Nobel Prize Winner “Blinded by Belief”: Retracts 2016 Paper on RNA Self-Replication

In a 2016 paper published in Nature ChemistryNobel Laureate Jack W. Szostak (professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Harvard University in Cambridge) claimed to show how RNA could self-replicate under conditions that may have been present during the early Earth environment – leading to the evolution of the first forms of life. He originally wrote:

“The non-enzymatic replication of RNA is thought to have been a critical process required for the origin of life. One unsolved difficulty with non-enzymatic RNA replication is that template-directed copying of RNA results in a double-stranded product. After strand separation, rapid strand reannealing outcompetes slow non-enzymatic template copying, which renders multiple rounds of RNA replication impossible. Here we show that oligoarginine peptides slow the annealing of complementary oligoribonucleotides by up to several thousand-fold; however, short primers and activated monomers can still bind to template strands, and template-directed primer extension can still occur, all within a phase-separated condensed state, or coacervate. Furthermore, we show that within this phase, partial template copying occurs even in the presence of full-length complementary strands. This method to enable further rounds of replication suggests one mechanism by which short non-coded peptides could have enhanced early cellular fitness, and potentially explains how longer coded peptides, that is, proteins, came to prominence in modern biology.”

It turns out, however, that after subsequent experiments, Tivoli Olsen, a member of Szostak’s lab, could not reproduce Szostak’s 2016 findings – and Szostak quickly retracted his original paper in response.  On December 5th, 2017, Victoria Stern published a popular article about the retraction of Szostak’s original paper as a result of Olsen failing to reproduce it’s claims.

Of course, this error, by itself, is not terribly surprising – even for a world class laboratory and scientist. Such in the nature of science. What is interesting, however, is the response of Szostak the the discovery of this error.

He told Stern in an interview that the discovery was, “definitely embarrassing,” and added:

In retrospect, we were totally blinded by our belief [in our findings]…we were not as careful or rigorous as we should have been (and as Tivoli was) in interpreting these experiments.

Szostak’s comment that his team was “blinded by our belief” is significant. Beyond the fact that it highlights that scientists are human just like everyone else, Szostak had previously, in a 2010 letter to Darrel Falk, condemned “belief systems based on faith” as “inherently dangerous, as they leave the believer susceptible to manipulation when skepticism and inquiry are discouraged” (Link). Yet, evidently, he didn’t realize his own susceptibility to this problem… a problem from which even scientists are not immune.

This particular letter was in response to Falk’s review of Stephen Meyer’s 2009 book, Signature in the Cell – particularly regarding the following passage:

In Chapter 14, as Stephen Meyer brings his discussion about the feasibility of RNA’s role as the early storehouse for cellular information to a conclusion, he recalls a twenty year old conversation with a philosophy professor about origin-of-life-research:

“The field is becoming increasingly populated by cranks. Everyone knows everybody else’s theory doesn’t work, but no one is willing to admit it about his own.”

Following this statement, Meyer fast-forwards into the present, and writes of his own assessment of the field twenty years later:

“I found no reason to amend these assessments.”

So, it seems as though Szostak didn’t take very kindly to being called a “crank”. At the time of the publication of Meyers book, strong criticism of it suggested that Szostak and others were fast closing in on a solution to the origin-of-life problem with the “principle of RNA self-replication,” touted by Szostak in, for example, a 2009 Scientific American article. Following the publication of Meyer’s book, Szostak himself criticized “anti-evolution ID” for “science denial” (Link). He observed, “this kind of denial is a dangerous thing; denial of reality is extremely bad for the future of our country (and our world)” (Link).

Of course, it seems now as though Meyer is back on top.  The arguments in favor of life spontaneously creating itself are just as “cranky” and “wishful” and full of “blind hope and faith” as they ever were.  Yet, for those whose faith in naturalism is strong, the lack of evidence matters not. As Szostak pointed out,

Although we are disappointed that that approach does not work, we are going back to the drawing board and looking into other ways of overcoming this roadblock. (Link)

At what point does one simply accept the obvious weight of evidence and simply admit that an extremely intelligent and powerful Designer clearly had a hand in the production of life and its diversity on this planet?

Luke 16:31


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2 thoughts on “Nobel Prize Winner “Blinded by Belief”: Retracts 2016 Paper on RNA Self-Replication

  1. The confession that Szostak made is boggling! If anybody has been on a “journey”, Szostak has! And this analysis by Sean of that journey and its implications is truly awesome. It should be published widely… I’m surprised nobody has commented on it yet. No comment could do it justice.

    I’m reduced to being simply curious. Was there talk of rescinding Szostak’s Nobel? I propose another Nobel category: a prize for most honest scientist, and Szostak would be the first winner. Few other scientists would be eligible, particularly among evolutionary scientists, who collectively seem to have suffered a blindness mutation. He should be TIME’s Man of the Year.

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    • @wesley kime: How can anyone tell for certain whether it was “honesty” or “necessary acknowledgement”, since he knew it was inevitable that another scientist would show him his error? When you’re on top like he is, it’s hard to come down, ESPECIALLY when it might come at the hand of someone that is not connected with the original experiment & “findings”, and is looking to make his own reputation.

      It would seem to almost be a kind of purposeful refusal, initially, to properly test & retest, before putting out his findings. Unfortunately, premature submission by someone of this caliber, seems to indicate that a non-science agenda got in the way of proper follow through, when such was well known to be expedient.

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