Origins debate: Evolution

Structure générale d'un acide aminé.

I find that when a debate spans more than one generation, it often becomes difficult to follow – especially for newcomers. The Origins debate (often unthinkingly called “Creation/Evolution debate”) definitely qualifies. But despite their entertainment value, misunderstandings from both sides (including yours) don’t help anyone get anywhere. And that defies the point of a debate, right, Mr/Ms Militant ________ist?

So the Microscope, being of a biological inclination, will do what it always tries to do: help us see better. Whether it suceeds is up to the viewers to decide. And I think its fair to start with an overview of evolution theory. Why? Well, no Darwin, no debate.

By the way, I won’t bother with references etc. This is meant to be (relatively) quick and painless.

So, this is how current evolution theory goes:

Life begins with abiogenesis – rudimentary biomolecules (primitive amino acids or primitive genetic material) arise from inorganic, “non-living” molecules. Cement’s been poured in the foundations. Now, strictly speaking, this is not “evolution” yet since we can’t speak of “natural selection” without genes. Big mistake, made by many. As far as evolution goes, how life began is a bit beyond its purview.

Back to the pond: Due to external/environmental factors and what can only be described as chance, these proto-biomolecules combine in different ways, giving rise to complexity. But remember: mere complexity doesn’t ensure survival (if anything, quite the opposite). Still, we’re all here, which means that something must’ve clicked. But exactly how that could have happened is still a red-hot item of debate.

So, now we have something like an amino acid – or a nucleotide. Building blocks that can combine a bit more easily under the current conditions. And they do – the rise of peptides or genetic material. More complex macromolecules are here. And some of them “survive” while the others perish – the usual. This process then repeats itself, randomly or semi-randomly, meaning that it’s probably fuelled/energised by external factors (temperature, pH, energy zaps, the presence or absence of other elements/molecules), which also act as a selective force, allowing some complexity to “survive” and “killing” off the rest.

Remember: in mainstream evolution theory, nothing is born because it’s objectively functional. It just happens to be in the right place at the right time.

Given enough time, complexity increases and is “favoured” by the selective conditions as compared to other complexity that might have arisen. As molecular complexity increases, information also increases. Entropy wants to break down everything to the simplest forms. For a macromolecule (peptide, RNA, polysaccharide – take your pick) to come about – let alone go against the grain and “survive” – it has to rely on more than mere chance. Like any system, its structure contains information, and if that information is going to increase as complexity increases (we’re obviously not just peptides anymore), it needs a way to pass on from “generation to generation” efficiently and relatively stably.

Enter the gene. Somewhere down the line, a coding system has developed (will develop?  Who knows?). Simple molecules, the nucleotides, can string three together to “represent” what has become the building block of complex organisms, an amino acid. This new method is relatively more accurate than just trying to put amino acids together to make proteins. It’s a template. A design of some sort that is not as vulnerable to chance as waiting for something as complex as a protein to just arise out of primeval goo.

The gene is the bee’s knees. Compared to anything else out there, it’s simple, efficient and ensures the relatively accurate passage of information through time. But it’s not perfect. To build even a basic cell, it needs a fairly complex molecular machinery; something to “translate” three nucleotides into an amino acid. What all this means is that the gene system is prone to alterations. It’ll make mistakes every now and then, and we call those mistakes, mutations.

Mutations are interesting. Most of them stop everything dead in its tracks. But every now and then, they cause just enough change to survive into the next generation. Give it enough time and mutations accumulate. Some accumulations make it, so don’t. But give it enough time, and you just might end up with a whole new trait. And maybe that new trait actually increases the survival chances of the particular organism over all its other friends, because they didn’t get the upgrade.

Of course, all this depends on the conditions out there. Where and when you’re alive. It’s all relative. Black colour won’t help you hide if you live in a white, snowy tundra. Better colour perception is not as good as improved hearing if you’re nocturnal. And so forth.

And that’s evolution in a nutshell (a coconut shell, actually): Mutations, chance, and survival conditions – a process we call natural selection. All you really need is a genepool, resources and time.

You get the idea – and really, you didn’t need me to tell you. It’s not like there’s a scarcity of information on evolution out there. But as I have often expressed my own doubts about the mainstream Origins dogma in this blog, I thought I’d demonstrate that I actually understand it first – and hopefully help others digest it.

After all, if you don’t evolve, you’ll get eaten.

To be continued...

