DNA News Page 7  -  last update 7/30/2011


-- Blinded By the Light of Discovery - 9/7/09
-- Oregon cave yields evidence of the earliest Americans yet - 4/4/08


Home   Return
 

 How DNA Proves God Made All Creatures Great and Small

July 10, 2009 CNSNews.com

Dr. Stephen C. Meyer Ph. D., a Cambridge trained scholar in the philosophy of science, does have an explanation for how life on Earth began: the DNA in every cell of every creature shows unmistakable evidence of having been deliberately designed by an intelligent being.

This information found in his book “Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design”.

Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection may be able to explain how living creatures can evolve from one form to another, but it cannot explain how something that was not alive evolved into the first life on Earth.

A one time geophysicist and college professor, he’s now director of the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute in Seattle, Washington. Meyer became part of a national controversy five years ago when The Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, a publication staffed by scientists from the Smithsonian Institution, published the first ever peer-reviewed article arguing for intelligent design in the creation of life on Earth. Dr. Meyer is the author of that article.

He is now the author of a book, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design, that makes the same argument. Meyer makes the argument that DNA itself presents evidence for why people should see behind living creatures on Earth an intelligent design and therefore a designer.

DNA is the molecule of heredity, it stores information for building proteins--probably not every trait, we used to think it had the code for everything, but we now realize that it codes for proteins. It has the information, the instruction set, for building the proteins that are necessary to keep the cell alive; and proteins are critical, they’re like the toolbox of the cell. Every living creature on Earth has DNA

Every single, living thing on earth has DNA; we’ve never discovered anything that doesn’t have DNA? DNA runs the show inside the cell. It directs protein synthesis and then the proteins do all the important jobs that keep things going. Every living thing on the face of the Earth has cells and within these cells is DNA.

In the parlance of chemistry DNA is nucleic acid, what’s interesting is the double helix. It’s a beautiful structure. We learn about its chemical properties when we learn chemistry or biochemistry in high school or college, but very rarely do we focus on the information-bearing properties of the molecule, and that’s the critical thing.

DNA is highly organized, but it’s a particular kind of organization or order. It’s informational. The great discovery came in 1953 of the structure of the molecule, but I think something even more striking was Francis Crick’s sequence hypothesis. He proposed it in 1957, and he proposed that four of the chemicals in DNA, along the interior, on the spine of the molecule, called bases, function exactly like alphabetic characters in a written text or digital characters in a section of a machine code.

So, it wasn’t just the chemical structure of DNA that was significant, it was the fact that it carried instructions.

The chemical composition of DNA is the same from creature to creature. There are four basic elements. There are bases, and then sugars and phosphates, and they’re the same. But it’s the arrangement of the bases that are different. Just as you could have a group of Scrabble letters on the table, but what would make each grouping different is the way that it was arranged to either spell information, spell a message, or just be gibberish.

All the DNA in all living creatures has the same chemical composition but different sequential arrangements of the four key letters or bases. That’s not just a metaphor. They actually function like characters in a message system.

A hundred years ago, the human race didn’t know any of this. It was 1953 when Watson and Crick theorized this process. Then the ensuing fifteen years were a period of great productivity in molecular biology.

At the end of WWII there were some scientists who were anticipating that there must be something beyond just matter and energy driving things in life. There had to be some kind of informational process that gave children the characteristics of their parents.

So that dogs look like the parent, the horse looks like that horse or is fast like that horse. They knew there was something about the reproduction of living things that passed on characteristics and traits from one generation to another.

This is a very new discovery in historic terms, and there have been several phases of it. There was the Watson-Crick discovery of the molecule itself, the structure of the molecule, then the recognition that it was directing the show with information.

James Watson: American born biologist who was a bird-watcher as a young man—wiz kid--and went off to finished his Ph.D. at a very young age. Went off to Europe and finally ended up in Cambridge, where he met up with Francis Crick, who had been a code-breaker in World War II, didn’t have a Ph.D. yet, was working on his Ph.D. in the field of crystallography, he was more of a physicist than a biologist. And they teamed up and cracked this mystery.

