Don’t let a headline like “It’s Alive” fool you. Despite some misleading news reports, life has not been made from scratch in a laboratory.*
Scientists have assembled a bacterial chromosome (using intelligence and a multi-million dollar lab) patterned after an existing bacterial chromosome. But all the components already existed. They were not created from scratch; instead, a bacterium was simply rebuilt.
We most recently mentioned Craig Venter’s bid to “create” life last August. At the time, scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute had “successfully transferred the genome of one type of bacteria into a yeast cell, modified it, and then transplanted into another bacterium”—a feat considered an important preliminary to “creating” life.
In the current breakthrough, Venter’s team used ordinary chemicals to construct a custom genome; though, they received very significant “help” from preexisting organisms. More specifically, the team studied and altered the existing Mycoplasma mycoides genome, which enabled them to design and build a semi-unique Mycoplasma mycoides genome (with added “watermarks”) in the lab. They then commandeered an existing microbe called Mycoplasma capricolum, removed its DNA, and replaced it with the M. mycoides genome.
Regardless of some hyped press reports, this research (brilliantly executed as it was) has nothing to do with evolution in the molecules-to-man sense. Dr. Georgia Purdom, a molecular geneticist on our Answers in Genesis (AiG) staff, notes that there has merely been an alteration within a kind (at the family, genus, or species level). Even the researchers have acknowledged that this first synthetic cell is more a re-creation of existing life—changing one simple type of bacterium into another. While Venter claimed, “We have passed through a critical psychological barrier. It has changed my own thinking, both scientifically and philosophically, about life, and how it works,” he was also quite clear that [his team] “didn’t create life from scratch.”
Unsurprisingly, the achievement has been linked to evolution, both implicitly and explicitly. “Venter is creaking open the most profound door in humanity’s history, potentially peeking into its destiny,” argued Oxford University ethicist Julian Savulescu. “This is a step towards . . . creation of living beings with capacities and natures that could never have naturally evolved.” Savulescu is referring to one of Venter’s ultimate goals: engineering organisms to conduct particular tasks, such as producing algal biofuels.
Ultimately, declares Dr. Purdom, this kind of genetic engineering is “like taking the hard drive of computer #1 and putting it into computer #2 that has had its own hard drive removed. So effectively computer #2 becomes computer #1.”
Dr. David Menton (PhD, biology), another researcher with AiG, echoed Dr. Purdom’s conclusions, adding that the research was a form of “genetic plagiarism.” Just as a student might copy someone else’s work, in a sense, so too have these researchers, declares Dr. Menton: they have taken God’s created handiwork and refashioned it.
The components assembled in making this synthetic life were created instantaneously 6,000 years ago by the Creator God (Genesis 1). The work of brilliant scientists using millions of dollars of resources still have not produced anything near a new life form from scratch. Human intelligence and high-power computers can’t produce it; moreover, the mindless process of evolution—even given billions of years—would not be any more efficacious.
For technically inclined readers, here is Dr. Purdom’s summary of what the research group did:
Three decades have passed since the devastating eruption of Washington State’s Mount St. Helens.
The event, on May 18, 1980, killed 57 people and destroyed both human structures and nature in the surrounding area—in addition to blowing off most of its own summit. (The gallery linked above features astounding pictures both before and after the eruption.)
Despite the tragedy, however, Mount St. Helens has served as an interesting object of study for creationist researchers (especially Dr. Steven Austin from the Institute for Creation Research), who have learned more about the effects of catastrophic geological processes and the speed at which the earth can change. From radiometric dating to a study of sedimentary layers and erosion, the Mount St. Helens eruption offered a real-world laboratory for creation scientists to test models and hypotheses about the geologic effects of the global Flood of Noah’s time.
