1. National Geographic News: “All Species Evolved from Single Cell, Study Finds

According to one scientist, new research shows that the probability humans were uniquely created is 1 in 106000. How can such a specific figure be wrong?

The research, from Brandeis University biochemist Douglas Theobald, attempted to statistically test the hypothesis that all life evolved from the same common ancestor—one of Darwin’s primary assertions. The test proceeded by looking at the 23 universal proteins found in all life-forms, from relatively complex eukaryotes to somewhat “simpler” bacteria and archaea.

As Theobald explained, the similarity across life is usually attributed to universal ancestry à la Darwin’s theory. The argument against multiple, unique origins of different life-forms, as stated by National Geographic News, is that “[i]f life arose from multiple species—each with a different set of proteins—many more mutations would have been required” and that “it’s highly unlikely that the protein groups would have independently evolved into such similar DNA sequences.” However, those claims obviously presuppose an evolutionary perspective—i.e., that similarity but separate origin could have only occurred via chance processes.

Nonetheless, Theobald interprets his statistical results on that basis, arguing that the odds are 1 in 102680 that the different forms of life arose independently, and calling that the creationist belief that humans originated separately from other life “an absolutely horrible hypothesis” with 106000 (that’s a ten followed by 5,999 zeroes) to 1 odds.

The obvious flaw with Theobald’s conclusions, as we pointed out, is that he assumes protein similarity must have come about either by common ancestry or by the process of evolutionary convergence. Creationists adopt neither view, however, because there is a better view available: common design. Even amid the chasm of differences between various organisms, fundamental similarities make sense in light of a single Designer who re-used many of the basic biological mechanisms throughout life. In fact, commonality is central to separating life from non-life; if we shared nothing in common with, e.g., bacteria, we would probably not classify it as life at all.

Finally, it is ironic that Theobald is trying to use statistics and probabilities to show that all life today must have evolved from a single common ancestor. Creationists and other advocates of the Intelligent Design movement have frequently produced calculations showing the extreme improbability (on the basis of chance processes) of the earth’s special position in the universe, the amazing molecular machines inside our cells, and so forth. But evolutionists balk at such probabilities, providing strange rebuttals in the form of speculative “multiverses” and praise at the “unexpected power” of mutations and natural selection. This time, it’s our turn to balk, but on the grounds that Theobald has presupposed evolution from the start.

2. PhysOrg: “Explained: Directed Evolution

“Directed evolution” sounds like a page out of the theistic evolutionist’s playbook. So what’s it doing turning up in an MIT laboratory?

Massachusetts Institute of Technology evolution expert Dane Wittrup isn’t trying to prove evolution in his laboratory. Instead, he’s trying to use evolution to produce novel proteins that may be used for such purposes as cancer treatment.

Known as directed evolution, the process involves a trial-and-error approach of irradiating cells to induce a high level of mutations, resulting in abnormal genomes—in the hopes that some of the cells will perform a certain task better than the previous generation. For example, Wittrup describes beginning with yeast cells, some of which have proteins on their surface which bind to a protein on tumor cells. He screens for the cells that bind the best, irradiating them to find proteins that bind even better.

“At the end, you have proteins that bind very tightly and specifically,” Wittrup said. “In the lab, it’s the same rules as natural evolution, but we get to set the criteria for who survives.”

Does Wittrup’s success demonstrate the possibility of Darwinian evolution? No, for multiple reasons. First, although mutations may make the cells “better” (within the context of the researchers’ goals) at some task, this does not imply we are seeing an increase in information as molecules-to-man evolution would require; in the example given, the selected cells already did what Wittrup wanted them to do—he is merely trying to hone that ability. Second, in this case, Wittrup is carefully overseeing a process of unnatural irradiation and selection—a different story than unguided, unaided evolution. And of course, even if biologists could produce a genuine example of information-adding evolution in the lab, no such demonstration would prove that life is the product of evolution.

3. BBC News: “Fossil Find Resolves Ancient Extinction Mystery

Once again, scientists have discovered the “remarkably well preserved” fossilized remains of creatures that, it would seem, shouldn’t have fossilized in the first place.

The fossils were discovered in Morocco and are now described in Nature by Yale University geologist Derek Briggs. They are all that’s left of soft-bodied marine creatures that are very similar to remains found in British Columbia.

Of special interest to creationists is the “remarkable” preservation of the fossils. (In normal conditions, soft-bodied creatures are destroyed completely before they can fossilize.) According to Briggs, unique historical conditions at the site permitted the preservation: thick marine muds laid down and trapping the creatures during turbulent storms. Indeed, there were many turbulent storms during the one-year long global cataclysm—the global Flood of Noah’s day—that buried these and most of the other creatures in the fossil record.

