Creationism as conspiracy theory, and the teaching of the Urey-Miller experiment

Some time, you may want to start a conspiracy theory. If you want to learn how to do this, you cannot do better than study the antics of the creationists, and especially their Discovery Institute (DI) think tank.

Creationists absolutely need to have a conspiracy theory. That is because their position contradicts everything that scientists have been telling us for the past 200 years, or even, in its Young Earth version, the past 300 years. If creationism is true, the entire intellectual establishment has been lying to you.

All conspiracy theories work the same way. Like the most unpleasant kinds of religion, they divide humanity into two groups, the illuminated and the benighted, and offer membership of the illuminated, if you will only accept their central doctrine. To qualify as a conspiracy theory, that doctrine has to pour scorn on the most obvious or scientifically validated explanations of the facts, and replace them with the belief that these explanations, or indeed these facts, are fabricated by a close-knit group of wicked people (in this case, the Wicked Evolutionists, or WE), cynically manipulating the evidence for their own disreputable reasons. Once this belief is in place, it is self-sustaining, since all evidence to the contrary is tainted, coming as it does from the Unscrupulous Scientists (US).

The next step in setting up your conspiracy theory is to find a group of people who already want to believe you. Most of us, after all, spent most of our thinking time in looking for evidence in favour of what we want to believe. So find a group of people who already have reasons to want your claims to be true. They might, for example, wish to believe that the Government is hiding evidence of UFOs, or that NASA is a giant scam, or Barack Obama should not be President of the United States, or that Government should not interfere with the operations of industry.

Then give them an excuse, however flimsy, for believing. Believing that aliens landed at Roswell, or that the Moon Landings were faked, or that Obama was born in Kenya, or that there is no such thing as man-made global warming. Or, at least, for believing that the topic is controversial. If all else fails, your own voice raised in denial of reality can be used as evidence that the controversy is real.

You’ve now got US in a cleft stick. If WE ignore you, you can continue unchallenged. If WE reply to you, that proves that there really is a controversy. And if WE try to explain that there is nothing worthy of a reply, you can claim, as William Lane Craig claimed when Richard Dawkins refused to debate with him, that WE are scared of you.

Finally, you have to convince your target audience that it matters. Here the creationists have it easy. For most people, at least for most people outside some parts of Western Europe, religion matters. If the Bible is literally true, as a lot of people would like to believe, then evolution is wrong and WE are spreading false doctrine. Moreover, since WE are smart people (no self-respecting conspiracy theory would claim that Nobel Prize winners as a group are stupid), WE must be spreading that false doctrine for non-scientific reasons. And what might that reason be? Obviously, naturalism is a form of materialism which is a form of atheism. It is therefore the scientific, as well as the religious and moral, duty of creationists to refute what WE are saying. Hence the DI’s notorious Wedge Strategy. Refute evolution, and the way is open, as the wedge Document says, to refute “scientific materialism” [emphasis in original] and reinstate “theistic understanding.”

Cover of the Wedge Document.

Time to illustrate by example. And a good example it is; the DI members are really very good at what they do. This one comes from the cover letter that the Discovery Institute recently sent out with its pamphlet for parents, A Parent’s Guide to Intelligent Design. My excuses for publicising here are that it is going to reach its target audience without any help from me, and that this particular example is in fact rather instructive. I take a perverse pleasure in showing ways that we can learn, from creationist materials, what the creationists themselves refuse to learn.

So here it is, reproduced solely for purposes of discussion and review. Emphasis in the original:

Dear [first name]:

 Textbooks and teachers stop teaching myths about evolution when the mainstream media admit textbooks are wrong … don’t they?

Not if the data challenges Darwinian evolution.

… Retelling outdated myths about the Miller-Urey experiment and the origin of life and wrongly telling students the experiment correctly simulated gases present on the early earth …

The evidence challenging evolution is beginning to outweigh the evidence that supports it.  But will your kids learn about that in their science classes?  Unfortunately, probably not.

To help parents understand all the aspects of the debate over Darwinian evolution and intelligent design we created a free 28 page e-booklet A Parent’s Guide to Intelligent Design: Resources to help you and your children understand the debate between Darwinian evolution and intelligent design.

 The free booklet comes with a request to donate, but whether that Discovery Institute really needs that money, or whether it is just another device to generate commitment, we can only speculate.

Let’s look first at the overall structure, and then at the specific claim, (which is actually one of four; but life is short).

Starting off with the initial rhetorical question, and its proposed answer. Here the purpose is clear, while the language, quite deliberately, is not. Note the reference to the mainstream media, suggesting that it is the biology teachers and textbook writers who are the fringe group. The nudge nudge, wink wink, dot dot dot layout establishes intimacy; reader and writer bonded together by a common understanding. Finally, the question and answer format introduces an element of deniability that you will find throughout the creationist literature. “We don’t say evolution is wrong, we just draw attention to all the question marks about it.”

