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Pretending that Evolutionary Theory is Separable from Abiogenesis

Do traceable lines of descent exist that might ultimately permit characterization of the genomes of organisms basal to the clades for the highest categories? The answer to this question increasingly appears to be no. Recent work on genomic structures demonstrate that all living organisms are genetic composites: mosaics and chimeras composed of bits and pieces of multiple genomes derived from multiple sources.

The base of the universal tree of life appears not to have been a single root, but was instead a network of inextricably intertwined branches deriving from many, perhaps 100 or more, genetic sources. The traditional version of the theory of common descent apparently does not apply to kingdoms as presently recognized. It probably does not apply to many, if not all, phyla, and possibly also not to many classes within the phyla. (from Malcom Gordon’s paper on monophyly)

When Intelligent Design advocates talk to evolutionists concerning the origin-of-life, the standard response is almost always something like “Evolutionary theory says nothing about the origin of life. Whether it was RNA world, or a special act of creation, evolution is an entirely different subject than abiogenesis.” However, I think that this argument is illegitimate. In fact, large-scale evolutionary theory depends thoroughly on specific notions of abiogenesis.

If someone wants to see the Darwinist position on this question, see the following articles by Darwinists:

Misconception: “Evolution is a theory about the origin of life”
It’s a Myth that Abiogenesis is the Same as Evolution

First of all, clarifying definitions. By “evolutionary theory” I am referring to neo-Darwinism — the combination of RM+NS (or any other non-telic evolution) and Universal Common Ancestry. The dogmatism on these issues admits to a dependence on a specific, narrow view of abiogenesis.

Let’s first start out exploring a question. Did the organisms in the Cambrian explosion evolve from creatures dissimilar from themselves? Or, more specifically, did all (or at least most) of the organisms in the cambrian explosion share a common ancestor?

The traditional evolutionary answer is “yes”, though the specific characterizations of what that ancestor looked like I assume is in quite a bit of debate. So, the next question is, “How do you know?” There are several possible answers:

  1. There are organisms in lower strata than the Cambrian organisms.
  2. Since everything descended from a single (or a pool of) single-celled organisms, they would have shared an ancestor in that pool.

#1 is easily done away with. My grandparent’s dog is also in a lower strata than I will be some day, but that does not indicate ancestry. #2 is where I would like to focus my arguments.

  • If you do not rely on a specific conception of abiogenesis, how do you know that life only arose once, or in one pool of organisms?
  • If you do not rely on a specific conception of abiogenesis, how do you know that a multicellular organisms must have had a single-celled organism as an ancestor?
  • If you do not rely on a specific conception of abiogenesis, how do you know that a fossil sequence of high disparity is not the result of multiple abiogenesis events separated in time, rather than representing an ancestral lineage?

Even assuming a fully naturalistic abiogenesis, the above questions cannot be adequately answered unless a specific conception of abiogenesis is used as the basis. Malcom Gordon’s paper mentioned above details this issue from an entirely naturalistic perspective, comparing an abiogenesis scenario where life arose multiple times according to multiple paradigms versus the standard neo-Darwinian conception of life arising once. He even placed the root of where “common ancestry” was the norm (as opposed to lateral gene transfer in the specific scenario he was thinking of) fairly far down the taxonomic scale.

In addition, if you remove the requirement of naturalism in abiogenesis, then there is absolutely no reason at all to suppose either common ancestry or descent from unicellular creatures. This doesn’t mean that it is false (in fact, many in the ID movement agree with common ancestry). The point is that common descent is based on assumptions about abiogenesis, not from evidence alone.

But even more importantly, it no longer constrains you to RM+NS as a change mechanism. If your view of abiogenesis involves intelligent agency in any way then there is absolutely no reason whatsoever to hold on to RM+NS as the primary change vehicle in organisms. The experimental evidence is pointing to structure and order in the way that genomes change. If you don’t hold that life is an accident, then why would you hold that the mechanisms of change are accidental as well, especially in the face of all of the mounting evidence to the contrary?

