We didn’t “come from rocks,” Matt Powell’s brain is just an example of convergent evolution


It’s unfortunately true. He is now straining to defend creationist caricatures of evolutionary biology. He has a new video exercise in sophistry in which he claims to have scientific support for the claim that “we evolved from a rock”. He excerpts Aron Ra pointing out that evolution does not argue that we are descended from a rock, and tries to refute him by finding a paper in Science that says we did. Only it doesn’t. He’s relying on colloquial use of terms to confuse the issue.

The paper says this:

Thank goodness for granite. If not for the formation and subsequent erosion of large quantities of metal-rich granite on a supercontinent that formed billions of years ago, the evolution of multicellular life—including us—could have been stifled or delayed, according to a new study.

For much of its history, life on Earth existed as only single-celled organisms. Certain proteins critical for multicellular life, and presumed to have been equally critical for its evolution from single-celled ancestors, require heavy-metal elements, especially copper, zinc, and molybdenum, says John Parnell, a geoscientist at the University of Aberdeen in the United Kingdom. Previous studies suggest that multicellular life evolved sometime between 1.6 billion and 1.2 billion years ago. Researchers thought that before that innovation, these vital metals were locked away from environments where life thrived—either sequestered in the oxygen-poor depths of the ocean or held in ancient ore deposits in Earth’s crust, waiting to be eroded.

This is not saying we evolved from granite, or descended from granite, or even came from granite. It’s saying that some metal elements that living organisms use as catalysts in chemical reactions eroded out of granite, and further, it’s a paper specifically about the origin of multicellular life, not all life.

To explain it in Biblical terms, here’s Genesis 4:22.

As for Zillah, she also gave birth to Tubal-cain, the forger of all implements of bronze and iron; and the sister of Tubal-cain was Naamah.

Or Exodus 31:

Now the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “See, I have called by name Bezalel, the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. I have filled him with the Spirit of God in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge, and in all kinds of craftsmanship, to make artistic designs for work in gold, in silver, and in bronze, and in the cutting of stones for settings, and in the carving of wood, that he may work in all kinds of craftsmanship.

If I were to now claim that the Bible says we “came from” bronze, iron, wood, gold, and silver, that would be as deliberate a misreading as Powell’s claim that evolution says we “came from” rocks. Life arose from energy-rich molecules in solution in the ocean. That early life used essential metallic elements in promoting chemical reactions does not imply we “came from” rocks, any more than when the Bible proudly declares in Joshua 10:28 that Joshua captured Makkedah that very day, and attacked both it and its king with swords, utterly destroying it along with every person in it, leaving no survivors, it is implying that the Israelites were made of swords.

Clearly, though, followers of the Abrahamic religions can thank goodness for iron. If not for the presence of mineral deposits that allowed them to forge killing weapons, they might have gone the way of Makkedah and Jericho, and the Jewish and Christian religions might have been stifled or delayed.

Comments

  1. says

    Didn’t some iron chariots totally stymie God once back in the day? I’d look it up, but I don’t feel like it.
    Anyway, the religious followers might not thank goodness for iron in that case. Unless, of course, they haven’t read that bit, which is likely.

  2. Akira MacKenzie says

    Remember, Matty-P is the same Bible-fucking clod who misquoted science articles on New World monkeys possibly arriving in South America from Africa on naturally-occurring “rafts” matted vegetation to claim “Atheists think monkeys can surf!”

  3. sophiab says

    Goodness forbid you try to make an abstract readable. No, no, it should be a dry statement of absolute facts, not a tempting morsel that also gets the point across.
    I hate these people for making an (excellent) choice of a more vibrant abstract a way to twist the findings. Science destroyed my ability to write creatively, and it shouldn’t have. People like this push us back

  4. PaulBC says

    “And a rock feels no pain, and an island never cries.” Oops I think I used that before.

    Hey, didn’t Rebecca Watson just say something (in that recent link) about a rock serving as an ideal existence in Hesse’s Siddhartha? I completely forget the context and I can only assume she was referring to Hesse’s novel, though I forget anything about rocks.

    There must be some kind of convergence going on.

  5. robro says

    So Paul Simon’s “I am rock” was right?

    Rock beats scissors which beats paper which beats rock. The world is full circle.

  6. birgerjohansson says

    Ironically, if we manage to create “strong AI” in a substrate of metal and silica, life will evolve into rock analogies.

