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When is “Intelligent intervention” acceptable?

Research generally involves human intervention at some level. An important factor to consider, however, is what level of interference from an intelligent investigator is justifiable?

South African correspondent Louis v. R. thought he had spotted an inconsistency between our feedback response article about more RNA world claims and our article about the rapid conversion of sand to stone. He wrote:

Your weekend article was on recent experiments concerning the origin of life. In it, the results were dismissed because of "intelligent intervention" (I can’t quote the precise phrases as I can’t find the article on your website now.) In this morning’s article, "From sand to rock—quickly!" David Catchpoole has this sentence: "That’s because the researchers have been able, with the help of added microorganisms, to turn sand into stone rapidly." Here the results of laboratory experiments are acceptable, even though the researchers are probably quite intelligent folks and thus their experiment design depends on intelligent intervention; after all, they select and add microorganisms deliberately. You really! can’t have it both ways, you know. That smacks of impropriety. Either intelligent intervention is OK or it isn’t.

CMI’s Dr Jonathan Sarfati and Dr David Catchpoole respond:

Hi Louis. The weekend article you referred to can be easily accessed via our gateway page by clicking on the “more past articles … ” button in the Featured Article or Yesterday’s Article panel which takes you to a chronological listing of articles (most recent appearing first—scroll down for older articles). In this case the article you were trying to find again appears under the hyperlinked shortened title RNA self replication. The extract you recalled actually read as follows:

Joyce and Lincoln started off with a fairly long RNA molecule. Given that nothing like RNA appears in Miller–Urey experiments, this already shows unjustified interference from an intelligent investigator.

So you consider it “impropriety” for us to accept intelligent intervention in the sand-to-rock research, but not in the RNA experiments? Before we address the intervention aspect, by what standard are you declaring “impropriety”? If one doesn’t believe in a Creator, then there are no absolutes when it comes to determining what is moral versus immoral. Little wonder that at times supposedly objective scientists redefine what is considered to be scientifically “valid” or “invalid” according to expedience, prejudice and the political winds that happen to be blowing at the time.

As for your accusation that we “can’t have it both ways” re intelligent intervention, it seems you have entirely missed the point of both articles.

The “RNA world” article made it clear that researchers have failed to demonstrate that life’s supposed earliest precursors could have come about without intelligent intervention. The bacterial biocement researchers demonstrated you don’t need millions of years for sand to become rock. Note the key difference between the two research groups. The RNA researchers are trying to create conditions in which life could have formed without intelligent intervention. (On that basis alone our statement about “unjustified interference from an intelligent investigator” stands unchallenged.) Living cells of course are highly organized—so organization is required in order to get a living cell.

In contrast, the biocement researchers are working to create conditions in which rock will form. A rock is not organized, it’s just disorganized grains, held together by a cementing agent. The researchers have showed that bacteria, even under low oxygen conditions, can turn a sandy seabed into rock. No organization is required, the bacterial by-product (cementing agent) just seeps in. Sand plus water plus bacteria equals rock “as hard as marble”. Sand+water+bacteria is certainly what you’d get in a worldwide Flood. But to get RNA in a pre-life world, supposedly without any intelligent intervention whatsoever? No way known! You need organization, which needs an organizer—which of course is anathema to evolutionists.

In other words, while bacteria are a plausible component of a worldwide flood, intelligent organic chemists are NOT a likely component of primordial soup (not that there is evidence that one had ever existed1).

Photos by by Marlene Roberts wool bay
These artifacts of modern life became rapidly entombed in rock without any human intervention whatsoever. See Zippy fossil finds.

Examples of justifiable and unjustifiable levels of interference

Even in origin-of-life simulation experiments, there are justifiable and unjustifiable levels of interference.2 For example, if you want to test a claim that amino acids can arise from a methane/ammonia atmosphere, it is perfectly reasonable for a chemist to mix these two gases. It is also reasonable to reduce the time needed by using more intense sources of the same energy that available on Earth (UV lamps to simulate UV from the sun, electric discharges to simulate lightning).

The use of traps to collect these chemicals before they are destroyed by the same sources which formed them3 might be OK if there were plausible natural traps. But the boundary is crossed if there were not, as seems to be the case.4 The line has definitely been crossed when researchers detect a trace amount of chemical A in one experiment, chemical B in another, then obtain purified, concentrated forms of A and B to react to form C, then conclude that C can form under primordial earth conditions. This doesn’t show that dilute A and B can react that way, or that they won’t react with contaminants D, E or F that were also formed in the first experiments.

The line was certainly crossed in the Joyce/Lincoln experiment, since the long RNA molecule and the shorter RNA molecules it ligates—and even their building blocks, nucleotides—are a long way from anything produced in simulation experiments.


Thus there is no inconsistency between the two articles, since one is about unjustifiable levels of interference by an intelligent investigator, and the other is about justifiable levels.

Published: 12 December 2009


  1. Although the idea of a primordial soup is part of popular culture, most would be surprised that there is not the slightest evidence that one ever existed. Such a soup was supposed to be the source of the essential nitrogen-containing amino acids and nucleotides. So if it existed, then evolutionary geologists should find some massive deposits rich in nitrogen in what they claim are very early rocks. Yet there is hardly any nitrogen in what they call the earliest organic materials—only about 0.015%. Two geochemists point out:
    “If there ever was a primitive soup, then we would expect to find at least somewhere on this planet either massive sediments containing enormous amounts of the various nitrogenous organic compounds, acids, purines, pyrimidines, and the like; or in much metamorphosed sediments we should find vast amounts of nitrogenous cokes. In fact no such materials have been found anywhere on earth.” Brooks, J., and Shaw, G., Origins and Development of Living Systems, Academic Press, London and New York, 1973 (emphasis added). Return to text.
  2. A good discussion is found in Thaxton, C.B., Bradley, W.L. and Olsen, R.L., The Mystery of Life’s Origin, Philosophical Library Inc., New York, 1984. Return to text.
  3. On the hypothetical primordial earth, the destructive UV radiation is both more plentiful than the constructive UV radiation, and also more effective. This amounts to two strikes, so that the destructive effects are about 104–105 stronger than the constructive ones. Hulett, H.R., Limitations on Prebiological Synthesis, J. Theoret. Biol. 24:56–72, 1969. Return to text.
  4. In reality, the chemicals would remain in the atmosphere for a long time, being bathed in UV. And being flushed into the ocean would not be an effective trap, since UV penetrates even tens of metres of liquid water. Note that you can be badly sunburned on a cloudy day and even under water. Return to text.