By the early 50s, people had become more and more convinced it must be in DNA. They knew some things about the DNA molecule, but they didn’t understand its structure, and when they cracked the structure, when they realized what the structure was, one of the first things that occurred to them was that it was set up to store code, and the structure of it allowed for the arrangement--these different arrangements of characters, the double helix structure to this acid.
There were new ideas. Maybe it was a triple helix. People had different ideas about the different structure of it, but as the British say, “They got it right.”

They figured out there was coding on the double helix that actually determined the traits of living things, or it had the information for building the proteins that the cell needs to keep alive, a toolbox as it were. Each has a different shape, each performs a different function, and the proteins are the same. Each has a different shape, and in virtue of the shapes they have, they perform different functions--but they acquire the shape based on how their constituent parts are arranged, and that’s all determined by the DNA.

Jeffrey: Okay, and so this other scientist came along in 1957, and he discovered the sort of alphabet of the DNA--this coding system.

Then Crick the code-breaker proposed that not only was the molecule a double helix, but along the spine, those interior characters, those chemicals--the As, Gs, Zs, and Ts as we now represent them--actually function like alphabetic characters in a written language.

When talking about the distinction of two individuals of the same species--you and me--our DNA be differs but typically it’s a very small differences in the DNA but--because many of the proteins that we have are doing the same job. Everyone has hemoglobin in their blood. Both of the molecules would be extremely similar, because they’re doing the same job. They’re capturing oxygen in blood.

So, between any two humans, the coding on the DNA is pretty much the same but there are a few things that are altered in terms of this coding that cause people to have characteristics and traits that you might associate with one family or one lineage.

We’re also learning that there’s information stored at higher levels within the cell, and the term of art for that now is ontogenetic information, it’s more like the DNA has the information for building the small level parts, the proteins, but how the proteins are arranged into distinctive types of cells, how distinctive types of cells are arranged to form distinctive types of tissues, how distinctive tissues are arranged to form distinctive organs, how organs and tissues are arranged to create what are called body plans--whole architectures, blueprints--that does not seem to be entirely controlled by DNA. And so, scientists are very interested in finding out where these other levels of information are, in a sense, the blueprint for arranging the parts. The rivets on a ship and the rivets on a plane may be very different, but they’re part of a larger architecture that’s determined by blueprints. We know where some of that ontogenetic information resides, but not all of it, and it’s a great area of continuing research.

Organisms are fascinatingly complex systems, and it makes sense that we have a hierarchy of information in our own digital computer systems, which are high-tech information processing systems. We have layers of information that are controlling the cell.

I have a software engineer friend. He is doing some work for us; he retired early from Microsoft--means he was about 38 or 40. Young guy. Brilliant architect level programmer at Microsoft. He’s working with our molecular biologists to write a simulation of how genetic information is expressed for us to build proteins. So, we’re having an artificial-based, computer-based simulation of what’s called the gene expression system. He walks into my office one day, throws a book down on the table. It’s called Design Patterns--standard textbook for computer design engineers--and he says, “I get the eerie feeling, when I’m looking at what’s going on in the cell, that’s somebody’s figured this out before us.” And I said, “What do you mean?”

And he says, “Well, it’s the design patterns”, and then he points to the book. He says “We’ve got design logic for processing information, for doing error correction, for doing distributed data retrieval and reassembly, and for hierarchical organization--we’ve got folders within files, like on your desktop, you know, in the hierarchical filing system.”

And he says, “All those design patterns are inside the cell, except they’re using a design logic that’s like an 8.0, 9.0, 10.0 version of ours. It’s the same basic logic, but it’s more elegantly executed”, and he says, “It gives me an eerie feeling”.

That logic is embedded in the DNA of the simplest living creature on the face of the Earth, in the DNA and the overall architecture of the information processing system. From the earliest creature that’s ever been found historically. There are some differences from what are called eukaryotic cells, which are cells with nuclei, and then simpler prokaryotes, but it’s all very sophisticated, hierarchical arrangements of informational modules.

Either the information embedded in DNA or these other hierarchies of information are in all living things on the face of the earth, from trees, to grass, to human beings, to animals, whatever it is, their design is generated out of this logic in the DNA?