So, without a specific concept of abiogenesis, there is no reason to assume that life arose once, or that organisms needed to use RM+NS to produce the higher taxonomic categories. Without a specific concept of abiogenesis, there is no reason to assume that life arose simply and then became more complex later. Abiogenesis is inextricably linked with the large-scale views of evolutionary theory.

So, the question is, why is it that Darwinists are so adamant about the separation between abiogenesis and evolution? There are a number of reasons I have thought of, but I don’t think they are exhaustive. I’m curious to hear yours. The ones I have thought of include:

  1. Common worldview — the set of assumptions that lead to thinking that Darwinism is true might be the same set of assumptions that lead to thinking of the Darwinian view of abiogenesis. Thus, you keep it as a “working conception”. The idea that they are “unlinked” stems from the fact that, from Darwinian assumptions, the constraints of abiogenesis mean that it must fall within the Darwinian concept, even if the details are sketchy. The idea that other forms of origin-of-life might affect all of this never enters the thinking on the basis that people who believe those things are nutty and only need to be placated (“oh yes, evolution does not rule out that God was the originator of life — now move along and don’t ask any questions about the nature of that origin or how it might affect the rest of evolution”), not treated rationally.
  2. Embarrassment — it could be that many Darwinists know that studies of abiogenesis have been woeful at best. Despite the fact that Darwinism is rooted on assumptions that include abiogenesis, they are worried that the failure of abiogenesis studies will reflect poorly on evolutionary theory. Therefore, the disconnecting of abiogenesis with Darwinism is a means of life-preservation — to simply cut off from discussion the more abysmal findings about the theory. Of course the problems with abiogenesis are basically the same as with RM+NS evolution — how does information arise on its own? It’s just a more pronounced problem with abiogenesis and not as easy to wish away.
  3. Tradition — the notions of universal common ancestry, RM+NS, and abiogenesis are so thoroughly embedded in evolutionary tradition, that practitioners have difficulty separating out the “received wisdom” from the empirical data. Therefore, even though they know that evolutionary theory _should_ be separate from abiogenesis, they have too much institutional baggage to deal with the issue on a broad scale, and noting the implications it could have across the board. Those who attempt to do so in one area are shot down by others more entrenched in evolutionary tradition.

(if you think of others, please post them in the comments)

The biggest problem I have is not as much with Darwinists having this concept of abiogenesis or with them basing their theory on it. All ID-based theories likewise have their own conceptions of the origin-of-life that their theories come from, some of which include common ancestry. The problem is the deceptive tactics of pretending that their theory is separable from abiogenesis. That is simply not intellectually honest.

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24 Responses to Pretending that Evolutionary Theory is Separable from Abiogenesis

  1. Johnny and everyone. This has been a good week of exceptional post and its not over yet. Thanks for all the effort and time you put in here!

  2. If someone wants to read a summarized version of the Gordon paper, see a post in my own blog about it. Also, while not directly on topic, Woese has been rather critical of Darwin’s “tree of life” actually being a tree at its roots. See On the Evolution of Cells. I still think that Woese overcommits to a particular abiogenesis view without explicitly stating his assumptions.

    I would be curious for anyone to post on the history of this “separation” of abiogenesis and evolution. I have a hunch it was not so distinct earlier in this century, thought I may be wrong on this point. If anyone knows the history, I would be very interested.

  3. I would be curious for anyone to post on the history of this “separation” of abiogenesis and evolution. I have a hunch it was not so distinct earlier in this century, thought I may be wrong on this point. If anyone knows the history, I would be very interested.

    The separation began arguably with Darwin, but then I think it was blurred with Haekel.

    In Origin of Species Chapter 14 Darwin surprisingly he suggest abiogenesis occurred through special creation.

    the first creature, the progenitor of innumerable extinct and living descendants, was created.
    ….
    Authors of the highest eminence seem to be fully satisfied with the view that each species has been independently created. To my mind it accords better with what we know of the laws impressed on matter by the Creator, that the production and extinction of the past and present inhabitants of the world should have been due to secondary causes, like those determining the birth and death of the individual. When I view all beings not as special creations, but as the lineal descendants of some few beings which lived long before the first bed of the Silurian system was deposited

    So in some sense, Darwin could be accused of being a creationist. LOL!

