Monday, February 8, 2010

No More Soup

Generations of biology students have been taught that life originated in a primordial soup of simple organic molecules that gradually combined to form amino acids, nucleic acids and ultimately proteins and DNA. The exact pathway for this miracle was never very clear which may have been because it turns out that it probably didn't happen that way in the first place.

Based on new research reported in Science Daily researchers inform us that we must now throw out the primordial soup and look instead to chemical reactions occurring around hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the oceans for the conditions under which the first life was spawned:

For 80 years it has been accepted that early life began in a 'primordial soup' of organic molecules before evolving out of the oceans millions of years later. Today the 'soup' theory has been over turned in a pioneering paper in BioEssays which claims it was the Earth's chemical energy, from hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor, which kick-started early life.

"Textbooks have it that life arose from organic soup and that the first cells grew by fermenting these organics to generate energy in the form of ATP. We provide a new perspective on why that old and familiar view won't work at all," said team leader Dr Nick lane from University College London. "We present the alternative that life arose from gases (H2, CO2, N2, and H2S) and that the energy for first life came from harnessing geochemical gradients created by mother Earth at a special kind of deep-sea hydrothermal vent -- one that is riddled with tiny interconnected compartments or pores."

Well, maybe so, but isn't it a bit disconcerting that just about everything that scientists have told us over the years about evolution turns out to be either untrue or questionable? Everything from the importance of natural selection and genetic mutation, to Haeckel's phylogenetic law, to the proof provided by finch beaks and peppered moths, to the crucial importance of the gene, to the junkiness of junk DNA, to the primordial soup, to who knows what next. The only belief about evolution that's remained undiminished over the decades is the dogmatic certainty that it happened, even though at the rate we're going everything we believe about it will be proven wrong by 2020.

This is not to say that organisms haven't evolved or that life didn't begin in some warm little vent. Rather it's to say that the details of evolutionary theory are a lot less settled than the confident pronouncements of the theory's advocates would have us think. And if the premises of an argument are uncertain how can anyone be expected to have any confidence that the conclusion is assured?


Rescinding Don't Ask

The Wall Street Journal features a column by Mackubin Thomas Owens in which he makes a case against rescinding the ban on open homosexuals in the military. At one point in his column he writes:

There are many foolish reasons to exclude homosexuals from serving in the armed services. One is simple antihomosexual bigotry. But as the late Charles Moskos, the noted military sociologist, observed during the Clinton years, this does not mean that we should ignore the good ones. And the most important is expressed in the 1993 law: that open homosexuality is incompatible with military service because it undermines the military ethos upon which success in war ultimately depends.

President Obama has promised on numerous occasions that he will work with Congress to overturn the ban and the media and gay organizations are holding him to that promise. Congress, though, has to pass the legislation and it's not clear what they're hearing from their constituents. Nevertheless, they'd do well to keep in mind Owens' concluding paragraph:

The reason for excluding open homosexuals from the military has nothing to do with equal rights or freedom of expression. Indeed, there is no constitutional right to serve in the military. The primary consideration must be military effectiveness. Congress should keep the ban in place. It certainly should not change the law when the United States is engaged in two wars.

Congress should think long and hard about the effects overturning the ban would have on unit cohesion and the ability of our military to carry out its mission as effectively and as efficiently as possible. That should be the overriding consideration. The decision should certainly not be based on considerations of political correctness, sociological fashion, or "equal opportunity."


Two Assumptions

Democrats, the WaPo's Charles Krauthammer observes, analyze their dismal performance in recent elections in the light of two guiding axioms:

(1) The people are stupid and (2) Republicans are bad. Result? The dim, led by the malicious, vote incorrectly.

Krauthammer goes on to put flesh on these presuppositional bones and shows, in so doing, that Democrats seem to be completely wanting in the ability to see in themselves the faults they discern so clearly in others. He writes, for instance, that:

This belief in the moral hollowness of conservatism animates the current liberal mantra that Republican opposition to Obama's social democratic agenda -- which couldn't get through even a Democratic Congress and powered major Democratic losses in New Jersey, Virginia and Massachusetts -- is nothing but blind and cynical obstructionism.

By contrast, Democratic opposition to George W. Bush -- from Iraq to Social Security reform -- constituted dissent. And dissent, we were told at the time, including by candidate Obama, is "one of the truest expressions of patriotism."

No more. Today, dissent from the governing orthodoxy is nihilistic malice. "They made a decision," explained David Axelrod, "they were going to sit it out and hope that we failed, that the country failed" -- a perfect expression of liberals' conviction that their aspirations are necessarily the country's, that their idea of the public good is the public's, that their failure is therefore the nation's.

The whole op-ed is worth reading, but let's tarry for a moment over the main implication of his column: Democrats are becoming increasingly divorced from reality. They'd sooner demonize their political opponents and disparage the intellectual abilities of the voters than to contemplate the possibility that maybe there's something wrong with themselves.

When Scott Brown won in Massachusetts Democrat spokespersons were all over the airwaves claiming with straight faces and apparent sincerity that this should be seen as a signal to Democrats to put the public option back in health care reform. Brown's election against a Democrat progressive candidate was interpreted, with an astonishing indifference to common sense, as a protest against the Democrats for being too timid, for not spending enough money, for not driving the deficits even higher.

President Obama, as Krauthammer points out, assures us in the wake of electoral setbacks in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Virginia that he's not an ideologue. Yet he insists that Democrats double down and get his agenda passed over the objections of the people no matter what the political cost. Isn't that exactly what an ideologue would do?

I'm reminded of Martin Luther's extraordinary affirmation of how, in his view, a Christian's faith should be impervious to evidence. He wrote that:

So tenaciously should we cling to the world revealed by the Gospel that were I to see all the Angels of Heaven coming down to me to tell me something different, not only would I not be tempted to doubt a single syllable, but I would shut my eyes and stop my ears, for they would not deserve to be seen or heard.

Substitute "progressive ideology" for "the Gospel" and Luther could have been talking about the modern Democratic party.