Pharyngula

Here’s some exciting news: Artificial life likely in 3 to 10 years. It is exciting but not surprising at all — but of course we’re going to be able to assemble entirely artificial life forms soon. It’s just a particularly complicated kind of chemistry, and it’s more of a deep technical problem than anything else. I wouldn’t be quite so specific about the date — there are also all kinds of surprises that could pop up — but I’m optimistic, and I think the overall assertion is supported by the increasing rate of accomplishment in the field.

But of course, in addition to the usual suggestions from interested followers of science that I should mention this cool article on the blog, I’ve gotten a few from creationist complainers (Already! See what my email is like?) Expect to hear more outrage from the religious right as this story develops in the coming years, which might be a good thing … they’re going to have to spread themselves thin to fight all the interesting work coming out of biology, and evolution won’t be the only target anymore. Anyway, here’s one of my creationists, expressing his unhappiness in odd directions.

The story is so ridiculous, that I had several immediate thoughts:

First, why are scientists so fascinated with “starting” life, when they seem so oblivious to the loss of fully functioning beneficial designs every day. (Put on your evolutionists hat here for a second, cause this one makes even more sense if your an evolutionist, and I will explain why in a moment).

We’re interested because it’s part of the process of basic science, first of all, and is a way to examine and test explanations for the origin of life. Eventually, it may have very practical uses as a way to engineer simplified, minimal, or optimized systems for biosynthesis. We also all have this fantasy of being able to laugh maniacally over a vat, shouting, “It’s ALIVE!”

The comment about this argument making sense to an evolutionist is funny, since it turns out his following argument makes even less sense from an evolutionary perspective than from his brain-damaged fruitbat perspective.

Every day millions of children are aborted and disposed of, their tiny neurological and immune systems forever lost to the universe. Man preoccupies himself with tinker-tots while daily disposing of healthy, fully developed systems. Now, if you are an evolutionist, the chances of a beneficial mutation resulting in, for example, a cancer resistant immune system, or an immune system capable of defeating even the least virulent viruses, are astronomical. The value of these mutations to the genetic information of human beings, however, is potentially species-saving! Even the remote possibility of humanity “evolving” a more efficient or stronger heart, immunity to Alzheimer’s disease, or cures to a host of ailments, would suggest that we never abort a child, under any circumstances.

Let me make this even funnier to you all: this is from a creationist who regularly sends me email claiming that beneficial mutations are impossible and have never been documented, now claiming that we must end abortions because one of those fetuses might just bear an adaptive mutation. The argument is nonsensical anyway; the human race is currently experiencing a surplus of interesting recombination events and novel mutations, with a huge amount of extant diversity, and we don’t really have a way to assess them all anyway. And somehow, I’ve gotten this impression from other bits of this lovely fellow’s email rants that if the “species-saving” mutation arose in the child of a poor Palestinian or African woman, for instance, he wouldn’t be rushing to see his blood line commingled with hers.

What this has to do with his anti-biotech sentiment is a mystery, too. It’s not as if every artificial microorganism is going to be built from parts extracted from a dewar of frozen embryos, after all. Building an artificial mycoplasm will have no effect on the abortion rate.

This is the same argument used by environmentalists to argue against any environmental consequence that might have the effect of causing the extinction of even one species.

These “scientists” are quick to warn that these plants insects, and viruses cannot be killed, lest we risk their extinction, and the loss to humanity of vital cures, potions, drugs, etc.

Uh, no, it’s not the same argument. Aborting a few fetuses from a thriving population that is growing faster than the environment can support them is not equivalent to driving a species to extinction, nor is the diversity within a single species equal to the diversity between species.

These same scientists figuratively stumble over mounds of dead children which represent potentially fully realized mutations to man’s problems in their rush to create a few cells that they claim are “life”, with nary a comment on the ecological, environmental, and biological risks of wanton abortion! Up to their necks in the ooze of their own petri dishes, they voice no outrage to what may be the needless end of humanity- the inadvertent loss of a species-saving mutation through abortion-on demand!

If anyone is really concerned about the loss of human potential, they should be doing more to help the desperately poor and the residents of underprivileged nations, where the loss of life is greatest. Every human being is unique, and it’s simply silly to focus on aborted fetuses as if they are the repository of all the biological novelty in our species. It just isn’t a serious concern for humanity.

As for ecological, environmental, and biological risks — we’d be better off with many more abortions, and with more universal, voluntary birth control. We do not have a problem of not enough human beings, we have the problem of an excess.

Oh, but it gets better!. Because these tinkers have no clue to what end this “life” they hope to create will serve. You see, even the ignorant “evolution” has a purpose, to wit: “fitness.” To the evolutionist, mutations are jumbled together to make species more fit, and if the converse were true the mutation is tossed upon the garbage pile of evolutionary history as serving no purpose. This artificial life is being created for no specific purpose, but in the hope that it will someday be exploited by man to serve a purpose. The quotes of the scientists are stunning in their naivete:

By M. L. Donohew
Aug. 20th, 2007

Sorry, but that’s how he ended it, with a dangling colon. I don’t think we’re missing much, judging from the incoherence of what came before. I don’t quite understand what he means in that sentence beginning “To the evolutionist”; his words don’t make much sense, and what there is doesn’t fit with evolutionary views. And of course artificial life is being created for a purpose. To answer the question of whether we can do it. To drive further advances in biotechnology. To test models of chemical evolution. And hey, if we already knew all the answers to all the questions this technology would generate, there would be no point in doing it.

Comments

  1. #1 efp
    August 20, 2007

    How long before

    “we’d be better off with many more abortions.” -P.Z. Myers

    ends up the king of out-of-context quotations?

  2. #2 Sailor
    August 20, 2007

    “they’re going to have to spread themselves thin to fight all the interesting work coming out of biology, and evolution won’t be the only target anymore.”
    No, since man has to think to produce the life in a lab, they will just say it proves the necessity of “ID”

    How many years do you think before we can tinker with the genetics and get a cut off limb to regrow? That will at least be an impressive cure that has never been done as a “miracle”.

  3. #3 PZ Myers
    August 20, 2007

    It’s not exactly out of context, though — I do think we’d be better off with more abortions, and more family planning of all kinds. And they can quote me on that!

