It’s time for scientists to come clean with the public about evolution and the origin of life
|January 2, 2014||Posted by vjtorley under Intelligent Design|
As we’ve seen, a large percentage of the American public – 47% according to a recent Harris Interactive poll – now believes in Darwin’s theory of evolution. One possible reason for this high percentage is that high school and college students are not told about the problems which call Darwin’s theory into question – as well as theories of evolution which are based on random genetic drift.
Still, there are heartening signs that the wall of ignorance supporting the dam of evolutionary orthodoxy is about to collapse. A steady stream of ground-breaking books and peer-reviewed scientific articles authored by scientists who question key assumptions of modern evolutionary theory has been coming out in the last couple of years. It is only a matter of time before these articles and books get the attention of the general public. What’s important here is that the scientists writing these books and articles are not “outsiders” who reject evolution, but “insiders” who recognize that contemporary theories of evolution are radically deficient in explaining the origin and evolution of life.
Scientists have calculated that Darwin’s theory of natural selection brings about changes too slowly for evolution to have occurred in just 4 billion years
In 2010, a paper by Herbert S. Wilf and Warren J. Ewens, titled, “There’s plenty of time for evolution”, was published in the Proceedings of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) (doi: 10.1073/pnas.1016207107). The aim of the paper’s authors was to demonstrate mathematically that “there has been ample time for the evolution that we observe to have taken place.” At the time, the article was given wide publicity, and it was featured prominently over at Professor Jerry Coyne’s Website, Why Evolution is True, while Professor P.Z. Myers claimed the paper provided “a guide to short-circuiting the invalid assumptions of creationists.” Sadly, very few people read about the devastating rebuttal of Wilf and Ewens’s paper by Winston Ewert, William A. Dembski, Ann K. Gauger, Robert J. Marks II, in a paper titled, Time and Information in Evolution, in BIO-Complexity, Volume 2012 (4). The authors concluded that Wilf and Ewens’s paper did not accurately model biological evolution, firstly because their model included “implicit information sources, including the equivalent of a highly informed oracle that prophesies when a mutation is ‘correct,’ thus accelerating the search by the evolutionary process,” and secondly because the model makes “unrealistic biological assumptions that, in effect, simplify the search.”
Now, however, it seems that the scientific community is finally starting to come clean about the fact that Darwinian evolution is nowhere near capable of generating the diversity of life-forms we see on Earth today within the time available (four billion years).
Edward Frenkel, a professor of mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley, recently reviewed a book titled, Probably Approximately Correct: Nature’s Algorithms for Learning and Prospering in a Complex World (Basic Books, 2013) by computer scientist Leslie Valiant, in a report for the New York Times (Evolution, Speeded by Computation, September 30, 2013). The following excerpt conveys the gist of Dr. Valiant’s conclusions:
The evolution of species, as Darwin taught us, relies on natural selection. But Dr. Valiant argues that if all the mutations that drive evolution were simply random and equally distributed, it would proceed at an impossibly slow and inefficient pace.
Darwin’s theory “has the gaping gap that it can make no quantitative predictions as far as the number of generations needed for the evolution of a behavior of a certain complexity,” he writes. “We need to explain how evolution is possible at all, how we got from no life, or from very simple life, to life as complex as we find it on earth today. This is the BIG question.”
Dr. Valiant proposes that natural selection is supplemented by ecorithms, which enable organisms to learn and adapt more efficiently. Not all mutations are realized with equal probability; those that are more beneficial are more likely to occur. In other words, evolution is accelerated by computation.
The criticisms being made here of the Darwinian theory of evolution are pretty devastating: not only is it far too slow to generate life in all its diversity, but it’s also utterly incapable of making quantitative predictions about the time required for a structure of known complexity to evolve, by natural selection. And there’s no reason to believe that the “nearly neutral theory of evolution” espoused by biologists such as Professor Larry Moran would fare any better, in this regard.
So what is Dr. Valiant’s alternative? It sounds as if he is advocating some kind of teleological, or purpose-driven evolution. That’s fine, but it raises a deeper question: who or what made evolution capable of achieving its goals within only a few billion years? Is the evolutionary process fine-tuned?