Charles Darwin, who lived and wrote before DNA was discovered, had no idea what DNA was.

Darwin believed that living organisms looked as though they were designed, and in fact most biologists down through the ages have acknowledged the appearance of design. The modern Neo-Darwinists today do as well. Richard Dawkins says that biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.

Darwin, rather than saying design presupposes that there is a designer, proposed a mechanism, natural selection acting on random variations, and the emphasis there is on the natural and the random. The mechanism is not guided or directed in any way, but it can produce the appearance of design, he claimed, without in any way being designed or guided. There was no guiding hand behind it, so it could mimic the powers of a designing intelligence without itself being designed or guided in any way. So, natural selection produces new form, new structure, and new variations.

There are variations in the traits of an organism, we now would call them mutations, and link that to our understanding of DNA--and then if those changes confer a functional or survival advantage on the organism that possesses it, it will out-compete other organisms that don’t have that advantage, and therefore will, by definition, pass them on to ensuing offspring.

So that over time, a creature will conform to a certain design or order, thru progressively small incremental variations and changes, and therefore acquire new traits and if the traits help it survive then--so, the classic example was the example of adaptation. In a talk I give, I use the example of sheep. If you’re a sheepherder in Scotland, you’re trying to get a woollier breed of sheep. What do you do? Well, you choose intelligently the woolliest males and the woolliest ewes, and breed only those animals. After a succession of generations, you’re going to end up with a woollier population. Darwin said, well, wait. What if you had a series of very cold winters? Wouldn’t you end up with the same effect, where only the woolliest survive? So, what he was trying to do with natural selection was supplant the need for a designing intelligence to account for how organisms were adapted to their environment. Wooly animals are well adapted to a cold environment. And that mechanism, I think, works well to explain minor effects, like that kind of adaptation, but the question is: Does it explain the origin of sheep in the first place? Or the mammalian body plan? Or the information that’s necessary to build an animal like that?

So by starting with a primitive form of a particular creature, natural selection is a plausible explanation for why it took certain shapes and forms.

Darwin most definitely did not though his theory, have an explanation for how you got from point A, where there’s no life, to point B, where there is the first life. He was quite emphatic about this, that he did not have an explanation for the origin of life. Neither did anyone else at the time. At one point, he said we may as well speculate about the origin of matter itself. He did offer some speculations. It fell to later scientists to propose evolutionary explanations for the origin of the first life, but 150 years after the publication of Origin of Species, that is this year, we have no satisfactory evolutionary account for how life first began.

Darwin himself was humble about this, he wasn’t claiming he could say how life could be created out non-life. He presupposed one or a few simple forms is the way he put it, and then explained how later, more complicated forms arose from those simpler forms. There’s, I think, a suppressed but significant scientific debate about whether or not Darwin’s mechanism could explain how you get news and more complex form from this simple life, but no one debates whether or not there’s an adequate evolutionary explanation for the first life itself.

The actual physical scientific evidence would say that the earliest creatures we’ve discovered on the face of this Earth in fact had DNA with this kind of coding. The earliest cells have all the same kind of structure, as best we can tell.

From the evidence, we went from no life on Earth to life that had this incredibly complex DNA that had coding in it that would determine how the offspring of that creature would be formed and shaped. But at the time, in the years just after Darwin, scientists had no inkling of this. So they weren’t too worried about their inability to explain the origin of life, because they assumed it was a simple globule of undifferentiated protoplasm was the one on scientist, Thomas Huxley, put it. So, they thought of a cell as a kind of simple glob of goop, and of course, all that changed radically after 1953 with Watson and Crick’s discoveries about the complexity and structure of DNA and other discoveries that were being made at the same time about proteins. And then scientists showed how the two discoveries were linked together. We got an even greater understanding of the whole information-processing system in the cell.

