Tuesday, July 04, 2006

 

Working In the Quote Mines

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This is a proposed new entry in the Quote Mine Project that I am parking here to help in the editing. Comments, corrections and suggestions are welcome and may even be paid attention to.
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[Re: Spontaneous generation of living organisms is impossible]

One has only to contemplate the magnitude of this task to concede that the spontaneous generation of a living organism is impossible. Yet here we are -- as a result, I believe, of spontaneous generation. - George Wald, Harvard University biochemist and Nobel Laureate, 1954

Representative quote miners: Mars Hill Ministry: The Origin of Life --The "Hardware"; The Journey: Spontaneous Generation; and True News: The Origin of Life - Evolution’s Dilemma.
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It should first be noted that, while Wald uses the term "spontaneous generation" throughout the article, he is not really concerned with the historic notion "that life arises regularly from the nonliving: worms from mud, maggots from decaying meat, mice from refuse of various kinds" that was shown to be untenable by Francesco Redi, Lazzaro Spallanzani and Louis Pasteur. Although he gives an account of Redi's, Spallanzani's and Pasteur's work, his real concern is "how organisms may have arisen spontaneously under different conditions [than exist in the present] in some former period, granted that they do so no longer." In short, he is speaking about what we would now call "abiogenesis."

The source of the above quote is an article Wald wrote, entitled "The Origin of Life," that appeared in the August 1954 issue of Scientific American (vol. 191), on pages 44-53. This is the same article that was ultimately the source of Quote Mine # 57.

As was the case with Quote Mine # 57, the creationists have frequently mangled the citation in passing around the quote. The "Journey" site above gives the source as "George Wald, 'The Origin of Life,' Scientific American, 191:48, May 1954" as does The Triunity Report: The Origin of Life and The Suppression of Truth. Another site, Adventist Review: The Simple Cell?, gives it as "Scientific American, May 1954." The latter site goes on to merge this quote mine with a variation on Quote Mine # 57, which itself was a paraphrase of what Wald said that bore little resemblance to his actual point, thus creating a true paragon of misinformation.
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Unlike Quote Mine # 57, however, the actual words attributed to Wald do appear in his article, on page 46. Immediately following on the two sentences above is a third that, together, form a complete paragraph that reads:

One has only to contemplate the magnitude of this task to concede that the spontaneous generation of a living organism is impossible. Yet here we are -- as a result, I believe, of spontaneous generation. It will help to digress for a moment to ask what one means by "impossible."

Wald then goes on to discuss probability, beginning with the simple-to-calculate cases of coin tosses and dice, where the possible number of outcomes are known. He continues:

When one has no means of estimating the probability beforehand, it must be determined by counting the fraction of successes in a large number of trials.

Our everyday concept of what is impossible, possible or certain derives from our experience: the number of trials that may be encompassed within the space of a human lifetime, or at most within recorded human history. In this colloquial, practical sense I concede the spontaneous origin of life to be "impossible." It is impossible as we judge events in the scale of human experience.

We shall see that this is not a very meaningful concession; For one thing, the time with which our problem is concerned is geological time, and the whole extent of human history is trivial in the balance.

Wald then discusses the fact that highly improbable things can happen but that, as a result of the skeptical attitude of persons of good judgment, "events which are merely very extraordinary acquire the reputation of never having occurred at all." But Wald calls scientists the "[l]east skeptical" of all "judicious persons" because "cautious as they are, [they] know very well what strange things are possible." Wald's example for this, the possibility that a table will spontaneously rise into the air if "the molecules of which the table is composed, ordinarily in random motion in all directions, should happen by chance to move in the same direction," neatly anticipates Fred Hoyle's "Tornado in a Junkyard" argument. Therefore, according to Wald, "it does not mean much to say that a very improbable event has never been observed."

More importantly, though:

When we consider the spontaneous origin of a living organism, this is not an event that need happen again and again. It is perhaps enough for it to happen once. The probability with which we: are concerned is of a special kind; it is the probability that an event occur at least once. To this type of probability a fundamentally important thing happens as one increases the number of trials. However improbable the event in a single trial, it becomes increasingly probable as the trials are multiplied. Eventually the event becomes virtually inevitable.

Wald gives the following example:

Consider a reasonably improbable event, the chance of which is 1/1,000. The chance that this will not occur in one trial is 999/1,000. The chance that it won't occur in 1,000 trials is 999/1,000 multiplied together 1,000 times. This fraction comes out to be 37/100. The chance that it will happen at least once in 1,000 trials is therefore one minus this number -- 63/100 -- a little better than three chances out of five. One thousand trials have transformed this from a highly improbable to a highly probable event. In 10,000 trials the chance that this event will occur at least once comes out to be 19,999/20,000. It is now almost inevitable.

