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Great Expectations: Origins in Science Education

Photo source: Science Museum, London / Science and Society Picture Library, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

Synthetic organic chemist James Tour is currently hosting an online YouTube course on abiogenesis, the claim that non-living chemicals came together on the early Earth to form a living organism. This excursion through many of the misunderstandings and pitfalls of origin of life research is a great introduction for those new to the topic and a helpful refresher for those already acquainted with the issues.

One of the points that jumped out at me from Tour’s Episode 2, “Primordial Soup,” was a discussion of a recent survey on science understanding by John Narcum, Assistant Professor of Marketing, Arkansas Tech University. Narcum’s survey (results are in pre-publication preparation) included a few questions about origin of life research that caught Tour’s eye — and should catch yours too.

From nearly 700 respondents with an average age of 38 and some 80 percent holding college degrees, there was a serious misunderstanding of the state of origin of life research and the accomplishments of abiogenesis scientists in the lab. More than 41 percent of respondents thought that origin of life researchers had created “complex life forms from scratch,” such as frogs, using simple chemicals and conditions that “approximate Earth’s early atmosphere.” Remarkably, more than 72 percent of respondents thought origin of life researchers had created “simple life forms from scratch,” such as bacteria.

Wildly Wrong

To put it kindly, the respondents’ great expectations about the accomplishments of origin of life researchers are wrong. Wildly so.

Origin of life researchers have not created a frog or a bacterium from simple chemicals in the lab under early Earth conditions. They haven’t created a functional membrane, or a ribosome, or flagella or cilia, or any of dozens of additional parts and molecular machines required for even the simplest living bacterium, not to mention the required coded information in DNA underlying the system.

“But those are hard problems,” you might protest, “origin of life researchers are working on it.” Fine. However, as I pointed out in the recent book Evolution and Intelligent Design in a Nutshell, despite the sometimes misleading titles of published papers and hyped headlines, origin of life researchers have not even been able to produce a single self-replicating polymer under realistic early Earth conditions, the critical foundation of the long-touted RNA World approach to abiogenesis.

Those interested can find out more about the challenges to abiogenesis in the book and in Tour’s YouTube course, as well as in the detailed and updated volume out last year, The Mystery of Life’s Origin, but for now, let’s just note the deep irony in these survey results.

The Deep Irony

For years there has been much hand-wringing about the dreadful state of science education in the United States — some of it overblown, some of it well-deserved. Critics of intelligent design and propagandists for the materialistic origins narrative have capitalized on this concern by loudly proclaiming that anyone who dares to question the narrative is “anti-science,” painting the mental image that even questioning the narrative is equivalent to leading us back to the Dark Ages.

How ironic then that a majority of college-educated adults have been led so far astray in their understanding of the sobering realities of abiogenesis research. Why is that? It certainly didn’t come from the skeptics of the naturalistic origin of life story. One might wonder if all those textbook drawings of the Miller-Urey experiment, those discussions of “chemical evolution” on the early Earth, those misleading paper titles by researchers in the field aren’t largely responsible for this sad state of the public’s understanding of this area of science.

Needed: More Grandiose Claims?

One thing is for sure. What we don’t need are more grandiose claims, more simplistic drawings and stories in textbooks about how life arose from non-living chemicals, more assertions in the name of “science” that researchers have just about figured things out, more glossy announcements about “groundbreaking” new research results that in fact raise more questions than they answer. Instead, what our science education needs is a straightforward, honest, assessment of the facts — an objective analysis of the claims, including the shortcomings and pitfalls, of the abiogenesis narrative. This is what high school pupils, college students, and the public at large deserve.

Resources like the recent books from Discovery Institute Press and Tour’s current video series are important tools in raising the level of people’s understanding of this important area of science. Perhaps, we might hope, even correcting some of the intellectual baggage and misconceptions gleaned from the materialistic origins story that pervades current science education.