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Biochemical and Metabolic Pathways

In the summer of 2000, I conducted a 6-week seminar on intelligent design and self-organization at Calvin College (go here). Among the people who presented at the seminar were Steve Meyer, Paul Nelson, Jed Macosko, Howard Van Till, Del Ratzsch, Michael Ruse, and Harold Morowitz.

At the time, Morowitz was quite taken with the biochemical and metabolic pathways in the human body and was examining possible self-organizational scenarios for how they might have emerged (for the staggering complexity of what needs to be explained, go here — click on portions of this “map” to zoom in). I asked him if he had made any progress in creating any portions of these pathways without using biogenic materials. He immediately replied, “You mean without enzymes.” I said, “yes.” He said, “no.”

I take this NO to be a huge admission and concession. Brute chemistry, as in the Miller-Urey experiment, can produce certain primitive building blocks of life. But to get anywhere beyond that, biologists studying the emergence of biological complexity invariably require biomacromolecules extracted from preexisting living systems. There appears to be no direct route through brute chemistry to the functionally integrated molecular systems that make biological organisms interesting.

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12 Responses to Biochemical and Metabolic Pathways

  1. Morowitz’s work has been cited by many ID advocates. His work was referenced several times in Thaxton’s,Bradley, Olsen’s seminal book, The Mystery of Life’s Origin.

    I revere Morowitz lab work, and him as a person. It’s not easy for me to be publicly at variance with him, but I simply offer my disagreements. While he was at our George Mason IDEA meeting last week to hear his colleague Robert Hazen (yes, Hazen, Trefel, Morowitz were at our meeting), I mentioned the fine work of Hubert Yockey.

    At the time I didn’t realize Yockey had made some unflattering remarks about Morowitz’s quest, likening him to the children’s story character named Brer Rabbit.

    Yockey writes:

    “Accordingly, the thrust of many origin of life scenarios has been to attempt to show how to generate “order” out of “chaos” (Morowitz et al., 2000). Those who pursue this approache are caught up by the Tar Baby, like Br’er Rabbit, and get into more trouble ( The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus, Joel Chandler Harris, 1955).”

    The story of Brer Rabbit and Tar Baby can be found here:
    http://home.nycap.rr.com/cyclo.....arbaby.htm
    Despite my praise of Yockey’s work, I managed to get Dr. Morowitz to autograph my copy of his last book, Emergence of Everything. :-)

    The view by Morowitz and Hazen seems to be that the design of the unvierse is written into the laws. They disagree with traditional ID, but I do not view them in the same light as other non-IDists such as Richard Dawkins.

    Morowitz wrote: “[it is] hard not to see design in a universe that works so well”

    He’s devoted 50 years researching OOL. From a personal standpoint, I think it’s almost unthinkable to admit to oneself that a lifelong quest might be in vain. I mentioned at the IDEA meeting (with Hazen, Morowitz, and Trefil listening) that Yockey, Voie, and Abel’s work make a good case why self-organization cannot possibly succeed in building the kind of complexity we see in biology.

    Hazen and Morowitz were absolute gentleman, and it wasn’t easy trying to convey diplomatically to these excellent experimentalitst that their cherished quest might be all wrong.

    Salvador

  2. Increasingly, it seems that the only hope atelic scientists have of explaining biological origins and complexity is through the discovery of some hitherto undiscovered physical regularity that causes such phenomena to occur, but even this scenario seems quite far-fetched.

    David

  3. i know very little science in general. i can take the arguments presented by both sides of this issue…and well, more than 2 “sides” actually, but you get what i mean…i can take the info. presented and make my mind up either way without knowing the detailed science. but, that ‘map’ you link to blew me away.

    i prefaced my comment with my lack of scientific knowledge to say that ive no idea what that map actually shows…but whatever it is its clearly pathways inside of cells or inside the body in some degree, and its just so complex its amazing that one could ever figure out the pathways to begin with, and even more- its amazing that a pathway so complicated even exists. its just another reason why ive no reason to think that life and biological systems are in any way undirected- that map is more complicated that a lot of complex man made systems, yet it was supposedly due to a purposeless, goal-less, ultimately meaningless mechanism and cycle? no way on earth.

    okay…im trying to unfry my brain. i looked at the graphic again and clicked on a few of the areas to zoom in. whew.

  4. Can someone please explain for a layman what the “metabolic pathways in the human body” diagram represents? I am able to read a simple electrical schematic, an aeronautical chart, and a recipe for tollhouse cookies, but I have no idea what this map is describing.

  5. I just happened to blog here on this subject yesterday… with a very simple explanation of why biochemistry should blow away abiogenesis without intelligent design.

  6. RE: Andrew R.

    “It literally shouts brilliant design all over. You have to be very deaf indeed not to hear it. A child can hear it.”

    And there are many “deaf” indeed! I see deaf people. They’re called evolutionists ;-)

  7. http://www.expasy.ch/cgi-bin/show_thumbnails.pl

    That’s completely mind boggling! How anyone could infer that those pathways “evolved” by “chance” and with “lots of time” is beyond any logical reasoning!

  8. Just looked at that map and now I need a nap.

  9. Salvador

    While I tend to agree that there are no undiscovered physical laws that drive matter to self-organize into living systems it may be a little premature to rule out the possibility. Our discovery of the molecular underpinnings of life beginning about 50 years ago might be compared to an aborigine finding a cell phone and trying to figure out how it was manufactured. It would probably be quite a while before he reverse engineered the process all the way back to how integrated circuits are fabricated (lithograpy, vapor deposition, etching, etc.). Think about it. Our aborigine would have to invent a plethora of technologies just to examine the cell phone in very minute detail (he have to invent microscopes to see the details on the chips and for that he’d have to invent glass making then lens grinding and so on).

    Maybe there just hasn’t been enough time, effort, and luck yet to prize out any possibile laws of nature that cause matter to self-organize into living systems. We’re still struggling to understand life to say nothing of how it came to be alive.

  10. The notion that some non-cognizant natural law or force was ultimately responsible for the complexity of biological life and consciousness as we observe and experience it today, seems absolutely preposterous. What a cruel accident it would be, having produced conscious & emotional beings who seem wired to ponder their purpose. Every fiber of my being revolts against such an idea.

  11. Dave,

    I appreciate your caution, and I certainly don’t discourage the work and exploration by Morowitz and his colleagues. I do believe in emergence (Morowitz is not a reductionist), and self-organization is certainly a more promising view than Darwinian evolution. I believe Michael Denton leans toward this view as well, that life is written into the laws of physics somehow. Emergent phenomena are laws of physics, but not of the reductionist variety.

    That said, this was the paper I was referring to when I offered my views to Morowitz and Hazen. It is arguably yet another ID paper accepted in peer reviewed journal. Stephen Meyer and Dave Abel encouraged a cellular biologist who has a background in artificial intelligence to submit his paper, which thankfully got accepted. The paper can be found at:
    http://home.online.no/~albvoie/index.cfm

    Voie writes:
    “Life express both function and sign systems, which indicates that it is not a subsystem of the universe, since chance and necessity cannot explain sign systems, meaning, purpose, and goals [26]….It is therefore very natural that many scientists believe that life is rather a subsystem of some Mind greater than humans ”

    Congratulation by the way to Albert Voie for yet another daring ID paper being published.

  12. Dave,

    If nature can self organize on this scale then we would attribute intelligence to nature itself and end up in some kind of pantheism. How would you distinguish between a mind and a principle of self organisation? How does the idea of self organisation fit with the idea of increasing entropy?

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