A new kind of evolution is required to account for the Cambrian explosion
Shortly after the publication of Stephen Meyer’s scholarly work, Darwin’s Doubt, an article by Michael Lee, Julien Soubrier and Gregory D. Edgecombe, titled, Rates of Phenotypic and Genomic Evolution during the Cambrian Explosion (Current Biology, Volume 23, Issue 19, 1889-1895, 12 September 2013), which was widely hailed as a decisive refutation of the claims made in Dr. Meyer’s book. The article’s authors claimed that that evolution ran about five times faster during the Cambrian than its usual, gradual pace. That, they say, accounts for the Cambrian explosion. The key message: evolution’s “big bang” is fully compatible with Darwinian evolution. What the article overlooked was that Meyer’s central criticism of the Darwinian account had nothing to do with the time available; rather, it had to do with the type of evolution required to account for the changes that took place at that time – namely, the simultaneous appearance of about 30 different kinds of animal body plans, during the Cambrian period. (See here for a critical review of Lee et al.‘s article.)
But truth will out, one way or another. The scientific world might have ignored Meyer’s arguments, but they could not ignore the arguments made by two paleontologists who are widely acknowledged as leading authorities on the Cambrian explosion: Douglas Erwin and James Valentine. Over at Evolution News, Casey Luskin recently reviewed Erwin and Valentine’s latest ground-breaking book, The Cambrian Explosion: The Construction of Animal Biodiversity (Roberts and Company, 2013). A few relevant excerpts will serve to convey the gist of the book’s central argument, which is that nothing less than a radically new kind of evolution is required in order to understand what kicked off the Cambrian explosion:
One important concern has been whether the microevolutionary patterns commonly studied in modern organisms by evolutionary biologists are sufficient to understand and explain the events of the Cambrian or whether evolutionary theory needs to be expanded to include a more diverse set of macroevolutionary processes. We strongly hold to the latter position. (pp. 9-10)
Because the Cambrian explosion involved a significant number of separate lineages, achieving remarkable morphological breadth over millions of years, the Cambrian explosion can be considered an adaptive radiation only by stretching the term beyond all recognition… [T]he scale of morphological divergence is wholly incommensurate with that seen in other adaptive radiations. (p. 341)
The pathway from sponges to eumetazoans is the most enigmatic of any evolutionary transition in metazoans. This transition occurred during the Cryogenian, almost contemporaneously with the diversification of sponges. Many biologists concerned with metazoan phylogeny have been convinced that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” and have therefore assumed that the planktonic larval stages of invertebrate phyla represented their ancestral forms. The benthic nature of sponges and the paraphyly of the major clades demonstrate that planktonic stages could not have been ancestral to eumetazoans. Further, there are no living intermediates between sponges and eumetazoans, with the possible exception of placotozoans, and no obvious hints from the fossil record. (p. 324)
To be sure, all pairs of crown phyla had common ancestors; as far as we know, however, none of those bilaterian LCAs [last common ancestors – VJT] had features that would cause them to be diagnosed as members of living phyla, although that could be the case in a few instances. In other words, the morphological distances — gaps — between body plans of crown phyla were present when body fossils first appeared during the explosion and have been with us ever since. The morphological disparity is so great between most phyla that the homologous reference points or landmarks required for quantitative studies of morphology are absent. (p. 340)
(Emphases mine – VJT.)
Summing up his review of Erwin and Valentine’s book for the journal Science, Christopher J. Lowe wrote:
The Ediacaran and Cambrian periods witnessed a phase of morphological innovation in animal evolution unrivaled in metazoan history, yet the proximate causes of this body plan revolution remain decidedly murky. The grand puzzle of the Cambrian explosion surely must rank as one of the most important outstanding mysteries in evolutionary biology.
(Christopher J. Lowe, “What Led to Metazoa’s Big Bang?”, Science, Vol. 340: 1170-1171 (June 7, 2013). (Emphasis added – VJT.))
This is the big story that high school and college students in most Western countries have been shielded from hearing about – until now. Hopefully the publication of a book by two acknowledged scientific authorities on the Cambrian explosion will break the taboo that still surrounds discussion of this topic, in science classrooms – and since the authors are not Intelligent Design proponents, there can be no legal objection to a free and frank discussion of the claims made in their book. The weaknesses of the Darwinian story of the Cambrian explosion need to be exposed, for all to see.
