Faye Flam: Atheist Writer Who is Long on Graciousness, Long on Civility….Short on Reason, Short on Scientific Realities
Faye Flam is an accomplished writer and journalist whose weekly column Planet of the Apes (which “explores the topic of evolution”), appears in the Philadelphia Inquirer. On 12/16/11, Ms. Flam weighed in on the brouhaha about whether or not I mislead readers about the position of Dr. Jack Szostak (Nobel Laureate and Origin of Life researcher), on Intelligent Design theory. I contacted her about the column and on 1/5/12 she was gracious enough to print my clarification of the matter in its entirety. Although she did go on to disagree with me strongly it was done with civility and for that I thank her.
(I also hope I am not out of line for writing that if there are any atheistic car-mechanics out there, I’m sure her picture is hanging in their office.)
In my communication with Ms. Flam, I made it clear that (a) I was not trying to portray Szostak as a supporter of Intelligent Design theory, that (b) if it appeared that way it was unintentional and (c) I apologized for any confusion. The disputed citation from Dr. Szostak’s Scientific American article – “It is virtually impossible to imagine how a cell’s machines…could have formed spontaneously from non-living matter”- was brought as an illustration of the enormous challenges Origin of Life researchers face in trying to find a naturalistic process which would explain how life emerged from non-life, not to demonstrate Jack Szostak’s belief in God. I urge the reader to look at my email that appeared in Planet of the Apes and the full disclaimer I printed in my Algemeiner.com column of 12/22/11. I don’t see how I could have been any clearer.
That should have been the end of it, but for some strange reason Faye seemed unable to let it go: “I appreciate your apology but the Szostak quote you included in your story can’t be reasonably interpreted in any way except as an attempt to connect him to the belief that life can’t possibly have come from non-life through a natural process…the sentiment expressed by this quote is the absolute antithesis of what Dr. Szostak has said many times…” In other words, Ms. Flam felt there was something inherently disingenuous about the fact that I used Szostak’s description of the awesome level of functional complexity of the simplest bacterium to support my position that it is the product of Intelligent Design, while being fully aware that Szostak himself completely denies the possibility of Intelligent Design. Faye, I appreciate your giving me the space in your column to explain my side of the controversy but it seems you have a fundamental misunderstanding of what the real problem is here. Please allow me to elaborate.
The late Dr. Harold P. Klein, of NASA, once wrote something that was remarkably similar to Szostak’s statement: “The simplest bacterium is so damn complicated from the point of view of a chemist that it is almost impossible to imagine how it happened.” I quoted Dr. Klein in my book (by the way Faye, are you going to review it?), and in at least one other article. Do you think I was trying to imply that Dr. Klein supported Intelligent Design theory or was a believer in God the Creator? I certainly was not, and he most certainly did not and was not. One of the greatest chemists alive today, Dr. George Whitesides of Harvard University, also said something remarkably similar to Szostak’s statement.
When Whitesides was awarded the Priestley Medal for Chemistry in 2007 he stated the following in his acceptance speech: “The Origin of Life. This problem is one of the big ones in science. It begins to place life, and us, in the universe. Most chemists believe like I do, that life emerged spontaneously from mixtures of molecules in the prebiotic Earth. How? I have no idea…On the basis of all chemistry I know, it seems to me astonishingly improbable.” If you’ll notice Faye, Dr. Whitesides not only echoes Dr.’s Szostak and Klein about the “virtual impossibility” or “astonishing improbability” of a naturalistic emergence of life from non-life, not only does he admit he has no idea how it might have happened, but he also makes it clear that despite this he still BELIEVES (is that scientific?) “that life emerged spontaneously” from non-life.
Is it starting to become clear? Let’s go further. The late Dr. Robert Shapiro, Professor Emeritus of Chemistry at NYU, once wrote: “the weakest point…is our lack of understanding of the origin of life. No evidence remains that we know of to explain the steps that started life here, billions of years ago.” Dr. Shapiro also wrote that, “The difference between a mixture of simple chemicals and a bacterium is much more profound than the gulf between a bacterium and an elephant.” In 2005, the following email from Dr. Shapiro to “Skip” Evans of the NCSE appeared on the Panda’s Thumb website: “Dear Mr. Evans, I agree with him [Professor Michael Behe, proponent of ID Theory] that conventional origin-of-life theory is deeply flawed. I disagreed with him about the idea that one needed to invoke an intelligent designer or a supernatural cause to find an answer. I do not support intelligent design theories. I believe [is that scientific?] that better science will provide the needed answers.”
