Home » Intelligent Design » Harvard’s origin of life project: Taking intelligent design seriously – sure, but what follows?

Harvard’s origin of life project: Taking intelligent design seriously – sure, but what follows?

Gareth Cook’s article on the new Harvard origin of life project in the Boston Globe, reads like a press release (except for the very end where he actually quotes Michael Behe). Bill  blogged on it, wondering how seriously they would take any evidence of intelligent design.

Starting with $1 million a year, we are told, Harvard will

bring together scientists from fields as disparate as astronomy and biology, to understand how life emerged from the chemical soup of early Earth, and how this might have happened on distant planets.

On the whole, this “Origins of Life in the Universe Initiative” is good news for the ID guys, first because the Harvard project seems to acknowledge what everyone who looks into the question soon finds out – that origin of life studies have been at an impasse for decades.

Like intelligent design, the Harvard project begins with awe at the nature of life, and with an admission that, almost 150 years after Charles Darwin outlined his theory of evolution in the Origin of Species, scientists cannot explain how the process began.

Many science textbooks fudge this issue, so don’t be surprised if comes as news to you. It might come as news to your old biology teacher too.

Why is origin of life difficult to determine?

To understand the nature of the origin of life researchers’ difficulties, we must see what Harvard’s precise goal is. Chemist David Liu puts it as follows: “… my expectation is that we will be able to reduce this to a very simple series of logical events that could have taken place with no divine intervention.”

Or, translating from the theistic idiom, Harvard’s proposition is that intelligence is not necessary, that the universe is bottom up, not top down, and that order may be had for free.

Indeed, that has always been the key difficulty in origin of life (OoL) research. Understanding the OoL is not difficult in principle, because our universe appears to be fine tuned for just such a thing to happen.

Put another way, if all the odds were against life, we should indeed wonder that it exists! But the odds are for it. So in principle, the origin is eminently researchable, just as fine-tuning is.

BUT if your project, like Harvard’s, is to rule out an intelligence behind the odds, you have a big job ahead, maybe an impossible one.

I don’t think Harvard yard will succeed, but here’s the difficulty: They will easily persuade themselves that they have succeeded. That is usually the way with such projects.

Taking intelligent design seriously

Why so? Well, in the first place, as reporter Cook’s story makes clear, the background to the project is alarm over the idea of intelligent design. Indeed, the story unobtrusively demonstrates how seriously intelligent design has come to be taken. Just as NASA spent billions trying to disconfirm the Big Bang, Harvard will spent at least millions trying to disconfirm ID, where origin of life is concerned. Actually, Harvard has no alternative.

Remember that when some boffo pundit assures you that ID is not taken seriously by scientists.

Why you will be told the project is succeeding even if it isn’t

Apart from the taxpayer funding that the Harvard project will inevitably attract, it resembles certain fundamentalist efforts to find Noah’s Ark. SETI searches come swiftly to mind as well. That is, the seekers have already determined that what they are looking for is really there – whether it is a bottom up origin of life, the good ship Ark, or intergalactic civilizations. Failure to find the prize cannot – by the very nature of the project – serve as a disconfirmation. It can prompt only the most limited reevaluations.

When a project is framed in this way, one outcome is that some findings must not be made and some conclusions must not be drawn, irrespective of evidence.

In an analogous situation, Larry Summers, a key project backer, lost his own presidency last year for nothing more than pointing out that women are not as well adapted to the hard sciences as men.

That fact is massively overdetermined by evidence, but what does evidence matter in the face of a demand to demonstrate a politically correct proposition rather than a factually based one?

Indeed, one phase of Summers’ difficulties over his remarks on women in science provides a sobering lesson as to what to expect from the Harvard OoL project.

Biology prof Nancy Hopkins walked out of Summers’ talk, proclaiming that his remarks made her sick. Specifically, she told The Globe ,that if she hadn’t left, she “would’ve either blacked out or thrown up.”