Origin of life scenarios are plagued with problems that refuse to go away
The origin of life is often bracketed to one side by Darwinists, who argue that it falls outside the scope of the theory of evolution. But methodological naturalism (which is currently regarded as the “official” methodology of science) claims to provide a naturalistic account of origins, and in order to do that, it needs to show that the origin of life is at least a tractable problem, even if no solution to the problem has yet been found.
Last month, science reporter Suzan Mazur interviewed Dr. Steve Benner, director of the Florida-based Westheimer Institute at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution, in a report for the Huffington Post. Mazur asked Dr. Benner several questions about an upcoming conference he will be chairing in January, called the “Origins of Life / Gordon Research Conference.” In the course of the interview, Benner referred to four major hurdles confronting any theory for getting from simple chemicals to a Darwinian replicator, such as RNA. Dr. Benner admitted that the track record to date in overcoming these hurdles has been one of unmitigated failure:
We have failed in any continuous way to provide a recipe that gets from the simple molecules that we know were present on early Earth to RNA. There is a discontinuous model which has many pieces, many of which have experimental support, but we’re up against these three or four paradoxes, which you and I have talked about in the past. The first paradox is the tendency of organic matter to devolve and to give tar. If you can avoid that, you can start to try to assemble things that are not tarry, but then you encounter the water problem, which is related to the fact that every interesting bond that you want to make is unstable, thermodynamically, with respect to water. If you can solve that problem, you have the problem of entropy, that any of the building blocks are going to be present in a low concentration; therefore, to assemble a large number of those building blocks, you get a gene-like RNA — 100 nucleotides long — that fights entropy. And the fourth problem is that even if you can solve the entropy problem, you have a paradox that RNA enzymes, which are maybe catalytically active, are more likely to be active in the sense that destroys RNA rather than creates RNA.
How many people know about these problems? Very few. And in case you’re wondering why, Mazur highlights the main reason at the beginning of her article: lack of transparency, illustrated by the secrecy surrounding the conference Dr. Benner will be directing later this month:
There is an elaborate registration process, a fee of over $1,000 to attend, and approval by Chairman Steve Benner required. Plus, conference goers are asked not to reveal what went on there.
(UPDATE: I have been informed that the “gag rule” is not as sinister as it sounds: it protects research-in-progress, which is often presented by conferees, and normal scientific priority concerns.)
Ms. Mazur has done the public a great service in getting a leading member of the scientific community to open up about the problems facing origin-of-life scenarios. It is high time that people realized the magnitude of the problem, and the publication of a revealing interview such as this one in the pages of The Huffington Post marks a major milestone.
Speculative new proposals, such as dynamic kinetic stability, fail to quantify, and therefore don’t deserve to be called science
During her interview with Dr. Benner, Suzan Mazur also referred to a recent paper by Robert Pascal et al., titled, Towards an evolutionary theory of the origin of life based on kinetics and thermodynamics (Open Biology, November 2013, doi: 10.1098/rsob.130156). After exposing the inadequacies of currently accepted models of the origin of life, the authors go on to propose a model of their own, in which the origin of life may have proceeded stepwise through states of partial “aliveness.” According to the authors, a rare kind of chemical stability, known as dynamic kinetic stability, was what permitted the development of entities that were capable of self-reproduction, and whose descendants gradually accumulated novel biological functions, over the course of geological time. However, the authors freely acknowledge what they refer to as “the difficulty in quantifying dynamic kinetic stability”:
Starting from the axiomatic principle that a transition to life is not physically and statistically impossible, and choosing a temperature compatible with the presence of liquid water, we end in a semi-quantitative representation consistent with life as we know it, which is based on covalent bonds and largely dependent, directly or indirectly, on visible light from the Sun (Scheme 5). This representation of the origin of life process has then the capability of explaining the living world in a consistent way. There has been a lively discussion on the opposition of Monod’s views considered above and de Duve’s ‘cosmic imperative’ . Contrary to deterministic views, the ideas developed here do not allow any assessment of the level of probability of life and its emergence, nor any prediction of its evolutionary path. Rather they support the idea that spontaneous self-organization of systems manifesting many of the features of living beings is a reasonable possibility in the physical world, provided that several conditions are met.