I think what caused the first life to have DNA that had this coding that would determine the shape and the destiny of this creature we’re looking at a distinctive hallmark of intelligent activity. Information, based on what we know from our uniform and repeated experience, which is the basis of all scientific reasoning about the past, always comes from an intelligent source. If you look at a hieroglyphic inscription or a section of machine code, or a headline in a book or article, and you trace it back to its ultimate source, it always comes back to a mind, not a material process. So, when we look, when we see that there’s information embedded in DNA, and we see that that information is necessary to the beginning of the first life, I think what we’re seeing is that there must have been an intelligence that was, that played a role in the origin of life. That’s the most logical thing to conclude.

In my book I argue that, whatever you think about biological evolution, the origin of the first life has not been explained by what’s called chemical evolution, and instead, there is a cause that we know that’s sufficient to produce information, and that cause is intelligence.

There are some people that want to say, “Well that’s just a metaphor”. But I address that in the book. It turns out that it really isn’t a metaphor, that Crick was right. His sequence hypothesis--that these characters along the spine of DNA actually function like digital code. They are. It is digital code.

Bill Gates says DNA is like a software program, but much more complex than everything we’ve ever written. Richard Dawkins acknowledges that it’s a machine code. Leroy Hood, a famous scientist out in Seattle, works in the biotech industry, calls it digital code. This is pretty well accepted. There are only a few people that have tried to quibble about that, and I address that in the book.

There’s a lot of submerged, or suppressed, dissent about the whole Darwinian synthesis, and the materialistic understanding of biological origins generally. So we have I would say a growing minority of scientists who are very sympathetic to intelligent design. I made a trip to Britain in the spring. I spoke at the city of Darwin’s birth to commemorate his anniversary, and the day before the meeting we had, or the day before the talk, we had a meeting a number of British scientists, full professors of science, many very prominent British scientists have been following our work on intelligent design, and they told us they were entirely on side.

Tenured professors at major American universities are looking into this but they are in the minority view. But I think what’s really interesting about the nature of the debate is the people who oppose us don’t do so because there’s, for example, no one says, “We have a better explanation for the origin of the first life”. What they do say instead is, “Well, intelligent design isn’t science”--and they try to define science in such a way to exclude consideration of the design hypothesis.

Some people may hold a worldview that excludes the existence of a Creator, and they may hold it very strongly. For that reason, the evidence that we’re pointing to and the argument that we’re developing--or that I’m developing in this case--would be a challenge to what is, in essence, a religious or quasi-religious perspective that people may hold, either explicitly or kind of as a default way of looking at the world.

Some of the critics, may start out with the hypothesis “There is no God, therefore there can’t be any design, therefore I’m going to refute any argument that presents evidence that there is design”. Just as you may have people that start out with the assumption that there is evidence of, or that there is a God, and therefore they might welcome the kind argument I’m making.

We have this idea of scientists as completely objective guys in white coats who just, you know, look at the evidence and then the theory pops off the evidence and it’s just, it’s obvious. But scientists have ideological commitments, and those differ from scientist to scientist, and that’s one of the reasons that you have controversy.

In a country that was founded on principle that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, where most people are in fact believers in God and adherents to religion, why is it that we have so much trouble in public schools even entertaining the idea that there is an intelligent designer behind the creation of life on Earth? An example might be if the East Indian nation, is the most religious country on Earth and the Swedes are the least, America is a nation of Indians governed by Swedes. Our elite culture has very much tapped into this materialistic worldview, the view that the universe is eternal, self-existent. Matter and energy are the fundamental explanatory principles. There is no God or purpose or objective moral order, that sort of thing. But the common culture is still much more sympathetic to a broadly theistic perspective. So, there’s, in a sense, a contest of ideas within the culture. But many folks who are in the law schools, the courts, the scientific world certainly hold this materialistic worldview, and so the case for intelligent design being a challenge to the idea that matter and energy are the whole show--we’re saying that, no, there’s something else, and it’s called information, and information always comes from a mind or intelligence--that’s a troubling argument to someone that holds that view.

Alexander Oparin was really the first pioneering scientist to try to come up with an evolutionary explanation for the origin of the first life. He knew that there was this lacuna in the broadly Darwinian approach. Darwin explained, or tried to explain, how you get new form from pre-existing forms of life, and Oparin tried to fill in that gap by showing how the chemicals could evolve to form the first cell. He understood the question that is at the root of my book.