    But Darwin (among his other numerous failings as a “scientist”) failed to appreciate the irony of invoking special creation of the first creature while simultaneously arguing for the adequacy of natural selection to create the majority of diversity of life on Earth.

    However, Haeckel tried to blur the demarcation of abiogenesis (properly speaking at that time it was known as spontaneous generation not abiogenesis) and subsequent evolution. I suppose he reconized the illogic of invoking special creation of the first life and then asserting the need to invoke natural selection as the solution to life’s diversity.

    To support my thesis of Haeckel, here is a a quote widely attributed to Haeckel in 1876 (25 years after Pasteur’s famous experiment):

    If we do not accept the hypothesis of spontaneous generation, then at this one point in the history of evolution we must have the recourse to the miracle of a supernatural creation.

    Of course the collapse of spontaneous generation was a horrible embarrassment, but Darwinist resilience and spin was amazing in that they recovered from the embarrassing outcome of the demise of spontaneous generation.

    Sermonti, in his book, Why a fly is not a horse points to a letter from Darwin to Haeckel over Darwin’s concern that the collapse of spontaneous generation was indeed damaging to the Darwin’s theory. However, Sermonti did not provide a reference.

    If Sermonti citation is accurate, then Darwin was being two-faced in his Origins by invoking special creation and privately disbelieving it. Some scholars have suggested as much. Either that, or Darwin was living in self-contradiction, which is not surprising since his theory is rife with self-contradictions. If Sermonti is accurate, then Darwin knew full well that any evidence favorable to the design or special creation of the first life would render his theory essentially superflous if not outrighly wrong.

    So, my take is, Darwin publicly made the separation, but privately knew the connection. Haeckel tried to tie the two together. But when Haeckel’s idea was disproven, evolutionary theory conveniently reverted to Darwin’s public demarcation to avoid the embarrassment. Had spontaneous generation succeeded, no doubt there would not be any demarcation. Likewise, today, if abiogensis succeeds (which it will not), then how quickly would the Darwinist redefine their theory to include abiogenesis?

    Finally, Darwin was a plagerist. Natural selection as evidenced in nature was reconized by creationist Edward Blythe (long before Darwin) and Bishop Wilberforce. Blythe and Wilberforce recognized natural selection’s action in the world, but recognized it could not be the mechanism which brough about the complexity of life. The theoretical consideration and empirical evidence has refuted natural selection as the agenency of major biological innovations.

    Salvador

  4. Good topic!

    You’re darn skippy the evolutionists have a loud and vested interest in the origin of the first reproducing cell. Just present the front loaded hypothesis to them wherein the first cell on this planet had a complex genome designed to diversify in a more or less fixed course just like an egg has a complex genome designed to diversify in a more or less fixed course and then listen to the screams of protest. If the theory of evolution has nothing to say about origins then why do they object when someone postulates a complex genome as the starting point? The answer is, of course, that the neoDarwinian theory is based upon a constant movement from simple to complex with the complexity being added by random mutations filtered by natural selection. A complex genome at the beginning of the chain requires no random chance to add complexity as the complexity is there at the start and is merely expressed as the preset course of phylogeny proceeds.

    I’m not sure about the history of separation of evolution and origins but its roots go at least to Darwin’s Preservation of Favored Races. He just sort of shrugged it off to spontaneous generation and thought cells were simple blobs of protoplasm. Modern Darwinists also shrug it off to spontaneous generation but the shrug is a lot less sincere these days since most of them have some inkling that digitally programmed self-replicating factory complexes that far surpass the complexity of an entire human city aren’t things that tend to self-assemble out of mud and lightning bolts. They have a growing suspicion of what kind of dumbasses they make of themselves when they say something like that just happened by accident.