Review: “Why Us? How science rediscovered the mystery of ourselves” by James Le Fanu

Books like this are not written every day; actually, they’re hardly ever written. In Why us? How science rediscovered the mystery of ourselves, medical doctor James Le Fanu sets out to demonstrate how two indisputably phenomenal achievements of science – the mapping of the human genome and the deeper understanding of the human brain’s workings – are impossible to reconcile with the worldview of absolute materialism adamantly held and preached ad nauseam by scientists today. And it goes without saying that his criticism immediately targets Darwin’s theory of evolution and common descent, though it extends well beyond that.

Le Fanu’s central thesis is that the model of common descent via random mutation and natural selection cannot even begin to explain a) the surprising similarity between genomes of completely different species and b) the non-material nature of the human mind (as opposed to the brain), which does however exert very material effects (you reading this review is a good example).

Chapters overview

Science triumphant, almost

An overview of the history of scientific achievement, culminating in the recent mapping of the human genome and the findings of the Decade of the Brain. However, both have failed to reveal how life can be organised by mere genetic “chemicals” or how the human mind can function by mere “electrical firing” in the brain.

The ramifications of the seemingly disappointing outcomes of the New Genetics and the Decade of the Brain are clearly prodigious, suggesting that we are on the brink of some tectonic shift in our understanding of ourselves.

The Ascent of Man: A riddle in two parts

The art, social life and intellectual achievements of the earliest civilisation of Homo sapiens, dated around 30,000 BC, challenge the notion of human evolution.

…how and why twenty or more distinct species of hominid should, over a period of several million years, have undergone that wholescale anatomical transformation required for standing upright, and then followed it up with acquiring that prodigiously sized brain whose potential to comprehend the workings of the universe appears so disproportionate to the needs of a hunter gatherer.

The limits of science 1: The quixotic universe

Isaac Newton’s landmark discovery of the law of gravity gave us a Grand Unifying Theory of the universe, but left us with the question of how mass exerts its gravitational force over mind-boggling distances without any physical medium (e.g. planets in space). It is an example of the limitations of science and an absolutely materialistic worldview.

Thus, ironically, this most scientific of theories, grounded in the observation of the movements of the planets expressed in mathematical form, subverts the scientific or materialist view which holds that everything must ultimately be explicable in terms of its material properties alone.

The (evolutionary) ‘Reason for Everything’: Certainty

The history of Charles Darwin’s “On the origins of species” and the way it was received as the Grand Unifying Theory of life, despite contemporary and later scientific criticism. The mostly non-Darwinian fossil record and the mysterious Cambrian explosion have presented with the problem of “transitional species” (aka “missing links”), i.e. the conspicuous absence of the multitude of intermediate organisms demanded by gradualistic evolution.

…there are dangers in supposing the wonder and diversity of the natural world to be so much more rapidly explicable than it really is… Darwin’s evolutionary theory readily short-circuited serious intellectual enquiry as it could, in an instant, produce a reasons for (literally), everything.

The (evolutionary) ‘Reason for Everything’: Doubt

The experiments of Gregor Mendel introduced the concept of the gene. Although his own notion of genetic “fixity” seemed to contradict Darwin’s theory, the discovery of gene mutations provided a biological way by which speciation could occur via natural selection – except that random mutations are rare and almost invariably disadvantageous. Mathematical models attempted to solve this dilemma by shifting the locus of evolution from the individual to the species as a whole, but failed to actually provide a consistent answer. Furthermore, the fossil record failed to answer the problem of “perfection” of organs and organisms as well as the conundrum of limb homology.

Thus, as of the early 1980s, science no longer had an adequate materialist explanation for the history of life. The surprise perhaps is how readily refutable Darwin’s theory turns out to be, as if it must contain some hidden flaw that invalidates its scientific credentials – as indeed it does.

The limits of science 2: The impenetrable helix

The discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA led to a progressive understanding of the genetic code, culminating in the mapping of the entire human genome in 2001. In light of this, genetic information could no longer be thought of as a chain, but rather as an intricately complex network between genes. This further minimised the impact of a single random mutation in driving evolutionary diversity. Further, vastly different species share hosts of identical genes, often in relatively similar numbers. Finally, identical control (“master”) genes produce entirely different variations of an organ (such as the Pax 6 gene for the eye), further compounding the problem. The gap from genetic material to genetic information cannot be bridged by strictly materialistic means.

The Double Helix fails the further test of scientific knowability because, like Newton’s gravitational force, it imposes the order of ‘form’ on life without there being any evidence of some scientifically measurable objective means by which it might do so.