Time is in fact the hero of the plot. The time with which we have to deal is of the order of two billion years. What we regard as impossible on the basis of human experience is meaningless here. Given so much time, the "impossible" becomes possible, the possible probable, and the probable virtually certain. One has only to wait: time itself performs the miracles.

It is now clear why the quote miners omitted the sentence following the snippet they appropriated. Including it might have tipped off the people the quote is intended to impress that they are being mislead. And if they went and actually looked at the article, they would find that Wald was not saying that a naturalistic origin of life is impossible but was, instead, engaged in a bit of rhetorical flourish, leading up to his conclusion that:

The important point is that since the origin of life belongs in the category of at-least-once phenomena, time is on its side. However improbable we regard this event, or any of the steps which it involves, given enough time it will almost certainly happen at least once. And for life as we know it, with its capacity for growth and reproduction, once may be enough.

In short, Wald's conclusion in the article is diametrically opposed to the spin the creationists want to put on it. Wald is not, as the creationists would have you believe, arguing for a naturalistic view* despite the "evidence" of the supposed great improbability of life arising naturally, he is arguing that there is no such "evidence." Wald's point is, first of all, that the probability of abiogenesis happening is impossible to calculate. But beyond that, the very nature of the problem suggests the likelihood that abiogenesis did happen, here on Earth or somewhere in the universe.

Creationists are free to dispute Wald's arguments or his conclusions, of course. In fact, he accepts, based on the evidence available in 1954, that there was some 2 billion years between the point that conditions on Earth made life possible and its first appearance. Evidence discovered in the 50 years that have passed since Wald's article suggests that liquid water first appeared on the Earth about 4.4 billion years ago, while the earliest fossils found are dated at 3.5 billion years ago and the earliest (though disputed) signs of life date to 3.8 billion years ago. It is not immediately obvious that 700 million years or so is insufficient for Wald's argument to be valid.

Ultimately, the question of whether the arguments Wald advanced were right is not the point here. The quote miners could have set out Wald's arguments and tried to make a case against them and no one could have complained. They chose, instead, to misrepresent his arguments in an attempt to hijack Wald's reputation. They succeeded only in ruining their own.
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- John (catshark) Pieret
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* There were a number of letters about Wald's article published in the October 1954 issue of Scientific American. One of them makes a crude attempt to argue that the term "trial" implies a conscious "trier," which Wald, in a response to the letters, disposes of by pointing out that he "meant only an event to whose outcome one might attach a probability."

More interestingly, a professor R. L. Probst refers to Human Destiny, a book by Lecomte du Noüy, that, in turn, claims that calculations made by Professor Charles-Eugène Guye about the formation of proteins showed that:

. . . the time needed to form, on an average, one such molecule in a material volume equal to that of our terrestrial globe is about 10^243 billion years. But we must not forget that life appeared about one billion years ago.... We are faced with an interval which is more than 10^243 times too short.

Probst sums up his point:

I will admit that the scientist should try to explain events by natural causes, without bringing in the intervention of God, as long as it is possible and reasonable to do so. But science demands that a theory have some solid evidence supporting it.: Therefore, to hold that life has developed spontaneously by chance is not a scientific' statement; it is a sheer act of faith, perhaps based on a prejudice against admitting the action of an agent outside of the material universe.

Wald replies that he has "no strong personal prejudice against invoking God's intervention in the origin of life." In fact, he notes:

The Jesuit priest, John Turberville Needham, a great champion of spontaneous generation, believed that God created matter initially with the potentiality of spontaneously generating life. Indeed, as pointed out in my article, this belief is consonant with the relevant passages in the Book of Genesis [that God bade the earth and waters to bring forth plants and animals]. If Professor Probst is dissatisfied with this view, where does he believe that God intervened? Was it to create the first protein? Or the first living cell? Or a man?

As to the supposed calculations, Wald reiterates that:

. . . no adequate basis exists for such a calculation. We are concerned here with the probabilities associated with a series of stepwise reactions and aggregations, none of which perhaps exceeds the bounds of what may happen in a two-body collision.

I wonder how one might have assessed the probability that a mixture of water vapor, methane, hydrogen and ammonia, passed for a week over an electric spark, could form a variety of amino acids in relatively high yield. Yet in 1953 Miller showed that this happens, and our entire conception of its intrinsic probability is revised accordingly.
By the way, Guye was a physicist who died in 1942 and was calculating the odds of atoms lining up by accident to form a protein if a vessel the size of the Earth with the constituent atoms was mechanically shaken at the speed of light. In other words, like Hoyle, he was someone outside his area of expertise, calculating "odds" based on utterly unrealistic premises that have nothing to do with biochemistry as we know it, much less any realistic hypotheses about abiogenesis.
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