Technically Darwinism doesn’t address this question, but it was an Achilles heel of what you might call a materialistic world picture. If you want to have a materialistic creation story, you’ve got to have an account of the origin of the first life, as well as all the other forms that follow.

This man was in fact a Marxist and so wanted to close the loop and write a creation story that eliminated God and was completely consistent with the materialistic Soviet view. Definitely with a materialistic worldview. It’s not clear exactly how much his specifically Marxist views were motivating his science, but he definitely was a staunch materialist in at least the Western sense, and maybe more.

I’m not sure how much it influenced the West, but there was a British scientist, Haldane, that had strong left-leaning politics that may have had some Marxist sympathies, and he had a hypothesis very similar to Alexander Oparin’s. Where you did see it very overtly was in the works of Engels. Engels thought that, just as there was a revolutionary transformation in society, there must have been such a revolutionary transformation from molecules to life.

This is Friedrich Engels. This is the co-author of The Communist Manifesto with Karl Marx? He embraced Darwin’s ideas? Because he saw they were consistent with the Marxist vision of human life.

There was quite a correspondence, actually, at one point, between Darwin and Marx, and Marx embraced Darwin probably more than Darwin wanted to embrace Marx. But Darwinism, which entails this strict denial of any design behind life, ended up being a taproot for a lot of different materialistic ideologies. The one, you know, in the Soviet Union was a Marxist form. In the West, we have what’s called scientific materialism. Also, the eugenicists tapped into it, trying to improve the gene pool with scientific experimentation. There were even some, you know, extreme robber baron capitalists who justified the ethic of, you know, crush your neighbor in business type of thing.

The connection has to do with a person’s view of design. If the human moral order, if the human person is designed, then you can have definite human nature, you can have an understanding that there is a definite human nature, and therefore there are moral laws that advance human flourishing and there’s this whole natural law tradition of Western philosophy.

If you live in a society whose creed begins with the idea that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, and you refute the idea that in fact there is a Creator that not only designed the way that human beings are physically, but designed the moral order you’ve undermined the foundation of the American Revolution.

It’s ironic that in a country founded on the idea, where our liberties are linked inextricably to the reality of a Creator, we have now used the Founding--this misapplication of the principle of separation of church and state--to actually exclude the idea that there is evidence for a Creator.

That’s actually an idea that a number of the founders really liked, Jefferson in particular. And in fact I have met some people who are great fans of Jefferson who’ve been sending me emails with quotes from him about the compelling case from physiology, from astronomy, from various branches of science supporting the existence of an intelligent and personal designer or something, you know. He had the concept, no question.

Home     Return     Top

 The Genographic Project published two new papers in the American Journal of Human Genetics:

Crusader Y Chromosomes in Lebanon

The most extensive genetic study yet on the world's ancient crossroads–Lebanon–reveals the legacies left by travelers to and invaders of Lebanon, showing that the crusaders left chromosomes as well as castles.  The results were obtained by a global team of Genographic scientists, led by Dr. Pierre Zalloua of Lebanese American University, Beirut; and Dr. Chris Tyler-Smith of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, Hinxton, near Cambridge, UK.

 The Dawn of Human Matrilineal Diversity

More than 600 complete mitochondrial DNA genomes from indigenous populations across the continent were analyzed by Genographic scientists and their collaborators.  The data provided surprising insights into the early demographic history of human populations before they moved out of Africa.  The extensive data analysis led by Dr. Doron Behar, Genographic Associate Researcher, based at Rambam Medical Center, Haifa; and Dr. Saharon Rosset of IBM T.J. Watson Research Center, NY and Tel Aviv University; revealed that early human populations were small and isolated from each other for many tens of thousands of years.


EARLY HUMAN POPULATIONS EVOLVED SEPARATELY FOR 100,000 YEARS

WASHINGTON, DC (April 24, 2008) —A team of Genographic researchers and their collaborators have published the most extensive survey to date of African mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). Over 600 complete mtDNA genomes from indigenous populations across the continent were analyzed by the scientists, led by Doron Behar, Genographic Associate Researcher, based at Rambam Medical Center, Haifa, and Saharon Rosset of IBM T.J. Watson Research Center, NY and Tel Aviv University. Analyses of the extensive data presented in this study provide surprising insights into the early demographic history of human populations before they moved out of Africa, illustrating that these early human populations were small and isolated from each other for many tens of thousands of years.