If you’re not familiar with the creationist work on Mount St. Helens, we encourage you to review some of it by following the links below. Although we often refer to the debate between creation and evolution as “origins science” (because theories concern unrepeatable past events), modern geologic processes are often used to show examples of old-earth and young-earth models of earth history. While old-earthers talk about the erosive power of trickling streams given enough time, young-earthers point to the geological upheaval caused by catastrophic floods that are, nonetheless, far smaller than the global Flood of Noah’s day.
Creationist research on Mount St. Helens also should remind readers that creation science is not just a casual expression; it’s a scientific discipline (or, more accurately, a family of scientific disciplines practiced by individuals with a creation worldview). Creationist scientists may be fewer in number than evolutionists, but that doesn’t mean their work cannot be of the highest quality.
According to one scientist, it’s “one of the best demonstrations of evolution ever carried out in a laboratory.” So just what is it, and is he right?
We last mentioned Duke assistant professor of surgery William Parker in an unrelated item on the appendix in June 2008. Now, Prof. Parker has turned up in the news again, this time in a Duke University news release concerning an alleged case of evolution in the lab.
Parker and other researchers at Duke University and North Carolina State University were conducting a study on the effects of a specially engineered bacterium on laboratory mice. “We were surprised, because we thought we would be able to study this engineered bacterium for a while, but we were wrong,” explained Parker.
What happened? “The bacteria started to mutate and quickly lost the [special function] that had been engineered into them,” the news release reports. “The single homogeneous strain was rapidly evolving into a diverse community of organisms.” Over the course of three years, the team observed the bacteria population as it adapted well to living in the mice digestive tract. (The team reportedly cleared the mice of other bacteria before the study began and ruled out contamination as a source of the adapted bacteria.)
While Parker called the study “one of the best demonstrations of evolution ever carried out in a laboratory” and said that the team observed “a number of evolutionary adaptations occurring in the bacteria,” we have no reason to believe this experimental result is a case of genuine evolution—that is, bacteria-to-bacteriologist change of one kind of creature into a completely different kind of creature. That hypothesis of evolution, claimed to have produced all modern life from a simple common ancestor, requires huge increases in genetic information—increases we do not observe in nature or the lab. What we do observe can be called “evolution” only in a weaker sense: a population that changes and adapts to new environments, but only through changes that rearrange or destroy existing genetic information. Although the scientists have not yet studied the genetic mechanisms behind the bacterial evolution in this case, we are confident it will once again be shown to be only variation within a bacterial kind—not evidence for evolution at all, but actually further confirmation of Creation and God’s curse on His creation when Adam sinned.
At least in terms of shape, the hammerhead shark is one of God’s stranger creations. Or was it a “creation” of evolution?
A team of University of Colorado–Boulder and University of South Florida scientists has investigated the history of the hammerhead shark using genetic methods. By constructing a “phylogenetic” tree (using evolutionary presuppositions), the researchers have concluded, among other things, that “big hammerheads probably evolved into smaller hammerheads, and that smaller hammerheads evolved independently twice,” explained Colorado evolutionary biologist Andrew Martin.
The scientists began by gathering DNA from eight species of hammerhead sharks around the world, then sequenced the DNA and assembled a hypothetical history of hammerhead species. Such phylogenetic trees are based on the assumption that all hammerheads descended from a common ancestor—thought to have lived around 20 million years ago—and that genetic mutation rates have been constant through all that time.
Of particular interest is the team’s investigation of hammerheads’ characteristic “cephalofoils,” the technical term for their strange hammer-like heads. In addition to providing possible hydrodynamic advantages, hammerhead cephalofoils help enable electrical sensing of prey. According to Martin, “Hammerheads appear to be able to triangulate on their prey, which is remarkable.” However, the relative size of various hammerheads’ cephalofoils varies, from the large cephalofoil-to-body ratio of the winghead shark to the small ratio of the bonnethead shark.