To the untutored layperson, the authors’ suggested mechanism for the origin of life sounds plausible. And that’s precisely what’s wrong with it. The skeptical philosopher Dr. Stephen Law recently published a book about how we should form our beliefs, in which he argued that “any belief, no matter how ludicrous, can be made to be consistent with the available evidence, given a little patience and ingenuity.” Dr. Law’s point was that mere plausibility isn’t enough to make a theory true; any theory can be made to sound plausible. The only theories which are truly worthy of our belief are those which are probable, as opposed to merely plausible. And what makes a theory probable, according to Law, is the discovery of confirming evidence, which he defined as evidence such that the probability of finding it would be low, if the theory were false.
The big problem I have with the paper, Towards an evolutionary theory of the origin of life based on kinetics and thermodynamics by Pascal et al., is that it explicitly jettisons Law’s probability requirement, and lowers the evidential bar: a theory for the origin of life is now deemed adequate, so long as it is plausible. The authors contend that since it is impossible to calculate the probabilities of the emergence of life or its subsequent evolution along the pathway leading to the life-forms we observe on Earth today, it is enough to show that the evolution of life on Earth is “a reasonable possibility in the physical world” and that “a transition to life is not physically and statistically impossible.” In other words, the authors are defining plausibility, rather than probability, as the epistemic yardstick by which the theory of evolution ought to be judged. This, I have to say, is not science. And that in turn entails that modern theories of evolution are not scientific theories either, since they do not even attempt to quantify the time it should take for complex structures to evolve, which means that they should not be accorded the respect given to scientific theories.
The authors’ cavalier attitude to probability is especially problematic, in the light of recent research by Dr. Douglas Axe and Dr. Ann Gauger (see here and here), which suggests that even a relatively trivial change in the enzymatic function of a single protein is extremely unlikely to occur, and that Darwin’s mechanism would require a trillion trillion years – about 100 trillion times longer than the age of the universe – to bring it about. Axe and Gauger explain the significance of their research in highly accessible layperson’s language and respond to to their critics here, here and here.
Calculating the probabilities: Eugene Koonin admits that the origin of life requires a multiverse
The best way of getting around the improbability of life evolving on Earth is to invoke the multiverse. Dr. Eugene V. Koonin is a Senior Investigator at the National Center for Biotechnology Information, which is part of the National Library of Medicine, a branch of the National Institutes of Health, in Bethesda, Maryland, USA. Dr. Koonin is also a recognized authority in the field of evolutionary and computational biology. Recently, he authored a book, titled, The Logic of Chance: The Nature and Origin of Biological Evolution (Upper Saddle River: FT Press, 2011, ISBN 978-0-13-262317-9). I think we can fairly assume that when it comes to origin-of-life scenarios, he knows what he’s talking about.
In Appendix B of his book, The Logic of Chance, Dr. Koonin argues that the origin of life is such a remarkable event that we need to postulate a multiverse, containing a very large (and perhaps infinite) number of universes, in order to explain the emergence of life on Earth.
The reason why Dr. Koonin believes we need to postulate a multiverse in order to solve the riddle of the origin of life on Earth is that all life is dependent on replication and translation systems which are fiendishly complex. As Koonin puts it:
The origin of the translation system is, arguably, the central and the hardest problem in the study of the origin of life, and one of the hardest in all evolutionary biology. The problem has a clear catch-22 aspect: high translation fidelity hardly can be achieved without a complex, highly evolved set of RNAs and proteins but an elaborate protein machinery could not evolve without an accurate translation system.
Dr. Koonin claims that the emergence of even a basic replication-translation system on the primordial Earth is such an astronomically unlikely event that we would need to postulate a vast number of universes, in which all possible scenarios are played out, in order to make its emergence likely.