Now, … what if a hard science guy announced that challenges from his colleagues cause him to nearly black out or throw up unless he can just walk out on them? Should he be given a demanding chair? For that matter, which of the ID theorists is having a nervous breakdown because of remarks made by the adult toddlers over at the Thumb? People do not have to be tough in order to survive (it often pays better to be nice, actually), but they do have to be tough in order to survive certain types of positions.

In fact, Hopkins was unintentionally providing good evidence for Summer’s observations that the requisite types of personality and mental development are more often found in men than women, as several perceptive women columnists (all of them tough as nails, just like me) have pointed out – but (and this is my point) her behaviour was not generally regarded as evidence. You see it had been agreed in advance that no actual evidence for Summers’ original position could ever be admitted. So it will be with intelligence and the origin of life.

However, the article is interesting in several other ways: Yes, it actually does quote Michael Behe. After the intrusive sign-up screen (which means few will see Behe’s comment unless they think of asking for the printer-friendly screen instead), Cook quotes Behe as saying,

Michael Behe, a biologist at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania and one of the leading proponents of intelligent design, said he was glad that Harvard was going to try to address the issue.

”If, as I suspect will happen,” Behe said, ”they fail to find a plausible answer without invoking intelligence, then maybe science will be less hostile to folks who see intelligent direction in the history of life,” he said.

Fat chance, actually, Mike. As I have noted above, in the atmosphere such a project generates, boosters easily silence questioners, simply by quoting dogma and questioning loyalty. Remember, the boosters know that bottom up order for free is real, and anyone who cannot so convince himself is a failure.

What we can expect is press releases every so often claiming major breakthroughs that turn out to depend on the acceptance of speculative propositions. Such releases justify the current funding and attract more funding – and very few will have an interest in pointing out the problems.

Well, it’s an ill wind that blows nobody good. Press releases are bread and butter for me.

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28 Responses to Harvard’s origin of life project: Taking intelligent design seriously – sure, but what follows?

  1. This is an email correspondence I had with Dr. Liu August 15 of 2005. He was very polite and replied to me quickly. I doubt he’d have a problem with me posting this, as there is nothing in the email that couldn’t be said publicly:

    First, my email:

    “Dr. Liu,
    Thank you for taking the time to read this. A recent Yahoo article about your research into the origin of life has sparked an Internet debate because of the following quote:

    “My expectation is that we will be able to reduce this to a very simple series of logical events that could have taken place with no divine intervention,”

    As you realize, OOL is a touchy subject for obvious reasons. This comment *seems* to imply a goal of your research is to actually disprove “divine intervention”. I am not a creationist or atheist, but I did find this comment to be odd coming from a scientist. I was just wondering if you were possibly misquoted, or this quote was taken out of context to spark controversy? Thanks.”

    Dr. Liu’s response:

    “Dear Shane,

    Thanks for your note. There is a bit of out-of-context here; the interviewer asked me how does some of my research fit into the intelligent design model even though the goals of the Origins initiative are quite distinct from the evolution vs. intelligent design debate. But I’m happy to discuss the quote since it was accurate.

    Harvard’s “Origins” initiative seeks to understand the physical and chemical requirements for living systems to emerge anywhere in the universe and to illuminate plausible pathways for this emergence on earth. One specific experimental approach toward some of these goals is to focus on a fundamental component of living systems (such as the ability to replicate) and attempt to model that component using simple molecules in a test tube. I’ve been asked in response to the Globe article why my research efforts appear to focus on evolution rather than on intelligent design. The answer is that science operates by studying hypotheses that are both testable and informative. I’m not aware of a testable and informative hypothesis behind intelligent design.