  4. #4 John McKay
    August 20, 2007

    I get it. The pro-life position is that instead of aborting children, we should be vivisecting them to see if they have any useful mutations. Stop stumbling over those mounds of dead children and put them to work!

  5. #5 MartinM
    August 20, 2007

    Yeah, as quote-mines go, that’s pretty tame. All the words exist, are in order, and in fact appear right next to one another. That’d be remarkably accurate for a creationist.

  6. #6 garth
    August 20, 2007

    personally, i’d be happier if abortion-counting stopped. women can do what they please with their bodies, “whoever” happens to be riding along mooching nutrients. anyone else not his BS line about “perfectly healthy systems” or whatever he was getting at? like a ball of cells is a perfect system. feh.

  7. #7 raven
    August 20, 2007

    Xian wingnut:
    These same scientists figuratively stumble over mounds of dead children which represent potentially fully realized mutations to man’s problems in their rush to…

    What is this guy talking about? Scientists in general and biologists in particular don’t perform abortions. There are no piles of fetuses in their hallways. He seems to have PhDs confused with MDs. Very few MDs do abortions either. You can tell this guy could have driven by a university once but probably didn’t.

  8. #8 True Bob
    August 20, 2007

    The undercurrent I get from his remarks is that we would be better off if you guys were experimenting on full-grown humans. Nice to meet you, Dr. Moreau.

    P.S.

    We also all have this fantasy of being able to laugh maniacally over a vat, shouting, “It’s ALIVE!”

    I KNEW it!

  9. #9 SEF
    August 20, 2007

    get a cut off limb to regrow? That will at least be an impressive cure that has never been done as a “miracle”.

    ie http://whywontgodhealamputees.com/

  10. #10 jeff
    August 20, 2007

    Well as cool as artificial life is, there is there is still the danger of decimating everything with some unknown plague, or as with nanotech, transforming the planet’s surface into a gray goo. I suppose that would be pretty cool if you were the gray goo, though.

  11. #11 True Bob
    August 20, 2007

    garth, the ridiculous extreme is counting every menstrual cycle, you know. Not that they’d be getting too personal.

  12. #12 raven
    August 20, 2007

    Think these creos are worried now, just wait. See what they say when the Artificial god project gets off the ground.

  13. #13 steve_h
    August 20, 2007

    Let me make this even funnier to you all: this is from a creationist who regularly sends me email claiming that beneficial mutations are impossible and have never been documented, now claiming that we must end abortions because one of those fetuses might just bear an adaptive mutation.

    He’s using a rhetorical argument here. It’s like me saying “you would think that as a aborted fetus is guaranteed a place in heaven and an unaborted one will probably end up in hell – especially if its parents are not christians – we should all be aborting fetuses as fast as we can produce them”. I don’t believe in heaven or hell but I can invoke them to show weakness in the arguments of people who do.

  14. #14 Milo Johnson
    August 20, 2007

    Sounds like the writer IS a dangling colon.

  15. #15 syntyche
    August 20, 2007

    To increase the probability of a cancer-resistance mutation occurring, I hereby demand that all pregnant women be treated with EMS or ionizing radiation (whichever is more convenient).

  16. #16 True Bob
    August 20, 2007

    See what they say when the Artificial god project gets off the ground.

    Um, aren’t they still LIVING that one?

  17. #17 daenku32
    August 20, 2007

    No “playing God” comments from him? I will still preempt any possible comments by saying that to “play God”, we would need to get the little life forms to worship us and kill them off randomly. Of course we would first have to make sure they can “feel” so that the random killing would be so much more painful for them.

  18. #18 trj
    August 20, 2007

    Hm, millions of abortions every day? That’s quite an exaggeration. Millions of abortions every year would probably be more accurate.

    And on the same note: AFAIK the number of spontaneous abortions are higher than the number of provoked abortions (can anyone confirm this?). What does this say about a God, who permits this to happen? Where is the infinite wisdom and compassion in this?

  19. #19 jbw
    August 20, 2007

    I have been thinking about the environmental consequences of artificial life. I have no doubt that after some oil spill or crop disease or human disease or other disaster that an artificial creature will be released to solve the problem, only to make some other problem worse. We really know very little about the complex dynamics of ecosystems. New beasties will be created and released to solve that problem. If we manage to avoid destroying ourselves, this experimental ecology will lead to a better understanding of ecosystems and will be the ultimate solution for all our environmental problems. In the end, we will live in a completely engineered biosphere, completing the process we began when we domesticated plants and animals 10,000 years ago.

  20. #20 Rey Fox
    August 20, 2007

    They’re so cute when they try to speak our language.

  21. #21 andy
    August 20, 2007

    See what they say when the Artificial god project gets off the ground.

    Isn’t that what the Holy Transhumanist Cult of Singularity is all about making happen?

  22. #22 zohn
    August 20, 2007

    @ #2:

    Davescot at UD has already claimed this as ID research!

  23. #23 Toni Petrina
    August 20, 2007

    No, no, no, no. You’ve got it all wrong. That is going to be proof for ID and demise for evilutionists. Bwahahahaha.
    It’s DEAD.

    Seriously, the level of distorting facts is astonishing. Here, have a look:
    http://www.uncommondescent.com/intelligent-design/intelligent-design-research-proof-of-concept-in-3-10-years-say-scientists/

  24. #24 raven
    August 20, 2007

    See what they say when the Artificial god project gets off the ground.

    Um, aren’t they still LIVING that one?

    Actually it has already been done many times. So far, most have been duds like L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology cult or the Moonies.

    Science needs to produce a working one to have any credibility in the religious sector.

  25. #25 Curt Cameron
    August 20, 2007

    I would think the creationists would cry foul because the researchers are using DNA to begin with. If I were one of the creationists, I’d tell them to not claim synthetic life until/unless they came up with their own molecule that they designed themselves.

  26. #26 Zeno
    August 20, 2007

    Whoa, Toni! Thanks for the link, but next time I recommend using a more compact link. One way is at tinyurl.com, which takes a long URL and makes it small. Another is to learn how to use HTML’s A tag to create a link. You can find a nice little tutorial on it here . (The word “here” is a link because I used the A tag to make it one.)

