Doing it Wrong

You’ve probably heard by now about the Mycoplasma genitalium simulation. Like the artificial Jellyfish from ten days ago this is awesome (though perhaps not to the degree sensationalistic headlines would have you believe), and has important implications when it comes to disease research to boot. I’ll explain my own headline later.

For obvious reasons, beginning with “there isn’t that much computing power on the planet,” this simulation is not atom-by-atom. That is to say, in the case of the cell membrane the researchers would have had to model its interactions rather than declaring “let there be phospholipids!” and having them do what they naturally do. The natural consequence of this is that the simulation, while capable of throwing up a few new discoveries, is far from perfect. And the ‘creation’ of this simulated cell is diametrically opposed to evolution, which is the crucial point here.

Brian Thomas’ chosen title – It’s (Virtually) Alive! – may seem a little ironic given the last time this Frankenstein’s Monster allusion was used by the ICR. In this months Acts & Facts Morris III used the It’s Alive! title in his now-famous article that tried to claim that plants aren’t alive on the grounds that they lack both independent movement and blood. For those of you who wondered how this position ties in to the “life begins at conception” line, a piece on the Your Origins Matter site from around the same time called Single-cell bacterium? said:

When a human sperm cell unites with a human ovum, the resultant thing is a human, single-cell zygote.  The single-cell zygote immediately begins the cell division process.  It reproduces, it grows, and it adapts to a very hostile environment inside the mother’s womb.  Does that not fit the definition for life?  Just what additional things must it do to fully qualify for the definition of life?  How is that different from the single-cell bacterium?

Right hand, meet left hand.

The relevant part of Thomas’ article is it’s concluding paragraphs:

What does all of this imply for origins research?

First, with so much intelligently-directed effort required to build its virtual facsimile, researchers can rest assured that intelligently-directed effort was likewise required to build the original bacteria. This resists Darwinian doctrines that insist cells arose from nature, not intelligence.

Last, when in some future years bioengineers complete their final draft of the virtual cell, they will only succeed in building something that’s not real. Although it is possible to model how molecules and maybe even whole cells behave, it is infinitely more difficult to assemble actual atoms into their correct positions to build a cell. But somebody did just that.

(Re the “final draft” – Thomas quotes the paper as saying that what they have done is but a “first draft,” and that “extensive effort is required before the model can be considered complete.”)

As I’m sure you can guess the flaw here is, as I said, that this is not the process of evolution and saying that this was hard for us to do bears little relevance to whether or not the cell actually evolved. For the tenth time, at least, I point you to Adrian Thompson’s circuit board experiment.

You could, if you wanted to, create a virtual model of the ‘winning board.’ That might not be very easy as the boards operation involved electromagnetic interactions beyond what you might first expect from its components. If you were going to design a board like that you would do it very differently, and while in this case more components would be needed the resulting circuit would have been much easier for mere mortals to follow. Natural selection, the process used to make the board, couldn’t give a damn about those considerations and so will create as complicated a board as is required. Labelling the outcome “design” simply because of this complexity is doing it wrong.

What does all of that imply for Thomas’ post?

Well, it means that the line,

with so much intelligently-directed effort required to build its virtual facsimile, researchers can rest assured that intelligently-directed effort was likewise required to build the original bacteria,

is logically flawed. It just doesn’t work like that.


Typowatch sez: the DpSU in Thomas’ references, Bacteria Study Shoots Down ‘Simple Cell’ Assumptions, is from 2010 and not 2012, which is why I don’t have anything on it in my archives.

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2 thoughts on “Doing it Wrong

  1. Your circuit board example is also looks like a design of the fundamental block to behave in certain ways. “Design” is required for any useful operation.

    • That the machine is designed is irrelevant to the point, that if you were designing a circuit on it you would come up with something completely different, via a different process, than the selection/evolution process used in the experiment. The resulting product is not ‘designed’ by any reasonable meaning of the term – you would not call the mess after a bookshelf collapses design, though you would before it fell.

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