    The funny thing that most appear to overlook is that essentially all science is done in this manner– you formulate a testable expectation, run some experiments, and decide if your hypothesis is correct, or not correct, or if the results were inconclusive. The internet debate you referred to wouldn’t have begun if my expectation was about protein X interacting with protein Y vs. protein Z; however, as you point out, there is something very emotional about the intelligent design vs. evolution debate that causes people to instantly misconstrue a hypothesis as evidence of scientific bias. In reality, all science starts with testable hypotheses.

    Consider the contrary hypothesis, that the fundamental features of living systems require divine intervention. How could one go about performing experiments with this hypothesis in mind? I can’t– that’s the difference between faith-based activities and scientific activities. I find no fault with either– but I’m a scientist and that means I have to start with hypotheses that are testable and informative. Starting with a hypothesis that a system of interest requires components beyond the human realm is neither testable nor informative, even though I can respect people who hold that expectation.

    Is there an internet forum discussing this article currently?

    Regards,
    David”

    I don’t remember the forum I was discussing this on at the time, nor can I find my response to Dr. Liu, but if I recall I basically just agreed with him then thanked him for the email and wished him luck with his research. I wouldn’t expect ID to be given much thought at Harvard though, so I’m guessing they will meet with a lot of dead-ends until they start to intelligently design and direct the reactions in their “test tubes”. I just hope that if they have any breakthroughs by using intelligent design, that it is reported as such, rather than presented as evidence for 19th century philosophy and used by nuts like Dawkins to punish those of faith. I just hope for honesty.

  2. bring together scientists from fields as disparate as astronomy and biology, to understand how life emerged from the chemical soup of early Earth, and how this might have happened on distant planets.

    Wait a minute! Did life emerge from the chemical soup of early earth?

  3. Very well put, Denyse. The behaviour of some institutions is sadly now all too predictable.

  4. “Like intelligent design, the Harvard project begins with awe at the nature of life, and with an admission that, almost 150 years after Charles Darwin outlined his theory of evolution in the Origin of Species, scientists cannot explain how the process began.”

    Is it just me, or is this an underhanded way of saying ID is not science?

  5. Mats- after I read that part, that’s precisely what I was thinking. It seems clear to me that some people out there want, more than anything, to show that life just emerged on accident in a little pond, when no evidence exists to suggest this was the case or that it could ever be the case.

    It’s like starting a murder investigation by randomly choosing a suspect and telling all your officers, “let’s figure out how John killed all these people.” Seems they’re just trying to confirm their own pet theory of how it all took place.

    Worse- the quote where the professor said he thinks it will come down to a very simple series of logical steps?! If the steps are so logical and simple, any fool should be able to create life in his basement, no? Does anyone with any sense truly think the very creation of life involved only a few steps and/or was at all simple? It’s just such an absurd starting point, whoever makes it the starting point should, in my mind, probably be discounted somewhat off-the-bat.

    I just can’t take seriously a professor of chemical biology who pronounces such nonsense.

  6. I think before we go speculating that Harvard is going to unilaterally declare victory we need to have a clear mission statement from them. It’ s been a year now since their OOL project was announced and I can’t even find a website dedicated to it. Maybe I missed it in my search and someone can point me to it. This Astrobiology Magazine interview with the project’s leader Professor of Astronomy Dimitar Sasselov is the best I could find with something of a mission statement from an authoritative source.

    If they’ve staked out the goal (this is how I read it) as a chemical understanding of how simple molecules become polymers and then how the polymers can become self-replicating with continually increasing complexity, identify plausible natural environments where that chemistry can be supported, and further demonstrate said chemistry in laboratory mockups of the postulated natural environments, then I think there are clear metrics to determine success or failure. The proof of the pudding will be in a laboratory, not a computer simulation or a mind-experiment.

    Of course as Sasselov states this won’t constitute any proof that life originated in any one way. Its goal is to find possibilities (emphasis on the plural) for life origination. It would not really serve to disprove biological ID but it would serve to show biological ID is unnecessary and that’s just about as good as disproof.

    Sasselov comes tantalizingly close to saying the goal is to discover a chemical pathway in a natural environment where a primitive ribosome can form.

