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Michael Lynch: Darwinism is a caricature of evolutionary biology

IDers like to portray evolution as being built entirely on an edifice of darwinian natural selection. This caricature of evolutionary biology is not too surprising. Most molecular, cell and developmental biologists subscribe to the same creed, as do many popular science writers. However, it has long been known that purely selective arguments are inadequate to explain many aspects of biological diversity.

Michael Lynch, May 2005

Michael Lynch is a Distinguished professor of evolutionary biology in Indiana. He is well known in ID circles for his criticism of the work of biochemist Michael Behe and physicist David Snoke [see: Becoming a Jedi Master in the online ID Wars].

Lynch argues that what most biologists accept as a creed, he sees as a caricature, namely, the idea that evolution is built entirely on the edifice of darwinian natural selection. He wrote those words in May, 2005. Along those lines, Lynch has now published a long anticipated book: The Origins of Genome Architecture. Massimo Pigliucci offers his review in the journal Science.

But before I discuss the review by Pigliucci of Lynch’s book, I’d like to offer some illustrations for readers to ponder. These illustrations will help them understand Pigliucci’s critique of Lynch’s work.

If I asked most ID proponents, “do you understand the significance that higher levels of organization in biology have for the design hypothesis?” Most will probably say, “I don’t know. Tell me what you mean by ‘higher levels of organization’. ”

To understand the concept of higher levels of organization, I begin with a down-to-earth example of a public library. Simply speaking, the library is composed of collections of books (and other things), books are composed of chapters, chapters are composed of paragraphs, paragraphs are composed of sentences, sentences are composed of words (and punctuation), words are composed of letters of the alphabet, letters of the alphabet are composed of ink on paper.

I gave a description of books basically in terms of what is printed. But even beyond that description, how can we describe the notion of books without the notion of themes and ideas? These are also higher levels of organization, and these levels of organization are especially problematic for materialists.

Does it make sense to try to fully understand a library by studying the alphabet? Of course not. Does it make sense to describe the contents of books, their origin and evolution, in terms of the dynamics of how ink is put on paper? Of course not. Pigliucci is subtly criticizing Lynch for making comparable errors in Lynch’s view of evolution.

I spoke of books, but let me add one more illustration: spacecrafts. It would be futile to describe spacecrafts merely as conglomerations of atoms (credit Polanyi for that idea). A spacecraft is understood in terms of propulsion, navigation, guidance, control, communications, remote sensing, and a multitude of other “higher levels of organization”. Saying a spacecraft is made of atoms is correct, but the description is deeply incomplete.

With this in mind, we can appreciate Pigliucci’s critique of Lynch. Pigliucci alludes to the fact separate fields of study have emerged to study higher levels of organization in biology. Like the various specialized fields in the science of spacecrafts, we now have specialized fields in biology. If anything, biology is infinitely more complex than spacecrafts.

Some of these fields are identified with the suffix of “-omics”, such as proteomics. These fields describe higher levels of organization within biology which Lynch fails to appreciate according to Pigliucci.

For example, regarding “-omics” we hear much of genomics (DNA), but what are the other “-omics”. One important “omic” is proteomics. From wiki:

Proteomics is the large-scale study of proteins, particularly their structures and functions. Proteins are vital parts of living organisms, as they are the main components of the physiological pathways of cells. The term “proteomics” was coined to make an analogy with genomics, the study of the genes. The word “proteome” is a portmanteau of “protein” and “genome”. The proteome of an organism is the set of proteins produced by it during its life, and its genome is its set of genes.

Proteomics is often considered the next step in the study of biological systems, after genomics. It is much more complicated than genomics,

What is the difference between genomics and proteomics in down-to-earth terms? Perhaps a picture will give a better understanding.

Take a look at how one genome can create two proteomes!

Here is Proteome #1:
monarch larvae

Here is proteome #2 derived from the same genome that generated proteome #1. Proteome #2′s systems are comparable in wonder to modern spacecrafts:
monarch butterfly

The pictures above explain how two proteomes can be generated from a single genome. This illustrates the problem confronting Lynch. A higher level of explanation is needed than mere genomics to explain phenomena in proteomics. Trying to explain proteomics in terms of genomics is like trying to explain spacecraft merely as conglomerations of atoms. It simply fails and is an abysmal category error.

So, in light of the above I present specifically how Pigliucci criticizes Lynch. Pigliucci begins by first outlining where he agrees with Lynch (and unwittingly many ID proponents):

One of the central theses of the book is that natural selection is not necessarily the central evolutionary mechanism…..

Massimo agrees with Lynch on that point. I do too, so does Michael Behe, Bill Dembski, and most of the ID movement. Perhaps everyone except Richard Dawkins!

But then Pigliucci criticizes Lynch for not going farther, for almost making the same errors with which Lynch criticizes his fellow Darwinists, namely, for being too simplistic.

Pigliucci rightly recognizes the problem facing reductionists like Lynch is that it is inappropriate to reduce certain higher level phenomena in terms of more primitive mechanisms, like trying to describe spacecraft assembly merely by saying they are conglomerations of atoms which came together according to the laws of physics. Such explanations seem deeply incomplete.

