In The Equations of Life: How Physics Shapes Evolution, Charles S. Cockell, University of Edinburgh astrobiology professor, uses physics to explain the pervasiveness of convergent evolution and to challenge open-ended expectations of what extraterrestrial life might look like. The book is oriented around a perceived dichotomy between simple or predictable physics and complex or unpredictable biology, with Cockell arguing that the universal laws of physics place remarkable constraints on the options for life – “physics trumps individuality.” “Evolutionary convergence” is simply “similarity caused by the laws of physics.” Life is “endless in detail, restricted in form.”
Cockell tours life at several fascinating scales, delving into the physics of a ladybug to remark on the ubiquitous physical principles it must cope with to open its wings or hang onto walls or diffuse oxygen into its body. We see, among other examples, how a mole’s narrowing snout is urged on by P=F/A.
The basic concept of a cell seems to be a requirement for life, to keep one’s innards from diffusing into its environment. Cockell speculates on the cell’s origin by describing molecules with hydrophilic heads and hydrophobic tails that spontaneously form spherical membranes in water before noting that cell size is constrained by the laws of physics, most notably the surface area to volume ratio, which affects the transfer of resources into the cell.
On the many limitations of life: “Between absolute zero and the temperature of a star, say, the Sun, life occupies only 0.007 percent of this temperature range” due to the laws of physics on the “chemical compounds we call life.” Too hot – molecules can’t hold together; too cold – they can’t move at all. But temperature is not the only narrow property. Honey’s resistance to contamination “shows us that some places that contain liquid water are uninhabitable” (the water activity is too low for chemical reactions; it resists osmosis). Or how about the level of salt in the water? Too much is just too much. “We need not visit alien worlds to find where life has reached its physical limits, where no amount of chance or evolution will push it beyond the barrier of salt,” where “over three and a half billion years” of evolutionary experiments have failed.
In conclusion, “the biosphere is like a zoo, surrounded by a wall,” with extraordinary diversity within, but limited by “the insuperable laws of physics.” “The physical space that life occupies at the planetary scale, and the physical and chemical conditions it can adapt to, within the vast range of conditions found across the known universe, are petite.”
Expounding on themes in Simon Conway Morris’s Life’s Solution, Cockell remarks on the remarkable efficiency of the genetic code mapping as well as other peaks. When considering the 20 amino acids used for most of life, out of a much larger possible set, those 20 have an “uncanny” maximum of “even, wide distribution” of possible properties (size, charge, hydrophilic/phobic, etc), like a good set of wrenches, making an extremely flexible tool kit for life. The routes involved in glycolysis and gluconeogenesis (the breaking and making of glucose) have been found to “produce the highest flux of compounds” of thousands of tested alternatives. Cockell attributes these pinnacles to the relentless selective constraints of the laws of physics.
It’s clear that Cockell thinks extraterrestrial likely looks a lot like us, from the choices of lower-scale molecules to the higher-scale body plan dealings with gravity and air pressure. But he doesn’t dogmatically insist on it, and he sympathetically considers alternate suggestions, only to repeatedly conclude that the things we see on Earth are likely the best – and maybe even the only – solutions the periodic table has to offer.
Water is not just an incredible solvent; it also facilitates molecular reactions in the ways it binds to molecules inside cells. Proposed alternatives (like liquid methane) just aren’t as versatile, and come with drawbacks from their temperature range. Carbon is superior to silicon due to its electron number, which makes it just the right size for binding to molecules (the binding electrons are not too close to the nucleus to resist reactions, nor too far to make compounds too unstable). Cockell concedes that silicon has some known potential – and is careful to admit that we don’t understand it as well as carbon – but it mostly seems to just be good for building boring rocks.
Other larger elements have their interesting niches, but hydrogen, oxygen, carbon – indeed all the elements in the CHNOPS acronym – are likely to be dominant wherever life may exist, in Cockell’s view. Not only do they have the most favorable range of stability due to their size, but they also seem to form the most abundant molecules in the universe. The spectroscopic study of diffuse interstellar clouds and giant molecular clouds have found them to contain loads of carbon-based molecules. So have the meteors and comets we’ve studied closer to home. If we Copernically assume that other solar systems have the same basic elements that ours does (though he notes that “our solar system’s architecture” of rocky inner and gassy outer planets is surprisingly “not typical”), then “amino acids, sugars, nucleobases, and fatty acids are raining down on planets” throughout our galaxy and the universe. What else could life use?
Even different levels of gravity would not necessarily have drastically different effects on animals on other planets. While land animals would require massively thicker legs in higher gravity, there would be a negligible influence on animals the size of insects, where molecular forces dominate (as in the ladybug sticking to the wall), and it would apparently be completely cancelled out regarding water buoyancy. Cockell is careful to hedge his arguments with the gaps in our knowledge and imagination, but he offers strong reason to be skeptical of the free-wheeling optimists who claim that life in the universe might be so different from our own – sentient gas clouds and the like – that we might not even recognize it. The period table is the same across the universe, and so are the physical constraints that derive from it. (So, no, the Fermi paradox cannot be dismissed so cavalierly.)
In the end, Cockell sees no demarcation between physics and biology. When considering a rapturous bird flight, “the sight is mesmerizing, a show of such unpredictability and beauty that anyone would be forgiven for thinking this was some gift of life on Earth, something that stands above physics, something rooted in a higher order of organization.” Cockell sees biology nested comfortably within physics (though I think the laws of physics, and the order that emerges from them, can be seen as gifts in and of themselves…)
Does evolution diminish humanity from the pinnacle of creation to a place of purposeless worthlessness? This paradigm is shared by many evolutionary scientists as well as their creationist opponents, but in The Human Instinct: How we evolved to have reason, consciousness, and free will, Kenneth R. Miller argues against both, contending for a positive, inspiring view of evolution and humanity’s place in the universe.
Miller leaves no doubt that he accepts evolution, and especially human evolution, as settled science in a heavily materialistic view of the universe. He discusses the infamous Chromosome 2 fusion, the growing collection of hominid fossils of intermediate cranial capacities (and the inability of creationists to agree on which ones are “human” and which ones are “ape”), and the remarkable relation of NANOG pseudogenes serving as an apparent checkpoint in human-chimpanzee branching.
At the same time, Miller makes it clear that he recognizes creationist fears of the theological, philosophical, and moral implications of an evolutionary past for humanity. “The story of human evolution, according to those who spin this narrative, is one of pointless accident, dark struggle, and ultimate meaningless.” In contrast, Miller hopes to resurrect Darwin’s sense of “grandeur,” believing that in “the beauty and subtlety of evolution” comes “a new and exhilarating way to see our place among other living things.”
Covering a variety of topics like human psychology, consciousness, and free will, Miller provides succinct backgrounds of existing paradigms, noting the consensuses and controversies around them, quoting profusely from everyone from C. S. Lewis to Richard Dawkins and offering his own opinions and humble attempts at further contribution. He provides needed caution against some of the alleged historical explanations for human behavior pouring from the field of evolutionary psychology without proper evidence. He offers reasons to doubt the neuroscience claims that our conscious decisions are made ahead of us by brain activity before we realize it. In response to those who argue that all of our features are shared in lesser degrees by other animals, and that the human species is only unique in the way that every species is technically unique, Miller notes: “De Waal’s book is a marvelous display of pure brilliance on the part of our animal cousins. But it’s worth noting that the book was written by Dr. de Waal, not by any of the high-achieving animals he describes.”
Like Jonathan Losos in Improbable Destinies, Miller describes the contingency debate between Stephen Jay Gould’s randomness and Simon Conway Morris’s inevitability, arguing that, like other consistently repeated patterns, intelligence itself may be a “niche” that the “deep structure” of the universe is destined to exploit. While a replay of history might not result in our exact species, “not everything is possible in terms of physics, genetics, biochemistry, and physiology.” Pointing to octopuses which “could be on the verge” of self-awareness, “there is at least an element of predictability” in the limited pathways that random evolution can explore, suggesting that “great intelligence” may be “inherent” in evolution.
Miller doesn’t provide a final explanation for human consciousness, though he remains extremely optimistic that future brain science will give us a full understanding, possibly even to the point of powering through Chalmer’s “hard problem” by figuring out how to generate (for example) subjective sensations of color in blind individuals. Comparing the details of present brain structures, he hypothesizes that our ancestor’s growing brains disrupted old neuron connections and caused new ones that played some part in our emergent self-awareness. Against the self-defeating logic that a brain that evolved for survival instead of truth cannot even trust its own attempts to discover truth, including the very truth that it evolved for survival: “Yes, the human brain is a faulty instrument.” But “the human brain is fully capable of consciously recognizing its faults and correcting for them.”
Resistant to the idea of a non-material soul, he says “we do not need to postulate a ghost in the machine,” yet he admits that “genuine thought remains an elusive property” of life. He points out that life and non-life use the same carbon atoms which themselves are not “alive” to analogize that consciousness may work similarly on another level.
While thinking doesn’t appear to violate the laws of physics, Miller nevertheless rejects a fully deterministic view of free will, though he also points out shortcomings in opposing paradigms – like a handwavy removal of the problem to quantum mechanics, somehow – and doesn’t offer much in their place. Recognizing the pervasiveness of the illusion, he hopes that free will can somehow emerge as a phenomenon on a higher level of complexity. He weakly concludes that at least we seem to have a higher degree of freedom than other creatures, with the unique ability to imagine the consequences of different actions and to use that imagination to choose between them.
All of this leads to a claim, or at least a hope, that we can still somehow view ourselves at “center stage,” creating our own meaning, preferably including the idea that our connection to the rest of life gives us a unique responsibility to steward and protect it. In conclusion:
Our biological heritage is merely the beginning our what we can be, not the end of it… Evolution may explain the human need for art, music, religion, and even science, but it cannot explain those disciplines away. Each exists, in its highest form, as an expression of the best humanity can offer in making sense of this remarkable world… Far from diminishing us, knowing the details of Adam’s journey ennobles each of us as a carrier of something truly precious – the genetic, biological, and cultural heritage of life itself. Evolution describes not the death of Adam, but his triumph.
Jonathan Losos’s intriguing book Improbable Destinies seemed to support my sneaking suspicion that a scientifically accurate and up-to-date understanding of evolution is (at least) far more compatible with or (at most) far more suggestive of some sense of theological design and purpose than is so commonly assumed by its popular presentation and atheistic ambassadors. Losos recommended Life’s Solution for digging deeper into the wonderful world of evolutionary convergence, which played no small part in my sneaking suspicion. Thus it seemed a natural next step to read this book by Simon Conway Morris, who I vaguely understood to be one of the top figures in modern evolutionary science. Imagine my astonishment to discover that Mr. Morris is not merely supportive of my general hypothesis about the theological implications of “real” evolution, he is a Lewis-and-Chesterton-quoting Christian enthusiastically embracing those ideas, promoting a more confident argument in that direction than I ever dared to expect.
