Thursday, July 09, 2009

Klinghoffer spews nonsense again

One of the token non-Christian of the Discovery Institute, David Klinghoffer, has once again open his mouth to talk about stuff he knows nothing about. This time in the Jerusalem Post.

The alphabet of life

DNA are three letters full of paradox. What they represent remains little understood by the public, yet they are on everyone's tongue. Amid the chatter of popular culture, the truth gets lost that DNA is one of the most powerful clues we have of the existence of a spiritual reality, maybe to the existence of God.

One has to be in awe of Klinghoffer's ability to start up an article with something as mindbogglingly stupid as this paragraph.

Yes, DNA is widely talked about by people who has little understanding of what it is. Klinghoffer is a good example of this. DNA is not in any way or sense a clue for "a spiritual reality, maybe to the existence of God".

An acronym for deoxyribonucleic acid, DNA refers to the form taken by the biological information that directs the production of proteins and other cell components. In 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick famously described its double-helix shape. The information thus encoded, the genome, influences how a living organism's body gets constructed, though how far this goes, and how it works, are questions that remain obscure.

The questions are not as obscure as they used to be, and through continuous research they will become less obscure over time.

We talk about DNA as familiarly as we do the USA. The idea that your genes determine your susceptibility to diseases and addictions is a stock theme of popular health discussions. On TV cop shows, law-enforcement officials are constantly using DNA to solve cases, whether new or "cold" - as real police do.

DNA evidence is in itself not enough to solve a case, and the type of TV shows where they indicate this, are not worth watching. DNA can be used as part of the evidence against someone, but it cannot stand alone. On the other hand, it can, by itself, be used for proving the innocence of someone - yet this much more common usage is never part of the TV series plots, is it?

For a fee, DNA testing can shed light on anyone's genetic ancestry, including whether you have "Jewish genes." There is supposed to be a "God gene" for religious belief in general. And a "gay gene." And so on.

Given the fact that it's only in reasonable recent times, say the last couple of hundred years, that ethnic Jews were allowed marry anyone outside their ethnic group (due to bigoted laws), it would seem reasonable to assume that they share a lot of ancestry. "Jewish genes" would be genes common to people with Jewish ancestors.

The concept of a "God gene" and a "gay gene" are a bit simplistic. It's well established that being homosexual is genetic in nature (people don't "choose" to be homosexual), and it's suspected that there might be a biological (read: genetic) explanation of why some people are more likely to be religious/spiritual than others.

But all this is trivial compared to the largely unheralded insight gained from the Human Genome Project, completed in 2003. The insight is disturbing. It is that while DNA codes for the cell's building blocks, the information needed to build the rest of the creature is seemingly, in large measure, absent.

Given the amount of junk DNA (which isn't junk) in each individual (more than 90% of all DNA), I find it interesting that someone can claim that information is absent.

Also, Klinghoffer obviously doesn't know what he's talking about. We know a lot about what information is used to "build the rest of the creature". E.g. we know that Stat5 is used to determine the growth (.pdf)

CONSIDER THE HOX "master" genes that supposedly determine the spatial configuration of the front and back ends of creatures as diverse as frogs, mice and humans. As British physician James Le Fanu writes in a fascinating new book, Why Us? How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves (Pantheon), Swiss biologist Walter Gehring showed that "the same 'master' genes mastermind the three-dimensional structures of all living things... The same master genes that cause a fly to have the form of a fly cause a mouse to have the form of a mouse." The physically encoded information to form that mouse, as opposed to that fly, isn't there. Instead, "It is as if the 'idea' of the fly (or any other organism) must somehow permeate the genome that gives rise to it."

Again, there is a very large part of the DNA we still doesn't know what's used for, so for anyone to make any claims is premature at best.

I had not heard about James Le Fanu and his book, but the briefest google search turns up some less than flattering reviews, see e.g this review in the Telegraph. He is of course a creationist, using tired old creationist arguments (the complexity of the eye), so it's hardly like he is a credible source. Of course, it's ironic that he quotes Walter Gehring, who is one of the discovers of PAX6 which is a master control gene for eye development.

Of course, given the creationists' habit of quote-mining, I tried to search for the quotes from Walter Gehring, but I haven't been able to find them anywhere else than in this article and on the Discovery Institute's website. Not a good sign.

Such an understanding, of nature driven by a force outside nature, was dominant in biology before Darwin. Baron Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), director of Paris's Musee d'Histoire Naturelle, held that there was an unknown biological "formative impulse," an organizational principle of some kind that directed the formation of diverse kinds of life.

And Lamack believed that the environment helped shape the animals (giraffes got longer necks because they reached for the top leaves). So what? We now know, and understand, more about how things works - not only because of Darwin's discoveries, but because of all the supporting discoveries done since then (or in the case of Mendel's discovery of inheritance, before then).

The concept goes still further back. Much further. What Cuvier called the "formative impulse," was called God's "wisdom" by the rabbis. The Bible teaches, "The Lord founded the earth with wisdom" (Proverbs 3:19).