The Fall of Man: A tragedy in two acts

In The descent of Man (1871), Darwin explained away the human mind by evolutionary means. The ripple effect of his theory had virtually unavoidable consequences on the way humans viewed themselves, setting the stage for racism, eugenics and other reprehensible forms of “genetic oppression”. Further, this “sociobiology” brought about the new discipline of evolutionary psychology that sought to “naturalise” human virtues like altruism.

We need, in short, a fuller, more rounded view that acknowledges the core reality of the human experience which sets us apart – the sense of the autonomous, independent ‘self’ not as some shadowy, elusive entity, but something real and tangible that explains the force of character and the personality that is within each of us.

The limits of science 2: The unfathomable brain

The human mind is obviously non-material, and yet it exerts material effects. The history of brain research has given us many tremendous insights into how our brains interact with the outside world. However, the purely scientific approach has left us with five seemingly insurmountable mysteries: subjective awareness; free will; the richness and accessibility of memory; human reason and imagination; and the Self.

Might neuroscientists discover how the electrical activity of the neuronal circuits of the brain gives rise to the non-material mind, and confirm as ‘mere illusion’ our perception of ourselves as free autonomous beings? The answer… must be ‘no’.

The Silence

An evaluation of the role of science in understanding the dual nature of reality (material and non-material). Some history of philosophy, looking at the way materialistic thinking overtook religious worldviews during the Enlightenment and the rise of modern science. However, the scientific inaccessibility of the genetic code and the human mind demand an alternative approach in defining the world and decisively challenges the claim of science as the absolute means of knowledge.

We can no longer be certain, as we might have been till recently… ‘that is all there is to it’, because we cannot, by definition, comprehend the nature of that potent non-material realm with its power to conjure the wonders of life from the bare material bones of scientific knowledge.

Restoring Man to his pedestal

Looking to the future, we realise that we have reached a tipping point for science. We realise that the long-held theory of evolution fails spectacularly to fit the evidence, and a worldview of materialistic reductionism is no longer sustainable. Instead, the author calls for a new paradigm of science; one that can accommodate notions of extraneous (or even intelligent) design in nature and the non-material dimension of the human mind. In particular, the exceptionality of the latter must drive us to an understanding of man that goes against Darwin’s Descent. Just as Marx and Freud failed to provide a “Theory of Everything” for history and human behaviour respectively, so does Darwin ultimately fail to provide an overarching explanation of life.

It now seems deeply irrational for materialist science to deny the exceptionality of the human mind and to insist that the sense of self and free will are no more than illusions generated by the workings of the brain. It is certainly irrational to assert the truth of the evolutionary doctrine (‘the mystery of our existence is a mystery no longer because Darwin solved it’) in the face of all the scientific evidence that would contradict it.

Evaluation

There isn’t really much left to say after the above. As a scientist, I think this is a powerful book and an inspiring call for science to do what it does best: self-correct – in this case, before it’s too late.

The fact that Le Fanu does not have an obvious religious context behind him (at least as far as I can see) means that, for once, a strong critique of Darwin might actually be taken seriously by the scientific community. Having said that, we cannot overlook that he does utilise many arguments (fossil record, comparative anatomy and irreducible complexity, to name a few) that have been previously posited by openly religious writers who, in turn, have been largely ignored or dismissed as ‘the crazies’. What that says about the scientific world, we leave the reader to decide.

The strength of Le Fanu’s arguments lies especially in the fact that they are up-to-date. His research is solid, both from a literary and scientific point of view. The writing flows and never becomes bogged down with the technical language that often plagues this genre (‘public communication of science’). His ability to clarify and simplify complex concepts is enviable, and certainly makes the book accessible to a wide audience (I particularly enjoyed his two-page description of gene coding).

Of course, the very nature of the book calls for a non-scientific evaluation. For people of religious conviction this will leave a few gaps. Despite his call for a non-materialist approach to knowledge, Le Fanu is careful not to lend ammunition to those who would accuse him of being a ‘creationist’, whatever that means anymore. He certainly gives scientific credence to the Design hypothesis, but with qualifications:

There is, of course, nothing in the new paradigm that can be interpreted as direct evidence for a Creator, or that would resolve the insuperable difficulty for many of conceiving of his existence and purpose. But while it is hard to imagine him hard at work designing several thousand species of beetle, there is vastly greater evidence for ‘design’ – for those who would wish to interpret it as such – than the supposition that the vast panoply of nature should be the incidental consequence of those numerous genetic mutations that the genome projects have so unequivocally failed to identify.

