WHAT BIOLOGISTS TALK ABOUT WHEN THEY TALK ABOUT LIFE– David Berlinski


from The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions (p. 192-197). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

davidberlinski

In the summer of 2007, Eugene Koonin, of the National Center for Biotechnology Information at the National Institutes of Health, published a paper entitled “The Biological Big Bang Model for the Major Transitions in Evolution.” The paper is refreshing in its candor; it is alarming in its consequences. “Major transitions in biological evolution,” Koonin writes, “show the same pattern of sudden emergence of diverse forms at a new level of complexity” (italics added). Major transitions in biological evolution? These are precisely the transitions that Darwin’s theory was intended to explain. If those “major transitions” represent a “sudden emergence of new forms,” the obvious conclusion to draw is not that nature is perverse but that Darwin was wrong. “The relationships between major groups within an emergent new class of biological entities,” Koonin goes on to say, “are hard to decipher and do not seem to fit the tree pattern that, following Darwin’s original proposal, remains the dominant description of biological evolution.” The facts that fall outside the margins of Darwin’s theory include “the origin of complex RNA molecules and protein folds; major groups of viruses; archaea and bacteria, and the principal lineages within each of these prokaryotic domains; eukaryotic supergroups; and animal phyla.” That is, pretty much everything. Koonin is hardly finished. He has just started to warm up. “In each of these pivotal nexuses in life’s history,” he goes on to say, “the principal ‘types’ seem to appear rapidly and fully equipped with the signature features of the respective new level of biological organization. No intermediate ‘grades’ or intermediate forms between different types are detectable.” The phrase intermediate forms has a particular poignancy in context. It has been by an appeal to those intermediate forms that a very considerable ideology has been created. To doubt their existence is to stand self-accused. To go further and suggest that they are, in fact, imaginary evokes a frenzy of fearful contempt so considerable as to make civilized discourse impossible. Koonin’s views do not represent the views of the Darwinian establishment. If they did, there would be no Darwinian establishment. They are not uncontested. And it may well be that they are exaggerated. Koonin is nonetheless both a serious biologist and a man not well known for a disposition to self-immolation. And in a much more significant sense, his views are simply part of a much more serious pattern of intellectual discontent with Darwinian doctrine. Writing in the 1960s and 1970s, the Japanese mathematical biologist Motoo Kimura argued that on the genetic level—the place where mutations take place—most changes are selectively neutral. They do nothing to help an organism survive; they may even be deleterious. A competent mathematician and a fastidious English prose stylist, Kimura was perfectly aware that he was advancing a powerful argument against Darwin’s theory of natural selection. “The neutral theory asserts,” he wrote in the introduction to his masterpiece, The Neutral Theory of Molecular Evolution, “that the great majority of evolutionary changes at the molecular level, as revealed by comparative studies of protein and DNA sequences, are caused not by Darwinian selection but by random drift of selectively neutral or nearly neutral mutations” (italics added). This is radical doctrine. Waves of probability ebb and flow throughout the molecular structure of a living organism. Invisible to the scrutinizing force of natural selection, mutations drift through the currents of time. Whether a mutation is fixed within a population or whether it is simply washed away is a matter of chance. The neutral theory of molecular evolution was never destined to achieve wide favor among Darwinian biologists. Kimura’s treatise is framed as a powerful but difficult mathematical argument. But population geneticists understood its importance, even if they disagreed in some of its details. To the extent that the neutral theory is true, Darwin’s theory is not. This has prompted at least certain population geneticists to deplore in print the sheer effrontery that is so conspicuous a feature of the popular literature devoted to Darwin’s theory. Richard Dawkins has appeared as tempting a squab within the tent of population genetics as he has long seemed without. Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the evolutionary biologist Michael Lynch observed that “Dawkins’s agenda has been to spread the word on the awesome power of natural selection.” The view that results, Lynch remarks, is incomplete and therefore “profoundly misleading.” Lest there be any question about Lynch’s critique, he makes the point explicitly: “What is in question is whether natural selection is a necessary or sufficient force to explain the emergence of the genomic and cellular features central to the building of complex organisms.” But if it is quite possible that natural selection is neither necessary nor sufficient to account for the complexity of living systems, then it is also possible that it is of no relevance to living systems whatsoever. The demotion of natural selection from biological superpower to ideological sad sack throws into bright relief an obvious question: How to explain on the basis of a random walk the startling coherence and complexity of living organisms? If the question is obvious, so, too, is its answer: We have no idea. “The general foundations for the evolution of ‘higher’ from ‘lower’ organisms,” Emile Zuckerkandl has written, “seems so far to have largely eluded analysis ” (italics added). This is surely true. But the phrase eluded analysis conveys a current of intellectual optimism at odds with the facts. Something that has so far eluded analysis can hardly be assigned to a force that has so far eluded demonstration. It is in this context that Daniel Dennett’s assertion that natural selection has been demonstrated “beyond all reasonable doubt” must be judged for what it is: It is the ecclesiastical bull of a most peculiar church, a cousin in kind to an ecclesiastical bluff. When Steven Pinker affirms that “natural selection is the only explanation we have of how complex life can evolve,” he is very much in the inadvertent position of the apostles. Much against his will, he is bearing witness. In all this, it is the reaction among the faithful that provokes no surprise. Within minutes of the publication of Koonin’s paper, a call for censorship went up over the Internet. “Well,” one solemn donkey wrote, “since it is clear that this paper will be on every ID/creationist blog on the planet in under 12 hours, I might as well put in my 2 cents early.” He might as well. And those two cents? What did they amount to? One cent was devoted to a counsel of caution: “I think Koonin should give a little credit where credit is due to gradual, stepwise evolution.” The second cent was spent on a cry of alarm: “Sometimes you’ve got to wonder how many hangovers (i.e., creationist quote-mining and general confusion over the status of evolution outside of the specialist community, and needless wrangling within the specialist community) could be avoided if scientists would exercise just a little caution during the party (i.e., spending a little time soberly comparing their revolutionary ideas with more prosaic explanations).” The words if scientists would exercise just a little caution have a meaning all their own. They are written in code. They convey the need, apparently imperative, for biologists to keep bad news to themselves. What is left is the “general confusion” that the public so often suffers when it comes to Darwin and Darwinism. On this matter, biologists are not at all confused. Whatever the degree to which Darwin may have “misled science into a dead end,” the biologist Shi V. Liu observed in commenting on Koonin’s paper, “we may still appreciate the role of Darwin in helping scientists [win an] upper hand in fighting against the creationists.” It is hard to be less confused than that.

Berlinski, David (2009-08-26). The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions (p. 192-197). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

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