Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Design? Seriously?

Image credit: APL Computer. See Note below

Over at Sandwalk, Prof. Larry Moran had a little fun with some intelligent design proponents who seem to think that the Nobel Prize awarded for the discovery of telomerase is proof that there's a "designer":

Within hours, DLH posted an article n Uncommon Descent [DNA Preservation discovery wins Nobel prize].

Were one to design the encoded DNA “blueprint” of life, would not one incorporate ways to preserve that “blueprint”? The Nobel prize in medicine has just been awarded for discovery of features that look amazingly like design to preserve chromosomes ....

These telomeres can probably be shown to be essential to survival, and are likely to be irreducibly complex. If so, how can macro evolution explain the origin of this marvelous preservation feature that appears to be an Intelligent Design?

Chromosome ends need "protection" because the designer couldn't figure out how to have safe nucleases in a cell and couldn't figure out how to replicate the ends of double-stranded DNA molecules. Several different mechanisms have evolved for dealing with these problems. Telomeres are one solution.

IDiots And Telomeres

I've never understood the ID perspective. Lately, I've been reading some of the more popular books on evolution by biologists like Richard Dawkins and Neil Shubin, as well as At The Water's Edge by Carl Zimmer. Rather than looking like some grand design, the way our bodies are formed and the way they've changed look like some patched together parts that just barely do what's required.

If it were software, it would have been built on a computer that is made from parts the "designer" had lying around, and an operating system that came from the top CD on the pile nearest to where he was sitting. The remaining software would then installed from any other CDs that are lying around until the computer does something useful. Anyone who objected that there are bound to be bugs in this arrangement would be told "Ah, don't worry. We'll catch 'em in beta testing."

I suppose you could call natural selection a particularly severe beta test that's going on constantly. Or maybe you could find a better design metaphor.

One thing's for sure - thinking that something like telomerase is an example of a wonderful design is an admission that whoever is making that assertion knows very little about either biology or design.

Afterword: I should add that Prof. Moran's article is a clear explanation of why something like telomerase is necessary.

UPDATE: In the context of creationism, there was an interesting note at the end of the New York Times article yesterday on the Nobel Prize:

Dr. Szostak left the field 20 years ago to explore a much broader question: how life could have originated from the simple chemicals present on the early earth. He has already made advances in this long intractable field, notably by showing how a proto-cell could have formed and then imported the RNA building blocks. Dr. Szostak hopes next to show how the proto-cell and its RNA could divide naturally into two daughter cells, a feat that, if achieved, could well be a candidate for a second Nobel Prize.

3 Americans Share Nobel for Medicine

Abiogenesis, as this particular field is called, is one of the outstanding mysteries in biology. It's also one of the few things creationists can still hang their hats on as something that has not yet been explained by science. Naturally, they use this as an argument from ignorance, claiming that since no explanation is available, their god must have done it. In reality, many of the chemicals that have formed the basis of life on Earth have been replicated in laboratories, but the exact origin of RNA and DNA, the key molecules of life, are not yet known.

Dr. Blackburn was also a victim of the Bush Administration's war on science, as a NYT interview from 2007 shows:

Q. Once on it, did you feel the [President's Council on Bioethics] had a preset political agenda?

A. Oh, yes. Especially about stem cells. Basically it was, ‘You don’t need any of those pesky embryonic stem cells because everything is wonderful with adult stem cells.’ When one would ask, ‘What’s the evidence?’ you’d hear, ‘Somebody wrote a review article about adult stem cells.’ And I’d say, ‘That is not the same as primary data. Anyone with a word processor can write a review article.’

There was a lot of that, and I was always saying, ‘Let’s look at the science.’ My persistence didn’t endear me to Leon Kass, I felt. One day, I was asked to call the White House personnel office where an official said, ‘Thank you. Thank you for serving.’ I asked him, ‘Why are you thanking me?’ ‘You will no longer be on the council.’ I was one of two members who hadn’t been reappointed for a second two-year term.

Finding Clues to Aging in the Fraying Tips of Chromosomes

The Bush Administration was never known for being inclusive when it came to scientific opinions that differed from its own. We'll be paying for that arrogance in delayed or deferred medical research for a long time.

UPDATE 2 (Oct. 7): h/t Dana Hunter for the previous update. I couldn't link to the article when I attempted to earlier.

NOTE: APL Computer did not approve or contribute to this article. They just had a cool image on their website. No endorsement of either APL or this article is expressed or implied.

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