Overall, this is an important book in more than one ways. Its purpose is to raise awareness on the shortcomings of Darwin’s evolutionary theory, which has further stagnated in light of recent scientific discovery. But where the book really succeeds is in opening a bold way in which religion and science can find a realistic common ground. For those of a religious persuasion and especially Christians, who have been particularly shunned and berated by scientific materialism, this can only be good news.

Why Us? calls for scientists to free themselves from the bonds of Darwinism or risk corrupting the very essence of science itself. In my opinion, the book does this persuasively, though it is certain that the more vocal members of the evolutionary camp will proceed (and already have) with the usual accusations of “bad science” and “quote-mining”, followed by nit-picking that misses the big picture.

Of course, this will do nothing more than prove Le Fanu’s point: Adhering to (macro)evolution is no longer rational, but demands virtually religious faith. Ironically, the evidence leads us further and further away from Darwin; the problem is that science is desperately clinging on instead of looking for a new direction. But what that direction may be lies beyond its current materialistic borders.

“Science’s Blind Spot”: thoughts on the Creation/Evolution debate

Every now and then, a strange thing happens in the world of books. Powerful, thought-provoking works go largely unnoticed, while moronic and juvenile scribbles hold the world captive. Truly, we have some twisted values.

Here I’ll break the rules: I’ll talk about a book I’m currently reading; one which I haven’t finished yet. The reason I’ll dare such hubris is two-fold: First, I’ve almost finished it and second, it has shifted so much of my thinking, that it just can’t wait.

The book is Science’s Blind Spot: The Unseen Religion of Scientific Naturalism, by Cornelius G. Hunter. Hunter is a biophysicist, and is known for his previous books, Darwin’s God: Evolution and the Problem of Evil and Darwin’s Proof: The triumph of Religion over Science, both of which offer some of the most intelligent skepticism on the Theory of Evolution.

There – after dancing around the subject, it finally appears openly on the Microscope.

I’m a Christian. I’m also a biologist, actively working in research. There are people today who will consider both those roles mutually exclusive. I have seen fellow Christians wince as if I told them that I work for a drug cartel (well, I have worked in pharmaceutical industry, ha ha). And even though today there are many new pebbles that scar the smooth interface of Science and Religion (see stem cells, cloning, abortions, LHC, euthanasia), the question of how we all got here is still Hot Topic Number One. And rightly so, since that question determines the direction all the others will go: It’s not strange that Darwin’s Grand Idea is invoked at the very beginning of current debates on life, death and even “sexual preference” issues. It’s clear: if we are the lucky outcome of random mutations over a long period of time, then there is no Greater Morality over our heads except whatever we invent at any time to suit our particular purposes and preferences. But if we were indeed created according to the image of a Higher Person, then things are diametrically different. If God made us, then we ought to take that into serious consideration.

It’s a vicious battle. And if you were hoping that in this post you’d find a quick “warrior’s manual” for either Creationism, Intelligent Design, Theistic Evolution or Naturalistic Evolution, I’m afraid I will have to sadly disappoint you. Maybe in the future – I’m always studying – but for now, all I can do is share some fruits from what I’ve been growing.

There are a few things that I can point out with a degree of certainty. First, there has been a lot of damage done to the debate from both sides (Creationists vs Evolutionists, or the new fashion, Atheists vs Theists). Fair enough. It’s an emotional topic. Right or wrong, Religion is a HUGE aspect of mankind as we know it, and is deeply ingrained in our minds and cultures. We all agree with that, and we also agree that you can’t just pluck it out like a thorn in your shoe.

But I don’t know if all that justifies the inimitable stupidity (I use that term with all its academic force) that is often displayed by many who engage this debate. A great example was the “Does God exist?” debate between the “Rational” “Response” Squad (atheists) and the Way of the Master Radio members (Christians) that took place in 2007 on prime-time US television (I wrote about it before). Most of what was on display from both sides could never qualify as “debate” (watch it for yourself on YouTube), but, in particular, the arguments for and against Evolution did no justice whatsoever to the Sapiens part of our species. Why? Because none of those debating had any proper understanding of Darwin’s theory – or if they did, they hid very well.

And this is painfully frequent example of how this debate goes between people on both sides who really haven’t done their homework. Evolutionists are constantly trying to patch the holes in their hypotheses and models (as all good scientists should – that’s not the problem) and Creationists (mostly Christians) are still utilising regurgitated arguments from the ’70s.

The point is not that it is not a reasonable argument (even Darwin had issues with it), but that, in the eyes of many scientists, it has been answered successfully and alternatives have been long suggested. Not to mention that the recent spotlight on the Tiktaalik fossil has actually revived the “intermediate species” view (which was, of course, previously doubted). In short, it seems to me as if most of the Creationist side seems to be constantly lagging a few years behind, or to not be up-to-date with trends in evolution theory. And that doesn’t help anyone.