To be sure, Morris only winks and nudges in that direction, but it is clear that he is trying to open wide a door that he feels has been unfairly shut. Morris’s overall thesis is that “the emergence of sentience is imprinted in the evolutionary process” (p.303) – that the remarkable recurring patterns of biology make the evolution of intelligent creatures inevitable, and thus suggest a teleology just as strongly as the slightly more mathematical laws that govern physics and cosmology. The “awe and wonder” that we might feel at the “inevitability” of this process “might at last allow a conversation with religious sensibilities rather than the more characteristic response of either howling abuse or lofty condescension” (p.5)
The book’s scope is much wider than convergent evolution, however. In one early chapter, Morris marvels at the “eerie perfection” of the genetic code, which, in terms of how efficiently the coding alphabet corrects for errors, out of all possible combinations of the amino acids, is literally “one in a million” – the second most efficient out of 270 million possibilities. Somehow, life had “two hundred million years (and possibly much less) to navigate to the best of all possible codes.” There’s a “potentially gigantic hyperspace of alternative possibilities, yet the evidence suggests that rapidly with extraordinary effectiveness a very good, perhaps even the best, code is arrived at.” (p.15-17)
Morris also pokes fun at the irrational exuberance of abiogenesis researchers, who create the impression that “we are on the verge of seeing how the spark of creation transmuted the inanimate to the animate,” but “nothing could be further from the truth (p.43). It’s refreshing to hear someone of Morris’s caliber validate the common creationist dismissals of the old Urey-Miller experiments, among other attempts. Morris chides, “Many of the experiments designed to explain one or other step in the origin of life… involve an experimental rig in which the hand of the researcher becomes for all intents and purposes the hand of God.” (p.41) And he emphasizes how unexpected this should be: “The question of how the inanimate became animate has proved stubbornly recalcitrant. It should be rather simple, especially if you worship at the crowded shrine of self-organization.” (Preface) Unlike the creationists, Morris doesn’t insist on a divinely sparked alternative; he’s more subtly arguing that even any natural solution that does manage to be found will apparently have required so much precision and “fine-tuning” that for all intents and purposes it could be considered just as anthropologically principled as the properties of the universe itself.
Speaking of universal properties, Morris makes good explorations there as well. He channels and elaborates on Rare Earth arguments about our planet‘s impressively challenging ability to support life for billions of consecutive years – and how the problem of life’s first spark takes that to even higher levels. Apparently the sun’s early radiation should have driven the compounds necessary for an atmosphere and an ocean out beyond Jupiter. “So what are we doing here?” Morris twinkles before describing theories about the early Earth moving inward or receiving the bountiful gift of lots and lots of comets. (p.42) Morris also brings in the work of Guillermo Gonzalez (featured in The Privileged Planet and The Case For a Creator) on galactic habitability zones.
The convergent meat of the book is, of course, fascinating, illustrating Conway’s argument that “the evolutionary routes are many, but the destinations are limited.” (p.145) Some quick highlights:
skeleton space – a suggestion that nearly all possible combinations of body plan characteristics have been tried over the course of Earth’s history, most of them multiple times (p.118)
halteres – balancing gyroscope mechanisms on flies and strepsipterans (p.149)
Red-green color vision – “the changes in the structure of the rhodopsin molecule that make possible the absorption of particular wavelengths of light… The sites of substitution are highly specific.. red-green vision has evolved independently… the convergence in red vision between a fish and mammals where two, and possibly three, sites show identical substitutions… evidence continues to accumulate that the ‘five-site rule’ is very widespread (p.168-169)
the use of oil droplets as color filters in fish and birds (p.170)
electric signals – particularly mechanisms to avoid ‘jamming’ by multiple users – “fish changes its frequency… in a few microseconds” – “the algorithm used by the gymnotids and mormyrids to shift the signal has evolved independently but is identical.” Also, “computationally similar neural algorithms occur in the owl,” even though they are “acoustic” rather than “electric” (p.186)
ant-mimicking beetles – their solution to maintaining their mimicry in spite of their “changes in size and shape” is to “resemble successively in a series of moults, two or more species of ant” (p.213)
viviparity “originated over 130 times” (p.221)
singing – “strikingly similar… anatomical and functional similarities in the organization of neural pathways for vocal production and processing” in human and bird song
Conway tries to cover all the senses, all the different aspects of increasing intelligence, arguing that they have all evolved multiple times across the animal kingdom. He’s humble about its limitations: “identification of convergence presupposes a reliable phylogeny,” with a “constant risk of circularity in the argument. Is a particular character the same because it evolved from a common ancestor or is it convergent?” I’ve often thought of that criticism from a creationist perspective, but Conway argues that the details of convergence “provide no comfort for the creation scientists.” Why? Because “very seldom is the convergence so exact” as to suggest direct relationships; in the “nuances of difference and the paths followed,” “their various ways they provide compelling examples of the reality of organic evolution.” (p.299-300)
While at first glance all this may seem to weaken theological ideas about a purposeful Creator, by weakening humanity’s apparent uniqueness, Conway believes it suggests just the opposite, if “the emergence of sentience is imprinted in the evolutionary process” (p.303)
He says Fred Hoyle’s remark “that the universe was a set-up job rings strangely true.” (preface) “Biologists also have, in the true Darwinian spirit, immense admiration for the jury-rigging of biological design, whereby co-option and modification lead to the functioning whole. and, if they are honest, they may feel a sense of unease about the fluidity and grace of adaption. It has an almost uncanny sense of precision and balance, which humans achieve only rarely in technology and art.” (p.312)
(Conway does not do too much to tackle the specifically Christian theological challenges of evolution, though I wonder if his discussion about “forbidden knowledge” – the dangers of scientific knowledge removed from a moral system of values – might inform an interpretation of The Fall. His remark about Homo sapiens as the only survivor of multiple early hominids made me wonder if that winnowing might be compatible with the story of Noah…)
In closing remarks, Conway circles back to his remarks from the preface that “the heart of the problem… is to explain how it might be that we, a product of evolution, possess an overwhelming sense of purpose and moral identity yet arose by processes that were seemingly without meaning.” “Yes, it may all be due to a few misfiring neurons… but the fact remains that humans have an overwhelming sense of purpose… In the words of Arthur Peacocke, somehow biology has produced a being of infinite restlessness, and this certainly raises the question of whether human beings have properly conceived of what their true ‘environment’ is…” (p.314)
For most of my life, my understanding of the debate over evolution involved evolutionists (who argued that random, purposeless evolution definitely happened) against creationists (who argued that random, purposeless evolution definitely didn’t happen). All seemed to accept the premise that evolution, guided by random mutation and natural selection, was random and purposeless, with no determined or inevitable outcomes (and thus no sign of divine involvement, either), with the only dogmatic disagreements being about whether or not that evolution actually happened.
Recently, however, I keep bumping into what is apparently a growing paradigm of people that believe evolution happened, but that it was not so random and purposeless! From Michael Behe arguing that the crucial mutations for the evolution of life must have been “non-random,” (Edge of Evolution review) to Perry Marshall highlighting James Shapiro’s ideas (Evolution 2.0 review) that random mutation is not actually the main driver of evolution but rather a host of other more complicated cellular abilities and more active (almost self-driven) responses to environmental challenges. For me, this all cuts across the old debate, with fascinating implications for the anthropic principle and the old assumptions about the theological implications of evolutionary history.
Like St. George Jackson Mivart, I’ve always been fascinated by convergent evolution – the idea that various features not only managed to evolve at all, but apparently evolved multiple times (due to the feature not fitting neatly into the best-possible-fit of hierarchical nesting boxes of common ancestry). From a creationist perspective, it seemed to be a potential hole in the theory, and from an Evolution-2.0 perspective, it seemed to be evidence that evolutionary development was not completely random but had some sort of predictability or determinism in its outcomes. I heard about a new book that drew on the new flood of genomic data to show how convergent evolution is far more common than anybody ever thought, and how evolution can be far more rapid than anybody ever thought, and how all these data and experiments are calling into question assumptions about the unpredictability and inevitability of evolution. This sounded to me like more of that new paradigm-busting kind of evolution. And unlike the creationists or random outlier scientists who have always been claiming that the old view of evolution was a crisis about to collapse but that their maverick ideas are ignored and shut out of the ivory towers, this was coming from a Harvard professor citing the cutting-edge work of multi-published academic colleagues – about as central to ivory-tower-world as you can get. I knew I had to read Jonathan Losos’s Improbable Destinies and see what it had to say.
Whirlwind Tour of Convergence
The opening chapters lay out the competing scientific “debate between contingency and determinism.” Stephen Jay Gould represents the old “contingent” view that evolution is slow, random, and unpredictable. It has no foresight or planning or purpose. If you changed the slightest bit of history and “replayed the tape,” there might have been a completely different chain of outcomes and humans might not even be here. The universe guarantees nothing. Simon Conway Morris represents the new “deterministic” view that evolution is repeatable and predictable, consistently managing to derive similar outcomes from different starting points. And it can be fast too; Losos says “the reality of rapid evolution” is that “evolution can rip along at light speed” when conditions change, and that “life repeats itself… evolving similar adaptations in response to similar environmental circumstances.”
There has been an exponential rise in genome sequencing in recent years, and we’re finding all kinds of animals that share features that apparently evolved separately because their DNA is too different for them both to have inherited those features (“as new data from molecular biology floods in… time and time again we’ve been misled”). The book takes us on a whirlwind tour of examples of such astonishing convergence:
Australian marsupials have “convergent placental counterparts,” including a sugar glider instead of a flying squirrel, a marsupial mole instead of a mole, and a wombat instead of a groundhog, all with similar appearances and filling similar niches but evolving completely independently
Losos had assumed “porcupines were one happy evolutionary family” but “learned I had it all wrong. New and Old World porcupines do not share a common evolutionary heritage… The two lineages have independently evolved their quills from different, unquilled rodent species. They are the result of convergent evolution.”
“the traits that define the [beaked sea snake] species, not only its beak, coloration, and general appearance, but also its nasty disposition, have evolved convergently, so much so that distant relatives on opposite sides of the Indian Ocean were considered to be members of the same species” [until their genomes were sequenced]
“many types of lizards have independently evolved flaps of skin under their necks that can be pulled out quickly… to signal…”
The “mantidfly… has nearly identical forearms for capturing prey… long neck and bulging eyes are so similar that its front half is a virtual mantis carbon copy, even though the two insects are separated by hundreds of millions of years of insect evolution”
“Despite their phylogenetic distance, the social structure of ants and termites is remarkably similar,” including “construction of underground fungus gardens” which include “removing waste products, controlling pests” and using “antibiotics grown from bacteria.. on their body or in their guts”
“the lake stickleback populations… convergently lost most of their body armor and their spines shrank”
Losos especially highlights the repeated “adaptive radiation” of single populations diverging into the same niche-filling varieties in different locations, especially involving islands:
the birds in Galapagos and Australia “radiating” into finches, wrens, blackbirds, warblers, robins, etc, not descended but “convergent” with “Northern Hemisphere families”
“just like Anolis lizards and Mandarina snails… anatomically and ecologically different bats living in the same region were more closely related to each other” than “similar species in other regions”
However, as we’ve begun exploring the genomes of many of these convergences, we are finding that the features are not identical at the molecular level. If DNA is like a dictionary, there are multiple ways to spell many of the same words, or tell the same stories:
On humans and milk, “different mutations – each with the same effect of keeping the lactase gene switched on – evolved in the different populations”
“caffeine most likely evolved independently in the three types of plants” but “the NMTs modified in coffee were different from the ones modified in tea and cacao”
Thus, while all this convergence may have been unexpected by evolutionary thinking, the details and patterns of the convergence seems to be explainable by it. After describing the truly wonderful ability of anoles and geckoes to climb vertical surfaces with sticky toepads that have “millions of microscopic filaments called setae” which literally have “free electrons” that “can bond with electrons on the surface of… another object”:
“the best examples of repeated convergence are among closely related species… Sticky toepads have evolved eleven times in geckoes, and only two other times among the more than six thousand species of lizards”
If evolution is so repeatable, so often finding the same great solutions to the same problems, so often successfully filling environmental niches with the same kinds of creatures, does that make evolutionary progress inevitable? Losos highlights Dale Russell’s arguments that, even without the infamous asteroid giving rise to mammals, selection for larger reptilian brains could have naturally led to humanoid-looking reptiles with human-level intelligence. If the fine-tuning of the universe means that “it almost seems as if the Universe must in some sense have known that we were coming,” as Freeman Dyson said, does convergence mean evolution seems to have known we were coming, too?
