Friday, October 24, 2014
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Did Creationist Quote a Jack Szostak Imposter?

Jack Szostak is a Nobel winner and a famous Harvard professor. He has been public about his support of evolution. How can a creationist get away with quoting him in support of God?

Did Creationist Quote a Jack Szostak Imposter?

NOTE TO READERS: Thank you all for making intelligent comments on this blog entry. It's wonderful for me to see the level of discussion here. Unfortunately I am not in charge of the comments. I'm not the one who decides to block them. I do know that overly long comments can be rejected. If you have a plus-sized comment please feel free to email it directly to me at fflam@phillynews.com, and I can use it in the blog to generate a new discussion. You can also break up long comments into several consecutive parts. I apologize for the inconvenience. Don't give up! We need rational discourse at newspaper websites. Faye

Jack Szostak is a Harvard biologist who won a Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine and is devoting his time to understanding the origin of life. He has been public about the importance of evolution to biology. So how could he have been quoted supporting a creationist view and undercutting his own scientific quest?

Szostak's seemingly pro-creationist quote appeared in a piece by a rabbi, Moshe Averick. It appeared on a website called Algemeiner, and the sole purpose seemed to be to attack evolutionary biologist and science popularizer Jerry Coyne. I found the piece from a link on Coyne's blog, which is called Why Evolution is True.

Averick tried to support his attack with a quote by Szostak. To creationists, it must have  looked like a nice piece of ammunition – a biologist and Nobel winner supporting the need for some kind of intelligent design to get life started:

“It is virtually impossible to imagine how a cell’s machines…could have formed spontaneously from non-living matter,” is because it is impossible for a cell’s machines to have formed spontaneously from non-living matter. The notion that the functional complexity of a bacterium could be the result of an unguided process is as absurd as asserting that the sculptures on Mt. Rushmore were the result of an unguided, naturalistic process

It's interesting that just that first snippet is in direct quotes, after which Averick seems to be finishing the Harvard professor’s thought. Unless there’s another Jack Szostak, this is unlikely to reflect his view.  The origin of life is a topic of immense interest to readers, and since Szostak is a leader in that field, I drove to Penn State last fall to intercept him. I sat next to him at dinner, had breakfast with him the next day, and listened to him give two talks. Unless he’s changed in the last three months, he doesn’t have a creationist neuron in his head.

Here’s an excerpt from the columnI wrote based on my questioning of Szostak on the origin of life:

The first life may not have been as complex as life today. That's important because there's a long-standing misconception that the origin of life was a simultaneous aggregation of cellular machinery, as unlikely as a tornado assembling a 747 from scraps in a junkyard, to use astronomer Fred Hoyle's analogy. But today scientists don't think it happened all at once. All that's needed are two things, Szostak said. One is a DNA-type molecule that can carry a genetic code and copy itself, but imperfectly. The other is some kind of membrane…..

Does evolution define life? Indeed it does, Szostak said, but Darwinian evolution requires a few things beyond just change: a way of making copies with variation from which nature can select; and a way for the variations to be propagated into future generations. Darwinian evolution, he said, is the unifying principle of life. The consensus is that the first living things did not use DNA for their genetic codes, he said, but they might have used a related code-carrier, RNA, which is made up of a single strand and needs fewer external parts to reproduce itself.

RNA is a long chain of individual links. Each of these links, called ribonucleotides, is formed from several pieces that don't like to stick together, making it hard for scientists to envision how RNA could have formed spontaneously. Two years ago, biologists in England made some progress by changing the order of assembly. Instead of trying to stick together these two building blocks of RNA, they started with precursors of the building blocks. That worked.

I was also curious about Szostak's response to the abiogenesis question that readers keep posing: Did he have faith that this happened? He looked puzzled for a moment. "Life wasn't here, and now it is," he said. "It had to have come about by a process." I said I thought the creationists were accusing the scientists of acting on their own faith to assume it happened without God.

He replied that falling back on a supernatural explanation would be like giving up the inquiry. And there's no reason to give up a problem just because it's hard. "All we can do is break it down into smaller problems," he said.

Does that sound like a man who would support a creationist attacking Jerry Coyne? I emailed Szostak to find out where Averick’s quote came from - whether he remembered saying or writing it. “If I recall, the basic point I was making was that the complex machines of modern life could not have formed spontaneously, but must have emerged gradually over a lengthy period of evolution,” was his reply.

It’s not about whether the process is guided, but whether it was sudden or gradual. What kind of a person would take the first part of that quote and then finish with support of creationism?

Ironically, Averick’s piece goes to accuse Coyne of lying:

The Talmudic Sages declare that “someone who wants to lie makes sure that his witnesses and evidence are far away.”In other words, a skilled fabricator always is careful to tell a story that can never be checked out objectively or falsified…sort of like Dr. Jerry Coyne telling us that while today he has zero evidence that life could come from non-life through an unguided process, not to worry: 50 years in the future we’ll have all the evidence we need. I am certain that God the Creator exists while David Berlinski is not certain at all. But on one thing we are both certain: The impotence and vacuousness of Dr. Coyne’s writing and reasoning speak for themselves

Well, one thing we can say in favor of Moshe Averick – he has not pushed his witnesses too far away. Jack Szostak is here to call him on his quote abuse.

And this week has given us an example showing there’s nothing “vacuous” about continuing to explore deep questions with science rather relegating them to some God of the gaps. Physicists assumed there would be a natural explanation for a puzzle involving the masses of fundamental particles. Peter Higgs came up with theory in 1964, proposing an invisible mass-generating field. The theory predicted a particle which came to be called the "Higgs Boson." (NOT the God particle) After all these years, scientists announced the first hints of the Higgs. They didn’t give up on the question because it was hard. They didn’t wave their hands and say “God did it.” And neither is Jack Szostak. The real one, that is. I’m not sure about any imposers.  

About this blog
Faye Flam - writer
In pursuit of her stories, writer Faye Flam has weathered storms in Greenland, gotten frost nip at the South Pole, and floated weightless aboard NASA’s zero-g plane. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology and started her writing career with the Economist. She later took on the particle physics and cosmology beat at Science Magazine before coming to the Inquirer in 1995. Her previous science column, “Carnal Knowledge,” ran from 2005 to 2008. Her new column and blog, Planet of the Apes, explores the topic of evolution and runs here and in the Inquirer’s health section each Monday. Email Faye at fflam@phillynews.com. Reach Planet of the at fflam@phillynews.com.

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