  27. #27 Incorygible
    August 20, 2007

    Ya know, to avoid this whole problem of screening fetuses for beneficial mutations, we could go right to the source. I figure we could up our chances by many, many orders of magnitude if the fundies (including, presumably, our intrepid emailer) would just stop telling little Johnny that playing with himself makes the baby Jesus cry. How about it, Mr. Donohew? For the good of humanity, will you please promote and engage in even more masturbatory pursuits than spamming P.Z.? Our very existence could depend upon the miraculous life-saving mutation contained within one of your little swimmers, but he’s currently threatened with purposeless re-absorption! (You’re going to need a few petri dishes of your own.)

  28. #28 andy
    August 20, 2007

    One way is at tinyurl.com, which takes a long URL and makes it small.

    Hmmm… tinyurl, I personally am not such a fan of: you can’t tell anything at all about what the link destination is before you click it. So generally I don’t.

  29. #29 Chuck C
    August 20, 2007

    Man preoccupies himself with tinker-tots …

    And that’s why society is going to hell! Cross-breeding childrdens’ toys and root vegetables! Is nothing sacred to you heathens!?

  30. #30 Sonja
    August 20, 2007

    AAAaaaacccchhhh! It’s the Mother Theresa argument again!

    “I have already prayed to God for healing for Aids, and God’s answer to me was “the one I sent to you was aborted in his mother’s womb.” –Mother Theresa to an Aids victim

    This argument could explain a LOT of things — the lack of innovation on Broadway, the moron in the White House, the dearth of single men, the long hold times for customer service …

  31. #31 other bill
    August 20, 2007

    Well, I may not have done the “It’s alive” routine, but I did get to start experimental epidemics (plain old rhinoviruses) and thought that was pretty cool. Got some nice papers on disease transmission in closed environments, too.

  32. #32 other bill
    August 20, 2007

    I forgot to mention, but during the planning designs sessions we would occasionally look at each other and cackle or rub our hands and do the “Mwah-ha-ha” routine.

  33. #33 J. John Johnstown
    August 20, 2007

    Axolotl tanks, man. Axolotl tanks.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Axolotl_tank

  34. #34 Richard R
    August 20, 2007

    But… since our modern computers are the “embryos” of this artificial life to come… is there some moral issue with turning my computer off at night? ;)

  35. #35 factician
    August 20, 2007

    Actually, I see the “artificial life” experiments fitting right into the intelligent design folks’ world view. After all, they’ll use it as “see, life *must* be designed”. It’s painful to watch folks make the logical error of “because it can happen that way, it *did* happen that way”.

  36. #36 MJ
    August 20, 2007

    “I have already prayed to God for healing for Aids, and God’s answer to me was “the one I sent to you was aborted in his mother’s womb.” –Mother Theresa to an Aids victim

    I always wanted to retort to people who use that quote: God told me that the woman who should have become the doctor who would have cured AIDS, never got the chance to go to college because she got pregnant in high school (thanks abstinence only sex ed), and couldn’t get an abortion because there was no nearby provider (86% of the counties in the USA), and she was too poor to afford one and travel (especially with the waiting restrictions in her state). Her family pressured her to keep the baby, and she dropped out of school to support her child.

    Funny how some people expect an unborn fetus to solve the problems of the world, while women are thought to have so little potential themselves.

  37. #37 Gelf
    August 20, 2007

    This is another one of those arguments that can be inverted quite nicely: Engineering of living organisms should be of great interest to creationists. Finally they will be able to point to some living system and claim unequivocally that it was intelligently designed, that human beings are the designers notwithstanding.

    “Intelligent Design” proponents claim a dispassionate scientific interest in exploring the origins of biological systems in purposive terms without regard to the identity of the hypothetical creator. If this is so, then demonstration of the ability to create a living organism as an act of engineering would in principle be a great result in their favor. Demonstrating that some organisms can be designed would be a vital (albeit highly inconclusive) step towards demonstrating that other organisms of our prior acquaintence actually were designed. It’s the sort of thing real scientists might do given such a hypothesis.

    Another point in the favor of IDers (kind of) is that, given a preferred outcome and sufficient engineering capacity, intelligent design is indeed a far more effective method for achieving that outcome than waiting for the right mutations to happen along. If cancer resistance is desired, and I have to pick a horse to bet on, then even given the tentative 3-10 year timetable to develop the engineering foundation I’ll bet heavily on the intelligent design horse. Natural selection does amazing things, but nobody really gets to pick which amazing things it does. Given the demonstrated existence of intelligent design (even by humans), one could easily argue that design is “better” from an outcome-focused standpoint.

    As one final reason the ersatz scientists of ID should embrace this research, consider that once we do manage to engineer organisms for particular purposes, mutation and evolution suddenly become a huge problem. In order to construct safe practical applications of such a technology we must engineer organisms that maximally control for mutations. Releasing an engineered virus that disables cancer cells is highly problematic if a small mutation in the virus’ genome can lead it to turn healthy cells cancerous instead, and reliably preventing this might end up being at least as difficult as engineering organisms to begin with. To the lay audience such an observation can only shore up the misleading observation that mutations are almost always harmful.

    Scientists won’t buy it, but they’re not your audience anyway.

  38. #38 PZ Myers
    August 20, 2007

    Ooooh. I like that answer, and will steal it and reuse it at my next opportunity.

  39. #39 trj
    August 20, 2007

    #28, andy: Tinyurl does in fact have a preview facility, although it requires the creator of the compacted link to use the feature in the first place (or you as the reader can prepend the preview to the url).

    Example:
    http://preview.tinyurl.com/2tx

  40. #40 PZ Myers
    August 20, 2007

    No, that isn’t right: evolutionary processes are the ones to bet on. Especially if you’ve got a complex, difficult problem with many degrees of freedom, and where the final answer isn’t easy for our brains to grasp, evolution seems to be faster and more effective. I attended a conference on genetic programming earlier this summer, and what I heard about were situations in everything from the stockmarket to medical diagnostics, where fast answers were necessary because next week would be too late, and they are investing heavily in algorithmic analogs of evolution to do the work for them.