Well, not quite. Losos says that to learn more amazing examples of convergence you should read Simon Conway Morris’s Life’s Solution and his newer The Runes of Evolution, along with George McGhee’s Convergent Evolution. For the rest of his book, Losos dives deeper into specific examples, including much of his own work – but unfortunately the details, while fascinating in their own rights, are not quite as exciting as I had hoped – with Losos eventually throwing some cold water on the extent of convergence as well.
Lizards and Guppies and Deer Mice, Oh My
Many Caribbean islands have varieties of anole lizards, such as one species with legs and body optimized for living on the ground, one species optimized for climbing narrow twigs on low foliage, and one species optimized for living on the tops of the trees. Each island has its own unique species, but there are corresponding species on other islands with similar-looking creatures filling the same niches. Surprisingly, genomic sequencing shows that the anoles on a given island are more closely related to each other than to their corresponding niche species on the other islands, meaning that one lizard species came to each island and just happened to diverge into evolving the same features to fill the same niches on each island! He then describes experiments revealing astonishing levels of changes with these features happening within several years! Losos tells similar tales about colorful and non-colorful guppies in Caribbean pools predictably responding to the introduction or removal of predators, and he reports on other experiments as well, including a giant experiment with deer mouse in the Midwest.
This is all pretty cool, but I couldn’t help thinking that this is all what creationists would definitely call micro-evolution, and all of these examples would fit right into their baraminology of diversity within created kinds. Furthermore, the information from the genome sequencing hasn’t quite reached the potential for the really interesting stuff – like being able to tell how many mutations it actually takes to evolve different degrees of change, and how random those mutations really are. We have enough data to tell that different populations apparently convergently evolved the same features and varieties, but when it comes to identifying specific changes, especially the ones under experiments, everything seemed to be just on the cusp of identifying how many mutations they took, or which mutations were involved, like we’re almost there but the book was written just a few years too early.
Evolving E. Coli Experiments
In the next section, Losos dives into the one area where we do have that kind of data about mutations, detailing the “Long-Term Evolution Experiment” (LTEE) on E. coli, which after a few decades now involves multiple pathways of tens of thousands of generations, with old generations frozen at regular intervals to allow comparisons and repeated tests. In addition to the general improvements in the bacteria’s ability to grow and reproduce, researchers have seen the evolution of a much-touted actual new feature: the ability to use citrate instead of glucose for energy in high-oxygen environments.
Due to modern sequencing technology, we’ve retraced and identified the exact mutation involved – and for a creationist it’s actually not that impressive. The bacteria already had the ability to process citrate in low-oxygen environments, so the mutation was simply a single copying error that turned on that existing feature in high-oxygen environments, where it was found to be advantageous. The most impressive detail was that there did seem to be a couple of “potentiating” mutations that had to take place first for this final mutation to be effective, so this is arguably a bona fide example of a successful mutation that required multiple steps.
But it’s also a bit of a letdown for this to be the most exciting thing that’s been discovered after tens of thousands of generations! It’s one thing to learn how many mutations it took to turn on a feature that was already there in a new condition. I want to know how many mutations it took to build that feature in the first place! I want know how many mutations it took to evolve guppy coloration or lizard leg variation, yes, but I really want to know how many mutations it took to evolve those amazing setae vertical grips! I expect these kinds of details may have fascinating implications for whether or not evolution happened, and if so how it did so. But the knowledge is just not quite there.
As the book draws to a close, Losos delves a bit into antibiotic resistance, hoping that our knowledge of convergence will help us better fight diseases by anticipating similar evolutionary responses in a variety of species. (This made me think about Edge of Evolution, wondering how many of those resistances reflect the strong improvements of an “arms race” and how many reflect the limited trade-offs of “trench warfare”.)
As for the broader implications, Losos circles back to his opening tour, arguing that Gould’s views on contingency were misunderstood, that nature is not really inevitable enough to produce humanoid reptiles, and that convergence is not quite as repeatable or inevitable as some seem to think. Nor does he suggest that any “natural genetic engineering” tricks supersede the good old “natural selection acting on random mutation” to produce the convergences we do see (Among other things, Perry Marshall would also complain about Losos perpetuating the notion that the human eye is backwards and thus inferior to the octopus). Ultimately, Improbable Destinies caught me up-to-date on the fascinating explosion in the science of genome sequencing and evolution experiments, and all the things we’re learning from it, but it mostly left me eagerly anticipating the next levels of discovery that could truly help answer the fascinating questions that those discoveries are pointing towards.
George McCready Price was an early 20th century Seventh Day Adventist and committed young-earth creationist in an era where many (and allegedly most) American Christians were turning toward an old earth. He was one of the first to promote a detailed scientific account of “flood geology” and was a major influence on the YEC resurgence of the 1960’s and beyond. I found his 700-page tome The New Geology (1923) somewhere online and read it in entirety. (Sorry, I downloaded a PDF and have lost the original link.)
The 42 chapters are divided into sections.
Physiographic Geology (2 chapters) gives a general account of the Earth’s present distribution of land and sea and the different kinds of living things found in different parts of the world.
Structural Geology (2 chapters) describes the different kinds of minerals that are the “constituents of rocks” and introduces basic geological concepts of “formations” and their various inclines and “unconformities”
Dynamical Geology (11 chapters) discusses “the present action of the forces engaged in rock making and rock modification,” including chemical forces, the atmosphere, the erosive and transporting power of running water, ice, ocean waves and currents, living creatures and their role in producing peat, coral, and limestone, volcanoes, and earthquakes.
These sections are primarily presenting information, not theoretical interpretations, but Price takes ample opportunity throughout to point out where he sees facts as causing problems for old-earth or evolutionary views. or as potentially explainable by way of a fast flooding catastrophe.
Stratigraphical Geology (21 chapters) takes a detailed tour through the standard geological classification system, from “Pre-Cambrian Rocks”, to the “Ordovician System” and the “Silurian System,” and on through to the “Quarternary System”. Price describes the different types of fossils found in the different systems, generally accepting the classification system for the sake of discussion but vociferously disputing any interpretations about long lengths of time or any confidence in their accurate classifications and absolute ordering.
(I noticed that Price liked to highlight old “living genera” that “can not be distinguished” from present creatures, while Hitchcock liked to highlight the changing genera that were different from each time period.)
Theoretical Geology (6 chapters) closes with an organized interpretation built from the opinions scattered throughout the information in the previous chapters, arguing that the presently accepted history of geology is not properly supported by facts, and that fossils do not occur in a chronological order but show signs of formation in a “world catastrophe.” He closes with a brief chapter criticizing the “unscientific methods” regarding evolutionary claims around “the origin and antiquity of man.”
Decries the “unscientific” methods and interpretations and “assumptions” of standard geology. Claims to simply be requesting a fair hearing of his challenge to standard “dogma”: “a great world catastrophe… should always be kept in mind also as the alternative… Following true principles of scientific investigation, we ought to be able to decide very positively whether or not any such event has ever happened to our world” ““Claiming that this hypothesis has already been considered a century ago and found wanting, is palpably untrue. This hypothesis has never in the history of science had a sober and careful consideration, with a sufficient amount of evidence available to furnish the grounds for a safe and final decision of the case”
Geological layers in the wrong order
Price’s “most important law” of “the order” of strata: “Any kind of fossiliferous beds.. may be found occurring conformably on any other fossiliferous beds, ‘older’ or ‘younger’… we have not… examples of every possible combination,” and though he concedes “we usually find the fossils” in “relative sequence”, he says we have enough examples “to justify this broad general statement.” “This law alone is quite sufficient to relegate the whole theory of organic evolution to the lumber room of science.”
He especially was impressed by Chief Mountain and Crowsnest Mountain in Glacier National Park, “a huge Paleozoic island floating on a Cretaceous sea,” an “obvious contradiction to the traditional order of the rocks”, rejecting “unfounded theories” of folding which he compares to geocentric “epicycles”.
Describes Werner’s “mineral-onion coat” theory that minerals “always occurred in a definite sequence,” until “contradictory” examples “accumulated in such enormous numbers” and “real intellectual courage” overturned it. He now sees the subsequent “biological-onion coat” theory that fossils occur in sequence in a similar position, and he believes the accumulating contradictory examples will bring it to a similar collapse.
In contrast to “uniformitarianism,” Price distinguishes between “modern” and “ancient” deposits, claiming, for example, that “modern-forming” beds are “more or less a heterogeneous mixture,” while ancient ones are not. He interprets effects “of far greater intensity which may have operated in the past,” and arguing “we do not find now in progress” some effects seen from the past (though at one place he concedes, “it may be difficult to draw the line between these two kinds of deposits”)
Links geology to evolution, “the dominant idea, of course, in the minds of those who arranged the geological series, was the evolution theory regarding the development of life,”
claims “readjustment” of fossil classifications to better fit the expected order, deriding it all as a “purely artificial arrangement”
Perfect Pre-Flood Climate: “Hypothesis” of a former “equable climate all over the earth” without deserts or frozen regions in “a mantle of springlike loveliness,” discusses much evidence of warmer past in the arctic, etc, Quote geologists on uniformity of tropical conditions, “‘a non-zonal arrangement’ of climate”, Posits “a peculiar salubrity of the atmosphere which would secure a regularity of moisture… promoting a most luxuriant vegetation,” but “each locality having its own special flora” and thus “its own particular fauna”
Sudden Fossilizations: fossils that seem to be “buried suddenly”, shells “buried while the animals were still alive”, “abundant remains” in “natural graveyards”, fossils with “marvelous preservation” suggesting some “tremendous catastrophe”, sees sudden freezing of mammoths as part of this “sudden” and “permanent” change and evidence that “this change occurred within the human epoch”
Ecological zoning: Suggests “biological zones and districts” whereby “diverse faunas and floras may have existed contemporaneously in separated localities”, buried in “successive beds” by “a change in the currents”, “a current from a different direction bringing in some contemporary forms of life from a few hundred years away, or at the most merely a few miles away… Were there not zoological provinces and districts… in the olden time”
Suggestions explanation of “alternating layers of coal, shale, and limestone” by an “abnormal tidal action”
“The Flood prevailed over the whole earth a little more than a year,” but “the full recovery from it occupied much more time… the completion of the mountain making, and the spreading out of the drift over Western Europe and Northeastern America, may have occurred years or even centuries after the other geological work was done, and after practically the present land and ocean boundaries had been established”
Suggests “an astronomical cause.. a jar or a shock from the outside,” suggests the earth’s axis may have been changed from “perpendicular” “to its present inclined position,” and “the oceans would sweep a mighty tidal wave,” though he hedges “I do not affirm that this was actually the method” but is “impressed” with its potential explanatory power
Post-flood Ice Age: suggests “almost continuous precipitation” from “ocean waters cooling” and contacting “icy cold air,” perhaps for “years or even centuries,” providing “an easy explanation… of extended glacial action”
Admits it will be easy “to find objections” or “impossibilities”. “As one stands on the brink of the Grand Canon” or “the base of a Niagara… there are very many phenomena which seem beyond the reach of any explanations we may offer.” But has hope that “we shall probably improve our understanding… with further discoveries,” and is confident that his explanation is “so far superior to any hitherto offered.” “Future discoveries may amend and clarify” details of “this hypothesis of the new catastrophism,” but “are not likely to require any material changes in its essential features.”