To justify this claim, Dr. Koonin provides what he calls “a rough, toy calculation of the upper bound of the probability of the emergence of a coupled replication-translation system in an O-region.” (That’s an observable universe, such as the one we live in.) The calculations on pages 434-435 in Appendix B of Dr. Koonin’s book, The Logic of Chance, are adapted from his peer-reviewed article, The Cosmological Model of Eternal Inflation and the Transition from Chance to Biological Evolution in the History of Life, Biology Direct 2 (2007): 15, doi:10.1186/1745-6150-2-15. As readers can verify for themselves, the wording is virtually identical in the 2007 article. I shall reproduce the relevant passage below (bold emphases are mine – VJT):
Probabilities of the emergence, by chance, of different versions of the breakthrough system in an O-region: a back-of-the-envelope calculation of the upper bounds
…A ribozyme replicase consisting of ~100 nucleotides is conceivable, so, in principle, spontaneous origin of such an entity in a finite universe consisting of a single O-region cannot be ruled out in this toy model (again, the rate of RNA synthesis considered here is a deliberate, gross over-estimate).
The requirements for the emergence of a primitive, coupled replication-translation system, which is considered a candidate for the breakthrough stage in this paper, are much greater. At a minimum, spontaneous formation of the following is required:
– Two rRNAs with a total size of at least 1000 nucleotides
– Approximately 10 primitive adaptors of about 30 nucleotides each, for a total of approximately 300 nucleotides
– At least one RNA encoding a replicase, about 500 nucleotides (low bound)is required. Under the notation used here, n = 1800, resulting in E <10-1018.
In other words, even in this toy model that assumes a deliberately inflated rate of RNA production, the probability that a coupled translation-replication emerges by chance in a single O-region is P < 10-1018. Obviously, this version of the breakthrough stage can be considered only in the context of a universe with an infinite (or, at the very least, extremely vast) number of O-regions.
The model considered here is not supposed to be realistic by any account. It only serves to illustrate the difference in the demands on chance for the origin of different versions of the breakthrough system and, hence, the connections between these versions and different cosmological models of the universe.
Dr. Koonin’s 2007 paper, which contained the above calculations, passed a panel of four reviewers, including one from Harvard University, who wrote:
In this work, Eugene Koonin estimates the probability of arriving at a system capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution and comes to a cosmologically small number… He cites recent work in cosmology that highlights the vastness of the universe, where any series of events is necessarily played out an infinite number of times. This so-called “many-worlds in one” model essentially reconceives any chance event as a necessary one, where its (absolute) abundance is proportional to its chance of occurring.
The context of this article is framed by the current lack of a complete and plausible scenario for the origin of life. Koonin specifically addresses the front-runner model, that of the RNA-world, where self-replicating RNA molecules precede a translation system. He notes that in addition to the difficulties involved in achieving such a system is the paradox of attaining a translation system through Darwinian selection. That this is indeed a bona-fide paradox is appreciated by the fact that, without a shortage [of] effort, a plausible scenario for translation evolution has not been proposed to date. There have been other models for the origin of life, including the ground-breaking Lipid-world model advanced by Segrè, Lancet and colleagues (reviewed in EMBO Reports (2000), 1(3), 217–222), but despite much ingenuity and effort, it is fair to say that all origin of life models suffer from astoundingly low probabilities of actually occurring…
…[F]uture work may show that starting from just a simple assembly of molecules, non-anthropic principles can account for each step along the rise to the threshold of Darwinian evolution. Based upon the new perspective afforded to us by Koonin this now appears unlikely. (Emphases mine – VJT.)
I am very pleased to see that the argument presented in Koonin’s peer-reviewed paper was republished in his recent book, The Logic of Chance: The Nature and Origin of Biological Evolution (Upper Saddle River: FT Press, 2011, ISBN 978-0-13-262317-9). It is encouraging to see that the experts within the field of origin-of-life studies are finally starting to speak the truth in a public forum: the origin of life on Earth, by any naturalistic scenario, must have been an astronomically improbable event. Hopefully, it won’t be too long before high school and college students get to hear about this, as well.
Why the multiverse won’t help explain the origin of life
But for all its ingenuity, Dr. Koonin’s multiverse won’t work. The multiverse hypothesis is plagued by two problems: first, it merely shifts the fine-tuning problem up one level, as a multiverse capable of generating any life-supporting universes at all would still need to be fine-tuned; and second, even the multiverse hypothesis implies that a sizable proportion of universes (including perhaps our own) were intelligently designed. Once again, the articles arguing for these conclusions are written by highly respected authorities in the field.