What’s missing, of course, is a connection to Neo-Darwinian-style, molecules-to-man evolution. Although there are many species of hammerhead shark, they are all sharks—and, in fact, they are all remarkably similar in design. Even though we agree that they probably did descend from a common ancestor (perhaps a medium-sized hammerhead shark kind created during Creation Week of Genesis 1 ), variation in size, cephalofoil-to-body ratio, and other characteristics can be explained by rearrangements and removal of genetic information. Therefore, today’s hammerhead species have less genetic information than their ancestors, the opposite transition from what Darwinian evolution requires. As for the purpose of hammerheads’ “remarkable” prey-sensing capabilities in a perfect world without death, see the links below.
If someone calls you a bird brain, it may not be completely wrong to respond, “that’s right!”
Despite the differences in avian and mammalian brains, a new study conducted by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Hebrew University has revealed an astonishing similarity in mammals’ and birds’ mental learning circuits.
To begin, the scientists recorded electrical activity from the neurons of young zebra finches as the birds sang. The team then analyzed the results, identifying two separate types of neurons that displayed different firing patterns during the recording. Next, the researchers compared the finch brain recordings with recordings taken from monkeys, discovering a close similarity in the patterns. They also recognized that one of the types of bird neurons produced the same connections as one in the monkey recordings.
“Our results strongly suggest that the same brain circuits underlie learning in birds and mammals, despite the superficial differences of anatomy,” explained MIT cognitive scientist Jesse Goldberg. “This circuit must have evolved at least 300 million years ago, before birds and mammals diverged.”
For an evolutionist, such similarity must be the result of evolution—either due to common ancestry or so-called “convergent” evolution, when two species considered unrelated are revealed to have an astonishing similarity. Yet, each explanation is problematic. In the former scenario, how could such complex features have evolved so “early” in evolutionary history? In the latter scenario, what are the odds that such complex features evolved not only once, but twice? For evolutionists, such conclusions are necessary because evolution is seen as the only possible explanation. For creationists, however, the complex similarities across life-forms that are very different from each other is yet more evidence of God’s very intelligent use of common design features in unrelated distinct kinds of creatures.
Is human morality a product of evolution? It seems that priest-turned-evolutionary scientist Francisco Ayala presumes the answer is “yes.”
University of California–Irvine biologist Francisco Ayala is no stranger to the intersection of religion and evolution: he vocally opposes creation and defends Darwinian evolution, and he was also ordained as a Catholic priest. Additionally, Ayala won this year’s Templeton Prize, given to those who offer “an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.”
In a new paper and book chapter, Ayala provides a new perspective on the evolution of morality that treads a middle ground between biological and cultural evolution—but that, nonetheless, considers morality an evolved trait. “I distinguish between the ‘capacity for ethics,’ which is biologically determined as a result of biological evolution; and the ‘moral codes’ or ethical norms, which are largely outcomes of cultural evolution, including religious beliefs,” Ayala told PhysOrg. He believes that moral behavior does not necessarily exist as a biological adaptation, but rather is an outgrowth of intellectual capabilities that, indeed, are biological adaptations.
In other words, evolution favored increased intelligence, but as humans gained that intelligence, we began to consider the consequences of our actions and were able to choose cooperative, moral living. Eventually, human societies created laws, moral codes, and religions, all of which were subject to “cultural evolution” that operates separately from biological evolution.
Nonetheless, Ayala agrees that “[m]orality is a unique human trait, one of the most important and most distinctive traits that characterize humanity,” and that separates us from animals. What Ayala leaves out is what no evolutionary theory of morality is able to provide: why humans chose to live cooperatively in the first place (i.e., being able to choose does not imply a rationale for choosing), why humans still choose to “follow the rules,” and why most evolutionists insist that humans ought to behave morally, when according to evolution we are the result of the “survival of the fittest” in a world where nature is not nice.
Remember, if you see a news story that might merit some attention, let us know about it! (Note: if the story originates from the Associated Press, Fox News, MSNBC, the New York Times, or another major national media outlet, we will most likely have already heard about it.) And thanks to all of our readers who have submitted great news tips to us. If you didn’t catch last week’s News to Note, why not take a look at it now? See you next week!
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