Are you starting to see the pattern? Scientists agree that the yawning chasm between life and non-life makes it seem beyond human understanding to find a solution, no one knows how it actually did happen, but they all still BELIEVE (non-scientifically) that it did happen through some undirected process. Faye, the point is that Dr. Jack Szostak is in the exact same position. He has no idea how life began naturalistically – “Understanding how life emerged on Earth is one of the greatest challenges facing modern chemistry.”- but he BELIEVES (non-scientifically) that it did. Dr. Stephen J. Gould, the late, world renowned paleontologist expressed the same, decidedly un-scientific viewpoint:
“The earth is 4.6 billion years old, but the oldest rocks date to about 3.9 billion years because the earth’s surface became molten early in its history…The oldest rocks…to retain cellular fossils [date] to 3.55 billion years…Thus life on the earth evolved quickly and is as old as it could be. [I ask you to pay special attention to Gould’s “scientific” deduction about the Origin of Life:] This fact alone seems to indicate inevitability, or at least predictability, for life’s origin from the original chemical constituents of atmosphere and ocean.”
A simple question: If Dr. George Whitesides has no idea what natural process could have bridged the enormous gap between non-living chemicals and the first bacterium, how can Gould so glibly and cavalierly state that the emergence of life from non-life through an undirected process is inevitable or predictable? Maybe it is not inevitable or predictable at all. Perhaps it is astonishingly improbable. Maybe life arose so quickly, not because it was inevitable, but because it was created. Does Gould know something that Dr’s Whitesides, Klein, and Shapiro don’t? Of course he doesn’t. The obvious answer is that even though Gould hasn’t the slightest idea how it happened, he simply accepts as an article of faith that life emerged through a natural process.
In the words of Origin of Life expert, Dr. Paul Davies: “I should like to say that the scientific attempt to explain the origin of life proceeds from the assumption that whatever it was that happened was a natural process…no supernatural intervention. Scientists have to start with that assumption.” Why do scientists have to start with that assumption? Isn’t it glaringly obvious that the job of a scientist is not to make assumptions, but rather to test assumptions? If Gould or Davies had proposed that based on geological facts, science must test if there is some type of process which could give rise to life very quickly, I would have no objection. The problem with that, of course, is that they would implicitly be admitting the possibility of a non-naturalistic origin of life.
You see Faye, this is why scientists like Szostak sneer contemptuously at Intelligent Design theory; not because it has no basis, but because they have a priori rejected the possibility. This rejection is not based on evidence or reason, (which might give it some scientific basis), it is the psychological/emotional/philosophical commitment to Scientific Naturalism that prevents them from considering the possibility of the existence of a Creator.
Harvard geneticist, Dr. Richard Lewontin, has candidly confessed that: “Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to the understanding of the real struggle between Science and the Supernatural. We take the side of science despite the patent absurdity of some of its constructs…because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to naturalism…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 explanation, 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.”
When Dr. Ken Nealson, microbiologist and Co-Chairman of the Committee on the Origin and Evolution of Life for the National Academy of Sciences stated that: “Nobody understands the Origin of Life, if they say they do, they are probably trying to fool you,” he was talking about Dr. Szostak also. (To his credit, Szostak has never claimed to understand how life began.) Why then do they all believe it? They have FAITH; what else would you call an unshakeable conviction which has no evidence to support its truth?
Where does Science actually stand in this matter? Consider the following:
“The origin of life is one of the hardest problems in all of science, but it is also one of the most important. Origin of Life research has evolved into a lively, interdisciplinary field, but other scientists often view it with skepticism and even derision. This attitude is understandable and, in a sense, perhaps justified, given the “dirty” rarely mentioned secret: Despite many interesting results to its credit, when judged by the straightforward criterion of reaching (or even approaching) the ultimate goal, the origin of life field is a failure – we still do not have even a plausible coherent model, let alone a validated scenario, for the emergence of life on Earth. Certainly, this is not due to lack of experimental and theoretical effort, but to the extraordinary intrinsic difficulty and complexity of the problem. A succession of exceedingly unlikely steps is essential for the origin of life, from the synthesis and accumulation of nucleotides to the origin of translation; through the multiplication of probabilities, these make the final outcome seem almost like a miracle.” (Dr. Eugene V. Koonin, molecular biologist, The Logic of Chance: The Nature and Origin of Biological Evolution, Upper Saddle River, NJ: FT Press, 2011, Page 391)
Incredibly enough, this is almost identical to what Dr. Paul Davies had written years earlier:
“You might get the impression from what I have written not only that the origin of life is virtually impossible [it’s déjà vu all over again], but that life itself is impossible…fortunately for us, our cells contain sophisticated chemical-repair-and-construction mechanisms, and handy sources of chemical energy to drive processes uphill, and enzymes with special properties that can smoothly assemble complex molecules from fragments…but the primordial soup lacked these convenient cohorts of cooperating chemicals…so what is the answer? Is life a miracle after all?”
In fact, Science does not even have the luxury of standing on shifting sands in its futile quest to discover a naturalistic origin of life; it is more like Wile E. Coyote who has run off the cliff and is standing on thin air, but hasn’t looked down and realized it yet.
- Everyone agrees that the simplest living bacterium – which is functionally complex beyond comprehension – looks like it was designed and created by an intelligent creator.
- Everyone agrees that it is virtually impossible to imagine how it could have happened through an undirected process.
