A day of darkness (maybe)

In a previous post I looked at Neodarwinism as a self-contained belief system which, in essence, cannot be falsified. Today I want to consider what would happen if it were shown to be mistaken.

Nearly all the criticism of the Modern Synthesis, outside Biblical Creationism, arises from the mathematical improbability of random mutation having the creative ability to produce the raw material for natural selection to work on. As far back as 1966, mathematicians at the Wistar Conference cast serious doubt on this. The immediate response of the biologists present will be familiar even today: since evolution has occurred, the maths (rather than the MS) must be wrong. Nevertheless one would have thought that such a conference would have provoked a burst of mathematical activity to put evolutionary theory on a more secure footing.

And yet even in 2001, David H Bailey , reporting for the National Center for Science Education on “Evolution and Probability“, corrected the maths of Fred Hoyle’s famous critique on the evolution of haemoglobin (Hoyle F, Wickramasinghe C. Evolution from Space. London: JM. Dent and Sons, 1981. out of print), increasing his probability of 1:10183 to 1:1033. By then citing Hoyle’s over-dramatic illustration of 1040 primaeval amino acid generators, each producing a random 141 amino-acid sequence a billion times per second, and saying they would produce a haemoglobin molecule trillions of times a second, he hides the fact that 1:1033 is actually an infinitesimal probability. A recent job-description from St John’s College, Oxford, and cited by Doug Axe shows how little progress has actually been made since Darwin’s time on a mathematical basis for Darwinism.

The decoding of the human genome, and several decades of research, have revealed complex and powerful new mechanisms, and possible mechanisms, involved in evolution. The list of these seems almost endless: symbiosis and horizontal gene transfer, epigenetic mechanisms, gene transcriptions, transposons and retrotransposons, gene splicing, recurrent DNA sequences, effects on the genome of hybridisation, etc, etc. If only because of the vastly increased complexity of the system under consideration, these present huge challenges to the MS at the mathematical level. And yet to Neodarwinists they pose no problem: commenting on the insignificant differences between chimp and human, Dennis Venema  recently wrote:

 The differences we see, when examining these two genomes, are consistent with small changes,of the sort easily accessible to evolutionary mechanisms.

 “Easy”, you will note, has no mathematics attached – and not surprisingly, since it would be impossible to calculate unless you knew the effects on the whole organism of every change.

But as well as the mathematical challenge of the new developments, they raise at last the possibility of making the process of evolution more plausible, for they all tend towards the idea that change is not random at all, but integral to the function of the cell, and in that sense teleological. They may even have a basis in biochemistry. As James Shapiro wrote in 2006:

The only way I know how to make sense out of the last 50 years of molecular biology is to abandon the mechanistic and atomistic ideas of the pre-DNA era and embrace a more organic, cognitive and computational view of cells and genomes.

The next few years, I feel certain, will produce the long-awaited paradigm-shift in evolutionary theory. But the problem for the established Neodarwinism is that, if and when it comes, this shift will not be capable of absorbtion into the MS, even if extended to breaking point. Natural selection looks likely to be relegated to just one, maybe even minor, spanner in the evolutionary toolbox. Many of the newly-discovered mechanisms are anything but gradual and infinitesimal. And if “cognitive and computational” views of the cell gain ground, mutations will be shown to be far from random, maybe even with respect to fitness. The Modern Synthesis will be dead in the water.

That should not be a disaster for science, since its findings are always tentative and subject to revision, as scientists never tire of telling us. But in this case, significantly more is at stake. For reasons I hinted at in my previous post, Neodarwinism has become the flagship of the whole scientific enterprise, the touchstone of the ability of science to explain everything that matters, and the scourge of superstition in general and religion in particular. Evolution (and by this, it is clear, is meant not simply change over time or common descent, but Neodarwinian evolution by variation and natural selection) is put forward not simply as a persuasive and sufficient explanation for life – it is a fact that only a deluded person can doubt. Dawkins may be in a minority in using the “D” word, but that word “fact” is the lingua franca of the discussion.

So if clearly non-Darwinian mechanisms are shown to be more important, what then? The “fact” will then be exposed as fable. The assurances that random mutation is possible and perfectly sufficient to empower natural selection will be shown to be empty words (and even emptier maths), as well as simply being the wrong explanation. What then will be the reputation of the scientific enterprise, that has given it such a hard-sell, and its self-confidence? If the flagship is sunk, what will happen to the rest of the fleet?

The paradigm-shift may, of course, never happen. But to this writer that seems increasingly unlikely as the days go by – maybe 1:1033 in evolution maths. But if it does, it will show how foolish it was to turn a scientific theory into an ideological worldview.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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