A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Arsenic and Old Lace

Does a New Life Form Mean God Is Dead?

The recent NASA announcement of bacteria that use arsenic in place of phosphorous in their DNA chains has prompted the Usual Suspects to attempt a metaphysical conclusion from a tentative derivative measurement.  To wit:

"The polite thing to say is that discoveries such as this don't really impeach the credibility of established religion, but in truth of course they really do," David Niose, president of the American Humanist Association (AHA), a leading secularist organization, said of this week's revelations about the microbes discovered in Lake Mono in California.

"The fact that life can spring forth in this way from nature, taken in context with what else we've learned in recent centuries about space and time, surely makes it less plausible that the human animal is the specially favored creation of all-powerful, all-knowing divinity," Niose said.

Why do people who proclaim the superiority of reason do such a persistently poor job of using it?  One expects poor reasoning from Young Earth Creationists, but at least they make no claims to worship at the altar of the cerebral. 

And I do wish they would stop abusing the term "humanist."  The war between science and humanism has been going on for several centuries now and it seems odd to call on one in support of the other. 
  • "The fact that life can spring forth in this way from nature."  Let's see what Tommy Aquinas said. 
    • Species, also, that are new, if any such appear, existed beforehand in various active powers; so that animals, and perhaps even new species  of animals, are produced by putrefaction by the power which the stars and elements received at the beginning. Again, animals of new kinds arise occasionally from the connection of individuals belonging to different species, as the mule is the offspring of an ass and a mare; but even these existed previously in their causes, in the works of the six days. Summa theologica, Part I, Q73, art.1, reply obj. 3
    • Now, Tom relied on the science of the day, always risky; but note that he ascribed the emergence of new species (if any) to nature: putrefaction, the stars and elements, cross-breeding.  Nowadays, we ascribe such things to, well, the elements, and swapping genetic material, and (as Sagan used to say) "we are all star-stuff."  Elsewhere, Tom specifically argues that nature possesses immanent powers of its ownSumma theologica, Part I, Q115, art 2.
    • IOW, it was the teaching of the Church that such things do spring from nature.  They simply went on to say that natures had these powers because etc. 
  • "that the human animal is the specially favored creation of all-powerful, all-knowing divinity,"  Not sure how any of it makes this statement less plausible or more plausible.  The traditional Christians always considered that God was the source of being, not only of "space and time" but of the powers of natures.  Discovering a new power of nature would not affect that.  But it was never their belief that humans were "specially favored" or that the universe was created for the convenience of humans and so forth.  The belief was that the universe was created to show forth God's glory, and that humans were created to "love, honor, and serve God in this world, and be happy with him in the next."  Nothing in that about being specially favored; nor any limitations on whether there might be others created for similar purposes elsewhere.  But as Augustine was said to have replied when asked if satyrs had souls: "Show me a satyr, and then we'll talk."  (He said it in more flowery Latin, however.) 
Now, About "Tentative, Derivative" Facts

A lot of facts aren't.  Not in the sense of direct observation.  What the experimenters did was they cultured some of these bacteria and then reduced the phosphate content in the media, replacing it with arsenate.  And, lo, the bacteria continued to thrive.  From this they inferred that the bacteria were using the arsenic.  IOW
  1. If T, then A
  2. A
  3. Therefore, T
Which we all know as the fallacy of asserting the consequent.  That is, if the bacteria were incorporating the arsenic in place of the phosphorus, then we might see something like this; but seeing something like this does not mean the bacteria are incorporating the arsenic.  There might be other explanations.  Like faulty measurements, to name one.  This has not escaped the notice of other scientists.

Oh Well

Scientists see fatal flaws in the NASA study of arsenic-based life

As soon Redfield started to read the paper, she was shocked. "I was outraged at how bad the science was," she told me.

Redfield blogged a scathing attack on Saturday. Over the weekend, a few other scientists took to the Internet as well. Was this merely a case of a few isolated cranks? To find out, I reached out to a dozen experts on Monday. Almost unanimously, they think the NASA scientists have failed to make their case. "It would be really cool if such a bug existed," said San Diego State University's Forest Rohwer, a microbiologist who looks for new species of bacteria and viruses in coral reefs. But, he added, "none of the arguments are very convincing on their own." That was about as positive as the critics could get. "This paper should not have been published," said Shelley Copley of the University of Colorado.

But if "the fact that life can spring forth in this way from nature" makes it "less plausible that the human animal is the specially favored creation of all-powerful, all-knowing divinity," will Mr. Niose now issue a press release proclaiming that "the fact that life did not spring forth in this way from nature, makes it more plausible that the human animal is the specially favored creation of all-powerful, all-knowing divinity"?

Of course not.  There is no necessary connection between such mundane facts and the metaphysical conclusion. 

I should also mention that the article which quotes Mr. Niose also quotes well known SF fan, Br. Guy Consolmagno SJ, of the Vatican Observatory.  Dr. Br. Guy is a scientist, not a humanist.

1 comment:

  1. I've seen a Creationist claim this proves special creation of life forms.

    We have the battle of the conclusion jumpers here.


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