Dr. Robin Collins is a Professor of Philosophy and chair of the Department of Philosophy at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania. Dr. Collins also spent two years in a Ph.D. program in Physics at the University of Texas at Austin before transferring to the University of Notre Dame where he received a Ph.D. in philosophy in 1993. In an influential essay entitled, The Teleological Argument: An Exploration of the Fine-Tuning of the Universe (in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, edited by William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland, 2009, Blackwell Publishing Ltd.), Dr. Robin Collins offers a scientific explanation of why even a “multiverse-generator” would still fail to eliminate the need for fine-tuning:
…[A]s a test case, consider the inflationary type multiverse generator. In order for it to explain the fine-tuning of the constants, it must hypothesize one or more “mechanisms” for laws that will do the following [four] things: (i) cause the expansion of a small region of space into a very large region; (ii) generate the very large amount of mass-energy needed for that region to contain matter instead of merely empty space; (iii) convert the mass-energy of inflated space to the sort of mass-energy we find in our universe; and (iv) cause sufficient variations among the constants of physics to explain their fine-tuning.
[T]o achieve (i)–(ii), we effectively have a sort of “conspiracy” between at least two different factors: the inflaton field that gives empty space a positive energy density, and Einstein’s equation… of General Relativity, which dictates that space expand at an enormous rate in the presence of a large near-homogenous positive energy density… Without either factor, there would neither be regions of space that inflate nor would those regions have the mass-energy necessary for a universe to exist.…
In addition to the four factors listed, the fundamental physical laws underlying a multiverse generator – whether of the inflationary type or some other – must be just right in order for it to produce life-permitting universes, instead of merely dead universes. Specifically, these fundamental laws must be such as to allow the conversion of the mass-energy into material forms that allow for the sort of stable complexity needed for complex intelligent life…
In sum, even if an inflationary-superstring multiverse generator exists, it must have just the right combination of laws and fields for the production of life-permitting universes: if one of the components were missing or different, such as Einstein’s equation or the Pauli Exclusion Principle, it is unlikely that any life-permitting universes could be produced. Consequently, at most, this highly speculative scenario would explain the fine-tuning of the constants of physics, but at the cost of postulating additional fine-tuning of the laws of nature.
There’s another problem with the multiverse hypothesis, too. Physicist Paul Davies has argued that the multiverse hypothesis is just as “theological” as the hypothesis that there is a God, since it implies the existence of intelligently designed universes:
Among the myriad universes similar to ours will be some in which technological civilizations advance to the point of being able to simulate consciousness. Eventually, entire virtual worlds will be created inside computers, their conscious inhabitants unaware that they are the simulated products of somebody else’s technology. For every original world, there will be a stupendous number of available virtual worlds – some of which would even include machines simulating virtual worlds of their own, and so on ad infinitum.
Taking the multiverse theory at face value, therefore, means accepting that virtual worlds are more numerous than “real” ones. There is no reason to expect our world – the one in which you are reading this right now – to be real as opposed to a simulation. And the simulated inhabitants of a virtual world stand in the same relationship to the simulating system as human beings stand in relation to the traditional Creator.
Far from doing away with a transcendent Creator, the multiverse theory actually injects that very concept at almost every level of its logical structure. Gods and worlds, creators and creatures, lie embedded in each other, forming an infinite regress in unbounded space.
— Paul Davies, A Brief History of the Multiverse, New York Times, 12 April 2003.
Both Collins’ and Davies’ articles, which expose the flaws in appealing to the multiverse hypothesis as an alternative to theism, are freely available at Websites which make no attempt to push a theistic worldview: Collins’ paper is available at commonsenseatheism.com/, for instance. As such, these sites are above suspicion, and teachers wishing to foster critical thinking skills in their students should not hesitate to make use of the articles they contain, which call into question not only the Darwinian theory of evolution, but also the reigning naturalistic worldview.
Let us hope, then, that 2014 brings further good tidings in the fight against ignorance and scientific “groupthink.”