  41. #41 Arnosium Upinarum
    August 20, 2007

    “Wait until the creationists try to wrap their little minds around artificial life…”

    If how creationists have thus far wrapped their artificial minds around little life is any indication, this will be a doosey.

  42. #42 trj
    August 20, 2007

    Indeed, evolutionary algorithms are great heuristic problem solvers, although not for every kind of problem.

    They excel at open-ended problems containing numerous (unknown) variables. This is due to their inductive nature. They don’t have to know the rules of the system to find the optimal solution.

    Like evolution, the population, which comprises potential solutions in an evolutionary algorithm, evolves away from unfavorable circumstances, but doesn’t evolve towards anything predefined. So as with evolution, you might evolve into a dead end (a subomptimal solution), and you probably wouldn’t even know it.

    As for the race horse, a designed one might be best, as we’re breeding specifically for speed and stamina. Then again, there are so many factors related to speed that an inductive approach might produce a better result.

  43. #43 writerdd
    August 20, 2007

    “Wait until the creationists try to wrap their little minds around artificial life…”

    Doh. They will say, “It took man to create this artificial life. That proves that God (or an intelligent designer) created original life.”

  44. #44 Hank Fox
    August 20, 2007

    MOUNDS OF DEAD CHILDREN!!

    The straw man in this guy’s head is so nasty his brain probably emits radiation.

    Oh, man, what must it be like to believe that anything you say is automatically true … just because it’s you saying it? That must feel nice, Donohew. At least initially. Later, it would probably suck, because you’d turn out to be wrong so often.

    Seriously, I think all the creationists are going to be up in arms for one specific reason: The smug godder argument that “Scientists have never created so much as an amoeba in their labs!” is going down hard, and probably in only a few years.

    Just as countless other claims in favor of gods and souls and creation have fallen to hard science over the past few hundred years, another one, an extraordinarily basic one, is about to turn out to be false.

    Probably sounds unduly alarmist of me, but I think I’d advise whoever makes this breakthrough — and possibly even anyone working on it before the breakthrough — to be aware that there are people out there crazy enough to commit murder over such things.

  45. #45 Rey Fox
    August 20, 2007

    Well, at least he didn’t say LITERALLY mounds of children.

  46. #46 lunartalks
    August 20, 2007

    3-10 years. Not six days?

  47. #47 Miko
    August 20, 2007

    I can see why creationists are so afraid of this. If we start creating artificial life, they’re going to become paranoid about opening jars of peanut butter and finding ants spontaneously created inside.

  48. #48 Gelf
    August 20, 2007

    No, that isn’t right: evolutionary processes are the ones to bet on.

    No argument up to a point, but we’re talking about different sorts of problems. I was talking primarily about problems with very tightly constrained solutions. Given a hypothetical well-understood mechanism for shutting down cancerous replication and an equally hypothetical toolset for building specific protein factories that manipulate that mechanism straightforward design is going to be superior for the same reason programmers don’t build user interfaces by genetic algorithms. The problem space is sufficiently well understood that designing a genetic search for an optimal interface would not be optimal.

    Genetic programming is a neat way of getting where you want to go when you don’t really know how to get there, but part of what’s cool about it is that in some cases you can examine the genetically-derived solution to learn more about the mechanism you didn’t understand to begin with. On the downside, in many cases genetic programming can produce some very idiosyncratic solutions. I’ve heard of a case where a very successful genetically-derived solution to a problem could not be replicated because it turned out to exploit individual variations within the ordinary engineering tolerances of a FPGA. Software systems can exhibit similar idiosyncrasies that cannot necessarily be applied outside of their original data sets.

    In a biological case, I imagine (with little support, of course) that selection and design would interact very closely to yield tightly guided explorations of problems where the mechanisms involved were poorly understood. But I imagine (same caveat) that the primary goal of such research would be understanding the mechanisms, which could lead to a more effective designed system.

    Of course, besides all that, the dichotomy in question was between engineering a life-form that bestows cancer resistance as opposed to waiting around for a cancer-resistant fetus to appear for its genes to suffuse future human populations. I’ll still take engineering, even if controlled selection is one of the tools employed.

  49. #49 Tom @Thoughtsic.com
    August 20, 2007

    Wouldn’t a Christian think that “god” gave the scientist(s) the ability to create life? And life wouldn’t be created without “god’s” will? Therefore creating life is condoned by their god?

    …now, if the church could make MONEY off of this, there’s no doubt it’d be OK.

  50. #50 Jonathan Vos Post
    August 20, 2007

    “It’s artifically alive!” laughed the Artifical Intelligence, maniacally, next to Vat #69, at MicrobeSoft Labs, the First of April, 2010.

    Outside, the Creationists were already protesting…

  51. #51 Moses
    August 20, 2007

    We also all have this fantasy of being able to laugh maniacally over a vat, shouting, “It’s ALIVE!”

    ORLY? I thought it was along the lines of you all had a fantasy to make your own personal Kelly LeBrock.

    http://img110.imageshack.us/img110/9793/tilt2k6kellylebrock015um.jpg

  52. #52 Moses
    August 20, 2007

    Posted by: trj | August 20, 2007 06:32 PM

    And on the same note: AFAIK the number of spontaneous abortions are higher than the number of provoked abortions (can anyone confirm this?). What does this say about a God, who permits this to happen? Where is the infinite wisdom and compassion in this?

    Approximately fifty-percent of all pregnancies end in a spontaneous abortion. Some of us have suffered at a much, much higher rate. Others at a much lower rate.

    And about 10% of all couples are singularly, mutually or completely infertile.

  53. #53 Inky
    August 20, 2007

    I wonder what’s he’s like after a cup of coffee.

  54. #54 Graculus
    August 20, 2007

    I would think the creationists would cry foul because the researchers are using DNA to begin with. If I were one of the creationists, I’d tell them to not claim synthetic life until/unless they came up with their own molecule that they designed themselves.

    Dr Cech (you may remember his Nobel for ribozymes) says that’s do-able with 3 years and $20 million dollars. Carl Zimmer reported it at The Loom before scienceblogs existed.

