The stakes are higher this time for Higgs the cat. He did fine last week debunking the misconception of anonymous readers, but now I’ve pitted him against someone more prominent.
Rabbi Moshe Averick writes for the online newspaper Algemeiner, which is no minor operation but a major Jewish newspaper whose board is chaired be literary luminary Elie Wiesel. Averick has written what I would consider pro-creationist pieces for them, and last week he emailed me, wanting his point of view presented in my blog after I’d criticized one of his Algemeiner pieces.
In a blog post, I had taken him to task for a quote he’d attributed to a Nobel Laureate, Jack Szostak, to try to make a case that life couldn’t form from inanimate matter through any natural process. Here’s how he quotes Szostak:
“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
I had spent a day with Dr. Szostak, written a columnabout his work, and knew that the paragraph above didn’t reflect Szostak’s viewpoint. I called Szostak who confirmed this quote was a gross distortion of statements he’d made trying to explain that organisms as complex as modern bacteria probably didn’t assemble themselves from scratch all at once but evolved gradually from simpler precursors.
I decided it was fair enough to post the Rabbi’s response, though I wanted a counterpoint. Let’s see if Higgs is up for the task.
Rabbi: First of all, I hope you are enjoying your holiday weekend.
On 12/16/11 you wrote a column entitled "Did Creationist Quote a Jack Szostak Imposter?" In that article you accused me of implying falsely that Dr. Jack Szostak - based on what he wrote in a Sep. 2009 article in Scientific American - was a supporter of Intelligent Design theory or even worse, was a believer in God the Creator. This accusation was originally voiced by Terri-Lynn McCormick (Dr. Szostak's wife), in the comment section of my column on Algemeiner.com (http://www.algemeiner.com/2011/12/14/severe-weather-alert-dr-jerry-coyne-militant-atheistic-biologist-is-blowing-very-hot-air-in-chicago/ ). Ms. McCormick's original accusation was posted on 12/14/11 at 6:22pm. On 12/15/11 at 12:55 am (6 1/2 hours later), I posted a rather lengthy response to Ms. McCormick that included the following: "I never claimed that Dr. Szostak supported Intelligent Design theory and I never attempted to give anyone that impression. If it appeared that way it was not done intentionally and I apologize...I know that Dr. Szostak is ...an atheist and has faith that science will eventually present us with a plausible, empirically demonstrable, testable and falsifiable scenario for emergence of life from non-life. This has not yet happened, be he believes that one day it will. I contend that his "belief" in that outcome has no rational basis, and in fact flies in the face of rational thinking...."
You wrote that you contacted Dr. Szostak about the citation in question. However, you failed to see my two lengthy replies to Ms. McCormick nor did you bother contacting me for any type of clarification about what I had written. Two days later, Dr. Jerry Coyne, atheistic biologist at the University of Chicago, repeated the accusation and used it as fodder for his blog. While you (along with Dr. and Mrs. Szostak and Dr. Jerry Coyne), are entitled to your faith that science will find an answer to everything (it is protected by the Constitution), and while you are entitled to believe that there actually is a (as yet undiscovered) naturalistic explanation for the emergence of life from non-life, I would ask that you at least print this letter so that my side of the story is heard. Besides writing two posts in the comments section I exchanged several private emails with Ms. McCormick clarifying my position. Just in case there is any confusion at all, I published a full disclaimer in my latest column at Algemeiner.com (http://www.algemeiner.com/2011/12/22/dr-jerry-coyne-my-culturally-jewish-atheistic-biologist-bro-at-the-university-of-chicago/ )
Higgs: I appreciate your apology but the Szostak quote you included in your story can’t be reasonably interpreted in any way except as an attempt to connect him to the belief that life can’t possibly have come from nonlife through a natural process. And if not natural processes, then what? Gods? Fairies? Angels? The sentiment expressed by this quote is the absolute antithesis of what Dr. Szostak has said many times, including the very Scientific American article from which you clipped a tiny snippet and then elaborated with your own words.
Your accusation that Dr. Szostak holds an irrational belief is tail-end backwards. It’s not only rational to propose that the origin of life happened through natural processes, it’s irrational to think otherwise. Why? In solving other problems, science has always found natural solutions and never supernatural ones. So believing in a natural process behind the origin of life is as rational as believing the Earth will journey around the sun again in 2012.
Furthermore, science gives us some good reasons to think life could emerge through natural processes. First of all, there are no components of living things that are not found in the earth’s crust or atmosphere. Secondly, the laws of chemistry allow simpler molecules to assemble themselves into quite complex structures.
I’d also like to take issue with this statement from the follow-up piece you linked: “The fact that we know nothing about the origin of life is not the Achilles heel of evolution – evolution can take place only after life begins – it is the Achilles heel of atheism.”
I’m afraid you’ve fallen victim to a philosophical trap commonly called “God of the Gaps”. There are gaps in our scientific knowledge because science is not a set of facts but a process. Just because science hasn't yet explained something doesn’t mean God must have done it, any more than it means space aliens must have done it.
You’re also mistaken about the start of evolution. Natural selection can begin as soon as some kind of chain-like molecule forms in a way that allows it to carry a genetic code and replicate itself with some variation among the offspring. What you call “life” is a matter of semantics.
I’d also like to call attention to your misleading use of the word “faith” to describe the thinking of Dr. Szostak as well as Dr. Jerry Coyne. Neither of them ever said they believed science would answer everything. We don’t know which questions will be answered by science in our lifetimes, which will be answered in the future, and which will never be answered. The physicist Richard Feynman has remarked that we don’t know if science will ever get to the bottom of things or just keep peeling back layers of an endless onion. That didn’t stop him from peeling back a quite substantial layer.
Furthermore, science works because scientists don’t apply a religions-type faith to their theories. They get in big trouble when they do. Scientists either change their minds when the evidence turns against them or they risk going down in history as defenders of a wrong or outdated idea. Think of cold fusion.
Some people argue that scientists have faith in the process of science, but this type of faith is not a religious leap but a logical extension of our experience. The scientific method has worked in the past many times. Therefore it’s quite rational to think it will continue to work in the future.
Thank you for letting me express my opinion – Higgs. Can I have a treat?
Read the original Algemeiner piece here. Read the Planet-of-the-Apes column on Jack Szostak’s quest for life’s origin here. Read the Planet-of-the-Apes original criticism of Averick’s piece here.