    To me, the big question is, “How can a molecule have the same number of atoms and seems to be similar to an RNA molecule, and yet it doesn’t do anything biological?” You put a bunch of it in a solution and it just sits there and eventually decays. But if you put just a single strand of ribozyme in the solution, 20 minutes later the whole thing is teeming with copies of the molecule. And not only that, you’ve left it in the sun, so it got hot, and it’s full of copies which are slightly different – they’ve evolved to degrade less under sunlight than the original molecule you put in.

    As I’ve stated many times the “holy grail” for me in dispensing with biological ID is a plausible unassisted-by-intelligence chemical pathway for arriving at the ribosome/DNA machinery. If he can demonstrate that in a laboratory and it doesn’t continually result in evolutionary dead ends (complexity stops increasing) then I’m prepared to concede that intelligence is unnecessary for biogenesis given a suitable universe as a starting environment. Of course that still leaves the question of how the suitable universe came to exist but that’s a different question – that’s cosmological ID.

  7. Speaking of Astrobiology Magazine I haven’t seen Allen MacNeil since I slapped him upside the head for failing to connect a broad definition of life made by a NASA panel with astrobiology. It’s like he never heard of astrobiology before. I hope he’s busy correcting that embarrassing situation so he can come back to the table better informed about OOL research.

  8. Shaner

    Dr. Liu:

    Consider the contrary hypothesis, that the fundamental features of living systems require divine intervention. How could one go about performing experiments with this hypothesis in mind?

    The answer to Dr. Liu’s question seems evident enough. We propose a means of falsifying the hypothesis that divine intervention is required.

    Nothing more is needed than to demonstrate a single possible non-divine pathway. Such a demonstration doesn’t falsify divine intervention but it does falsify the REQUIREMENT of divine intervention and the hypothesis is that divine (actually just intelligent agency, divine or not) intervention IS required.

    Thus it’s perfectly accurate to say that the OOL project is out to disprove the biological ID hypothesis by showing that intelligent agency isn’t a requirement for biogenesis. I can think of no more succinct way of stating the OOL initiative’s ultimate goal as it won’t possibly prove how biogenesis actually happened it will only possibly demonstrate that intelligence isn’t a necessity in the process.

    I’m not sure how Dr. Lui could have overlooked this but it seems the only possibilities are (in the memorable words of Richard Dawkins) ignorance, stupidity, insanity (or wickedness but I’d rather not consider that). ;-)

  9. O’Leary:

    I don’t think Harvard yard will succeed, but here’s the difficulty: They will easily persuade themselves that they have succeeded. That is usually the way with such projects.

    Well said. I have heard news of the ool mystery being solved at least a dozen times. Each time a close examination (not that close) establishes that the glowing successes was not as bright as a lightning bug.

  10. One of my greatest fears is that the universe and life actually are designed (this seems obvious to me), but because of materialist philosophy, OoL research will be fabricated (of course Darwinists have never fabricated anything) that supports the opposite “bottom-up” view. Then this lie will be accepted and spread like wildfire. All dissenting opinions will be attacked and labeled as heretical, and the damage to religion and those of faith will be irreparable. I no longer consider science to be self-correcting when it comes to paradigm-challenging ideas.

  11. Dr David Liu said

    Consider the contrary hypothesis, that the fundamental features of living systems require divine intervention. How could one go about performing experiments with this hypothesis in mind?

    The same way a mechanic does his job. He doesn’t know who were the engineers behind the construction of the cars, but that doesn’t stop him to know how cars operate. Similarly, the fact that biological structures are the result of Intelligent Design won’t prevent scientists from doing their job.

  12. Consider the contrary hypothesis, that the fundamental features of living systems require divine intervention. How could one go about performing experiments with this hypothesis in mind?