Concepts Emphasized in Modern YEC
Were You There: “We have no direct and first-hand scientific witnesses… it is all circumstantial evidence”
On Geological Layers: “The student should not be misled by the appearances given in such tables as these, of the strata piled one above another in a regular order of superposition…. the rocks do NOT thus occur in a single case anywhere on earth”
“Trunks of old trees” extending through strata; “It frequently happens that a fossil tree is found extending up through two or more of these successive beds of coal, together with the intervening beds of shale or sandstone.”
“Sudden appearance” of fossils: “Evolutionists are justly surprised at the sudden appearance, in the lowest Cambrian rocks, of so many different species of quite highly organized animals, with only the most scanty evidence of any other lower and more embryonic forms of life having preceded them”
Coal formations via “luxurious vegetation” that was “swept” like a “raft” on an “enormous scale… into lakes or valleys”
Possibility of Living Dinosaurs: On plesiososaurs, “From the frequent reports by competent observers… some of these creatures may have survived to our time.” Pterosaurs… would serve to justify the tradition of flying dragons”
Connecting Fall, Flood, and Restoration: “These unanswerable proofs… recording the death and burial of that beautiful world… come to us with the sweet assurance that some day the bright, happy conditions of Edenic life will be restored to our sin-blasted planet, and God’s redeemed people will shine forth in the restored image of divine beauty
Distinguishing between “facts and conclusions”, decrying “unwarranted assumptions” behind the “dogma” of uniformity, which should really be a “hypothesis,” and asking for an “open mind” for his ideas.
Affirming belief in compatibility: “I believe that the Bible and the book of nature have both the same Author””
Rejecting regional flood interpretations: words that “express the absolute universality of the Flood…are repeated over and over again”.
Impending Doom: “the doctrine of uniformity as taught by Lyell has also fallen into disrepute… Only a question of time until the world will see the complete collapse of that doctrine
Says we are also learning that distinctions of “species… were marked off on altogether too narrow lines… It is perfectly evident that both plants and animals have varied much more in a natural way than used to be thought possible; and hence two or more comparatively different forms may very well be supposed to be of a common descent… From this, it further appears that the problem of accounting for the modern diversity of animals (and plants) as survivors from a universal Deluge has been greatly simplified; for the more variation we admit as possible, the easier it is to account for the present fauna (and flora), since fewer original forms would be required to begin the present stock.”
“Doubtless our old ideas of the limits of a ‘species’ will now have to be enlarged so as to include perhaps all the forms now listed under a genus, perhaps all the members of a family.”
“Most of the ‘species’ under any given genus.. Are probably artificial distinctions… probably all descended from one stock. In some instances, perhaps even the different genera of a family may be thus of a common origin… this is by no means to concede the doctrine of evolution… a correct view of geology forever puts the evolution theory out of possible consideration… the origin of variations does not touch the problem of accounting for the originals out of which these are derived.”
Random Notable Quotes
Refers to the “unscientific” and “prodigal use of many causes when one would be sufficient” (this is in contrast to Pye-Smith’s “diversity of effects” needing a “diversity of causes”)
Sauropod design: Quotes Lull on sauropods: “The skeleton of one of these creatures is a marvel of mechanical design; the bones of the vertebral column are of the lightest possible construction consistent with strength, the bony material being laid down only where stresses arise… The assembled skeleton reminds one forcibly of a cantilever bridge borne on two massive piers…”
On convergent evolution: “Ichthyosaurs.. are especially plentiful… must have looked almost exactly like the modern dolphins and porpoises,” which “the evolutionists call.. a remarkable case of ‘parallel development’… there are almost innumerable cases of such ‘parallel development’ all through the plant and animal kingdoms
Here’s an idea that didn’t take: He gives evidence to disprove that “volcanic vents are connected with any very deep-seated part of the earth’s interior,” but rather promotes a theory that “lava beds have originated from burning coal beds”
While we need hypotheses to make progress in science, “hypotheses are always dangerous things… because of the ease with which it seems to help us explain other facts, the more surely do we become its slaves… if this hypothesis happens to be really wrong… often we will not listen to the testimony of others who claim to have tested it, if their results do not tally with what our pet hypothesis has taught us”
Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle explores the details of feathers and why they are so amazing. The book is filled with interesting facts about all the different kinds of feathers (Example: most birds have between 1 and 25 thousand, but only a few dozen flight feathers), but it is mostly focused on exploring the incredibly lightweight, watertight, insulated, beautifully-colored, multi-functional natural wonder that even evolutionary scientists call a “miracle.”
Interesting Info on Feather Design
“Feathers are unbelievable,” Feduccia said, and his voice took on a tone of wonder I would hear again and again… “They have all of these incredible aerodynamic features – lightweight, with graded flexibility; they’re perfect airfoils; they can work together in slotted wings with high lift at low speeds.
Feathers cluster “in well-defined tracts,” which “offers two advantages: It distributes plumage across the entire body while allowing skin between the tracts to remain relatively bare” for “regulating body temperature.” They “may also play a role in how feathers move, helping to concentrate the relevant muscles in discrete lines… Each follicle is surrounded by strong muscles and nerves that give birds surprising agility with individual feathers. They can fluff them for warmth, lift them for preening or display, and even make fine adjustments during flight to maximize aerodynamic efficiency… Coordinating such movements is quite an engineering feat. It would be like a person straightening their part with a thought, twitching individual ear hairs, or accurately judging wind speed from the play of a breeze across their eyebrows.”
“Engineers call feathers the most insulating material ever discovered.” Tiny birds, while operating at a body temperature several degrees higher than ours, can maintain a “difference between the outdoor air temperature… as large as an astonishing 140 degrees Fahrenheit.” The complex layers of barbs and barbules can can efficiently trap a large amount of air molecules “as a barrier.” “With their intricate air-trapping microstructure, down feathers are the most naturally insulative material on earth, and birds have the ability to fluff them up manually, essentially adjusting their R-value at will.” The lightness of this material allows birds to fly. Birds and even other animals will scavenge stray feathers to insulate nests and burrows.
Different kinds of feathers are created by “varying the location and timing of keratin production at the follicle collar… To accomplish these feats, the follicle’s cells must act in perfect concert, a symphony of starts and stops that is controlled by a particular gene” (the Sonic Hedgehog hox gene). Human industry has yet to create a synthetic material that matches the insulation power with the same lightness and durability: “Feathers grow that way naturally, but manufacturing such finely branched filaments is extremely difficult.” (These downy feathers, however, are not waterproof, and require a covering of watertight contour feathers, and extra parental care for downy young until they grow that outer layer. This presents an evolutionary challenge, as described below.)
Feathers keep birds from freezing by being so insulative, but it’s just as amazing that they don’t make birds overheat. “When a bird takes flight, it suddenly finds itself producing seven, ten or even twenty times the body heat it had while perched.” Since they already operate “within a few degrees of the point at which proteins in living cells break down faster than the body can replace them,” temperature regulation is crucial, and involves adjusting feather positions and increasing blood flow to bare portions (apteria). Additionally, a bird’s “complex system of nine or more air sacs to supplement their lungs,” which “increases the efficiency” to allow flying, also “dramatically expands the surface area available for internal evaporation,” releasing extra heat through the mouth by panting.
On the “amazing” “flexibility” of feathers for real-time flight adjustments: A falcon “dove after a lure… accelerating up to 157 miles per hour before neatly catching it and pulling up,” experiencing a calculated gravitational force of “twenty-seven Gs“! (“Fighter pilots risk losing consciousness at anything over nine.”) Other examples of “airflow management” include reducing drag to increase flight efficiency. “Vultures, eagles, and other soaring birds use small adjustments of their spread wing-tip ‘fingers’ to manipulate air currents or change speed and orientation, and all birds utilize feather movements to instinctively alter the turbulence patterns around their wings. Slots can be opened or closed to direct air… covert feathers can be raised or lowered like tiny flags.” (No wonder aircraft engineers study birds to find ways to increase gas mileage!)
“Owl feathers feature barb extensions” that not only increase efficiency but also “muffl[e] the sound of their approach” – except for the Scops Fishing Owl, which hunts prey underwater and doesn’t need the stealth factor!
The watertightness of outer/contour feathers is not fully understood but seems to involve a high number of “touch points,” and “air pockets” between them, that repel water molecules. “Considering their light weight, flexibility, and thinness, feathers offer one of nature’s most versatile and efficient waterproofing membranes.” There are also beautiful adaptations: Diving cormorants have a slight structure modification that allows their “outer feathers” to get soaked, which adjusts their buoyancy as they dive for fish, “while still keeping their skin and down feathers sealed inside a watertight blanket.” At the other end of the spectrum in the dry desert, the sandgrouse has a different feather structure that absorbs so much water that birds have been observed “methodically soaking their chests” in pools to allow “thirsty chicks… to eagerly drink at Papa’s breast, sucking water straight from his feathers.”
While many birds “snap” their wings in “percussive notes” for mating rituals, the club-winged manakin takes it to another level with the “odd shape” of its feather wings: “This rapid vibration brought the wings together repeatedly, striking the enlarged clublike secondaries together in a way that forced the bent one to saw back and forth across a row of tiny ridges on the adjacent shaft… Each wing was indeed acting as a tiny violin, with the bent feather tip serving as the pick or bow, the ridges as strings, and the swollen, hollow feather shafts as the resonating chamber, amplifying and sustaining the tone.” (This was not understood until the relatively recent “breakthrough” of “high-speed video.”)
Birds regularly replace their feathers through molting, which is needed to maintain function after wear-and-tear and also to try to help manage the ubiquitous issue of bird lice. Sometimes molting changes colors that correlate with the mating season.
Interesting Theories on Feather Evolution
Hanson describes the old scales-to-feather hypothesis that never had any evidence and the new Stage I to V theory that seems to at least have some evidence for it from evolutionary development. Hanson describes Archaeopertyx as well as the recently uncovered feathered dinosaur fossils, but he notes the “temporal paradox,” highlighted by minority BAND scientists (Birds Are Not Dinosaurs), that the earlier stages are in all the later-dated fossils, while Archaeopteryx’s much older feathers are the asymmetrical flight feathers, thought to be the last stage to evolve. Hanson seems to suggest that the discovery of the even-earlier Anchiornis resolved this paradox, because the bird had some lower-stage feathers, but since it also had the flight feathers, we still seem to have a curious sudden appearance of those. (There is also evidence that Archaeopteryx molted, suggesting the function has been around about as long as feathers themselves.)
