Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Farewell to Mutation and Natural Selection

The paradigm of evolution is still relentlessly promoted in our culture. Its link to mutation and natural selection, however, is weakening. Quoting a term popularized by science philosopher Thomas Kuhn’s (1922-1996) words, major structures of scientific belief sometimes experience “paradigm shifts.” Evolution’s previous support structure, mutation and natural selection, is undergoing an uneasy paradigm shift. Mutation and natural selection as drivers of evolution have fallen on difficult times. Other causes and effects of evolution such as genetic drift, gene flow, and epigenetics are rising to prominence.

In our post of 1/11/18 we dealt with Perry Marshall’s proposal that cells themselves are agents of intelligence—that cells are “smart.” Marshall has proposed these ideas widely since the middle of the last decade. He posits that mutation and natural selection until recently had provided the support framework for the paradigm of evolution, but is now superseded by a more viable evolutionary support structure he describes as a “third way,” beyond both Neo-darwinism and Stephen C. Meyer’s detailed Intelligent Design theory. Marshall describes the “third way” in his Evolution 2.0, the title of his 2015 book.

Marshall cites several startling experiments he touts as rapid evolution. For example, from his Evolution 2.0 volume: “Research at the University of Colorado reports a fascinating discovery about protozoa…..Starving male and female protozoans mate (pooling their poverty, apparently) and then completely restructure the genome to make a new nucleus, cutting DNA into 100,000 pieces, then splicing and rearranging the code. In other words, a protozoan reprograms its own DNA through a repeating, programmed response to stress—through thousands of simultaneous edits.” These changes occur in a matter of hours.

The protozoa are then adapted to their new environment. As we studied Marshall’s writings on this subject and watched his YouTube exchanges, we were not clear whether he believes a new species was created and whether his innovative “third way” could qualify as full-fledged “evolution” in the classic sense.

We point out that these changes took place in prokaryotes, simple one-celled animals, not in complex, higher order multi-celled animals. Marshall implies that the phenomenon may be related to the reason we should take all of our prescribed antibiotics when we have infections because germs rapidly evolve.

Some epigenetic changes related to variability in the environment have been shown to become hard-wired into a species’ genetics temporarily or even permanently. The well-known phrase, “It’s in the DNA,” while true in terms of protein building blocks producing our physical form, does not tell the whole story of epigenetic inheritance. It is an exciting area of novel research.  

Stephen C. Meyer promotes intelligent design as his paradigm. This means the intelligent designer is the author of the functional genetic code. DNA is a code for producing proteins comprising the physical building blocks of life. This includes mysterious protein folding processes. Many envision the genetic DNA code as the product of an intelligent mind. Meyer implies that an intelligent mind is the creator of life itself. Moreover, startling historical events such as the the Cambrian Explosion of diverse Earth life are the product of sudden and rapid infusions of new information along the timeline of Earth history according to Meyer. The origin of “first life” is an intractable problem in the field of secular science because those scientists are searching for a natural explanation, not a supernatural explanation. Perry Marshall cautiously concedes that the first appearance of life on our planet may be in a different league than his described “third way” of evolution. 

Marshall assigns intelligence to cells rather than an Intelligent Designer who provides new information and acts periodically to produce sudden new appearances of novel species. He terms this process “cellular genetic evolution.” Essentially, Marshall believes the ability to develop new informational codes was programmed into cells from the beginning. The intelligent designer is the cell itself. Marshall offers a multi-million dollar prize to anyone who explains how to identify a naturally occurring code: How do we get from chemicals to code? And how do we get a code without designing one?

These questions have different answers along the spectrum of beliefs in (a) naturalistic evolution, (b) theistic evolution (evolutionary creationism), (c) intelligent design, (d) young earth creationism, and (e) old earth creationism. There are numerous variations of these beliefs. We pose the idea that those who espouse one of these beliefs (or any variant of these beliefs) must show respectful deference to those who may disagree. At the same time, all must commit to a search for truth.

One phenomenon related to these discussions relates to the interface of science and theology. Sometimes Christians become ambivalent when stating their respect for science versus their reverence for theological verities. Science separates itself from investigating or commenting upon supernatural causes, but this separation did not always apply when the scientific revolution first emerged. Creationism and Intelligent Design theory are not compatible with evolutionary theory.

Th Bible is not a scientific textbook. Many scripture passages, however, observe the natural world through both theological and scientific lenses. Isaiah 45:18 comments on the creation of living things inhabiting our planet: “He who fashioned and made the earth, he founded it; he did not create it to be empty, but formed it to be inhabited—he says: I am the Lord, and there is no other.” Psalm 139:13-15, an unequalled pro-life passage, exults: “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” (NIV)