    I can actually clarify his statement into two testable hypothesis:

    1) non-intelligent causes are capable of producing life. (This would falsify the hypothesis that non-intelligent causes are incapable of doing so.)

    And

    2) Intelligent causes are capable of producing life.

    #2 is important because we can test it using humans and/or computer intelligence, it makes a positive prediction, and if it found correct, we can show an easily understandable comparison to common folks:

    Cause A (non-intelligent causes) have yet to be shown capable of producing effect X (life). Cause B (intelligence) has been demonstrated to cause effect X. Therefore, at this time, cause B (intelligence) is the only cause shown capable of producing X. And this has been tested and verfied experimentally.

    Why are we not snatching this low hanging fruit?

  13. hypotheses*

  14. I have to say, that makes a lot of sense. ID based research into creating a living organism from non-living components would differ significantly from it’s evolutionary counterpart. ID researchers would have the advantage that it wouldn’t be restricted to materials found on some hypothesised ‘early Earth’. Also, evolutionary researchers are constantly trying to have as little intelligent input as possible, but an ID researcher would be quite happy if the process required intelligent input the whole way through. ID has a huge advantage here. There are so many more areas that IDist’s can explore for a solution.
    If only there was some funding…

  15. There is a certain irony in the Harvard OoL project. It is presumed that Darwinian mechanisms have already provided answers for the problems of increasing complexity, functionality and information content in living systems, once life got started. If they could just explain the origin of the first cell, the whole of life would be understood.

    Dawkins commented in his debate with David Quinn: “Just as before Darwin, biology was a mystery. Darwin solved that.” Of course, Darwin did nothing of the sort.

    Michael Denton commented at the close of his book, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis:

    The truth is that despite the prestige of evolutionary theory and the tremendous intellectual effort directed towards reducing living systems to the confines of Darwinian thought, nature refuses to be imprisoned. In the final analysis we still know very little about how new forms of life arise. The “mystery of mysteries” — the origin of new beings on earth — is still largely as enigmatic as when Darwin set sail on the Beagle.

  16. Let’s see how objective this study could be… (quotes taken from the Boston Globe article)

    “to understand how life emerged from the chemical soup of early Earth”

    Philosophy of Methodological Naturalism Bunk Meter bouncing off the scale. Let’s rewrite this according to it’s implied meaning for the uninformed public. “Life emerged from the chemical soup of early earth but this has yet to be understood.” Okay, we understand now.

    David R. Liu, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Harvard. But ”my expectation is that we will be able to reduce this to a very simple series of logical events that could have taken place with no divine intervention.”

    It seems that their goal is clear. They don’t really want to discover an explanation for life origins. They want to discover a naturalistic explanation for life origins.

    ” In another era, the idea that humans are the close cousins of apes — a scientific fact now supported by overwhelming evidence” What?! Is this an editorial from TalkOrigins?

    I just read the entire article. It is nothing short of a public rewarming up to the usual materialist dogma about ‘life on other planets’ (refuted), water on Mars means life on Mars (refuted), life on Mars means it originated on Mars (refuted), extremophiles can live on other planets (refuted) extremophiles could come to earth (refuted), the Miller-Urey experiment (refuted, and actually an example of design). I wonder how they can expect to make much progress when approaching it from a perspective of already failed hypotheses.

    My prediction is that they will not be successful in finding a naturalistic explanation for origins of life, and in the glare of a liberal press and with great fanfare, will grandly posit a ‘new’ theory… that is speculative. Since evidence for a naturalistic life origin here on earth eludes them, might as well speculate about life origins in other places in the universe and then draw conclusions based on that for earth life origins. They know what is at stake. They can’t afford to NOT produce a naturalistic explanation.

    Who will critique their work? Fellow naturalists?