On the evolution of theropod dinosaurs into birds, Hanson describes some evidence for the current consensus but also notes the dissenting views of Alan Feduccia, a self-described “old-school Darwinian” who thinks birds came from a different ancestor. On the Stage theory of feather evolution, he “questions the usefulness of Prum’s downlike Stage II feathers,” which “lose most of its insulative value when wet… Young ostriches caught out in the rain often die of exposure, even in the African heat. In Prum’s model, however, contour feathers evolved after downy plumes.” Feduccia also thinks the “host of similar traits” between birds and theropods “came about” through “convergent evolution,” which points to the curious flexibility of one person’s homology to be another’s convergent evolution.
A simpler example of convergent evolution: Carrion birds lack feathers on their heads, which seems to keep them from getting blood and guts stuck to their heads as they plunge them into their carcass meals. “For carrion birds, the loss of feathers is such a good idea that it has evolved at least twice, in different places, in totally different groups of species… The New World and Old World vultures are not related; their likeness evolved from the practicalities of their grisly diet.”
(In an unrelated example, the book notes the “more than two dozen independent and unrelated times membranes [flaps of skin] evolved for vertebrate gliding and flight” in non-birds.)
The current consensus for the evolution of bird flight involves Wing Assisted Incline Running by climbing steep slopes or trees, a hypothesis that is a sort of hybrid between the ground-up and tree-down hypotheses, which both had inconvenient difficulties.
On the development of flight with cooling mechanisms: “Innovation in nature often occurs at stress points, places where competing adaptive pressures create an evolutionary dilemma… powered flight and specialized cooling mechanisms developed in tandem.” If “dinosaurs were warm-blooded creatures, then the basics of avian cooling must have already been in place in theropods… the result is a complex system of feather manipulation, controlled blood flow, and evaporative cooling that allows most birds to dispel far more heat than they produce, even while flying on a warm day.”
Challenges to Evolution and Creation
I think the “sudden appearance” / “temporal paradox” of feathers in the fossil record, and the questionable usefulness of the increasing stages point to difficulties for theories of unguided, gradual development. A few examples of convergent evolution add a curious inconvenience. And many of the amazing features seem incredibly complex.
At the same time, I think these features also present challenges to young-earth creationism and its “perfect paradise paradigm.” While complex mating rituals would certainly fit the original commands to “be fruitful and multiply,” the clear adaptations for predator/prey relationships are more curious.
Did owls have barb extensions before the Fall if they didn’t hunt small mammals? Did vultures have bald heads? Did diving birds have adaptations to survive dozens of G forces and adjust their feather buoyancy if they didn’t eat underwater fish? And if the pre-Fall climate was globally lush, as some have conjectured, did the desert sandgrouse have its uniquely absorbent structure?
I suppose the observation that many feathers involve multiple functions would support an idea that these features could have existed with different, but still beautifully designed, functions (although multi-functionality also makes it easier to imagine gradual evolution of complex features).
However, provided the theologies are equally valid, such designs seem to me more naturally indicative of an old-earth creation or theistic evolution type of view, with animals surviving in harsh environments and predator/prey relationships with beautifully designed features that allow a variety of creatures to survive in a “very good” but not yet “perfect” world.
Regardless of how they got here, feathers are marvelous, and thanks to Thor Hanson’s book, I can appreciate their wonder just a little bit more.
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 Evolutionthat 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.
Michael Behe’s Edge of Evolution is a decade-later (2007) follow-up to his 1996 book Darwin’s Black Box, which described the “irreducible complexity” of certain biological structures and argued that Darwinian evolution could not produce them. In this book, Behe looks at the limits of what natural selection and random mutation can do, trying to define what he calls “the edge” of evolution.
Behe makes a careful distinction between the theory of common ancestry, which he believes and shares some evidence for, and the mechanism of random mutations acted on by natural selection (or, “Darwinian evolution”), which he argues is nowhere near powerful enough to account for the diversity of the creatures that share a common ancestry. He critiques scientists who present evidence of common ancestry as evidence of the power of random mutation.
Arms Race or Trench Warfare?
Behe looks at the best-touted examples of what Darwinian evolution can accomplish through the natural selection of random mutations, focusing on human resistance to malaria and malarial resistance to antibiotics. He argues that these “beneficial” single- or double-point mutations are really destructive: malaria hijacks machinery in human red blood cells to do its dirty work, and human mutations essentially break that machinery, sacrificing it as a loss for a net gain of stopping the malaria. Similarly, antibiotics hijack machinery in malaria cells to do their work, and malarial resistance essentially breaks that machinery in a similar sacrifice.
Far from an “arms race” of creatures developing new and complex machinery, Behe says these examples are actually the destructive consequences of a “trench warfare” where each side sustains damage to their own structures to prevent the attacker from taking advantage of them – like “burning a bridge” to block an invading army.
The “beneficial” mutations in malaria have not created new protein bindings, developed any new structures, or come up with any way to counter sickle-cell resistance, cooler temperatures, or other limitations. This explains why malaria has overcome many antibiotics within a few years but has not bested sickle-cell in centuries. “Darwinian evolution can deal quickly and easily with some problems, but slowly if at all with others.”
Since malaria multiplies to a trillion cells in a human host, and the number of malarial cells that exist each year (10^20) is more than the number of mammals that have ever existed, Behe argues we can compare the limited performance of malaria in the last few decades to the total performance of mammals over a hundred million years.
He argues it is not reasonable to expect Darwinian evolution to come up with any benefit that requires more than two point mutations. Quoting Coyne and Orr, he says we have to consider not just what is theoretically possible but probable enough to be “biologically reasonable.”
Behe discusses the evolution of an anti-freeze protein in the notothenoid fish over a few million years, arguing that a possible step-by-step pathway to its development is simple and fundamentally different from developing more complex structures. It “underscores the limits of random mutation, rather than its potential.”
Rugged Fitness Landscape
Unlike an imaginary smooth hill that can be climbed, mutation by single mutation, he describes a “rugged fitness landscape” of mutation effects, with a chaotic mess of valleys and local maximums. He argues that evolution by random mutation is most likely to get stuck on local hills. “Random mutation and natural solution can’t solve the rugged landscape dilemma – they actually cause the dilemma.”
“The eminent geneticist Francois Jacob famously wrote that Darwinian evolution is a ‘tinkerer,’ not an engineer.”
Behe highlights recent biological discoveries to look not just at the final complex structures of living beings but at their marvelous ability to self-assemble their complex pieces. Proteins must have matching shapes and charges to bind together from a huge array of possible shape space, quoting biophysicist Sarah Woodson, “it is as though cars could be manufactured by merely tumbling their parts onto the factory floor.”
He discusses intraflagellar transport (IFT) and its role in cilia construction, how materials are gathered at the base of a cilium before construction, how a rotating filament cap guides flagellum pieces down a rod. Repressors and hox genes and pyramids of cascading circuit switches. Markers that identify different segments of a body for the other pieces to fill in the details.
Behe says the “likelihood of getting two new binding sites” requires “more cells than likely have existed on earth.” He looks at HIV, a virus with nine genes that has a much faster mutation rate than human or malaria cells. “Every possible single-point mutation occurs 10^4 [one thousand] times per day in an HIV-infected individual.” Every double-point mutation would occur in each person once each day. And yet HIV has produced no new protein bindings for the development of new machinery.
To the objection that we cannot extrapolate to billions of years from the performance of malaria or HIV in a short amount of time:
“Time is actually not the chief factor in evolution – population numbers are… Since for many kinds of organisms the mutation rate is pretty similar, the waiting time for the appearance of helpful mutations depends mostly on numbers of organisms… The numbers of malaria cells and HIV in just the past fifty years have probably greatly surpassed the number of mammals that have lived on the earth in the past several hundred million years… The fact that no new cellular protein-protein interactions were fashioned, that mutations were incoherent, that changes in only a few genes were able to help, and that those changes were only relatively (not absolutely) beneficial – all that gives us strong reason to expect the same for larger organisms over longer time.”
Thus Behe’s conclusion: “Most mutations that built the great structures of life must have been nonrandom.”
Natural genetic engineering
Behe briefly discusses other scientific theories of how “unintelligent forces may mimic intent,” such as James Shapiro’s “natural genetic engineering,” which focuses on how the cell contains “sophisticated tools” to manipulate its own genes, so “evolution doesn’t have to proceed in a Darwinian manner by tiny random changes.”
Behe says “in many ways Shapiro has a higher, more respectful view of the genome than Darwinists do… it’s like a computer that contains not only specific programs, but an entire operating system.” But since it doesn’t explain where those tools came from, “if anything, he is pointing the way to a possible mechanism for the unveiling of a designed process of common descent.”
On the other hand, “the fact that natural genetic engineering processes are indeed quite active… yet malaria and HIV have made no good use of them in 10^20 tries, strongly suggests they have very limited utility.”
Behe spends a few chapters of the latter half of the book exploring some of the implications of his ideas and their connections to areas from science to theology. Among other things, he makes some good philosophical rebuttals to multi-verse explanations for the fine-tuned universe.
On matters of public health: “Darwin counsels despair. A consistent Darwinist must think that random mutation will get around any antibiotic eventually – after all, look at all that magnificent molecular machinery it built.. But intelligent design says there’s always real hope. If we can find the right monkeywrench, just one degree more difficult to oppose than chloroquine, it could be a showstopper.”
Oxford mathematics professor John Lennox offers his thoughts on the relationship between Genesis and science in the short but insightful book, Seven Days That Divide The World. Lennox notes various historical approaches to Scriptural interpretation, comparing the current “young-earth/old-earth” divide to the “fixed-earth/moving-earth” controversy of centuries past. Lennox argues that Scripture allows for an old-earth interpretation involving sophisticated, meaningful metaphors, but he also argues the Scripture indicates the special distinct creation of man, not seeming to allow for the common ancestry of humans and animals. He also offers thoughts on the Bible’s and science’s “convergence” on the non-eternity of the universe, and the significance of “non-material” information in universal constants and the human genome as pointing to a “non-material” Creator.
Some of the quotes below are introductory references to ideas that are presented with more fully-developed claims in the full text of the book.
On Interpreting the Bible, and specifically the first chapters of Genesis
“What we think the natural meaning is may not have been the natural meaning for those to whom the text was originally addressed.” “”We cannot simply read it as if it were a contemporary Western document written to address contemporary Western concerns.”
“There are two extremes to be avoided. The first is the danger of tying interpretation of Scripture too closely to the science of the day… The opposite danger is to ignore science.”
“For many years, if not centuries, there would have been two major polarised positions: the fixed-earthers and the moving-earthers… These positions were held.. by those who were convinced that the Bible was the inspired Word of God and who regarded it as the full and final authority.” They agreed “on the core elements of the gospel… They disagreed, however, on what Scripture taught about the motion of the earth.”
“We cannot keep science and Scripture completely separate… the Bible talks about some of the things that science talks about… However, saying Scripture has scientific implications does not mean that the Bible is a scientific treatise from which we can deduce Newton’s laws… We are encouraged… to find out many things for ourselves.” Psalm 111:2, “The works of the Lord are great, sought out of all them that have pleasure therein.” “God loves an enquiring mind…”
“If the Biblical explanation” of the beginning of the universe “were at the level, say, of twenty-second-century science, it would likely be unintelligible to everyone, including scientists today… One of the most remarkable things about Genesis is that it is accessible to, and has a message for, everyone, whether or not they are scientifically literate.”
“Just because a sentence contains a metaphor, it doesn’t mean that it is not referring to something real.”