  5. I have always stated and maintained the following:

    If life did not arise from non-living matter via some blind watch-maker-type process (ie unintelligent, blind/ undirected (non-goal oriented) process) then there would be no reason to infer its subsequent diversity arose solely due to those type of processes.

    IOW Johnny B is correct in sumizing that abiogenesis cannot be separated from any theory of biological evolution.

  6. Is abiogenesis part of evolution? Well, nothing in evolution makes any sense except in light of reproduction. (Oh, nothing much in NDE evolution makes any sense even with reproduction.) Evolution requres reproduction, that is for sure. At some point in history, there was no reproduction. That also is for sure. Getting from “there is no reproduction” to “there is reproduction” merits a science in itself, that is for sure.

    Naturalism, Darwinism, requres abiogenesis. That is for sure. The science of evolution requires a working science of abiogenesis, that is for sure.

    So the science of evolution begins where the impotent science of abiogenesis ends, but the philosophy of evolotion, Darwinism, Naturalism requires a working theory of abiogenesis.

    Evolution makes no sense except in light of abiogenesis.

  7. Johnny,

    You’re inside the citadel, my man. Go here

    http://www.tkk.fi/Yksikot/Biop.....ints1.html

    and look at my Helsinki 2005 lecture on common descent [Powerpoint, 3.8
    megabytes -- to view it properly, right click and save the file to your
    desktop]. See in particular the last section of the talk, where relative
    probabilities of abiogenesis come into play.

  8. I really don’t understand your argument. Perhaps you could either simplify or elaborate. I think the real problem for evolutionary theory is that it attempts to distinguish life from non-life while denying that there is any such distinction.

    Life may very well have arisen more than once, but from all the evidence we have there was only one strain that survived to diversify into the forms we have today. We infer this from the shared characteristics of all extant life and upon an assumed and usually not explicitly stated probability argument.

  9. Perhaps if we tried to identiy the fundamentals of evolutionary theory we could see why it might be independent of abiogenesis.

    This is akin to identifying the fundamentals of airplanes and seeing why it might be independent of airfoils. Airplanes are not possible without airfoils and evolution is not possible without reproductive cells. Shrugging off the origin of the first reproductive cell as not part of evolution is simply and obviously a lame attempt to avoid the most difficult question in the evolution of life – how it got started in the first place and what the first reproductuve lifeform on this planet was like. Without an answer to that question it is impossible to say how evolution proceeded from there. The first life may have been complex and contained all the necessary information to unfold over geologic time into an evolving planetary environment. In that case random mutation or natural selection was no more a part of phylogenesis in the past than it is in ontogenesis in the present. -ds

  10. Mung wrote:

    “Life may very well have arisen more than once, but from all the evidence we have there was only one strain that survived to diversify into the forms we have today. We infer this from the shared characteristics of all extant life and upon an assumed and usually not explicitly stated probability argument.”

    Ask yourself how you know that any molecular character (say, the 64 nucleotide genetic code) indicates that “there was only one strain that survived.”

    You will find that you need to make your probability assumptions explicit. When you do, the relevance of the last portion of my Helsinki talk should be clear.

  11. Paul

    If all the writing we could find on the earth was written using the same 26 letter alphabet it wouldn’t be proof that no other alphabet ever existed but it would be overwhelming evidence that only one alphabet survived. While I suppose there is some exceedingly small probability that the exact same alphabet evolved independently more than one time any assertion that it actually happened that way wouldn’t pass the giggle test. This is the case for the genetic code. Of course it remains possible that physical laws of nature cause the genetic code to be ordered in the exact manner we find it but until that’s demonstrated in some way the only reasonable tentative position based upon the available evidence is that life originated (at least on this planet) long ago and if it originated more than once it wasn’t many times and it quickly came to exclusively use the genetic code we see today.

  12. DaveScot wrote:

    “While I suppose there is some exceedingly small probability that the exact same alphabet evolved independently more than one time any assertion that it actually happened that way wouldn’t pass the giggle test. This is the case for the genetic code.”