I know what you’re thinking: “So you’re saying that we are supposed to keep up with every trend in evolution theory?” Well, yes – if you want to debate a theory that is based on Science, make sure you first understand the science. Ignorant accusations, wild theorising and outright fanaticism does not get you heard. And I say that, openly, to BOTH sides.

Now, there are many resources out there that cast skepticism on evolution, ranging from conservative Creationist (e.g. http://www.answersincreation.org), to intermediate Creationist (e.g. http://www.reasons.org), to theistic evolution, which attempts to reconcile evolution to the text of the Bible basically suggesting that shouldn’t take its first three chapters too literarily (and maybe a few others too while we’re at it). One thing I can say with some certainty is that the dividing line runs firmly between the biblical account of Creation and Darwin’s theory of Nature playing dice, and trying to fuse the two together doesn’t seem to satisfy anyone so far.

And here I return to the book. The first reason I found it to be so interesting was that its claims were substantiated, with frequent and clear references to actual, peer-reviewed research papers and books. As a scientist, I like to know how you know what you know, and I was thus delighted for once to see a responsible, properly researched piece on the topic.

Secondly, the book makes a very significant claim, one that most of those involved in the Creation/Evolution debate actually ignore (myself included). And that is that the Theory of Evolution originated not so much from empirical observation of data (as a normal scientific hypothesis), but rather as an attempt to answer theological concerns.

Don’t panic. Darwin and his friends were no devout Christians. But it is naïve to think that the man set out on the Beagle to look at some birds at the Galapagos Islands and one day “it all just came together”. Nope – read his “(On) The Origin of Species” (6th edition, preferably) if you don’t believe me, and you’ll find him often doing something that few scientists have the maturity to do: Tell his readers how his theory could “be taken apart” (e.g. in the context of incomplete fossil record). It doesn’t mean that Darwin didn’t believe his own ideas. But it does mean that the conclusions he penned down were not purely the result of what we’d call today “scientific observation”.

In his book, Hunter suggests that Darwin’s thinking sailed on a stream of theological angst that was trying, essentially, to separate God altogether from the physical world. Hunter names this “theological naturalism”, and, in my opinion, he’s right.

Hunter finds the origins of theological naturalism in the works of Thomas Burnet (d. 1715), but admits that even those have roots in the thinking of Immanuel Kant, who promoted the slicing between the “Noumenal and Phenomenal” realms. The general idea went something like this: The world as we perceive it is imperfect, asymmetrical, and laden with pain and destruction; thus to assume that God was and is intimately involved in its creation and maintenance is blasphemy, since God is perfect; thus it is better to understand that God merely created the natural laws under which the entire universe and all of life came to be, quasi-randomly. Now, keep going a bit further on this line of logic and you’ll arrive to that cliché of today, propagated by a certain Oxford professor: “God doesn’t exist because we don’t need Him to explain the world”.

Hunter’s point is that it is grossly mistaken to assume that the Theory of Evolution is mere science as opposed to something requiring a degree of “faith”. In fact, I can’t help but think that Richard Dawkins would find this interesting, given his absurd position (of many) that scientists cannot be religious and that evolution is somehow definitive proof that God “probably” doesn’t exist (and people ask me why we call it “new” atheism).

In any event, Hunter’s is an interesting view, and I think it’s worth our attention. If anything, it very accurately explains the virtually religious dogmatism and fanaticism of evolutionists today: It’s not just science. It began with religious concerns and it is constantly pushed, changed, re-changed, modified and evolved even in the face of significant evidence (of which the book gives a good overview).

Despite its 170 pages, Science’s Blind Spot is not an easy read. The writing is often dry and reads like a PhD thesis – not a problem for this kind of subject material, but it certainly doesn’t make the book engaging to a wider audience. It could really benefit from an extensive re-write, expanding and emphasising the key points. Having said that, the constant repetition of those points makes them stick and provoke some thinking outside of the traditional Creation/Evolution debate box. And although it seems targeted mostly to scientists and those literate in the debate, I think there is much in there that many on both sides would find beneficial.

I realise that this isn’t a comprehensive review, and after reading this post I find that it’s not as coherent and informative as I’d like it to be, so I hope you’ll forgive me for that. The Creation/Evolution debate is a huge topic with ramifications on many levels. Here, motivated by Hunter’s interesting and thought-provoking book, I just wanted to share some thoughts on the subject in the hope that you’ll find something helpful in there.