MtDNA, inherited down the maternal line, was used to discover the age of the famous 'mitochondrial Eve' in 1987. This work has since been extended to show unequivocally that the most recent common female ancestor of everyone alive today was an African woman who lived in the past 200,000 years. Paleontology provides corroborating evidence that our species originated on this continent approximately 200,000 years ago.

The migrations after 60,000 years ago that led modern humans on their epic journeys to populate the world have been the primary focus of anthropological genetic research, but relatively little is known about the demographic history of our species over the previous 140,000 years in Africa. The current study returns the focus to Africa and in doing so refines our understanding of early modern Homo sapiens history.

Doron Behar, Rambam Medical Center, Haifa, said: "We see strong evidence of ancient population splits beginning as early as 150,000 years ago, probably giving rise to separate populations localized to Eastern and Southern Africa. It was only around 40,000 years ago that they became part of a single pan-African population, reunited after as much as 100,000 years apart."

Recent paleoclimatological data suggests that Eastern Africa went through a series of massive droughts between 135,000-90,000 years ago. It is possible that this climatological shift contributed to the population splits. What is surprising is the length of time the populations were separate - as much as half of our entire history as a species.

Saharon Rosset, IBM T.J. Watson Research Center, NY and Tel Aviv University, said: "The analysis of such a massive dataset presents statistical and computational challenges as well as great opportunities for discovery of the events that shaped our history and genetic landscape. For example, we can see evidence of a population expansion period starting around 70,000 years ago, perhaps leading to the out of Africa dispersal shortly afterward."

The timing of these events coincides with the onset of the Late Stone Age in Africa, a change in material culture that many archaeologists believe heralds the beginning of fully modern human behavior, including abstract thought and complex spoken language.

Previous studies have shown that while human populations had been quite small prior to the Late Stone Age, perhaps numbering fewer than 2,000 around 70,000 years ago, the expansion after this time led to the occupation of many previously uninhabited areas, including the world beyond Africa.

Dr. Spencer Wells, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and Director of the Genographic Project, said: “This new study released today illustrates the extraordinary power of genetics to reveal insights into some of the key events in our species' history. Tiny bands of early humans, forced apart by harsh environmental conditions, coming back from the brink to reunite and populate the world. Truly an epic drama, written in our DNA.”

Paleontologist Meave Leakey, Genographic Advisory Board member, National Geographic Explorer in Residence and Research Professor, Stony Brook University, added: "Who would have thought that as recently as 70,000 years ago, extremes of climate had reduced our population to such small numbers that we were on the very edge of extinction."

Home     Return     Top


 Oregon cave yields evidence of the earliest Americans yet

Human DNA dated to 14,300 years ago

April 4, 2008    By Colin Nickerson    Globe Staff

Fossilized excrement found in an Oregon cave has given scientists the clearest evidence to date that humans roamed the New World at least 1,000 years earlier than previously believed.

The prehistoric feces, deposited in a cave some 14,300 years ago, contain DNA from the forebears of modern-day Native Americans, according to the research.

The discovery reported yesterday by the journal Science added fresh weight to emerging theories that Stone Age people from Asia somehow bypassed ice sheets sealing off North America before 11,000 BC.

Nearly all scholars agree that humans were present by then, but until recently few archeologists accepted that an earlier arrival was even possible because of the formidable ice barriers. So the Oregon discovery and work at other sites may help solve one of archeology's most enduring mysteries - how and when did humans reach the Americas?

The new timeline comes from 14 pieces of fossilized excrement, called coprolites, found within the Paisley Caves complex by University of Oregon archeologist Dennis L. Jenkins and painstakingly analyzed by genetic anthropologists in Denmark.

"This is the earliest direct evidence of a human presence in the Americas," said Eske Willerslev, director of the University of Copenhagen's Center for Ancient Genetics, which extracted human mitochondrial DNA from six of the coprolites.