“We know now that the earth does not rest on literal foundations or pillars... the words “foundations” and “pillars” are used in a metaphorical sense. However.. the metaphors stand for realities. God the Creator has built certain very real stabilities into the planetary system that will guarantee its existence so long as is necessary to fulfill his purposes. Science has been able to show us that the earth is stable in its orbit over long periods of time, thanks in part to the obedience of gravity to an inverse square law, to the presence of the moon, which stabilizes the tilt of earth’s axis, and to the existence of the giant planet Jupiter, which helps keep the other planets in the same orbital plane. Earth’s stability, therefore, is very real… Even though our interpretation relies on scientific knowledge, it does not compromise the authority of Scripture… Scripture has the primary authority. Experience and science have helped decide between the possible interpretations that Scripture allows.”
“What we learn from this is that it is just not adequate to choose an interpretation simply on the basis of asking how many people held this interpretation, and for how long”
“We should be humble enough to distinguish between what the Bible says and our interpretations of it. The Biblical text might just be more sophisticated than we first imagined.”
On historical interpretations of the creation account
“The understanding of the days of Genesis as twenty-four-hour days seems to have been the dominant view for many centuries,” but certainly not the only one:
“Philo (10BC-AD 50) … thought creation was the act of a moment, and the Genesis record had more to do with principles of order and arrangement”
“Justin Martyr.. and Irenaeus… suggested the days might have been long epochs on the basis of Psalm 90:4 (“For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past”) and 2 Peter 3:8 (“With the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day”). Iranaeus applied this reading of Genesis to the warning God gave regarding the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (“In the day that you eat of it you shall surely die”) Since Adam lived on to 930 years, “He (Adam) did not overstep the thousand years, but died within their limit.”
Augustine: “As for these days, it is difficult, perhaps impossible to think, let alone explain in words, what they mean… But at least know that it is different from the ordinary day with which we are familiar.” Augustine held that God had created everything in a moment, and that the days represented a logical sequence to explain it to us.
“Origen… pointed out that in the Genesis account the sun was not made until the fourth day… “Now what man of intelligence will believe that the first, the second, and the third day, and the evening and morning existed without the sun, moon, and stars?”
“The word “day” makes no obvious sense in the absence of the sun and the earth’s rotation relative to it… Some have postulated the existence of a nonsolar light source that functioned for the first three days. However… we know nothing about such a light source, either from Scripture or from science. The logical alternative is that the sun existed at the beginning of the Genesis week… One suggestion is that on day 4 the sun, moon, and stars appeared as distinguishable lights in the sky when the cloud cover that had concealed them dissipated… “The verb ‘made’ in Genesis 1:16 does not specifically mean ‘create’… can also refer to ‘working on something that is already there’ or even ‘appointed'”… The verse is speaking about God appointing the role of the sun and moon in the cosmos.”
“In any case, the fact that some early church fathers had difficulties with interpreting the text should give us some comfort, make us more humble, and, in addition, show us that the difficulties are not all generated by modern science but arise from a serious attempt to understand the text itself.”
On the “days”
“The question of the age of the earth (and of the universe) is a separate question from the interpretation of the days… Logically possible to believe that the days of Genesis are twenty-four hour days (of one earth week) and to believe that the universe is very ancient… This has nothing to do with science. Rather, it has to do with what the text actually says.”
“Even though the Hebrew language does have a definite article (ha), it is not used in the original to qualify days one to five… it is used for days six and seven. A better translation, therefore, would be “day one, day two… day five, the sixth day, the seventh day” or “a first day, a second day … the sixth day, the seventh day.” Thus a “possibility” of “a sequence of six creation days… that might well have been separated by long periods of time.”
Does the work week pattern of Exodus 20 insist the creation week was identically structured? “There were not only similarities between God’s creation week and our work week, but also obvious differences. God’s week happened once; ours is repeated. God’s creative activity is different from ours; God does not need rest as we do… God’s week is a pattern for ours, but it is not identical.”
Human Beings: A Special Creation?
“Genesis does not deny what chemistry tells us – that all life has a material substrate of common elements… “let the earth sprout vegetation” … “let the earth bring forth living creatures” … “The Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” .. Therefore Genesis affirms that (human) life has a chemical base, but Genesis denies the reductionist addendum of the materialist – that life is nothing but chemistry… Genesis seems to be going out of its way to imply a direct special creation act…
“Let the earth bring forth living creatures… Let us make man… This surely deliberate repetition is a clear indicator that, according to Genesis, you cross neither the gulf between nonlife and life nor the gulf between animals and human beings by unguided natural processes.”
Regarding the attempt to find a helper among the animals: “It is interesting that the first lesson Adam was taught… is that he was fundamentally different from all other creatures.”
Unlike, for instance, “The Lord appeared to Abram” … “Genesis 1 and 2 are not talking about God revealing himself to humans that already existed, but rather explaining how those human beings came to exist in the first place.” … “There was no man to work the ground” alongside suggestions that “there were millions of Neolithic farmers in existence at the time.”
Death Before the Fall
“Paul… says that death passed upon all human beings as a result of Adam’s sin; he does not say that death passed upon all living things… We do not accuse the lion of sinning when it kills an antelope.”
Discussing the special features of carnivorous creatures: “The view that animal death did not exist before humans sinned makes the existence of predators problematic.”
“In light of the New Testament’s explicit statement “God alone has immortality” (1 Tim. 6:16) does it follow that Adam never had intrinsic immortality, but was dependent from the beginning on regular access to an external source of food (the Tree of Life) for continued existence?”
“What was the difference, exactly, between the inside and the outside of that garden?”
“Evil in the universe appears to antedate the sin of Adam and Eve… C. S. Lewis: “Man was not the first creature to rebel against the Creator… If there is such a power, as I myself believe, it may well have corrupted the animal creation before man appeared.”
“It is simply false to suggest, as some do, that the only alternative to young-earth creationism is to accept the Darwinian model.”
The Message of Genesis 1
“The Genesis account… is diametrically opposed to all idolatrous interpretations of the universe, whether of the ancient, pagan kind or the modern secular variety.”
“The Biblical teaching, that the earth was specifically designed as a home for human beings, fits well with what contemporary science tells us about the fine-tuning of the universe.”
“So, both Genesis and science say that the universe is geared to supporting human life. But Genesis says more. It says that you, as a human being, bear the image of God… The galaxies are unimaginably large compared with you. However, you know that they exist, but they don’t know that you exist.”
“The idea that the universe did not come to be without the input of information and energy from an intelligent source seems to me to have been amply confirmed by scientific discovery…. The language of mathematics has proved to be a powerful tool in describing how things work. Its codification of the laws of nature into short and elegant “words” consisting of symbols surely reflect the greater Word that is ultimately responsible for the physical structures of the universe.”
“Above and beyond that… we humans possess a “word” of mind-boggling length, the human genome.”
“In recent years information has come to be regarded as one of the fundamental concepts of science. One of the most intriguing things about it is that it is not physical. The information you are reading at the moment is carried on the physical medium of paper and ink. But the information itself is not material… The nonmateriality of information points to a nonmaterial source – a mind, the mind of God.”
On Literary Parallels To The Creation Account
“The impression given is of a text that is written in “exalted, semipoetical language”
“Similarities… have led some scholars to surmise that the Genesis account is derived from the Babylonian Enuma Elish… However, many scholars point out that the similarities mask much more significant differences… The God of Genesis is utterly distinct. He was not created by the universe, as were the pagan gods. It is the other way round… Furthermore, according to Genesis, human beings are created in the image of God as the pinnacle of His creation… According to the Enuma Elish, on the other hand, human beings are created as an afterthought to lighten the work of the gods… Also, by contrast with the Mesopotamian myths, Genesis has no multiplicity of warring gods and goddesses; the heavens and earth are not made out of a god… there are no deifications of stars, planets, sun, and moon – the usual names of the last two are not even used in Genesis 1.”
“It is frequently asserted that the text of Genesis is theological and literary, as distinct from historical or scientific… It is, however, perfectly possible for a text simultaneously to inform us about objective facts and to have a theological purpose.”
On Scientific Parallels To The Creation Account
Quoting “English philosopher and historian Edwyn Bevan” discussion of the Genesis days’ parallels to the scientific story of an ocean covered in thick clouds followed by emerging land followed by plant life followed by animals followed by humans: “The stages by which the earth comes to be what it is cannot be precisely fitted into the account which modern science would give of the process, but in principle they seem to anticipate the modern scientific account by a remarkable flash of inspiration…”
Andrew Parker, Research Director at the Natural History Museum in London, “The opening page of Genesis is scientifically accurate but was written long before the science was known.”
On the universe having a beginning: “What is striking is that the Bible claimed it for thousands of years, whereas scientists only recently began even to entertain the possibility that there might have been a beginning.”
From physicist Sir John Houghton: “For human beings to exist, it can be argued that the whole universe is needed. It needs to be old enough (and therefore large enough) for one generation of stars to have evolved and died, to produce the heavy elements, and then for there to be enough time for a second-generation star like our sun to form with its system of planets…”
On Theistic Evolution / God of the Gaps / Miracles
“On the seventh day God rested. The work of creation was done. That would seem to imply that what went on during the creation sequence is no longer happening.”
Michael Behe argues that “natural selection and random mutation do something,” but their limit “can be transcended only if mutations are introduced that are nonrandom.” Simon Conway Morris “suggests that the uncanny ability of evolution to find its way through the space of all possible paths… is congruent with creation.”
On the risk of theists like himself resorting to “God of the gaps” arguments: “I see evidence of God everywhere… God is the God of the whole show…” But if the universe and earth came about as a result of the natural unfolding of fine-tuned conditions and natural laws, “Theistic evolution now asks why we should introduce a special supernatural act of creation at the point of the origin of life…. Of course, the issue is not whether or not God could have done it in a particular way… The question is, did God do it all in that way?”
“Most physicists seem to be able to live with the view that the origin of space-time is a singularity… It is part of the historic Christian faith that there have been other singularities in more recent history – preeminently the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ… That being the case, I find it strange that some Christians seem to find a priori difficulty in the claim that there have been some additional singularities in the past, like the origin of life and the origin of human beings.”
Distinguishes between “miracles” that “stand out against the known regularities of the universe,” and a “supernatural” action to “set up the universe with its regularities.” “For in both Old and New Testaments, the Bible clearly distinguishes between God’s initial acts of creation on the one hand and his subsequent upholding of the universe on the other… Genesis 1 records a sequence of creation acts followed by God’s resting. “
“St. George Jackson Mivart PhD M.D. FRS (30 November 1827 – 1 April 1900) was an English biologist. He is famous for starting as an ardent believer in natural selection who later became one of its fiercest critics. Mivart attempted to reconcile Darwin’s theory of evolution with the beliefs of the Catholic Church, and finished by being condemned by both parties”(Wikipedia)
On The Genesis Of Species (Gutenberg link) is a fairly short work that criticizes the sufficiency of Darwinian “Natural Selection” to fully account for life. Mivart argued not for its rejection but for its “subordination” to a larger theory that sounds like some sort of theistic-evolutionary-punctuated-equilibrium. While he did not use many of the terms employed by many modern camps, he anticipated many of the arguments and frameworks still used today.
Chapter 1. Introductory
The first chapter defines “Natural Selection” as described by Darwin and Wallace. Mivart offers supportive remarks about its “remarkable” ability to explain limited variability among species [“microevolution”?] as well as critical remarks about the “peculiar difficulties” of its attempts to explain more general variety [“macroevolution”?].
