Perry Marshall applies ideas from engineering and information theory to evolutionary biology with a twist that combines intelligent design and evolution. He touts under-appreciated advances in biology that reveal cells to be far cleverer than most people realize, arguing that the cell’s complexity was intelligently designed and that this complexity actually makes evolution possible!
Like Michael Behe, Marshall believes random mutations are utterly insufficient to explain the diversity of life, yet he still believes in the general principle of common ancestry and its compatibility with Christianity. However, unlike Behe, who vaguely resigns the history of life to “non-random” mutations, Marshall highlights the “natural genetic engineering” work of James Shapiro, Barbara McClintock, and others to define a paradigm shift he calls “Evolution 2.0.” Marshall describes a suite of tools that provide “adaptive” mutations where DNA changes, not by copying errors from one generation to the next, but through cells editing their own DNA according to pre-programmed rules to intelligently respond to new challenges in fascinating ways. Marshall argues that not only does Evolution 2.0 finally provide a plausible explanation for common ancestry, but it does so with a clear level of purpose that has far more positive religious implications than the typical – and in his opinion, totally unbelievable – Darwinian story of chance progress through unguided randomness.
The Five Blades
The five “blades” of a “Swiss army knife” are Marshall’s metaphor for the tools cells have to improve themselves with precision and purpose.
Transposition is when cells re-arrange parts of their DNA. Not only do these arrangements apparently follow specific rules of grammar and syntax (i.e. more akin to rearranging words or sentences in a paragraph than simply random letters), but they are triggered more often when they are needed:
“No sir,” replied Dr. Shapiro, “they’re not random at all. When bacteria are comfortable, some mutations cannot be found in over ten billion cells. But when they’re starving, the mutation frequency can go by a factor >100,000-fold and they develop new adaptations so they can survive.”
Horizontal gene transfer is when cells share DNA with each other, both within and across species, apparently according to specific syntax so cells know how to properly integrate the new code in a useful way. Marshall describes a bacterium learning to resist an antibiotic by finding another cell with code for “a pump that can purge the poison from its own system… The bacterium finds the portion of the DNA that codes fora pump, inserts the new code into its own DNA, and starts multiplying.” Apparently we are still advancing the extent of our knowledge on what kinds of creatures can transfer genes with each other. (Among other things, this severely complicates attempts to draw trees of life from DNA sequence similarities.)
Epigenetics involves the switching on and off of existing DNA, in response to changes in the environment, to essentially change which code functions actually run on an organism. In at least some cases these changes appear to be inheritable, in what Marshall calls “Lamarck’s Revenge.”
Symbiogenesis is the instant creation of new forms from the combination of different species. Mitochondria and chloroplasts in cells are classic examples, as is lichen, which I learned is really a combination of fungi and algae. Marshall also explains some fascinating empirical lab evidence for such “quantum leaps” from symbiogenesis:
Dr. Kwang Jeon… did an experiment where tens of thousands of bacteria took up residence inside Amoeba proteus organisms. A fierce parasitic attack ensued, killing almost all the amoeba. But in the space of a year, amoeba and bacteria entered into symbiosis. Both modified expression of their genes as necessary, to support the mutual dependence.
Joen learned how to reliably trigger symbiotic cell mergers between amoeba and bacteria. It took 20 generations, about 18 months, for the cells to become fully interdependent. After that, removal of either symbiotic partner proved fatal to both.
Marshall claims that “major classes of cells, plants, and animals are built from symbiotic mergers of multiple smaller organisms.” He notes the work of Dr. Lynn Margulis, who “argued that Symbiogensis is a primary driver of evolution.” Unlike Darwinian evolution, which “emphasizes competition as the primary force, Margulis focused on harmony and cooperation.”
Finally, whole genome duplication is when a rare non-sterile hybrid offspring of two species “inherits double chromosomes… The process of joining the two DNA strands together also, in rare matings, provokes rearrangements through Transposition. This sudden rearranging is called hybrid dysgenesis, and it can provoke sudden new and useful features its parents never had.” Marshall discusses clues that the genetic information for the first jawed vertebrate came from a doubled chromosome “in a single generation,” though this event likely “only created the conditions for the jaw to form some time later.”
Insights and Implications
Marshall’s fast-paced style jumps around with personal details about his brother’s loss of faith and his own journey of discovering parts of the science, with a variety to connections to Christianity and the Bible, and other implications and opinions. It’s easy-to-read and very accessible, but perhaps at the cost of diving deeper into the details about the “five blades.” He repeats “DNA is a code” over and over throughout the book without clearly (or at least, as clearly as I would have liked) demonstrating how, for instance, the encoding pattern is a choice that could have been different. That being said, Marshall provides numerous resources (via a well-designed bibliographic code, of course) for diving deeper into almost everything he covers, and the smorgasbord of content contains plenty of interesting insights throughout.