The discovery also alters scientists’ appraisal of when the creatures lived. Previously, “there was an anomaly in the fossil record,” explained Yale’s Peter Van Roy (who discovered the fossils), because “most of these animals just seemed to disappear at the end of the Middle Cambrian” geologic period. But the team places the remains in the Ordovician period, suggesting to them that the animals lived later than was believed. The team’s interpretation is that poor fossil preservation accounts for the confusion over when the creatures died out. As creationists, however, we interpret the fossil record not as a record of hundreds of millions of years of creatures living and dying, but as (largely) the record of the mass death and burial of creatures in a single watery cataclysm in earth history—one that included a multiple sequence of merging smaller local-to-regional catastrophes.

Meanwhile, Van Roy and his colleagues expect to find even more “spectacular” fossils as they continue studying the Moroccan site—discoveries we look forward to reporting on.

4. PhysOrg: “Researchers Use Entire Islands in the Bahamas to Test Survival of the Fittest

Scientists have run one of the largest-scale tests of natural selection ever. Does the result do anything to convince us of Darwin’s theory?

Distinguishing natural selection from Darwinian evolution (the latter combines natural selection with the idea that all life has an ancestor in common) is one of the primary challenges modern creationists face in the origins debate. To many laypersons and science journalists—and to some scientists, apparently—the concepts are interchangeable, which means that experimental confirmation of natural selection is interpreted as proof of Darwin’s theory.

This week, we encounter the problem in news of a natural experiment run by Dartmouth biologists in the Bahamas. Ryan Calsbeek and Robert Cox not only studied competition in lizard populations on several Bahamian islands; they actively manipulated the environments: for example, adding nets on some islands to stymie birds that prey on the lizards, while introducing predatory snakes on other islands to threaten the lizards further.

The surprising result is that the intensity of predation didn’t matter much in how natural selection affected the lizard populations. “We found repeated evidence that death by predators occurred at random with respect to traits like body size and running ability,” Cox said. What mattered far more was competition between the lizards themselves. “We also found that increasing the density of lizards on an island consistently created strong natural selection favoring larger size and better running ability.” Calsbeek added, “Intense natural selection can also arise through competition. Sometimes, death by competitor can be more important than death by predator.”

Additionally, the scientists claim the experiment is a novel confirmation of Darwin’s theory. “Many people are skeptical of evolutionary biology because they perceive it as a purely historical science that can’t be tested experimentally,” Calsbeek said. “Here, we’re providing a real experimental test of natural selection as it happens in the wild. That’s an exciting way for us to advance the public’s perception of evolution.” But what seems a cautiously worded criticism of creationism misses the mark. First, the scientists’ experiment still doesn’t verify the historical claim that all life had a common ancestor, and, second, Calsbeek conflates natural selection and evolution. That lizards compete with one another and that only some survive does nothing to show that lizards and man are distant kin.

5. ScienceDaily: “Peptides May Hold ‘Missing Link’ to Life

Emory University scientists have learned that simple peptides can self-assemble into “complex” arrangements. Is that evidence that life could have built itself?

Calling the discovery a “missing link” between inanimate matter and the first life-form, the Emory team observed peptides (short polymers of amino acids) organizing, without guidance, into a double-layered membrane. The team proposes that such self-organizing peptides could function similar to proteins, providing components for the hypothesized first cells.

“We’ve shown that peptides can form the kind of membranes needed to create long-range order,” said chemist Seth Childers. “What’s also interesting is that these peptide membranes may have the potential to function in a complex way, like a protein. If you just add water, simple peptides access both the physical properties and the long-range molecular order that is critical to the origins of chemical evolution.”

The interpretation of the laboratory results is less surprising when considering that the research was conducted as part of the Center for Chemical Evolution, a partially government-funded project to study chemical aspects of the (presumed unguided) origin of life. We note, however, that self-organizing peptides are a far cry from even the most basic functions of genuine life-forms. Furthermore, if God designed the amazing biochemical underpinnings of life, wouldn’t we expect to see a large degree of self-organization on the part of biomolecules—which adds even more evidence to the design hypothesis?

6. And Don’t Miss . . .

  • Last week’s big news about Neanderthals prompted an interesting response from Neanderthal expert Clive Finlayson, who noted that “we have, for far too long, considered the Neanderthals to have been so different from us” and that the idea that Neanderthals were a different species from modern humans “must surely now be removed from text books.”
  • Recent news reports have covered several projects that are taking God’s interesting designs (though God is not credited) and applying them in human engineering projects: mimicking plants’ “highly organized” photosynthetic systems, studying bats and dolphins to develop better cochlear implants and robots, and trying to understand how spider silk is spun.
  • While the eye is occasionally used as an example of “flawed design” (to justify evolutionary explanations), a team of Israeli researchers is revealing the design inside these “marvelous instruments.”
  • A report from the Tampa, Florida, area on horseshoe crabs notes that they have “been around for 350 million years, and they have changed very little since.” Is it a case of stalled evolution, or instead evidence for a recent creation?
  • Could humble phosphorus be responsible for the origin of life?
  • Ars Technica reports on yet another example of intelligent behavior in crows.
  • Are Tibetans the best evidence since Galapagos finches of Darwin’s theory? Again, the distinction between natural selection and molecules-to-man evolution matters.

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