  55. #55 skywalkthisway
    August 20, 2007

    The funny thing is that I read the first quoted section by this guy and thought his argument was going to involve species lost to global climate change and human activities; a much larger loss of “fully functioning beneficial designs” than any losses due to a failure to bring embryos to term. Guess I’m still not used to that level of crazy…

  56. #56 Ex-drone
    August 20, 2007

    M.L. Donohew writes:

    Because these tinkers have no clue to what end this “life” they hope to create will serve. … This artificial life is being created for no specific purpose, but in the hope that it will someday be exploited by man to serve a purpose.

    And the problem is? Replace “artificial life” with any scientific discovery, and you identify the goal of most scientists.

  57. #57 John Casey
    August 20, 2007

    Of course, if each conceptus is unique, and valuable thereby, so is each egg and each sperm. The very act of fertilization results in the destruction of millions of unique half-genomes! O, the horror.

    JC

  58. #58 Paul Sunstone
    August 20, 2007

    Once life is created by scientists, it will be interesting to see if any of the nutters claim it has a soul.

  59. #59 DSM
    August 20, 2007

    So about this artificial life… I assume that it will arise all by itself from a “favorable” mix of random chemicals with absolutely no higher intelligence behind its formation? No? Funny, that.

  60. #60 sailor
    August 20, 2007

    “I would think the creationists would cry foul because the researchers are using DNA to begin with. If I were one of the creationists, I’d tell them to not claim synthetic life until/unless they came up with their own molecule that they designed themselves.”
    I seem to remember (and it may be from that article) that someone was playing an 8-letter genetic code instead of the normal 4-letter one. I think that would count.

  61. #61 Loc
    August 20, 2007

    Good point JC,

    I motion that each and every time we jack off we collect these precious individuals and store them until the all can be used to fertilize at least….a couple hundred eggs…for everyone…every year. This will both decrease the waste and increase the chance that I’ll usher in a young tike that will give me a Worlds #1 Dad hat.

  62. #62 Anton Mates
    August 20, 2007

    So about this artificial life… I assume that it will arise all by itself from a “favorable” mix of random chemicals with absolutely no higher intelligence behind its formation?

    That’s…not really what “artificial” means.

  63. #63 BlackSun
    August 20, 2007

    Oh, but it gets better!. Because these tinkers have no clue to what end this “life” they hope to create will serve. You see, even the ignorant “evolution” has a purpose, to wit: “fitness.” To the evolutionist, mutations are jumbled together to make species more fit, and if the converse were true the mutation is tossed upon the garbage pile of evolutionary history as serving no purpose. This artificial life is being created for no specific purpose, but in the hope that it will someday be exploited by man to serve a purpose.

    Wow, P.Z., and to think my naive rational brain thought artificial life and artificial intelligence would end such debates. I’m aghast at the inanity of this moron’s arguments. Not only does he not understand the benefits of artificial life, but he has also missed the role of current work on “directed evolution” in creating new and better methods of bacterial synthesis. These new bacteria may have an extremely important role in saving the world from both global warming and a looming shortage of liquid fuels.

  64. #64 Campbell Vincent
    August 20, 2007

    Just for information. Here in Australia last night the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) screened a “4 Corners” program on Evangelical America. Scary stuff you have over there guys but we knew that anyway. Apropos of the current thread, in answer to a question about why God has not sent cures for all the nasty diseases, since he obviously could, the pastor replied “He has. It is just that the foetus bearing the cure was aborted.” Great to see that scientific thinking!!

  65. #65 Badger3k
    August 20, 2007

    Not a derail, but over at Scienceblog (http://www.scienceblog.com/cms/proof-existence-god-13963.html), we have a mathematical proof of the existence of a conscious designer. So there!

    Also, one of the commenters says that no scientist can deny the existence of some kind of intelligence that moves the universe. Wow. I’m somewhat half-heartedly trying to argue against these things, but the original post is somewhat muddled…well, if anyone wants to have a go, please go there and add to the fun (or blog about it, if it matters).

  66. #66 Tahn
    August 20, 2007

    So about this artificial life… I assume that it will arise all by itself from a “favorable” mix of random chemicals with absolutely no higher intelligence behind its formation? No? Funny, that.

    No, because we don’t want to hang around for a couple of million years waiting for it to happen.

  67. #67 Helen
    August 20, 2007

    That’s funny. With his first paragraph, I thought he might have a point: extinction of species and loss of biodiversity is a horrible problem, and maybe that’s more urgent than the experiments you refer to; anyway that’s an argument for ppl more knowledgeable than me; Anyway it turns out that’s not what he means at all! He’s simply complaining about, as you put it “Aborting a few fetuses from a thriving population that is growing faster than the environment can support them”.
    *Headdesk!*
    Also, if you don’t think evolution exists, why are you framing your opposition to abortions in terms of evolution?
    *Headdesk!*
    A dangling colon would, I imagine, be a very unfavourable evolutionary trait.

  68. #68 raven
    August 20, 2007

    Creobot DSM:

    So about this artificial life… I assume that it will arise all by itself from a “favorable” mix of random chemicals with absolutely no higher intelligence behind its formation?

    That’s already been done. Old, old news. What would be the point in repeating such an experiment?

    It even evolved quite a bit until there were multicellular creatures, a few of whom exhibited enough intelligence to understand the world around them. Others are behind the curve and just join cults and babble nonsense. Two and 1/2 out of 3 isn’t bad.

  69. #69 BT Murtagh
    August 20, 2007

    You know we’re going to have to listen to that retarded “get your own dirt” joke about a billion times, don’t you?

  70. #70 raven
    August 20, 2007

    in answer to a question about why God has not sent cures for all the nasty diseases, since he obviously could, the pastor replied “He has. It is just that the foetus bearing the cure was aborted.”

    The real answer is, “she was born in Iraq and died in a car bomb explosion at an outdoor market.” or

    “she was born into a fundie cult in Texas and is now walking around barefoot and pregnant spouting nonsense.”

  71. #71 Everybody in the World
    August 20, 2007

    “These same scientists…stumble over mounds of dead children…. Up to their necks in the ooze of their own petri dishes…”

    Apparently the mounds of dead children are on the bottoms of the giant petri dishes.

