded product. After strand separation, rapid strand reannealing outcompetes slow non-enzymatic template copying, which renders multiple rounds of RNA replication impossible. Here we show that oligoarginine peptides slow the annealing of complementary oligoribonucleotides by up to several thousand-fold; however, short primers and activated monomers can still bind to template strands, and template-directed primer extension can still occur, all within a phase-separated condensed state, or coacervate. Furthermore, we show that within this phase, partial template copying occurs even in the presence of full-length complementary strands. This method to enable further rounds of replication suggests one mechanism by which short non-coded peptides could have enhanced early cellular fitness, and potentially explains how longer coded peptides, that is, proteins, came to prominence in modern biology.

That’s the result that has now been retracted.

Meyer wrote in Signature in the Cell, following an analysis of Szostak’s research:

As I have investigated various models that combined chance and necessity, I have noted an increasing sense of futility and frustration arising amongst scientists who work on the origin of life. As I surveyed the literature, it became clear that this frustration had been building for many years.

I began to reflect on the failure of these simulations to explain the DNA enigma apart from the guidance of intelligent scientists. I wondered if they hadn’t inadvertently provided evidence for a radically different approach to the problem of biological information. This led me back to where I had started — to the idea of intelligent design and to a consideration of the scientific case in its favor.

That is exactly what happened with the retraction story. Szostak by his own admission was “incredibly excited” by the outcome of his work. But as Retraction Watch puts it, “the team had misinterpreted the initial data.” It was “definitely embarrassing,” as Szostak concedes. “In retrospect, we were totally blinded by our belief.” Again, as Dr. Gauger notes, his honesty is to be praised.

But what is that about being “blinded” by “belief”? I hear an echo of his remarks on intelligent design and its peril, in which he added the comment, “I think that belief systems based on faith are inherently dangerous, as they leave the believer susceptible to manipulation when skepticism and inquiry are discouraged.”

As he now admits, though, it was his own team that was led astray by “belief.”

Meanwhile in the origin-of-life community, the sense of what Meyer called “futility and frustration” persists. And Signature in the Cell remains the preeminent guide for explaining OOL scientists’ perplexity, while proposing an alternative approach. One wishes, as Brian Miller says today, that they would put aside materialist bias, embrace genuine “skepticism and inquiry,” and seriously consider that alternative.

Photo: Jack Szostak, by Markus Pössel (Mapos) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.