  7. says

    birgerjohansson@7

    Still waiting for “strong I” in humans. Powell & Ham being good examples we aren’t there yet.

    With utterances like those mentioned in the article, the reply basically writes itself:
    “Dumb as rocks”.

  8. nomdeplume says

    There you go again PZ, applying logic and demanding consistency from hypocrites. Powell has absolutely zero interest in understanding what any scientific paper is actually about. He will cherry pick and deliberately misunderstand any sequence of words he can find that his followers will believe proves Genesis right and science wrong.

  9. brightmoon says

    They call it theocratic warfare aka lying for Jesus. I’m not impressed by Powell’s nonsense. He just comes off as childish and ignorant.

  10. Rob Grigjanis says

    nomdeplume @15:

    He will cherry pick and deliberately misunderstand any sequence of words he can find that his followers will believe proves Genesis right and science wrong.

    True, but there are those who give him ammunition. Powell mocks the Big Bang theory because it supposedly describes an ‘explosion’ that comes from ‘nothing’. And a twerp like Lawrence Krauss writes a book titled A Universe from Nothing. I guess he thought it was a sexy title which would sell. Never mind that it’s highly misleading bullshit.

  11. PaulBC says

    If not for the formation and subsequent erosion of large quantities of metal-rich granite on a supercontinent that formed billions of years ago, the evolution of multicellular life—including us—could have been stifled or delayed, according to a new study.

    And all this time, I’ve been taking it for granite.

    (That was going to be my first reply, and I’m surprised nobody beat me to it.)

  12. Rob Grigjanis says

    PaulBC @18:

    I’m surprised nobody beat me to it

    The phrase “too obvious” comes to mind. Still, a gneiss idea.

  13. Snarki, child of Loki says

    Many many long years ago, on usenet sci.skeptic, one of the prolific anti-creationist posts used the handle

    “Speaker to Minerals”

    (a Larry Niven reference)

  14. John Benson says

    As I read the arguments put forth by people like Ham and Co. I don’t get the impression they’re meant to refute actual arguments for evolution. The impression I’m left with is the creation of a deistic strawman “evolution,” an evolution where a we “evolve” from a rock in the colloquial sense. The arguments make more sense if you think of “evolution” as deity, a deity could turn a spider into a person, or create a crocaduck. In essence I’m left with the feeling that they actually make pretty good arguments against creationism, intelligent design etc. The point of these arguments isn’t to attack scientific evolution it’s to create a deity they can call “evolution,” because they have a couple thousand years experience arguing against other gods, and heretical interpretations of God. Arguing against scientific evolution requires attacking huge swaths of scientific understanding, they’ll do that too, but a bad faith argument against a different god is easier and one their actual audience can probably understand.

  15. nomdeplume says

    @17 Well, the universe did come from “nothing” – Krauss was trying to explain how this was not a contradiction in terms, in the way the stupid Kalam argument claims.

  16. nomdeplume says

    @17 Well, the universe did come from “nothing” – Krauss was trying to explain how this was not a contradiction in terms, in the way the stupid Kalam argument claims.

  17. John Morales says

    nomdeplume, nope. Rob is right; Krauss’ title was a semantic shift. Not literal.

    cf. Wikipedia on the book:

    In the New York Times, philosopher of science and physicist David Albert said the book failed to live up to its title; he claimed Krauss dismissed concerns about what Albert calls his misuse of the term nothing, since if matter comes from relativistic quantum fields, the question becomes where did those fields come from, which Krauss does not discuss.

    (Spacetime is not nothing)

  18. nomdeplume says

    @25 Sure, but if you are down to quantum fields then you are a very long way indeed from any kind of “god”. In any case it seems to me that you can’t have “nothing” because “nothing” is unstable (in a quantum sense) then we are into the realm of the universe being the way it is because if it wasn’t we wouldn’t exist to ask the question. But I am no physicist and I may well have misunderstood some or all of this.

  19. John Morales says

    nomdeplume:

    In any case it seems to me that you can’t have “nothing”

    Ahem. You were the one who earlier wrote “Well, the universe did come from “nothing””.

    (I hope the syllogism is evident to you)

  20. nomdeplume says

    @27 Hmmm, I think I was clear. The Kalam nonsense says in effect “something can’t come from nothing”. But if “nothing” can’t exist then this idea fails.