  72. #72 garth
    August 21, 2007

    acutal valid humans are not important to these creationist troglodytes, just concepts. the concept of their imaginary diety, the concept of an imaginary cutey ootey iggly wiggly baby, the concept of themselves, despite all evidence, being so much better than everyone else. just concepts.

    real human lives are nothing to these freaks.

  73. #73 Rey Fox
    August 21, 2007

    So DSM, did you read the two dozen or so comments above yours predicting exactly what you would say?

  74. #74 Timothy
    August 21, 2007

    “we’d be better off with many more abortions.” -P.Z. Myers

    I couldn’t agree more, PZ. Not only would it give me gleeful delight at pissing off all the religious nutjobs, but we’d have a much lower crime rate in 20 years. It’s like a win/win situation where everyone wins.

  75. #75 JoAnne
    August 21, 2007

    I think Mother Teresa stole that line from the mother of a guy I dated in the late 1970s, early 1980s, before AIDS was a known issue.

    She was arguing against contraception, he was arguing for it because it would help solve the problem of overpopulation.

    She said, “but what if the person who’s going to solve the problem of overpopulation didn’t get born because he was aborted or never conceived?”

  76. #76 Bob
    August 21, 2007

    In cases such as these, I turn to my vererable, purloined copy of “The Effects on Populations of Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation” aka The BEIR Report, Nov. 1972. Specifically, I like to point out Chapter V, Section IV “Could an Increased Mutation Rate Possibly be Beneficial?” in which the esteemed Subcommittee waves its hands and declares that any increase in the mutation rate will be harmful, thus justifying their position that no level of ionizing radiation exposure is “safe.” IMO, it’s weak science but strong politics, especially for 1972.

    If our creationist friend was really serious about saving the lives of the innocents, he’d be pushing for a repeal of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 and whatever public and occupational radiation protection standards now exist. To hell with 10CFR20 and 10CFR100 – bring on the mutants! No matter that most of the interesting mutations will be neither beneficial nor able to reproduce (hmm, sounds like a sterile Fundamentalist view of homosexuals without the implication of butt-sex.)

    I do disagree with you on one point: I believe we (as a population, as a species) would be better off with less (ideally zero) abortions wherein every pregnancy was voluntary and premeditated. That will happen once humanity’s ignorance is lifted, a new era of enlightenment dawns, and monkeys fly out my butt.

    Keep up the good work.

  77. #77 Anthony Jeffries
    August 21, 2007

    “Tinker tots” — is that a cross between Tinker Toys and Tater Tots?

  78. #78 windy
    August 21, 2007

    Wet life is so conventional. How about “living” space dust?

  79. #79 SEF
    August 21, 2007

    With regard to a couple of comments back up there somewhere, there are already plans for alternative DNAs in various ways. Eg:

    alternate bases (and note the oldish date)
    practical concerns

  80. #80 Peter Ashby
    August 21, 2007

    I hate to do this, but, having been a YEC Fundie in my younger days I know how ML Donohew gets from artificial life to embryos and abortion. It is really quite simple and I think us atheists need to realise it or else our counter arguments will result in people talking past each other more than normal.

    It goes like this: Both abortion and artificial life betray a lack of respect, love for, nurturing of etc God’s creation. Artificial breeding of animals is ok because God gets a chance to intervene in the reproductive process. But with artificial life God has no such chance and with abortion we subvert any choices that God may have made.

    Now these arguments are only bogus if you do not share the fundy’s premises, they are not actually more inconsistent or illogical than the ones made from our moral perspectives. This is why these arguments always result in people talking past each other. Even if the protagonists realise the premise incompatibilities they are left as the elephants in the room. If you realise this is the real issue you can counter ML Donohew on the premises. PZ sort of does this by pointing out the inconsistencies in other aspects of belief.

  81. #81 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    August 21, 2007

    This has the prospect of closing down one especially non-consequential and boring creospeak line.

    But the movement will continue to claim that no experiment can test natural processes since experiments ‘must be designed’. “Natural experiments” such as the fossil record doesn’t count because the researcher wasn’t there to ‘design’ them.

    As for all empirically empty claims, you can’t remove the void that fills it or its proponents.

    Gelf:

    … I imagine (with little support, of course) that selection and design would interact very closely to yield tightly guided explorations of problems where the mechanisms involved were poorly understood.

    No doubt each approach has its advantages. But the scope of the suggested work is larger:

    His idea is that once the container is made, if scientists add nucleotides in the right proportions, then Darwinian evolution could simply take over. “We aren’t smart enough to design things, we just let evolution do the hard work and then we figure out what happened,” Szostak said.

    Also, while it doesn’t support the speed argument of solving complex solutions, earlier evolution has the advantage to have hashed out robust solutions:

    Bedau said there are legitimate worries about creating life that could “run amok,” but there are ways of addressing it, and it will be a very long time before that is a problem. “When these things are created, they’re going to be so weak, it’ll be a huge achievement if you can keep them alive for an hour in the lab,” he said.

    So yes, creationists will continue to frame this as pure design. But more neutral observers will see evolution used and confirmed, and showing twice over that the process naturally delivers better solutions in real life [sic!] situations.

  82. #82 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    August 21, 2007

    This has the prospect of closing down one especially non-consequential and boring creospeak line.

    But the movement will continue to claim that no experiment can test natural processes since experiments ‘must be designed’. “Natural experiments” such as the fossil record doesn’t count because the researcher wasn’t there to ‘design’ them.

    As for all empirically empty claims, you can’t remove the void that fills it or its proponents.

    Gelf:

    … I imagine (with little support, of course) that selection and design would interact very closely to yield tightly guided explorations of problems where the mechanisms involved were poorly understood.

    No doubt each approach has its advantages. But the scope of the suggested work is larger:

    His idea is that once the container is made, if scientists add nucleotides in the right proportions, then Darwinian evolution could simply take over. “We aren’t smart enough to design things, we just let evolution do the hard work and then we figure out what happened,” Szostak said.

    Also, while it doesn’t support the speed argument of solving complex solutions, earlier evolution has the advantage to have hashed out robust solutions:

    Bedau said there are legitimate worries about creating life that could “run amok,” but there are ways of addressing it, and it will be a very long time before that is a problem. “When these things are created, they’re going to be so weak, it’ll be a huge achievement if you can keep them alive for an hour in the lab,” he said.