    So what is the probability of the genetic code evolving even once?

    That number (call it pCode) is not zero, right? Now, ask yourself how you actually know, or have estimated, pCode. Given that no canonical (widely accepted) theory exists for the origin of the genetic code, pCode is free to vary between near-zero (your estimate) and unity (a deterministic scenario). Using a little simple algebra, try shifting the value of pCode — imagine it like a bead on a wire, with zero at one end of the wire and unity at the other — and watch what happens as pCode’s value moves away from zero. That is, watch what happens to your conclusion of monophyly (universal common descent).

    You need to realize that your estimate of a near-zero probability for the origin of the genetic code does not rest on any knowledge of how the code actually arose. That should be worrisome.

  13. Thanks Paul — excellent summation of the argument. I have in fact watched all four of those videos, but I don’t remember that particular argument. I was doing other things as I was watching last time, so next time I’ll pay closer attention. Drop me an email sometime.

    Doh! I missed that you had a powerpoint on there that wasn’t covered by the videos. Downloading now… -jb

  14. Dr Nelson, I viewed your powerpoint with pleasure. It would be nice if there were audio attached, however.

    What I found particularly intriguing was the ORFan gene. If I understand ORFan genes correctly, they are genes that exist in an organism where there is no similar gene farther down the tree. Unless an ORFan gene is merely a simple recombining of two or at most three segments from other genes, this is fundimentally incongruent with common ancestry and NDE.

    What I also found particularly intriguing about ORFan genes is that wikipedia doesn’t have an entry on them. Wikipedia seems to have something about everything. Maybe you need to make a submission. (Oh, they’re mainstream NDE, they’ll probably reject your submission.) Further, when I went googling, I found no attempt at a good explanation for ORFan genes.

    Abiogenesis is clearly a monumental problem for NDE. There seem to be a bunch of other well known problems to NDE: molecular convergence, irreduceable complexity etc. However, these ORFan genes merit being brought out as a significant issue on their own.

    The problem isn’t explaining why there’s arel rare ORFan genes. The problem is explaining why there are a zillion common genes. Give me a break here. Half of the human genome is identical to that of a banana tree. -ds

  15. Personally, I don’t think that ORFans have anything to do with Common Descent, except to bust the suppositions that support common sense (i.e. that genes need to be built up / modified gradually). With ORFans, what I think we’ll find, is that there are some interesting situations that microbes find themselves in where they can simply manufacture a gene — whole-cloth — to compensate. My personal opinion is that we are going to find situations where disparate organisms have manufactured themselves the exact same (or nearly the exact same) gene as another organism, and can essentially do it “on demand”. But that’s just conjecture. It doesn’t disprove common descent, but it does disprove most of the reasoning used to defend common descent, especially as the sole available choice.

  16. My personal opinion is that we are going to find situations where disparate organisms have manufactured themselves the exact same (or nearly the exact same) gene as another organism, and can essentially do it “on demand”.

    You are suggesting that microorganisms are intelligent, and that they are the designers of their own destiny? So far, as I understand it, genetic engineering is hardly able to manufacture new “functioning” genes. As I understand it, modern genetic engineering is still primarily absconding genes from one place, twiddling with ‘em a bit, and putting them into another place. Am I wrong? Are microorganisms more intellectually advanced than twenty-first century humans are?

    Are microorganisms more intellectually advanced than twenty-first century humans are?

    I’m not sure about smarter but I know that pound for pound there are more of them than there are of us. They are winning the competition for resources. And at the end of the day they make a meal out of us – often not being polite enough to wait until we’re dead before digging in. -ds

  17. Paul,

    Nice to have you posting here. How can I obtain a copy of your Ph.D. thesis? :)

  18. The book describes a new theory on the origin and diversity of organisms on earth. It shows that distinct organisms arose independently from the primordial pond from a common pool of genes, thereby explaining both the commonality and the distinctions among the organisms living on earth. This is the first ever written book to explain the origins and diversity of life on earthwithout evolution. Modern computer power and new insights into molecular genetics show that primordial chemical compounds spontaneously combined into the genomes for multitudes of multicellular masses hundreds of millions of years of ago. Those that were meaningless perished instantly, but the many organisms coded by viable genomes simply flowered, swam, walked, or flew away from the primordial pond in essentially the same forms that we know today.