  17. The Harvard OOL project actually appears to be dying on the vine. The Globe article is over a year old and Liu doesn’t speak for the project in any case. A Harvard astronomer is running the show near as I can tell, one Dimitar Sasselov. Perhaps we’ll know more after this inaugural symposium scheduled for November 8th, 2006:

    http://cfa-www.harvard.edu/~sasselov/origin/

    If it’s still on. I’m reading the rest of the material at the link. At this point I’m not sure if it was ever meant to be available to the public. The whole thing is starting to smell like a trial balloon that floated like it was made of lead.

  18. I cannot say what will Harvard origin of life project come up with in the future, but lets give them benefit of the doubt. Once they publish their findings we can than examine their claims/conclusions.

  19. Folks,

    I was just talking about this Harvard Project with an evolutionist friend of mine and here is what he said :

    ————————————————
    Obviously the author does not have a “proper understanding of evolution”, because the Theory of Evolution isn’t concerned with the origin of life question in any way, shape, or form.

    A “proper understanding of evolution” completely divorces the origin of life question from the Theory of evolution.

    One cannot expect evolution to answer the origin of life question that would be as unfair as asking someone who believes in creation who created the creator!!
    ————————————

    So, just as my understanding of ID is that proponents of ID SCIENCE are only interested in detecting DESIGN, Most proponents of TOE are not interested in answering Origin of Life questions, just the processes that cause speciation.

    ——————————-

    I am not sure if I buy his explanation. But I am sure that most of you who have dealt with evolutionists could give me a better picture of the intent of evolutionists.

    THANKS A BUNCH.

  20. Seekandfind,
    I was going to comment on just that aspect of the paper but realized that the defenders of evolution here don’t often raise that defense.
    I think the strategy is going out of vogue.

  21. For those who missed it, Seekandfind, and his friend, are referring to the first line of the piece.

    Harvard University is launching a broad initiative to discover how life began, joining an ambitious scientific assault on age-old questions that are central to the debate over the theory of evolution.

    Are Ool questions part of the “theory of evolution”?
    Strictly-speaking, and setting aside the over-encompassing evolution of the cosmos and chemical evolution of evolutionsism, “No”.
    Is it central to the debate?
    Of course it is.
    To ID proponents the debate is not over “is common ancestry true, does natural selection exist, are there genetic mutations etc.?”
    It is over whether or not the process requires/required intelligent input and whether or not this is evident.

  22. If your friend is not at all interested in the Ool-question ask him then to concede that it required intelligent intervention, and continue from there in your debates with him.

  23. SeekAndFind’s friend: “the Theory of Evolution isn’t concerned with the origin of life question in any way, shape, or form.”

    This answer is hooey! While there is something technically true about the statement, which is that ool is part of the scientific field of “abiogenesis”, ool scopes out the parameters of the theories of evolution.

    If, for instance, it were established that an rna world existed, then the process whereby this rna world evolved to become a DNA based world would certainly be within the scope of the theory of evolution. If a protein-first model of first life could be established, then evolutionists would be asked to explain how these replicating proteins evolved to become a DNA based world.

    In any case, SeekAndFind’s friend somehow believes that it is not part of the scope of the theory of evolution to know when the theory of evolution began to operate. This is a sorrowful position.

    Alas we have two choices, one is to concede that a designer designed the first living cell, and the other is to explain the evolution of ATP synthase.

  24. Another link to an interview with Professor of Astronomy Dimitar D. Sasselov, who is heading the project.

    http://www.thecrimson.com/article.aspx?ref=508427

  25. Investigating Spontaneous Generation?
    Been there done that. More 150 year old
    Darwinite Metaphysics!

  26. “Alas we have two choices, one is to concede that a designer designed the first living cell, and the other is to explain the evolution of ATP synthase.”

    A third is to conclude that we don’t know.

  27. “Just as NASA spent billions trying to disconfirm the Big Bang, Harvard will spent at least millions trying to disconfirm ID…”

    Oh, really? NASA spent billions trying to refute the Big Bang? Do you have evidence for this?

  28. [...] See here for more about the Harvard Origin of Life project. [...]

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