    So yes, creationists will continue to frame this as pure design. But more neutral observers will see evolution used and confirmed, and showing twice over that the process naturally delivers better solutions in real life [sic!] situations.

  83. #83 Ginger Yellow
    August 21, 2007

    Of course, if you take the emailer’s version of evolutionist logic to its logical extreme, what scientists should be doing is encouraging women to get pregnant all the time, aborting every foetus, and then extracting the DNA for research. Lots more chance for beneficial mutations that way. Somehow I don’t think he would like that.

  84. #84 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    August 21, 2007

    transforming the planet’s surface into a gray goo

    From you to goo. I imagine an Evolution Live? reboot would piss creationists off big-time! :-P

    Oh, okay, I would be slightly peeved myself.

    DVM:

    I assume that it will arise all by itself from a “favorable” mix of random chemicals with absolutely no higher intelligence behind its formation?

    Any creationists argument is so predictive that it confirms that there is absolutely no higher intelligence behind its formation.

    Yes, using evolutionary mechanisms is exactly what is proposed by “One of the leaders in the field, Jack Szostak at Harvard Medical School, … His idea is that once the container is made, if scientists add nucleotides in the right proportions, then Darwinian evolution could simply take over. “We aren’t smart enough to design things, we just let evolution do the hard work and then we figure out what happened,” Szostak said.”

    So this part of the experiment could be a pure and simple test of evolution in isolation. (Of course, as an anti-scientist you will hold forth the empty claim that any part of an experiment is “designed”. Good luck with getting that analysis through peer-review among biologists, astronomers, cosmologists, geologists or any other scientist observing natural processes.)

    And it isn’t like this experiment hasn’t been observed to happen. (Or can you show us the higher intelligence that was behind the formation of Earth life?) But this time around we expect to learn more.

  85. #85 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    August 21, 2007

    transforming the planet’s surface into a gray goo

    From you to goo. I imagine an Evolution Live? reboot would piss creationists off big-time! :-P

    Oh, okay, I would be slightly peeved myself.

    DVM:

    I assume that it will arise all by itself from a “favorable” mix of random chemicals with absolutely no higher intelligence behind its formation?

    Any creationists argument is so predictive that it confirms that there is absolutely no higher intelligence behind its formation.

    Yes, using evolutionary mechanisms is exactly what is proposed by “One of the leaders in the field, Jack Szostak at Harvard Medical School, … His idea is that once the container is made, if scientists add nucleotides in the right proportions, then Darwinian evolution could simply take over. “We aren’t smart enough to design things, we just let evolution do the hard work and then we figure out what happened,” Szostak said.”

    So this part of the experiment could be a pure and simple test of evolution in isolation. (Of course, as an anti-scientist you will hold forth the empty claim that any part of an experiment is “designed”. Good luck with getting that analysis through peer-review among biologists, astronomers, cosmologists, geologists or any other scientist observing natural processes.)

    And it isn’t like this experiment hasn’t been observed to happen. (Or can you show us the higher intelligence that was behind the formation of Earth life?) But this time around we expect to learn more.

  86. #86 Patrick Quigley
    August 21, 2007

    We also all have this fantasy of being able to laugh maniacally over a vat, shouting, “It’s ALIVE!”

    Inspector: “But Doctor, you are playing God!”

    Dr. Hfuhruhurr: “Well, somebody has to!”

    -The Man With Two Brains

  87. #87 Alex
    August 21, 2007

    Speaking of axolotls, as somebody was, has anyone considered administering caffeine to this guy? He might metamorphose!

  88. #88 Corvus
    August 21, 2007

    “We also all have this fantasy of being able to laugh maniacally over a vat, shouting, ‘It’s ALIVE!’”

    You have summed up my life’s dream in one succient sentence. Thanks! Now I’ve got to go practice my maniacal laughter.

  89. #89 Ray
    August 21, 2007

    Well… if humble creatures like us could create life artificially why would anyone think it takes a god? I think if we could do it in a lab (in 3 – 10 years) it seems reasonable that natural processes given billions of years to develop and evolve could do the same thing, resulting in us and the world we live in.
    Cheers,
    Ray

  90. #90 Carlie
    August 21, 2007

    “We also all have this fantasy of being able to laugh maniacally over a vat, shouting, ‘It’s ALIVE!’”

    I’ve just added that to my favorite Facebook quotes.

  91. #91 Marcus Ranum
    August 21, 2007

    Well as cool as artificial life is, there is there is still the danger of decimating everything with some unknown plague, or as with nanotech, transforming the planet’s surface into a gray goo. I suppose that would be pretty cool if you were the gray goo, though.

    That’s God’s actual plan. We’re a transitional stage on his grand design to have a planet covered in Grey Goo.

    That’s a fun question to ask creationists, BTW. “If evolutionary creation is directed by God’s Mysterious Plan then how do you know that we’re the final end-point of that plan? Don’t you think the dinosaurs stood around thinking (very slowly) ‘God is great. We are the crown of creation…’? Turns out they were wrong…”

  92. #92 Ray C.
    August 21, 2007

    <creationist>
    The so-called scientists created life in a lab. This only proves that life can only be created by an intelligent agent.
    </creationist>

  93. #93 RJones
    August 21, 2007

    “I have already prayed to God for healing for Aids, and God’s answer to me was “the one I sent to you was aborted in his mother’s womb.” –Mother Theresa to an Aids victim”

    So, according to this quote, Mother Theresa thinks God is:

    (a) incompetenet; or

    (b) a dick.

    Wonder which one?

  94. #94 RJones
    August 21, 2007

    Incompetent.

    D’oh!

  95. #95 BobApril
    August 21, 2007

    RJones,

    It isn’t an either/or situation. He could easily be both.

  96. #96 Steve LaBonne
    August 21, 2007

    Don’t worry about plagues. Pathogenesis is a complex adaptation, not something that just happens by accident.

  97. #97 David S
    August 21, 2007

    I witnessed a debate between Michael Shermer and that Hovind guy. Hovind mentioned the fact that scientists have never been able to create life in a lab. He seemed to think this was a big point for his side. Then he said, “And even if a bunch of smart scientists do get together one day and create life, that just proves that it takes intelligence to create life!”