The Bible also teaches that everything was created in six days, that light was created before sources of light, that there was a global flood, that some people lived far beyond human lifespans, that the Jews were hold as slaves by the Egyptians. Let's just say that the Bible is not the most reliable source of knowledge.

WITH DNA, there is, in one sense, less there than meets the eye. But in another sense, there is much more. For if DNA can't entirely account for the way bodies are put together, there remains something deeply suggestive about the fact that curled at the heart of every cell there lies a code. How did it get there?

This is the argument from ignorance when it's absolutely worst. DNA can account for the way the bodies are put together, but we don't know the exact mechanisms.

If we didn't know how atoms bind together to form molecules, we could use the same kind of stupid arguments. How does H2O form? How do the atoms know how to bind? Of course, we do understand the mechanisms behind this, so no one claims that some sort of outside guidance must put them together.

DNA is not a code in the sense that people normally use the word, any more than atoms are codes. Yes, DNA can form things, according to some yet to be discovered mechanisms, as can atoms according to well known mechanisms.

A staple of media coverage of DNA is the story, repeated endlessly, about some scientist or other who's the latest to synthesize molecular precursors of DNA (or its genetic partner, RNA), thus purportedly showing how biological information could have arisen on Earth unaided. The problem with these demonstrations is that they always depend on intelligent guidance, that of the scientist in his lab, thus suggesting the very opposite lesson of the one intended.

Seems like we're suddenly changing the subject. We're gone from talking about how we don't know how DNA (or rather cells) form organisms, to talking about not knowing about how life started.

Anyway, Klinghoffer has of course completely misrepresented what the experiments were about. Yes, the experiments are "guided", but they replicate conditions well known to have existed when the building blocks of life first appeared. Given the fact that they set out to demonstrated that there were sufficient conditions at the time for life to start spontaneously, they were quite successful.

In another new book, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (HarperOne), my colleague Stephen Meyer, a Cambridge University-trained philosopher of science, reminds us of the failure of every avenue by which science has tried to explain the origin of the genetic information required for the first life. Explanations depending on unguided material processes alone usually founder on a chicken-or-the-egg paradox: notably, that "specified information in DNA codes for proteins, but specific proteins are necessary to transcribe and translate the information on the DNA molecule."

Stephen Meyer is of course a well-known scientific ignoramus who continuously lies about science. I suggest reading the Wikipedia article on abiogenisis for a little more background, and then head over to TalkOrigins to read their articles on the subject.

DNA acts like a computer code, or like a language consisting of letters and words, arranged in specific sequences to accomplish a specific task or convey a specific meaning. As Dr. Meyer observes, the only kind of source we know of that can produce a "functionally integrated information-processing system" like that in the cell is an intelligent source.

No. DNA is nothing like computer code or languages except at the most superficial level (components which added together forms something). Computer code needs a interpreter (often a compiler) which translates the code into something which the machine in question can understand, while languages relies on common definitions (to see how even trivial differences can make huge problems, see the usage of "theory" inside and outside science). DNA on the other hand are self-replicating building blocks which gives the recipe for how organisms form. These are not trivial differences.

As a Jew, I find it intriguing, at the very least, that Jewish tradition anticipated precisely the kind of evidence that Meyer deals with in his book. DNA refers to the letters of a genetic "alphabet" that in the correct combinations encode the diversity of all life forms. Kabbala too speaks of such an alphabet, comprised of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, with which God continually speaks the world into existence.

What is Klinghoffer trying to say here? That because we use the mental image of letters when describing DNA, it's the same as saying that a god used a specific language to create the world?

Let me give Klinghoffer a hint: There are no real letters in DNA - it's just a way we describe them, so we can understand it. Much like atoms are not really miniature solar systems - they are just described that way so people can visualize them.

Different combinations of letters produce different creatures. A century and a half before Watson and Crick, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi sought to make Kabbala accessible to ordinary readers. In the Tanya (1796), he writes of how "the creatures are divided into categories [both] general and particular by changes in the combinations, substitutions and transpositions [of the letters]."

Huh? Mysticism presented as incoherent babble.

Something is out there beyond nature, guiding the destinies of living creatures. Whether we think of it as God or some other unknown agent makes a big difference. But the progress of science from imagining existence as a purely material affair, without purpose, as Darwinian evolution still portrays the matter, to the more advanced description toward which biology increasingly points, is a major step in the right direction.

There is absolute no evidence for anything "beyond nature, guiding the destinies of living creatures", so this is a claim without merit.

And can you point to any meaningful meaning of existence as a non-material affair? I guess one could suggest that the memory of someone is non-material (ignoring the fact that memories are storied in brains), but I don't think that's what Klinghoffer is aiming at here.

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Blogger Reb Yudel said...

You should know that what Klinghoffer lacks when it comes to understanding science.... he lacks in understanding Judaism too. (I wrote a booklength rebuttal to him barely engaging his scientific lies.)

July 10, 2009 4:56 PM  

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