- Everyone agrees that no one has any idea how it actually did happen.
I simply draw the obvious conclusions. The reason it looks designed, is because it is designed. The reason why it seems “astonishingly improbable” for it to happen through an undirected process, is because it is “astonishingly improbable” for it to happen through an undirected process, and the reason why, in fact, no one has any idea how it happened through a naturalistic process, is because it didn’t happen through a naturalistic process.
God of the Gaps
Faye, you write regarding my argument: “I’m afraid you’ve fallen victim to a philosophical trap commonly called God of the Gaps…just because science hasn’t explained something doesn’t mean God must have done it, any more than it means space aliens must have done it.” It’s interesting that you mention space aliens, because Nobel Laureate Francis Crick along with a world renowned Origin of Life researcher, Leslie Orgel, were so baffled by the enigma of the origin of life that they proposed in the early 70’s that perhaps life was sent here by an advanced extra-terrestrial civilization. They called their theory Directed Panspermia.
First of all Faye, there has been no advancement since then in the scientific understanding of the origin of life, so I would advise you not to close out the space aliens option if you insist on avoiding a creator. Second of all, imagine how desperately puzzled these two great scientists must have been if they were forced to turn to “men from mars” for a solution. That is how desperately puzzled Origin of Life researchers are today.
Third of all – don’t take this personally – you are a real party-pooper. You just destroyed any rational foundation for the millions of dollars spent on the SETI project (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence). Imagine the excitement if one the scientists monitoring the radio-telescope started receiving highly intelligent messages in Morse code from a distant galaxy. Finally, proof of intelligent life in another part of the universe! “Not so fast”, says Faye Flam the party- pooper. “What makes you think that the source of these radio signals is an intelligent being?” The scientist explains that the probability of intelligible messages in Morse code being generated through an undirected process is so absurdly low that it need not be considered seriously. “It’s obviously from some sort of intelligent being!” he exclaims. Faye responds, “Can you prove that these intelligent beings actually exist?” The scientist stares back with a puzzled look on his face. “Faye,” he says, “The highly specified information in the messages is itself the proof of the existence of the intelligent beings who sent them.” Faye triumphantly proclaims, “Just because science has not yet discovered how intelligent Morse code messages can emerge through purely natural causes fully explainable within the laws of physics, does not mean we will not find the answer someday. After all science is a process. You sir, have fallen into the same philosophical trap which snared Crick and Orgel with their Directed Panspermia theory. It is the old Space Aliens of the Gaps fallacy!”
Faye, the molecular machinery of the simplest bacterium and the digitally encoded information system which directs and regulates its metabolic processes, protein production, and the astounding ability to self-replicate, makes our greatest technological achievements pale in comparison. I don’t need to prove intelligent design; the intelligent design in the bacterium screams in your face. The unbearably heavy burden is on you to prove that such functionally complex machinery and such an encyclopedic amount of specified information could be generated and assembled through an unguided process. I wish you luck. So far, the search for the Atheistic/Materialistic Origin of Life Messiah has met with absolute and utter failure. In my opinion, you, Dr. Szostak, Jerry Coyne, and others have fallen prey to the old philosophical trap called Science of the Gaps. Whenever the staggering level of functional complexity of the simplest life points to a creator, you immediately say: Science did it…..somehow.
Maybe it’s just a philosophical problem
Let’s try to find some common ground. At the very least, materialistic scientists should acknowledge the reasonable possibility of a Creator. At the very least, they have no business accusing someone like myself of being anti-science. Faye, are you aware that many prominent atheistic idealogues – like Dawkins, Hitchens, Rosenhouse, Coyne, and others – reject the idea of a creator, not on scientific grounds (they acknowledge that intuitively the notion of a creator makes sense for the origin of life), but rather on philosophical grounds; because of the dilemma of “who created the creator” or a variation on that theme? The aforementioned Dr. Eugene Koonin has a more creative answer: “[the multiverse theory] might suggest a way out of the origin of life conundrum because in an infinite multiverse…the emergence of highly complex systems by chance is not just possible, but inevitable.” (Phew, a narrow escape from the Creator!)
Dealing with the philosophical question of “who created the creator” is beyond the scope of this article. I happen to agree with the aforementioned atheists, the question of God the Creator (totally separate from the truth of any particular religious faith system), has nothing at all to do with science, it is a philosophical issue. However, it is worthwhile pointing out that scientific credentials and knowledge hold no weight at all in the philosophical arena. If that is our disagreement, then by all means, let’s have the discussion. But before we do, please go hang up your lab coat, put away your Bunsen burners and test tubes, and most of all, please tell your fellow non-believers to quit childishly and tauntingly waving the banner of SCIENCE in the face of believers when science is irrelevant to the question. Take care, Faye…and give my best to Higgs the cat.
- Shapiro, Planetary Dreams by Dr. Robert Shapiro, pg. 26
- Davies, The Fifth Miracle: The Search for the Origin and Meaning of Life by Dr. Paul Davies, Pg. 93
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