  21. says

    Well technically we are all descended from rocks which were formed in the hot plasma of an exploding star, but I’m not splitting hairs.

  22. KG says

    Ahem:

    Here is how one of the pioneers of early life studies, Nick Lane, describes Luca:

    She [Luca] was not a free-living cell but a rocky labyrinth of mineral cells, lined with catalytic walls composed of iron, sulphur and nickel, and energised by natural proton gradients. The first life was a porous rock that generated complex molecules and energy, right up to the formation of proteins and DNA itself.

    Admittedly, Lane’s hypothesis is only one possibility, although it seems to me a promising one, as it proposes that the origin of life occurred in the context of already-existing structural complexity and sustained electro-chemical gradients resulting from geological processes.

  23. says

    We’ve known about nucleoids in bacteria for decades at least.

    I’ve been a big fan of Nick Lane for a while now, and I have students in cell bio read one of his papers. He’s got a new book, Transformer, coming out in July, that is at the very top of my most anticipated summer reading.

  24. PaulBC says

    Not familiar with Krauss or Kalam, but…

    “Where did the universe come from” is just asking the wrong question. The question makes sense to human intuition because we observe cause and effect, but that doesn’t mean everything is explained by a linear chain of causality, let alone one with an ultimate beginning.

    A better question would be “Is there is some set of axioms that imply that the universe or something like it should exist?” I don’t know the answer to that either, if it’s tractable, or if there’s a better question but at least it doesn’t fall into the sort of trap that dominates Aristotelian or medieval thinking about a “first cause.”

    Thomas Aquinas found the notion of an infinite regression so absurd that he asserted the need for an omnipotent creator to eliminate it. As a human being, I can understand that intuition, but I’m surprised to hear it in the context of 21st century cosmology. Mathematically, omnipotence subsumes all forms of infinity. I.e., an omnipotent God could have an infinite regression if he wanted one, and a lot of other things.

    There’s nothing particularly absurd about bidirectional infinity. Take a classical dynamic system with particles and velocities. It is reversible, so its state at any moment determines an infinite past and future. You could look at it and observe “cause and effect” as near collisions affect later motion. But you’d be mistaken to think it had a beginning or even a temporal direction. It would be a steady state universe, which ours is not. Note that “Where did the present state of the universe come from?” (implying an infinite causal chain) isn’t even the same question as where did that chain come from, and neither may be useful questions, just the ones that faulty human intuition leads us to ask.

    My point is that infinite regressions are pretty humdrum and if it took one to explain reality, so what? You don’t make things better by postulating something much more complicated and less well defined, such as a God, who in his omnipotence should be able to simulate the entire past and future of hypothetical infinitely regressive universes without breaking a sweat. You’ve simply compounded your set of assumptions.

  25. KG says

    A better question would be “Is there is some set of axioms that imply that the universe or something like it should exist?” – PaulBC@35

    That’s sometimes phrased as “Why is there something rather than nothing?”. My answer is that there is only one way for there to be nothing, but an uncountably infinite number of ways for there to be something. So whatever your choice of measure theory over the set of possible states of affairs, the measure of “states of affairs in which there is nothing” will be zero.

    (I’m not being entirely serious here, but not entirely unserious either!)

  26. PaulBC says

    KG@36 Alternatively, every consistently defined system might “exist”, some of which support consciousness, but we’re only aware of the one we inhabit. (I’m sure that’s an old idea and there’s probably a name for it.)

    I admit I often wonder what’s the difference between a mathematical system than can be stated, and one that is reified. It seems to me that there’s a big difference between a computer program I could write that I know would eventually output the nth digit in the decimal expansion of pi and the result of running it up to that point. But maybe there’s not.

  27. randomaxis says

    So rather than believe the “ridiculous” notion that we came from a rock, he would have us believe the far more sensible idea dirt turned into people per Genesis 2:7?

    “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” sounds a lot like rock becoming a person to me.

  28. johnsandlin says

    Using the same logic Matty Powell uses to “find” Evolution claims we evolved from Rock, we must also conclude we evolved from Sunshine, Cosmic Rays, other ionizing Radiations, and from the afore mentioned rocks. They take the fact that minerals from Rocks played a significant role as saying we descended from rocks. So by his logic sun energy and everything else significantly affected our evolution too. So we must be descended from sunshine.

    And yet it is his belief that we came from a divine wind, some mumbled words and incantations, and a pile of dust.

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