“As error is almost always partial truth,” Mivart suggests that evolution and Christianity are not necessarily incompatible, criticizing those on both sides who “erect a doll utterly incapable of self-defence and then, with a flourish of trumpets and many vigorous strokes, overthrow the helpless dummy they had previously raised.” [i.e. straw man]
The succeeding chapters iterate through Mivart’s objections to the explanatory power of Natural Selection, touching on concepts such as irreducible complexity, convergent evolution, epigenetics, transitional fossils, homology, morality, and pangenesis.
Chapter 2.The Incompetency of “Natural Selection” To Account For The Incipient Stages of Useful Structures. [i.e. irreducible complexity]
“Natural Selection,” simply and by itself, is potent to explain the maintenance or the further extension and development of favourable variations, which are at once sufficiently considerable to be useful from the first to the individual possessing them. But Natural Selection utterly fails to account for the conservation and development of the minute and rudimentary beginnings, the slight and infinitesimal commencements of structures, however useful those structures may afterwards become.
“Some of the cases which have been brought forward” as examples of structures that would be useful in incipient stages “seem less satisfactory when carefully analysed.”
Mivart notes examples of “mimicry” where “some insects which imitate leaves extend the imitation even to the very injuries” of insect attacks or fungi, questioning “how the first faint beginnings” of such an imitation could develop.
Sea-urchins (Echinus) present us also with structures the origin of which it seems impossible to explain by the action of Natural Selection only… not even the sudden development of the snapping action could have been beneficial without the freely moveable stalk, nor could the latter have been efficient without the snapping jaws, yet no minute merely indefinite variations could simultaneously evolve these complex co-ordinations of structure.
“It may be objected, perhaps, that these difficulties are difficulties of ignorance [i.e. God of the gaps]…but… it is not that we merely fail to see how Natural Selection acted, but that there is a positive incompatibility between the cause assigned and the results… utterly insufficient to explain the incipient, infinitesimal beginnings of structures which are of utility only when they are considerably developed.”
Let us consider the mammary gland, or breast. Is it conceivable that the young of any animal was ever saved from destruction by accidentally sucking a drop of scarcely nutritious fluid from an accidentally hypertrophied cutaneous gland of its mother?
Mivart discusses “the mode of formation of both the eye and the ear of the highest animals.” The more “parts that co-operate,” the “more useless be any variation whatever unless it is accompanied by corresponding variations in the co-operating parts,” thus “the less will be the probability of their all occurring at once.”
Mivart considers the ear’s refined ability to perceive the beautiful tones of Beethoven and Mozart unexplainable by Natural Selection, since “it it can hardly be contended that the preservation of any race of men in the struggle for life ever depended on such an extreme delicacy and refinement of the internal ear.”
Chapter 3. The Co-Existence of Closely Similar Structures of Diverse Origin. [i.e. parallel/convergent evolution]
In this chapter Mivart discusses “striking likenesses between different animals, not due to inheritance.”
Mivart contends for the exceeding improbability of “exactly similar structures to have ever been independently developed,” since “the number of possible variations is indefinitely great, and it is therefore an indefinitely great” probability against “a similar series of variations occurring and being similarly preserved in any two independent instances.”
While this difficulty applies to “pure Darwinism” and its “indirect modifications,” “other theories” “admit the direct action of conditions upon animals and plants – in ways not yet fully understood.” “A peculiar but limited power of response” would explain similar variations taking place “not by merely haphazard, indefinite variations in all directions, but by the concurrence of some other and internal natural law or laws co-operating with external influences.” (Mivart returns to this “other” theory to answer every difficulty he raises, eventually fleshing his speculations out in more detail.)
Mivart lists many examples of what I believe is now called “convergent evolution,” such as the “resemblance between the anterior molars of the placental dog with those of the marsupial thylacine,” the “saltatory insectivores of Africa (Macroscelides)” which “not only resemble the kangaroo family (Macropodidæ) in their jumping habits and long hind legs” but also in their teeth, and distinct yet “homogenous” classes of birds alleged to have a “double reptilian origin.”
The difficulty does not tell against the theory of evolution, but only against the specially Darwinian form of it.
Mivart discusses evidence that “in the fish and the cephalopod not only the eye, but at one and the same time the ear also similarly evolved, yet with complete independence… Cuttle-fishes… formed upon a type of structure utterly remote from that on which the animals of the higher division provided with a spinal column are constructed,” there being “no transitional form” yet discovered. “Nevertheless, in the two-gilled Cephalopods” we find in their craniums the same two complex auditory membranous sacs we find in the “higher classes.”
Here, then, we have a wonderful coincidence indeed; two highly complex auditory organs, marvellously similar in structure, but which must nevertheless have been developed in entire and complete independence one of the other! It would be difficult to calculate the odds against the independent occurrence and conservation of two such complex series of merely accidental and minute haphazard variations.
Such being the case with regard to the organ of hearing, we have another yet stronger argument with regard to the organ of sight, as has been well pointed out by Mr. J. J. Murphy.He calls attention to the fact that the eye must have been perfected in at least ‘three distinct lines of descent… In the cuttle-fishes we find an eye even more completely constructed on the vertebrate type than is the ear. Sclerotic, retina, choroid, vitreous humour, lens, aqueous humour, all are present…
Moreover, we have here again the same imperfection of the four-gilled cephalopod, as compared with the two-gilled, and therefore (if the latter proceeded from the former) a similar indication of a certain comparative rapidity of development. Finally, and this is perhaps one of the most curious circumstances, the process of formation appears to have been, at least in some respects, the same in the eyes of these molluscous animals as in the eyes of vertebrates. For in these latter the cornea is at first perforated, while different degrees of perforation of the same part are presented by different adult cuttle-fishes—large in the calamaries, smaller in the octopods, and reduced to a minute foramen in the true cuttle-fish sepia.
Mivart noted the potential objection that “the conditions requisite for effecting vision are so rigid” that “similar results” “must be arrived at.” But he argued by examples that “Nature herself has demonstrated that there is no such necessity…”
So great, however, is the number of similar, but apparently independent, structures, that we suffer from a perfect embarras de richesses. Thus, for example, we have the convoluted windpipe of the sloth, reminding us of the condition of the windpipe in birds; and in another mammal, allied to the sloth, namely the great ant-eater (Myrmecophaga), we have again an ornithic character in its horny gizzard-like stomach. In man and the highest apes the cæcum has a vermiform appendix, as it has also in the wombat!
Mivart’s comments on one attempted explanation:
We have here, then, a structure hypothetically explained by an uncertain property induced by a cause the presence of which is only conjectural.
Mivart seemed very struck by a report that “twenty-nine kinds of American trees all differ from their nearest European allies in a similar manner, leaves less toothed, buds and seeds smaller, fewer branchlets,” etc.
Mivart was also struck by comparisons to the inorganic world.
As Mr. G. H. Lewes well observes, “We do not suppose the carbonates and phosphates found in various parts of the globe—we do not suppose that the families of alkaloids and salts have any nearer kinship than that which consists in the similarity of their elements, and the conditions of their combination. Hence, in organisms, as in salts, morphological identity may be due to a community of causal connexion, rather than community of descent.“
This organic comparison would form a key piece of Mivart’s alternative theory.
Chapter 4. Minute And Gradual Modifications
Mivart begins to develop his theory “in favour of the view that new species have from time to time manifested themselves with suddenness, and by modifications appearing at once… the species remaining stable in the intervals of such modifications: by stable being meant that their variations only extend for a certain degree in various directions, like oscillations in a stable equilibrium.”
Mivart claims Darwin himself gives examples of such suddenness under human observation or direction:
the young oysters already mentioned [in chapter 2], which were taken from the shores of England and placed in the Mediterranean, and at once altered their mode of growth and formed prominent diverging rays, like those of the proper Mediterranean oyster
…Mr. Darwin tells us, that there has been an occasional development (in five distinct cases) in England of the “japanned” or “black-shouldered peacock” (Pavo nigripennis), a distinct species… he observes, “The case is the most remarkable ever recorded of the abrupt appearance of a new form”
Mivart also refers to “curious jaw appendages” that “often characterize Normandy pigs”
Mr. Darwin observes, “As no wild pigs are known to have analogous appendages, we have at present no reason to suppose that their appearance is due to reversion; and if this be so, we are forced to admit that somewhat complex, though apparently useless structures may be suddenly developed without the aid of selection.”
Mivart runs with this:
There are, then, abundant instances to prove that considerable modifications may suddenly develop themselves, either due to external conditions or to obscure internal causes in the organisms which exhibit them.. it is somewhat startling to meet with Mr. Darwin’s dogmatic assertion that it is “a false belief” that natural species have often originated in the same abrupt manner. The belief may be false, but it is difficult to see how its falsehood can be positively asserted.
Mr.Wallace has replied by “objecting that sudden changes could very rarely be useful.” However, if these changes are not simply random, but, as Mivart supposes, the result of “an innate tendency to deviate at certain times, and under certain conditions” that we simply do not yet understand, “it is no more unlikely that that innate tendency should be an harmonious one, calculated to simultaneously adjust the various parts of the organism to their new relations.”
On a lack of transitional forms in the fossil record:
Professor Huxley… himself says… “We greatly suspect that she” (i.e. Nature) “does make considerable jumps in the way of variation now and then, and that these saltations give rise to some of the gaps which appear to exist in the series of known forms.”
Mivart’s discussions about animals appearing “fully developed” in the fossil record, and the expectation that ancestral forms should have been preserved, reminds me of arguments advocated over a hundred years later by Stephen Meyer in Darwin’s Doubt:
…the great group of whales (Cetacea) was fully developed at the deposition of the Eocene strata… we may pretty safely conclude that these animals were absent as late as the latest secondary rocks, so that their development could not have been so very slow… they are animals, the remains of which are singularly likely to have been preserved had they existed, in the same way that the remains were preserved of the Ichthyosauri and Plesiosauri, which appear to have represented the Cetacea during the secondary geological period.
He also reminds me of modern creationist claims about the fossil record:
all naturalists now admit that certain animals, which were at one time supposed to be connecting links between groups, belong altogether to one group, and not at all to the other…
this early degree of excessive specialization tells to a certain, however small, extent against a progress through excessively minute steps… as also does the distinctness of forms formerly supposed to constitute connecting links. For, it must not be forgotten, that if species have manifested themselves generally by gradual and minute modifications, then the absence, not in one but in all cases, of such connecting links, is a phenomenon which remains to be accounted for.
[While Mivart’s “suddenness” sounds closer to “saltationism” than Stephen Jay Gould’s “punctuated equilibrium,” the modern notion of “stasis” is remarkably reminiscent of Mivart’s “species remaining stable in the intervals of such modifications“]
Chapter 5. As To Specific Stability.