He criticizes Lynch with the following:

the various “-omics” (genomics, proteomics, transcriptomics, metabolomics, and even phenomics) ….
The very fact that molecular biologists are now talking (albeit often naively) about higher-level “-omics,” all the way to phenomics, means that they appreciate that genomes are only a part of the story, arguably the simplest part to figure out.

Darwinian and Genomic reductionism fails to explain design in biology. If engineered architectures are not reducible to the materials which make up the architectures, why should we expect the design of life to be explained by reductionist viewpoints such as those of Darwin and Lynch?

The ideas within books are more than the ink on the pages. Trying to explain the contents of the books in terms of the dynamics of how ink gets onto paper just won’t work, and neither will attempts to explain the information content of life purely in terms of natural selection or genomics or any similarly reductionist view point. There are kernels of information which are not reducible to simplistic laws. [see note 3 below.]

Attempts at such reductionism are a category error, and Pigliucci is subtly criticizing Lynch for a category error.

Finally, Massimo expressed his irritation with Lynch for Lynch likening some of Massimo’s fellow Darwinists to creationists! Lynch likened his colleagues to creationists not because they reject natural selection as the main engine of evolution, but because his fellow Darwinists dared distance themselves from Lynch’s genecentrism. Lynch is a genecentrist, and his colleagues are arguing that Lynch is wallowing in the dark ages of genecentrism even though he has nicely emerged from the caricature of evolution that is Darwinism.

Lynch’s thesis, as mentioned above, is that the theoretical apparatus of evolutionary theory is complete and that people should stop whining about missing pieces and the need for a new synthesis: just study your population genetics and everything will be all right.

This is, of course, a perfectly respectable opinion–although the repeated, if oblique, parallels Lynch draws between legitimate scientific opponents of his view and creationists who advocate intelligent design become increasingly irritating by the end of the chapter.

The rest of Massimo’s essay is excellent. But let me offer why all explanations that appeal to mindless evolution will fail. Until biologists acknowledge that design is the best way to characterize biology rather than evolutionary history, they will not really understand biology. Trying to comprehend engineering wonders in terms of random accidents makes no sense. Trying to explain computers in terms of chemistry alone makes little sense. To the extent that function and design are exorcised from biology will be the extent that the engineering wonders of biology will be misunderstood.

Ultimately, the main reason we need an expansion of the modern synthesis was pointed out by Popper several years ago: “[the Darwinian theory] is strictly a theory of genes, yet the phenomenon that has to be explained is that of the transmutation of form”

although indeed necessary, population genetics is not even close to sufficient for understanding how phenotypes evolve.

Lynch is right to criticize the caricature of evolutionary biology which sees natural selection as the foundation upon which all else is built. Massimo is right to criticize Lynch for not going even farther and realizing the statistical dynamics of genes is insufficient to explain biology. This would be like trying to explain spacecrafts merely in terms of chemistry. This sort of reductionism has no hope of working.


1. Bill Dembski asked me to post on Michael Lynch’s new book and the review written by Massimo Pigliucci. Michael Lynch explicitly expressed his displeasure if I so much as mention him in association with anything I communicate. Two years ago I quoted his comments about an article in Nature that featured my work with IDEA. Now, I would think I ought to have the right to respond to comments by Lynch made about an article involving me. Not so. Lynch did not give his blessing and went to great lengths to make it known that he was displeased that I so much as mentioned his name when talking about ID.

I made public comments on this letter by Lynch: Intelligent design or intellectual laziness? Lynch took exception that I spoke about his letter, even though his letter was about an article in Nature that involved me, Bill Dembski, and Caroline Crocker. See: Who has designs on your student’s minds?

The opening quote was one which displeased Lynch for me highlighting. Thus, in honor of Michael Lynch, I gladly highlight it again.

2. Pigliucci writes:

Lynch himself cites the now-classic paper by Gould and Lewontin (6) railing against “panselectionism,” and most evolutionary biologists have already gotten the message.

This classic paper was required reading in Allen MacNeill’s ID course at Cornell in 2006. The paper can be found here: Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm.

3. To learn more reasons why reductionism fails to explain complex design, see: 2007
Irreducible Complexity in Mathematics, Physics and Biology
and From Italy, Mathematics and the origin-of-life problem

4. I pointed out reasons Darwinism is mathematically incoherent to explain certain designs biology which mimic designs in the aerospace industry. See: Airplane magnetos, contingency designs, and reasons ID will prevail

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3 Responses to Michael Lynch: Darwinism is a caricature of evolutionary biology

  1. [...] From an essay at UD, Michael Lynch: Darwinism is a caricature of evolutionary biology IDers like to portray evolution as being built entirely on an edifice of darwinian natural selection. This caricature of evolutionary biology is not too surprising. Most molecular, cell and developmental biologists subscribe to the same creed, as do many popular science writers. However, it has long been known that purely selective arguments are inadequate to explain many aspects of biological diversity. [...]

  2. 2

    I think that this shows powerfully why systems biology will eventually sweep reductionism away. Once systems biology takes hold, I think it will become apparent how silly naturalistic evolution is. The simplest living cell is multiple orders of magnitude more complex than the most complex of our human creations. None of our human creations were created with anything resembling naturalistic evolution.

    The Scubaredneck

  3. [...] 2. I provided my take on Massimo Pigliucci’s review of Michael Lynch’s book in Michael Lynch: Darwinism is a caricature of evolutionary biology [...]

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