Now to the substance of the claim I’m examining, that the textbooks are “Retelling outdated myths about the Miller-Urey experiment and the origin of life and wrongly telling students the experiment correctly simulated gases present on the early earth.” 30 years ago, this claim might have had some validity, but not now. No matter. Once a claim enters the creationist literature, it takes on a life of its own. For example, Darwin’s lament about the incompleteness of the fossil record in 1859 is repeated as if it described the situation today, despite the existence of tons (literally) of evidence unearthed (literally) to the contrary. So let’s look at what actually happens in the Urey-Miller experiment, what it does or does not tell us, and how it is treated in 21st-century textbooks.

Miller-Urey experiment (1953).

Miller-Urey experiment (1953). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The original report of the Urey-Miller experiment relates it to Harold Urey’s cold accretion theory, which maintained that the planets formed so slowly that the gravitational energy of their formation was dissipated as heat. On this theory, the metal from iron-nickel meteorites would have been lying around on the Earth’s surface giving rise to a strongly reducing (i.e. hydrogen-rich) atmosphere. This theory did not survive the moon landings, and the discovery that most of the moon’s surface consisted of molten basalt. Nor does the experiment address the origin of biological polymers, or of organisation. Nonetheless, the experiment was, and remains, liberating. It destroyed the assumption that the building blocks of life are difficult to come by.

Changes in thinking since then have all been in the direction of making the production of these molecules seem easier. As Stanley Miller himself showed in one of his late (2002) papers, we don’t need a strongly reducing atmosphere. We certainly don’t need ammonia, the least plausible of his original ingredients because it is so readily destroyed by UV light, as long as we have nitrogen, N2, (which we certainly would have) and some source of energy powerful enough to split it into separate atoms (and we would certainly have had that, in the form of the Sun’s unfiltered UV light, back before the formation of atmospheric oxygen and ozone, as well as lightning). We don’t need large amounts of methane. Very small amounts, which could readily arise from geochemical processes (as seems to be happening on Mars), would do the trick, as would carbon monoxide, a component of volcanic gas; it was carbon monoxide that was used in Miller’s 2002 work. Organics could also have arisen by completely different pathways, including reactions at hydrothermal vents, or on sulphide mineral surfaces, and large amounts of organics would in any case have been brought to earth by comets. Comets, after all, are dirty snowballs. The snow is thought to have made a major contribution to the Earth’s oceans, and the dirt is a mixture of organic compounds. Simple organic molecules are a precondition for life as we know it. We do not know the relative contribution of the various possibilities to the inventory of such molecules on the early Earth, but we can feel confident that they were there – one way and/or another.

What about the textbooks? What do they say, what should they be saying, and how much justice, if any, is there in the Discovery Institute’s accusations?

To quote Ken Miller[1], who is, among other things, one of our most influential educators and textbook writers in biological science:

It’s absolutely true, of course, that the strongly reducing atmosphere Miller and Urey used for their first experiments is now not thought to be indicative of the primitive earth.  Therefore, it would be a mistake to claim that these experiments “proved” anything about the actual biochemical pathways to life on earth.

However, these experiments were still absolutely essential in shaping our current views of prebiotic evolution.

Exactly. Urey-Miller demystified the production of the building blocks of life. For some decades, there was rancorous disagreement between those who paid high regard the original experiment, and the geochemists to whom such an atmosphere seemed increasingly implausible. However, once it became clear that the highly reducing atmosphere was no longer even necessary, the dispute faded into the background.

I have looked at half a dozen textbooks. One of them did in fact present the Urey-Miller atmosphere as realistic, which I regard as gross professional incompetence, rather than the deliberate concealment suggested by the creationists. However, even this text did mention reactions at mineral surfaces as an alternative. Every biology textbook that I have examined, with one exception, makes it clear that finding a possible source for the building blocks is not the same as explaining the origins of life. The exception is the 2012 text Evolution – Making Sense of Life, by Carl Zimmer and Douglas Emlen, which presents the isotopic and fossil evidence for Archaean life, but says nothing about its origin. And indeed, why should it? We don’t demand that a chemistry textbook gives an account of the origin of the atoms, nor could it possibly have done so during the 150 or so years between when Dalton put forward the first version of the modern atomic theory, and when Fred Hoyle and co-workers gave the first good account of the origin of elements heavier than helium.

So rest assured that your children’s textbooks will not retell “outdated myths about the Miller-Urey experiment and the origin of life”, but will, on the contrary, carefully distinguish between the formation of prebiotic organic molecules, and the origin of life itself. And even the few texts that are still guilty of “wrongly telling students the experiment correctly simulated gases present on the early earth” are careful to make this distinction.

And the Discovery Institute is doing what they always do superbly. Distorting reality.

This post may be freely reproduced in whole or in part for non-commercial purposes.


[1] Personal communication

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About Paul Braterman

Science writer, former chemistry professor; committee member British Centre for Science Education; board member and science adviser Scottish Secular Society; former member editorial board, Origins of Life, and associate, NASA Astrobiology Insitute; first popsci book, From Stars to Stalagmites 2012

Posted on November 10, 2012, in Creationism, Education and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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