TCS Daily


A Retro Look

By Kenneth Silber - February 6, 2006 12:00 AM

"Don't look back," Satchel Paige once said. "Something might be gaining on you." But that advice is harder to follow in the information age.

Since February 2002, I have been a regular contributor to TCS, albeit less prolific than a Glenn Reynolds or Arnold Kling. The piece you are now reading is my 77th for this publication, and since the Internet enables a writer's works to remain, for better or worse, readily accessible, it seems to me a worthwhile exercise to take a look back and point out where subsequent events give cause to update, reiterate or lament what I've written here.

For starters, in September 2004, I wrote about how the New Age film What the Bleep Do We Know? made a confusing hash out of quantum physics and other areas of science. Nonetheless, the film went on to some commercial success, and a sequel that is sure to be every bit as nonsensical arrives in theaters this month.

My November 2004 piece "Deep Space, Nein!?" advocated exploration of the outer solar system, and I have also argued for using nuclear power in space. Last year, an ambitious nuclear-powered mission, the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter, was cancelled. On a brighter note, NASA recently launched the first-ever probe to Pluto. In "Buy Space Bonds," I gave some praise and suggestions for the Bush administration's moon-Mars program; but the president's general silence on the topic over time raises doubts about the initiative's future.

In "When Ideologies Bleed", published in early April 2003 as U.S.-led forces were moving into the outskirts of Baghdad, I argued that "ideologies that glorify military conflict tend to fare poorly after their exponents suffer crushing military defeat. And this bodes well for the aftermath of the Iraq war, as well as for the broader war against terrorism." I think the first part will still turn out to be true, for both the Baathists and Al Qaeda. But I badly underestimated the difficulties involved in occupying Iraq.

Shortly after that piece, I wrote "Looting an Ideology" about how the chaotic Iraqi interregnum undermined arguments that the total absence of government is conducive to peace and prosperity. This got me some negative feedback from anarchocapitalists, but the best supposed counterexample they could come up with was a remote and sparsely populated premodern society: medieval Iceland. I stand uncorrected.

In "Socially Constructed" (May 2003) and "Defending an Old-Fashioned Prig" (October 2003), I was critical of postmodernism, particularly regarding its stance toward science. However, postmodernism for some time has been declining as an intellectual and cultural force. Nowadays, I probably would not even bother writing an article attacking it.

In an August 2004 piece "The Fusionist Path" I propounded a libertarian brand of conservatism. I also wrote, wrongly, that Frank Meyer of National Review had coined the term fusionist to describe his ideological disposition, when actually it was Brent Bozell who did so while criticizing Meyer's stance. I would update this, also, by noting the growing currency of the term neolibertarian, which means pretty much the same thing.

I have written a number of articles criticizing arguments for intelligent design. The ID movement, of course, recently was dealt a setback by a federal court in Pennsylvania, although no doubt it will continue to evolve new anti-evolution strategies. I, for one, am wondering when ID proponents will grasp that if the universe is "fine tuned" for life (as they often claim it is, based on physics and cosmology), this means conditions are favorable for life to evolve.

A few odds and ends: I gave a positive review to Nick Sagan's sci-fi novel Idlewild. Its sequel, Edenborn, is now out. I was an early enthusiast of Freakonomics, but was surprised when it became a huge bestseller (as well as stirring up much debate at TCS). I wrote a perhaps strange article about chess, which brought many new players to a site where I sometimes play.

I am grateful to be involved in a publication with such an eclectic range of topics and viewpoints, combining the urgently timely with the offbeat and esoteric. Long live TCS.

Ken Silber is a TCS contributing writer.

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14 Comments

Wonder No More because ID people understand evolution better than everyone else
Silber wrote the following in his retrospective look at his writings:

"I, for one, am wondering when ID proponents will grasp that if the universe is "fine tuned" for life (as they often claim it is, based on physics and cosmology), this means conditions are favorable for life to evolve."

My experience after first reading about ID 6 years ago is that the ID people have a better understanding of evolution than the typical scientist publishing in the evolution journals and certainly more so than journalist such as Silber. The typical ID proponent understands physics, cosmology, probability, microbiology, ecology, genetics, paleontology, geology, etc because they have to. They are constantly challenged in each of these fields. So they are more well rounded on science than just about any other group of scientists on the planet.

So in this area Silber's comment is fatuous and is typical how journalist treat the Intelligent Design issue. With half truths, distortions and sometimes outright lies.

Maybe Silber should cover the fight within the evolution community that says there is no evidence for Neo Darwinism in the fossil record. These are not ID people but those who are looking for an alternative mechanistic cause for evolution.

And by the way ID people accept a lot of evolution including everything that Darwin saw on his trip on the Beagle.

And on my actual point?
I'd be interested in hearing how these polymathic ID proponents reconcile the problem I noted, i.e.:

Biological ID argument = laws of nature inhospitable to life.

Fine-tuning argument = laws of nature very hospitable to life.