  98. #98 Mooser
    August 21, 2007

    As I ventured yesterday, the creationists will seize on the creation of artificial life in the laboratory as a proof of their creationism. After all, the life in the laboratory was designed by scientists, and created by them. So God must have done the same thing, being the Great Scientist.
    Ever wonder why, as the methods of science are more and more validated, the belief in creationism becomes stronger and stronger? Ironically, it is (I venture) because the model of scientific and technological progress,for which we use the word evolution metaphorically, is the only model for “evolution” they know, having, (as has been demonstrated numerous times) no understanding of the actual evolution which takes place in nature.

  99. #99 Margaret
    August 21, 2007

    MJ: “Funny how some people expect an unborn fetus to solve the problems of the world, while women are thought to have so little potential themselves.”

    The unborn fetus they worry about is male. The fundies don’t view women as real people worthy of respect or capable of actually thinking.

  100. #100 CL
    August 21, 2007

    It’s not as if every artificial microorganism is going to be built from parts extracted from a dewar of frozen embryos, after all.

    That’s only because we lack sufficient dewars!

  101. #101 Kseniya
    August 21, 2007

    Comprehensive research conducted in the kitchen at home has led me to conclude that it takes intelligence to create steam.

  102. #102 Andrew
    August 21, 2007

    I like how this creationist implies that our bodies can’t already take out viruses. Our immune systems are our best defense against viruses. It’s help against the more virulent strains that we need.

    And PZ:
    “If anyone is really concerned about the loss of human potential, they should be doing more to help the desperately poor and the residents of underprivileged nations, where the loss of life is greatest.”

    As a strict capitalist, this kind of naïveté makes me sick.

    As a strict capitalist, this kind of naivite makes me sick.

  103. #103 Leon
    August 21, 2007

    Oh, but it gets better!. Because these tinkers have no clue to what end this “life” they hope to create will serve.

    When did tinkers get involved? And what does this have to do with mending pots and pans?

  104. #104 kev_s
    August 21, 2007

    If a scientist succeeds in creating new life, won’t the creationists have to, umm, worship the scientist that did it?
    The prospect of that happening ought to be enough to slow research :-)

  105. #105 Martin R
    August 21, 2007

    Are they aiming for a procaryote cell without any organelles? Building a eucaryote cell with all the bits and pieces would be incredibly complicated.

  106. #106 Steve LaBonne
    August 21, 2007

    Are they aiming for a procaryote cell without any organelles?

    Yes.

  107. #107 tony
    August 21, 2007

    Kseniya said

    it takes intelligence to create steam.

    Not true. Every time I read a creo post it makes me steam… and those posts are far from intelligent!

  108. #108 Russell
    August 21, 2007

    Hey, Mark Bedau, I took intro phil from that guy. Good class.

  109. #109 nicole
    August 21, 2007

    Funny how these “fully functioning” “children” need to leech off a woman for seven or eight more months before being born… “tiny neurological and immune systems”…gah, those cute little clumps of cells, I wish I could snuggle with one right now….

  110. #110 Kseniya
    August 22, 2007

    But Tony, the intelligence is supplied by YOU. ;-)

    My point, really, was that whenever I put a pot of water on the stove and wait for it to boil, nothing happens. Ever.

    But when I turn on the heat, it boils quickly, and before I know it – I’ve got steam! Steam everywhere! It’s amazing, and my experiences prove that steam could not possibly exist in nature without some kind of intervention from an intelligent agent!

  111. #111 Peter Ashby
    August 22, 2007

    Kseniya, geothermal sites, geysers, bubbling mud etc lots of steam no intelligence required. Hawai’i where the lava hits the sea, all the steam you want.

  112. #112 Kseniya
    August 22, 2007

    Peter, yes, obviously, and my point relies on it. (And I’ve seen that lava-heated ocean steam in Hawaii up close and personal!)

    If we can create life in a lab, we will have demonstrated not that life can be created only by an intelligent *cough* designer, but that the creation of life does not require divine intervention. More to the point, we will not have demonstrated that life cannot spontaneously appear under the right conditions with no intervention whatsoever – but the creos will try to claim that we have, and will attempt to exploit that fallacy.

    In short, I was using a rhetorical device known as “steam irony”.    :-)

  113. #113 Matt
    August 22, 2007

    In line with Kseniya’s comment – just as steam can’t cough cough exist in the wild, neither can electricity – it only exists when we make it cough cough, rendering the wonderful Miller-Urey experiment results entirely invalid.

    I used to work in a place with several YECs/Catastrophists. It was considered good sport to point out internally inconsistencies in their position to them (while in the breakroom) and then watch them fight it out among themselves….the rationalizations from scripture were alarmingly amusing. There was more internicene vitriol over doctrinal questions than when arguing with the ‘enemy’ (those of us in the reality-based community).

  114. #114 Pineyman
    August 22, 2007

    I think Ken Ham is scanning this blog. His arguments are pretty much a condensation of what has been discussed here. Check it out:

    http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/2007/08/20/origin-of-hype

  115. #115 sil-chan
    August 24, 2007

    I think the reason creationists are so afraid of life being created artificially is that it will validate the idea that life can come from non-life through chemical processes and thus that life could arise from the atmosphere of early Earth without intervention.

  116. #116 Keith Douglas
    August 25, 2007

    Wow, within 10 years, eh? I’ve always thought it would happen within my lifetime, but so soon?

  117. #117 tus
    February 22, 2008

    “I have already prayed to God for healing for Aids, and God’s answer to me was “the one I sent to you was aborted in his mother’s womb.” –Mother Theresa to an Aids victim

    is mother teresa saying that god didnt know that baby was going to be aborted? is she saying gods divine plan is that easily screwed up?

    for that matter is that not what everyone who says that the aborted children could potentialy be holding a mutation which could save humanity. are they not saying that god’s divine plan to save the human race could be as easily ruined as a simple abortion? that he isnt able to forsee who is likely to get an abortion? hell i can forsee to some degree who is more likely to get an abortion. surely their god is even more wise right? he is omnicient after all.

    and if god has a plan for everyone, then he had a plan for those children to be aborted, and its not for us to question it, clearly god supports abortion.

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