"There were humans doing their business in a cave in Oregon long before many scientists believed there were any humans at all in North America," Willerslev said in an interview.

According to the research, the coprolites contained DNA signatures that could belong only to native Americans. Excrement contains no genetic material, but typically carries particles of tissue from the intestines. These fragments yield DNA.

"People shed gut tissue just like they shed skin flakes," said M. Thomas P. Gilbert, lead author of the study.

The new research doesn't set an exact arrival date for humans, but it shakes up long-held assumptions - especially the notion, still dear to many archeologists, that humans couldn't have punched past the glaciers covering nearly all of present-day Canada and the northern United States much before 13,000 years ago. That's when warming would have allowed easier transit across a land bridge from Siberia and into the heart of the new continent by interior passageways.

Because this research puts humans in the New World more or less concurrent with the ice wall, the find supports emerging theories that the first Americans followed a rugged, coast-hugging route down the Pacific Northwest - perhaps coursing from peninsula to peninsula in primitive watercraft.

"These people got around the ice somehow, and the idea that they followed a marine route is plausible," Willerslev said.

The research triggered immediate controversy, with some archeologists arguing that the Danish team had failed to entirely rule out the possibility that the coprolites were tainted by DNA from later humans.

But there were more cheers than boos, because an earlier arrival date helps clear confusion over how humans managed to migrate so widely in the New World in such a short time span. If the new DNA dating is right, they didn't. They simply had forged past the ice much earlier than many scientists had suspected and, thus, had more time to reach the far corners of the continent.

"This is an important site and an important discovery," said geoarcheologist Michael Waters, director of the Center for the Study of the First Americans at Texas A&M University, who believes that the Oregon findings, together with archeological digs underway in Florida, Washington, and other states, will push back the time of human arrival to an even more distant past.

"It's part of a real paradigm shift in thinking in archeology," said Waters, who was not involved in the Paisley findings.

Until a decade ago, there was broad consensus among scientists that the first Americans were the so-called Clovis people, known for their delicately fluted spearheads and other stone blades. Clovis sites are numerous across North America, but none has proved much older than 13,000 years.

The Paisley Cave coprolites were dated using radiocarbon methods. The dry, stable temperatures of the caves are ideally suited to preserving organic material.

"Too often we've had to worry over whether supposed pre-Clovis specimens are as old as they are claimed to be," said David J. Meltzer, an anthropologist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "Direct radiocarbon dating of human coprolites would seem to cut that Gordian knot."

Some scientists remain deeply dubious about the significance of the fossil feces.

Anthropologist Gary Haynes of the University of Nevada, Reno, noted that the Paisley Caves served as the Stone Age equivalent of a public toilet. "The rock shelter was used for thousands of years by Native Americans urinating, sweating, defecating, and otherwise depositing their DNA in the sediments . . . [so] the presence of DNA in the coprolites may be the result of contamination" from a later period, he said.

Haynes and other skeptics also suggested that the Paisley Caves excrement may be that of wolves or wild dogs, not people.

Archeologist Jenkins disagreed, noting that human hair as well as microscopic tissue was contained in the ancient waste.

"Whether the coprolites are human or canine is irrelevant, since for a canine to swallow human hair, people had to be present," he said. "Any way you cut the poop, people would have been present at the site. The dating and the DNA are what's important."

Home     Return     Top

 Blinded By the Light of Discovery

September 07, 2009 By Ken Connor CNSNews.com
Listen to Commentary Podcasts


Sometimes fairy tales are better than non-fiction at communicating essential truths. Anyone who has read Shakespeare or been transfixed by the tales of Tolkien or C.S. Lewis understands this well.

In Steven Spielberg's blockbuster movie interpreting Michael Crichton's “Jurassic Park,” viewers experienced firsthand the terrifying consequences that result when man, the creature, tries to assume the role of God, the creator. Early in the movie one of the characters, Dr. Ian Malcolm, warns of the dangers inherent in venture capitalist John Hammond's unprecedented experiment:

Malcolm: "The lack of humility before nature that's been displayed here staggers me.... Don't you see the danger, John, inherent in what you're doing here? Genetic power is the most awesome force ever seen on this planet. But you wield it like a kid who's found his dad's gun.... Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn't stop to think if they should!"

