Wednesday 6 February 2013

Creationism's lack of Wonders

When I watched the first episode of Brian Cox's new TV series Wonders of Life I was struck by the uncompromisingly naturalistic assumptions behind his explanation of how life began on Earth. Never before have I heard such a godless approach on prime-time mainstream TV in Britain. Maybe, I thought, the tide is turning and the BBC is forsaking — albeit temporarily — its habit of "balancing" anything remotely atheistic with something necessarily faith-based. Well, maybe. But nevertheless I expected protests, especially from creationists, and I was relishing the prospect.

So I was more than a little disappointed with this lack-lustre response from my local creationist organisation, the Creation Science Movement.
On Sunday 27th January, the BBC TV aired the first of a new series called Wonders of Life, presented by Professor Brian Cox. In this first episode he wondered what life was and how it began. Like all science writers for the Beeb, Cox is a fully paid up atheist, and he set out to establish a sequence from inanimate matter to simple living cells, and so on to ourselves. He informed us that at the beginning there was energy. The First Law of Thermodynamics says that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, though it can change from one form to another. He demonstrated this with a waterfall where potential energy at the top of the fall is changed into kinetic energy of movement, heat and noise as the water descends. But the total amount of energy remains unchanged. All correct! He then argued that if energy cannot be added to or lost, then energy is eternal! He does not conclude that if energy has always existed, so too must matter be everlasting. Thus he dodges the problem of how matter and energy could have been created from nothing in the first place.
But Einstein showed that matter and energy are equivalent (E=mc2). And of course we have the old chestnut about creating something from nothing. Who says there was nothing in the first place? If the current spacetime continuum came into existence at the Big Bang, so too did cause and effect — because cause and effect have no meaning in any atemporal or aspacial sense. We can have no concept of existence in the absence of time and space, so to talk about "something" and "nothing" in a realm that lacks a coherent concept of existence is mere speculation.
He continued by saying that all processes involve a change whereby the energy becomes less able to do work, this being the Second Law. He doesn’t draw the obvious conclusion that if the universe has always existed, all the energy would have lost its potential to do work long ago and would have degenerated into heat at a very low temperature. Our universe is brimming over with energy at a high potential, so it isn’t eternal at all, but had a beginning. How could it have started at a high potential, that is, a highly ordered state? Well, not on its own!
Despite this unidentified blogger's exclamation mark, the idea that the universe came into existence spontaneously as a necessary result of a random event seems to me entirely plausible. Also I don't think many cosmologists believe that the universe as we know it has existed eternally, so I'm not sure what point is being made here.
Dr Cox told us that all living things that have ever been derive their energy from a flow of hydrogen ions in their mitochondria. Quite true! He demonstrated a simple battery made from two bottles of water with different acidities. He then wired them up to a miniature fan, which sprang into life, while gases bubbled from the electrodes. So, he argued, a flow of hydrogen ions creates life – QED. He didn’t take into account the glaring fact that the current needed a motor to make use of this energy as a fan. In the same way, in every living thing, the hydrogen ion potential in the mitochondrion requires a miniature protein motor called ATP Synthase to produce usable energy for the living cell. Someone must have designed and manufactured the fan. How much more is a Creator required for the ATP Synthase with its 31 precise components?
The reason why someone had to design and manufacture the electric fan is that electric fans don't reproduce by themselves. Why creationists appear to overlook this obvious distinction baffles me.
From then on, the professor told us, living things progressed from simple to more complex living things by mistakes in copying genes that are then selected by the environment – Darwinian evolution. Yet we know that mutations scramble the information in those genes. Moreover, how can precise genetic information come about by chance?
Anyone who seriously asks this question obviously hasn't grasped the implications of natural selection.
Now that he has told us how life began, the series should become more credible as he celebrates the wonders of life. It could hardly get less believable! 
An odd, muted conclusion — exclamation mark notwithstanding. We get the first thorough explication of current thinking on abiogenesis on mainstream TV — something of a landmark, in my opinion — but of course creationists are going to dismiss it, as this one has. That it's such a half-hearted dismissal may indicate (let's hope so) the creationist bandwagon is running out of steam.

Shame. I had hoped for something more meaty to celebrate my 700th blogpost!