Your point is not a point
I am not aware anywhere that ID ever says nature is inhospitable to life so have you set up a phony proposition?

In case you are unaware of just what ID claims - here is the proposition you should attack.

There are some things in life that are so complex and information filled, that it would be impossible for these things to happen by chance.

There that is it. How you got the proposition "Biological ID argument = laws of nature inhospitable to life" is beyond me but nearly 100% of people who write about ID in the popular press either don't understand what it is about or willfully distort their ideas. So maybe you are in the former category in which case you owe it to your readers if not to yourself to either investigate just what they say or tell your readers that you do not understand what they stand for.

You make my point
"There are some things in life that are so complex and information filled, that it would be impossible for these things to happen by chance."

This statement is equivalent to saying that those things would not occur, given the laws of nature. You are displaying precisely the incomprehension I was talking about.

So you now support Intelligent Design
Yes, ID says life would not occur on its own given the laws of nature, and the time required. So the current set of laws would not lead to the formation of life by chance. Consequently, an intelligence must had something to do with it. This is where the "I" comes from. However, ID does not say that once life exists, that nature will automatically eliminate it, but that it, under the right environment, is friendly to its existence.

How the first cell arrived is called the "Origin of Life" problem (OOL).

If you want to phrase this the way you have then that is your privilege and I will then place you in the category of those willfully deceiving. I don't think the average person would have this take on the issue and use your phrasing.

Evolution tries to stay away from the OOL issue and focus on what happened after the first cell arrived on the scene. ID has examined the other tiers of the evolution issue, namely the formation of multi-cell organisms and body parts; macro evolution which is the formation of taxons with different morphologies and functions and finally micro evolution which is the formation of new species that are very similar to each other.

ID has little problem with micro evolution but maintains that there is no evidence for the other two areas as well as the origin of life happening by chance.

Actually, no
I don't support ID in either physics or biology. I believe the supposed "fine tuning" is illusory, and incorporates an overly narrow view of the types of life and types of universes that are possible.

But if the "fine tuning" were deliberate, to me it would suggest a designer of a rather remote temperament, one who chose to operate without the miraculous intervention that is posited by proponents of (biological) ID.

Request
I would love to see more stories on the capital investment and commercial development of cutting-edge technologies -- the sort of thing a WIRED/The Economist hybrid would report on.

OOL
"Evolution tries to stay away from the OOL issue and focus on what happened after the first cell arrived on the scene."

No, that's not true at all -- evolutionary microbiology research is a very active field. You can keep abreast of developments the by reading the journals:

International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology - http://ijs.sgmjournals.org
Microbiology - http://mic.sgmjournals.org
Nature - http://www.nature.com/nature/index.html
Science - http://www.sciencemag.org/magazine.dtl

...and for starters, you can try read this synopsis:

The enigma of the origin of life and its timing
Microbiology (2002), 148, 21-27
http://mic.sgmjournals.org/cgi/content/full/148/1/21

Debate is about power, not truth.
The Darwinist community usually stays away from the origin of life debate because they know they have not even a weak hand but no hand at all. Random mutations and natural selection doesn't fit in there though some have tried.

If you doubt this then ask why the evolution site at the University of California at Berkeley says that origin of life is not part of evolution. If you don't believe me then go to

http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evosite/misconceps/IAorigintheory.shtml

The intelligent design folks best argument is in the OOL area which is where a lot of their effort is. So in a lot of respects, these two sides of the debate are talking pass each other.

Since this is a power struggle, the Darwinist get very nasty at anyone who starts to challenge them. You might ask yourself why the inquisition about such things as a sentence read to 9th grade students that there is another point of view.

If you want the latest on OOL from those who are hoping to solve the problem then go to

Jump-Starting a Cellular World: Investigating the Origin of Life, from Soup to Networks the link is

biology.plosjournals.org/perlserv/?request=get-document&doi=10.1371/journal.pbio.0030396

If you want to get the latest from someone who supports Intelligent Design and says a natural cause of life is hopeless then go

On the origin of life

http://www.commentarymagazine.com/article.asp?aid=12102024_1

I haven't read either one but both are recent and I have read reviews of each so I know what they are saying. Maybe if I have some time tonight, I will read them. I am sure it is the same old stuff though and I know who has the more persuasive case.

Slow down and read carefully
"ask why the evolution site at the University of California at Berkeley says that origin of life is not part of evolution."

Trying reading the entry again --

"Evolutionary theory deals MAINLY [note: but not exclusively] with how life changed after its origin. Science DOES try to investigate how life started (e.g., whether or not it happened near a deep-sea vent, which organic molecules came first, etc.), but these considerations are not the central focus of evolutionary theory. Regardless of how life started, afterwards it branched and diversified, and MOST STUDIES [note: not all] of evolution are focused on those processes."

Also, do try to read the synopsis of current research in evolutionary microbiology (OOL).