Hammond: "I don't understand this Luddite attitude, especially from a scientist. How could we stand in the light of discovery and not act?"

Recent reports of an unprecedented development in gene therapy indicate that humility before the mysterious and awesome power of nature is a lesson mankind has yet to learn. Like Crichton's Hammond, the scientific community seems unable to resist the Siren song of "discovery," even when the future of humanity may well be at stake.

The field of genetics has been viewed as the last frontier of biological science, and with good reason. Unlike other forms of medicine that are applied at the individual level―e.g., mending an artery, fashioning a skin graft, or removing a tumor―genetics involves manipulation of the very building blocks of life.

Manipulation of genetic material can affect not only individuals, but generations yet to come. That's why some scientists are celebrating after successfully replacing "faulty" genetic material of one female monkey with genetic material from another female monkey to produce several apparently healthy offspring from the genetically altered eggs.

Many in the field are excited at the prospect of using this technology to help women with genetic maladies produce healthy children―despite "a host of safety, legal, ethical and social questions" that should give them pause.

Unlike other forms of gene therapy, this new technology is unique in that it involves irrevocable changes in the genetic "germ line;" i.e. permanent changes in the genetic makeup that will be passed down the line of offspring and eventually spread through the wider gene pool.

Proponents of implementing this technology with human beings admit they have no way of predicting how future generations may be impacted by this kind of genetic manipulation but insist that we must take the chance because of the possibility of eliminating inherited defects and diseases.

It is easy to understand the altruistic impulse that drives many scientists to push the limits in pursuit of eradicating diseases and disabilities; but, as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Scientists and society must weigh the potential benefits of any given scientific "advance" against the costs of any unintended consequences. If we allow ourselves to be guided solely by our passion to break barriers and our irrepressible desire to play God, we could end up the authors of immeasurable damage to the whole human race.

Thousands of years of knowledge and discovery have illuminated much, but when push comes to shove doctors and scientists still wonder at the miraculous poetry and precision on display in the workings of life on earth. Of course, things sometimes go wrong.

Nature does not always work the way we would like, but considering the vast complexity of the natural world, it is amazing that nature malfunctions as infrequently as it does.

True to our nature, however, mostly good is not good enough. Human beings desire perfection on this earth. We reject the Christian understanding of sin and fallenness as inescapable features of the human condition (manifested in part by our physical imperfection and frailty) and resort to the use of science as our instrument of omnipotence.

Following Margaret Sanger in the early 20th century, for a time we believed that we could breed imperfection out of the human race by controlling who could and could not procreate.

Adolf Hitler extended the theory of eugenics to its atrocious conclusion with his holocaust of 11 million Jews, Poles, Catholics, Christians, gypsies, the mentally and physically disabled, homosexuals, Communists, and others.

In the early to mid-20th century, patients with psychological and mental disorders became experimental fodder for doctors convinced that lobotomy was the solution for ailments now treatable through therapy and medication.

Today our methods of playing God are more subtle, but no less inhumane. With our righteous defense of a woman's "right to choose" and an individual's "right to die," we assume the divine mantle of Creation and Destruction.

With our embrace of bioethicists like Peter Singer―who defines personhood according to a utilitarian "quality-of-life" criteria that does not recognize the humanity of the unborn, the disabled, the diseased, or the infirm―we endeavor to remake nature in our own vain image.

So it is with genetic technology. When wielded proudly, unconstrained by humility and a sense of our place in the natural order, it represents a grave danger. Whether you call it the Law of Unintended Consequences or Murphy's Law, experience demonstrates that if something can go wrong it usually will―despite the best laid plans and the best of intentions.

This may be of little consequence when applied to the mundane decisions of daily life, but when we are talking about the use of a technology that could irrevocably alter the human species, shouldn't we ask whether some risks are worth taking?

We can only hope that the decision makers―the scientists and financiers of this research and the lawmakers that allow it―take their responsibilities to the rest of us seriously.

The future of humankind depends on it.

Home     Return     Top

Home   Return  Top