    By the way, has anyone else read this book?

    Independent Birth of Organisms

  19. johnnyb:

    Dittos to Michael7′s comments. The last few days on this site have been great.

  20. Occasionally, a scientist discouraged by the consistent failure of theories purporting to explain some problem like the first appearance of life will suggest that perhaps supernatural creation is a tenable hypothesis in this one instance. Sophisticated naturalists instantly recoil with horror, because they know that there is no way to tell God when he has to stop. If God created the first organism, then how do we know he didn’t do the same thing to produce all those animal groups that appear so suddenly in the Cambrian rocks? Given the existence of a designer ready and willing to do the work, why should we suppose that random mutations and natural selection are responsible for such marvels of engineering as the eye and the wing? ~ Phillip Johnson

    ORGANIC LIFE beneath the shoreless waves
    Was born and nurs’d in ocean’s pearly caves;
    First forms minute, unseen by spheric glass,
    Move on the mud, or pierce the watery mass;
    These, as successive generations bloom,
    New powers acquire and larger limbs assume;
    Whence countless groups of vegetation spring,
    And breathing realms of fin and feet and wing.
    ~ Erasmus Darwin

    It is often said that all the conditions for the first production of a living organism are now present, which could ever have been present. But if (and oh! what a big if!) we could conceive in some warm little pond, with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, lights, heat, electricity, etc. present, that a protein compound was chemically formed ready to undergo still more complex changes, at the present day such matter would be instantly devoured or absorbed, which would not have been the case before living creatures were formed. ~ Charles Darwin

    If it were given to me to look beyond the abyss of geologically recorded time to the still more remote period when the Earth was passing through physical and chemical conditions which it can no more see again than a man can recall his infancy, I should expect to be a witness of the evolution of living protoplasm from non-living matter. ~ Thomas Huxley

    The origin of life was necessarily the beginning of organic evolution and it is among the greatest of all evolutionary problems. ~ George Gaylord Simpson

    The reasonable view was to believe in spontaneous generation; the only alternative, to believe in a single, primary act of supernatural creation. There is no third position. For this reason many scientists a century ago chose to regard the belief in spontaneous generation as a “philosophical necessity.” It is a symptom of the philosophical poverty of our time that this necessity is no longer appreciated. Most modern biologists, having reviewed with satisfaction the downfall of the spontaneous generation hypothesis, yet unwilling to accept the alternative belief in special creation, are left with nothing. ~ George Wald

    It could be that the chemical origin of a self-replicating molecule (the necessary trigger for the origin of natural selection) was a relatively probable event. ~ Richard Dawkins

  21. bFast:

    “Are microorganisms more intellectually advanced than twenty-first century humans are?”

    Yes! See:

    http://shapiro.bsd.uchicago.edu/contextgenome.html

  22. Nice to have you posting here. How can I obtain a copy of your Ph.D. thesis?

    Oops! I mean dissertation.

    In any event, in one of your presentations you bring something up which I think about frequently and wonder why ID’ists don’t spend more time on it. Forget about common descent of species. If the story is true, all common descent must be found within the genome. For any given genome, where is the evidence that the genes within it were produced via the proposed evolutionary mechanisms of copying and divergence from common ancestral sequences. Where is the evidence that enough gene duplications have taken place. Where is the relatedness of all genes that must exist? Or do Darwinists accept polyphyletic origins when it comes to the consituents of the genome but deny it of the phenomes produced by the genome?

  23. [...] One other thing is to keep in mind that, despite claims to the contrary, evolutionary theory is not separable from the origin of life. [...]

  24. JB: Oldie but goodie. KF

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