The enigma of the origin of life and its timing
Microbiology (2002), 148, 21-27

"The habitat and nature of early life has been recently reviewed by Nisbet & Sleep (2001). Briefly, there are a number of lines of evidence indicating that the cradle of life was located in a deep- or shallow-sea hydrothermal vent at elevated temperatures. Strong selection for hyperthermophiles would also have existed on early Earth as a result of episodic meteorite bombardment. In the absence of ozone, the surface of Earth was probably bathed in lethal UV radiation for more than 2 gigayears of its existence, a problem that would not apply to the hydrothermal habitat. THIS HABITAT FAVOURS THE ABIOTIC SYNTHESIS OF AMMONIA (Brandes et al., 1998 ) as well as the formation of KEY ELEMENTS OF THE CITRIC ACID CYCLE from CO and H2S in the presence of metal catalysts (Cody et al., 2000). All individual reactions for the abiotic conversion of CO to peptides have now been demonstrated (Wächtershäuser, 2000 )."

http://mic.sgmjournals.org/cgi/content/full/148/1/21

Daily Double
Perish the thought!If TCS readers perused both The Economist newspaper and Wired magazine beforehand ,why ever would they return here ?

Are you serious?
First, I know exactly what the Berkeley site says and has said. I used it several times before. If you do not know how to read between the lines, then I will translate for you. The Berkeley web page says

"Hey folks there really isn't anything worthwhile on the origin of life but since we don't want to offend anyone we will say we are limiting evolution to life after it appeared. If anything that makes sense ever happens we will change our web site. By all means continue on the government trough because we know the university needs the grant money even if your research is nonsense."

I am glad you sent me to that other bit of nonsense about space aliens seeding the universe with the seeds of life. Is this the Roswell version of Origins of Life?

The guy did make a decent conclusion about origins of life. I quote

"Hence the enigma: an origin of life on Earth appears
highly improbable, an origin elsewhere is highly conjectural.
While this conundrum has been identified in
various forms for several decades, its magnitude has
dramatically increased over the last five years as new
constraints are placed on the timing of the primary
divergence of the domains of life"

So this guy agrees with Berlinski and the rest of the ID crowd. Next thing is for you to agree that OOL is at best speculative and that is how it should be represented to all students in this country. But the students should also be told that if they make up a wild theory there is a good chance they can live the rest of their life off the government nipple doing research on this theory. Thus, if students don't learn any scientific truths they will learn the truth about science.

Serious science on the origin of Life
The actual entry:
"Science does try to investigate how life started (e.g., whether or not it happened near a deep-sea vent, which organic molecules came first, etc.), but these considerations are not the central focus of evolutionary theory."

Your translation:
"Hey folks there really isn't anything worthwhile on the origin of life but since we don't want to offend anyone we will say we are limiting evolution to life after it appeared."

Actual evolutionary research on the origin of life REFERENCED IN THE BERKELEY quote:

Use of photocatalytic reduction to hasten preparation of culture media for saccharolytic Clostridium species
Brazilian Journal of Microbioly, January/April 2003
vol.34 no.1 São Paulo

...The most widely accepted scenarios for the origin and evolution of life on earth posit that the primitive earth atmosphere was almost completely deprived of oxygen and the FIRST ORGANISMS WERE ANAEROBIC (10,16,17). After the appearance of O2, a number of anaerobic environments were preserved and allowed the survival of microorganisms able to utilize substrates through fermentative and anaerobic respiratory processes (6). ANAEROBIC ECOSYSTEMS REMAIN WIDESPREAD IN THE WORLD and include soils, sediments, and human-managed process environments (landfills, anaerobic chambers used in breweries, sewage sludge digesters), as well as gastrointestinal tracts of man and animals (4,7). Moreover, many anaerobic microorganisms are potential agents of several pathologies...

http://arjournals.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev.micro.55.1.333

---------------------------

Primordial Carbonylated Iron-Sulfur Compounds and the Synthesis of Pyruvate
Science, August 25, 2000
Vol. 289. no. 5483, pp. 1337 - 1340

Experiments exploring the potential catalytic role of IRON SULFIDE at 250°C and elevated pressures (50, 100, and 200 megapascals) revealed a facile, pressure-enhanced synthesis of organometallic phases formed through the reaction of alkyl thiols and carbon monoxide with iron sulfide. A suite of organometallic compounds were characterized with ultraviolet-visible and Raman spectroscopy.

The NATURAL SYNTHESIS OF SUCH COMPOUNDS is anticipated in present-day and ancient environments WHEREVER REDUCED HYDROTHERMAL FLUIDS PASS THROUGH IRON SULFIDE-CONTAINING CRUST. Here, pyruvic acid was synthesized in the presence of such organometallic phases. These compounds could have provided the prebiotic Earth with critical biochemical functionality.

http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/sci;289/5483/1337

Two for you
1. To engage in discussion and debate
2. To see what life is like on the other side of the tracks

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