1. Marshall devotes one appendix to defending his harmonization of science and Genesis, highlighting similarities between the order of the creation account and the current scientific consensus. Whether you’re familiar with these lines of argument or not, there is much food for thought and some original thinking as well.
2. Marshall describes his engineering-based skepticism of the power of natural selection this way:
If natural selection explains how everything came to be, then how come it doesn’t teach you how to build anything?
If natural selection acting on random mutation is so elegantly powerful, why don’t programmers or businesses or really anybody create anything that way? He describes a general principle that “noise” always destroys data and argues for applying it to the genome, noting that when evolutionary biologists attempt to simulate random evolution via computer models, their best results look a lot more like “2.0” goal-seeking evolution than “random” mutation.
3. Marshall brings insight from his engineering background to the dismissive claims of poor design:
Is the body well designed or poorly designed? Skeptics often criticize the human body, presuming it’s an accumulation of chance accidents. They say things like, “The human eye is a pathetic design. It’s got a big, blind spot and the ‘wires’ are installed backward.”
…When I was a manufacturing production manager, I had to produce an indicator lamp assembly for a piece of equipment. The design had a light bulb and two identical resistors, which I thought were stupid… I learned the hard way that when you criticize a design, you may have a very incomplete picture of the many constraints the designer has to work within. Designs always have delicate tradeoffs… Sometimes you have to compromise between 15 competing priorities….
I am not saying there are no suboptimal designs in biology… But human beings must be very careful to not proudly assert that we could “obviously do better.” We don’t know that. We do not understand what’s involved in designing an eye because we’ve never built one.
4. More on the implications of “cooperation” rather than “competition”:
Nature is so often depicted as cruel and merciless in its bitter and unrelenting struggle. But when you actually spend time in nature… you witness fabulous, intricate interdependence. Grass keeps soil from eroding. Bees and flowers engage in a dance with each other… Big fish get their mouths cleaned by “cleaner fish”… Cooperation and symbiosis are so ever-present we tend to look right past them and only notice the competition.
5. Thoughts on common ancestry for humans:
Christians believe God became man, physically born of a human mother… If a human can be the Son of God by possessing the Spirit of God, then why can’t a primate become a human being by receiving a human spirit?
6. Marshall argues that Evolution 2.0 can actually teach us more about God and nature by revealing his skills as a designer, and letting us discover things that have enormous practical applications for designing and building responsive systems, from biology to business.
I believe in Evolution 2.0 because the God I believe in is more magnificent than previously believed. He doesn’t have to beam zebras from the sky onto the savanna. He designed a process that formed them from the dust of the ground and tailored them to their environment… God wants us to study all of what He has made… God is the Original Scientist, the Original Engineer. This opens huge vistas in medicine, genetics, computer science, and technology. You can’t learn how zebras are built from a miracle – but you can learn from a natural process… What if we understood God to be an engineer so skilled that he endows cells with the ability to engineer themselves?
On the one hand, Marshall’s book would appear to be a natural partnership with Behe: Behe argues that evolution is real, but random mutation is not a sufficient mechanism, and Marshall steps in to provide those mechanisms that Mivart was anticipating would be found way back in 1871. In fact, Marshall essentially makes this connection in a brief discussion of Behe’s first book Darwin’s Black Box. Yet on the other hand, there is a discrepancy, with Behe arguing in Edge of Evolution that Shapiro’s “natural genetic engineering” does not appear to have done anything for malaria in several decades despite intense selective pressure and more numbers of creatures than all the mammals that are thought to have ever existed!
I reached out to Marshall for his perspective on this. He replied that he planned to respond after additional research but offered an initial opinion that Behe was “singling out a very specific instance or example that may be overlooking a larger pattern or singling out particular facts that exclude others. And I think he’s drastically underestimating the capabilities of natural genetic engineering. He’s also being vague about how evolution actually does work.” (If Marshall has the opportunity to respond further I will update this post.)
Marshall rejects the dogma of both sides, yet not with a “boring” conventional “theistic evolution,” but with an exciting “2.0” intelligently-designed-evolution that will be fresh and even paradigm-shifting for many readers, though he insists much of this has been known for years within biology communities while being understandably under-appreciated and under-reported by the Darwinian and creationist dogmatists. Of course, Marshall ends up sounding rather dogmatic about his own newfound position (perhaps history will remember him as “Shapiro’s bulldog”), with critics claiming he invokes a host of processes without truly understanding how they work or what their limits may be. But regardless, Evolution 2.0 is an exciting introduction to a lot of interesting ideas with profound implications for creationists and evolutionists, Christians and atheists alike.