Mivart describes his elaborate analogy about limited variability within species:
the organic world consists…. of many facetted spheroids, each of which can repose upon any one facet, but, when too much disturbed, rolls over till it finds repose in stable equilibrium upon another and distinct facet…
A given animal or plant appears to be contained, as it were, within a sphere of variation: one individual lies near one portion of the surface; another individual, of the same species, near another part of the surface; the average animal at the centre…
it seems that a certain normal specific stability in species, accompanied by occasional sudden and considerable modifications, might be expected a priori from what we know of crystalline inorganic forms and from what we may anticipate with regard to the lowest organic ones
Mivart believed there was evidence to warrant such a belief:
The proposition that species have, under ordinary circumstances, a definite limit to their variability, is largely supported by facts brought forward by the zealous industry of Mr. Darwin himself”…
“he distinctly affirms the existence of a marked internal barrier to change in certain cases… [“the goose seems to have a singularly inflexible organization.”] ….And if this is admitted in one case, the principle is conceded, and it immediately becomes probable that such internal barriers exist in all, although enclosing a much larger field for variation in some cases than in others
Chapter 6. Species And Time
Mivart returns to discussing transitional forms in the fossil record, claiming that “not only are minutely transitional forms generally absent, but they are absent in cases where we might certainly a priori have expected them to be present.”
He tries to address a common explanation:
Mr. Darwin attemptsto show cause why we should believe a priori that intermediate varieties would exist in lesser numbers than the more extreme forms; but though they would doubtless do so sometimes, it seems too much to assert that they would do so generally, still less universally. Now little less than universal and very marked inferiority in numbers would account for the absence of certain series of minutely intermediate fossil specimens. The mass of palæontological evidence is indeed overwhelmingly against minute and gradual modification. It is true that when once an animal has obtained powers of flight its means of diffusion are indefinitely increased, and we might expect to find many relics of an aërial form and few of its antecedent state—with nascent wings just commencing their suspensory power. Yet had such a slow mode of origin, as Darwinians contend for, operated exclusively in all cases, it is absolutely incredible that birds, bats, and pterodactyles should have left the remains they have, and yet not a single relic be preserved in any one instance of any of these different forms of wing in their incipient and relatively imperfect functional condition!
Discussing theories of fossil evidence on the ancestry or birds: “though it harmonizes well with “Natural Selection,” it is equally consistent with the rapid and sudden development of new specific forms of life.”
Mivart was not impressed by transitional horse fossils: These extinct forms, as Professor Owen, remarks,“differ from each other in a greater degree than do the horse, zebra, and ass.”
Not only, however, do we fail to find any traces of the incipient stages of numerous very peculiar groups of animals, but it is undeniable that there are instances which appeared at first to indicate a gradual transition, yet which instances have been shown by further investigation and discovery not to indicate truly anything of the kind….
Now, however, it is considered probable that the soft back-boned Labyrinthodont Archegosaurus, was an immature or larval form, while Labyrinthodonts with completely developed vertebræ have been found to exist amongst the very earliest forms yet discovered. The same may be said regarding the eyes of the trilobites, some of the oldest forms having been found as well furnished in that respect as the very last of the group which has left its remains accessible to observation.
Recalling Stephen Meyers and Darwin’s Doubt again with references to “completely developed” features in the “very earliest forms,” and also later in the chapter when discussing the amount of time required for the earliest deposits:
when those Upper Silurian strata were formed, organic evolution had already run a great part of its course, perhaps the longest, slowest, and most difficult part of that course… We have in all these animal types nervous systems differentiated on distinctly different patterns, fully formed organs of circulation, digestion, excretion, and generation, complexly constructed eyes and other sense organs…
Mivart makes one interesting concession:
Some instances… are of course explicable on the Darwinian theory, provided a sufficiently enormous amount of past time be allowed
However, Mivart believed “all geological history showing continuity of life, must be limited within some such period of past time as one hundred million years,” and he calculated two billion years as the amount of time required, extrapolating speculatively with “increasing ratio” from periods of “ten thousand years” for the evolution of small differences between species:
it is not easy to believe that less than two thousand million years would be required for the totality of animal development by no other means than minute, fortuitous, occasional, and intermitting variations in all conceivable directions. If this be even an approximation to the truth, then there seem to be strong reasons for believing that geological time is not sufficient for such a process…
[Interestingly, scientists now believe life has been on Earth for well over two billion years.]
Chapter 7. Species And Space.
Claims about the difficulty of similar species developing in geographically distinct locations. Again:
All geographical difficulties of the kind would be evaded if we could concede the probability of the independent origin, in different localities, of the same organic forms in animals high in the scale of nature. Similar causes must produce similar results, and new reasons have been lately adduced for believing, as regards the lowest organisms, that the same forms can arise and manifest themselves independently… though highly improbable, this cannot be said to be impossible… if there is an innate law of any kind helping to determine specific evolution…”
Chapter 8. Homologies
Claims about the difficulties of slow development of homologous (similar, symmetrical, repeated) parts within individuals and across species.
if the annulose animals have been formed by aggregation, we ought to find this process much less perfect in the oldest form. But a complete development, such as already obtains in the lobster, &c., was reached by the Eurypterida and Trilobites of the palæozoic strata…
it is surely inconceivable that indefinite variation with survival of the fittest can ever have built up these serial, bilateral, and vertical homologies, without the action of some special innate power or tendency so to build up, possessed by the organism itself in each case. By “special tendency” is meant one the laws and conditions of which are as yet unknown, but which is analogous to the innate power and tendency possessed by crystals similarly, to build up certain peculiar and very definite forms…
Chapter 9. Evolution and Ethics
Mivart argues for Natural Selection’s insufficiency to explain the development of morals. He critiques Darwin’s speculations as to how the “ill effects of close interbreeding” could reasonably lead to an “abhorrence” of incest over time. Mivart then offers a counterexample:
Care of… the aged and infirm are actions on all hands admitted to be “right;” but it is difficult to see how such actions could ever have been so useful to a community as to have been seized on and developed by the exclusive action of the law of the “survival of the fittest.”
Chapter 10. Pangenesis.
Fairly uninteresting remarks on a now-discarded hypothesis “that each living organism is ultimately made up of an almost infinite number of minute particles, or organic atoms, termed ‘gemmules,’ each of which has the power of reproducing its kind.”
Chapter 11. Specific Genesis
Having hinted throughout the previous chapters at a theory of “innate powers” to explain the diversity of life, Mivart describes this theory more fully in the eleventh chapter. He seemed fixated on the way “minerals become modified suddenly and considerably by the action of incident forces – as. e.g., the production of hexagonal tabular crystals of carbonate of copper by sulphuric acid.”
We have thus a certain antecedent probability that if changes are produced in specific manifestation through incident forces, these changes will be sensible and considerable, not minute and infinitesimal.
Consequently, it is probable that new species have appeared from time to time with comparative suddenness, and that they still continue so to arise if all the conditions necessary for specific evolution now obtain…
[Mivart’s idea of “innate tendencies,” while not necessarily borne out in the way he expected, does remind me of the little I understand of epigenetics, which refers to “variations that are caused by external or environmental factors that switch genes on and off.”]
Mivart believed “these ‘jumps’ are considerable in comparison with the minute variations of ‘Natural Selection,’ which he saw as merely refining and improving on the species that appeared by “jumps.”
By some such conception as this, the difficulties here enumerated, which beset the theory of ‘Natural Selection’ pure and simple, are to be got over….
Again, as to the independent origin of closely similar structures, such as the eyes of the Vertebrata and cuttle-fishes, the difficulty is removed if we may adopt the conception of an innate force similarly directed in each case, and assisted by favourable external conditions.
Mivart hints at the source of these capacities:
the conviction forces itself on many minds that the organic world is the expression of an intelligence of some kind… This intelligence, however, is evidently not altogether such as ours, or else has other ends in view than those most obvious to us. For the end is often attained in singularly roundabout ways, or with a prodigality of means which seems out of all proportion with the result…
Mivart claims “this view of evolution harmonizes well with Theistic conceptions,” of which he elaborates more fully in the final chapter.
Chapter 12. Theology and Evolution
Returning to the theme of the opening chapter, Mivart expounds more fully upon the relation of evolution to Christianity and its potential compatibility.
He argues against “some of the objections to the Christian conception of God,” and not without some sharp wit:
It is to be regretted that before writing on this matter Mr. Spencer did not more thoroughly acquaint himself with the ordinary doctrine on the subject.
Mivart touches on “first cause” arguments, relevant to those who question why an uncaused universe is any less unreasonable than an uncaused God:
the difficulty as to a self-existent Creator being in his opinion equal to that of a self-existent universe. To this it may be replied that both are of course equally unimaginable…
But, Mivart argues, while “we have these primary intuitions” that are “perfectly harmonious” with “a self-existent Creator,” “the notion of a self-existent universe… in addition to being unimaginable,” also “contradict our primary intuitions.”
Mivart sees an important distinction between “absolute creation and derivative creation,” quoting Dr. Asa Gray as
Agreeing that plants and animals were produced by Omnipotent fiat, does not exclude the idea of natural order and what we call secondary causes. The record of the fiat—’Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed,’ &c., ‘let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind‘—seems even to imply them,” and leads to the conclusion that the various kinds were produced through natural agencies.
“It is plain that physical science and ‘evolution’ can have nothing whatever to do with absolute or primary creation.” He claims older “theological authorities” in support of this distinction, which “thus harmonize with all that modern science can possibly require,” adding that “it may indeed truly be said with Roger Bacon, ‘The saints never condemned many an opinion which the moderns think ought to be condemned.'”
Again analogizing with “crystalline” structures building on “definite lines” and “directions of development,” Mivart contrasted his theory with the atheist’s undirected, unguided, random process:
It is not collected in haphazard, accidental aggregations, but evolves according to its proper laws and special properties.
Mivart argues further against the idea that theology and evolution are incompatible. Acknowledging that “physical nature” and the “moral and religious worlds” initially appear to have a “discrepancy,” he says,
God is indeed inscrutable and incomprehensible to us from the infinity of His attributes, so that our minds can, as it were, only take in, in a most fragmentary and indistinct manner (as through a glass darkly), dim conceptions of infinitesimal portions of His inconceivable perfection… apparently conflicting views arise from our inability to apprehend Him… The difference and discrepancy, however, which is at first felt, is soon seen to proceed not from the reason but from a want of flexibility in the imagination.
On the origin of man:
This animal body must have had a different source from that of the spiritual soul which informs it…
Scripture seems plainly to indicate this when it says that “God made man from the dust of the earth, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” This is a plain and direct statement that man’s body was not created in the primary and absolute sense of the word, but was evolved from pre-existing material (symbolized by the term “dust of the earth”), and was therefore only derivatively created, i.e. by the operation of secondary laws. His soul, on the other hand, was created in quite a different way, not by any pre-existing means, external to God himself, but by the direct action of the Almighty, symbolized by the term “breathing:” the very form adopted by Christ, when conferring the supernatural powers and graces of the Christian dispensation, and a form still daily used in the rites and ceremonies of the Church.
That the first man should have had this double origin agrees with what we now experience. For supposing each human soul to be directly and immediately created, yet each human body is evolved by the ordinary operation of natural physical laws.
the Author ventures to hope that this treatise may not be deemed useless, but have contributed, however slightly, towards clearing the way for peace and conciliation and for a more ready perception, of the harmony which exists between those deductions from our primary intuitions before alluded to, and the teachings of physical science, as far, that is, as concerns the evolution of organic forms—the genesis of species.
The aim has been to support the doctrine that these species have been evolved by ordinary natural laws (for the most part unknown) controlled by the subordinate action of “Natural Selection,” and at the same time to remind some that there is and can be absolutely nothing in physical science which forbids them to regard those natural laws as acting with the Divine concurrence and in obedience to a creative fiat originally imposed on the primeval Cosmos, “in the beginning,” by its Creator, its Upholder, and its Lord.