Maladapted to perfection

Darwinism in its original form was a theory to explain increasing perfection. Most of Darwin’s examples follow his original hero Paley’s pattern of the exquisite matching of form and function to lifestyle, only instead of attributing it to God’s wise design he redefined it as adaptation to the environment by natural selection. But then he was a naturalist, rather than a laboratory scientist.

Time has moved on, and evolutionary theory got refined into population genetics, the Modern Synthesis, and now the neutral theory. Natural selection is there, but somewhat in the shadows like an elderly demented relative in the back bedroom. At the phenotypic level, we are now assured that change to the gene pool comes through the accumulation of near-neutral mutations and purifying selection, the latter of which is swamped in advanced eukaryotes because of their low populations. There are phases when adaptive selection is more prominent but, the laboratory men tell us, the net result is a highly inefficient ad hoc process. We are even shown the adverse results of this – jerry-built barnacles, inside-out vertebrate retinae, the human back as the Tacoma Narrows bridge and so on – to the extent that theistic evolutionists (as well as atheists singing from the same hymn sheet) often use them as evidence against God’s wise design – a far cry from Darwin’s apologetic.

At the micro-scale the same is true, the classic example, of course, being junk DNA. However, any genetic mistake from point mutations to entire broken genes is given as evidence for the shambling process of evolution – you break a gene or two, your bacterium manages to digest an abnormal substrate better and hey presto! Evolution in all its hamfisted glory!

On the other hand…

Browse YouTube for any of those animations of microcellular processes in action – DNA replication, gene transcription and protein synthesis, DNA compaction, histone epigenetics, the bacterial flagellum or anything else you like – and it’s a completely different story. It’s precision engineering at nano-scales and shows ingenuity beyond our comprehension. I recently downloaded an updated version of the metabolic pathways wallchart I could never afford as a medical student. That’s precision low-temperature multi-reaction chemistry at nano-scales.

Or turn to any TV nature programme – I happened to tune into BBC’s new Earthflight yesterday. We’re out of the lab and back to the naturalists here. What does one see but perfect adaptation to the environment, or perfect design, if you prefer Paley’s tack? This episode was mercifully free of the “See how we’re messing up their environment” handwringing. But have you noticed how naturalists on the ground, though they may push the ecological message, and though they may sometimes baulk at nature’s harshness, never seem to say, “Look at how this animal is so poorly adapted,” or “What a sorry accumulation of mildly deleterious mutations”? Instead, there’s nothing but wonder for the variety, beauty and ingenuity of the natural world.

Even in my medical career, half a lifetime spent dealing with damage to human bodies and minds, my overwhelming impression was not of patching up bodged design, but of seeking to restore what was fearfully and wonderfully made. And that includes the back, in which I specialised.

It’s as if those who study the processes in the laboratory are actually studying something completely different from the pageant of life in the wider world. And maybe that’s what’s really happening – perhaps they’re only studying variation in the mistaken belief that it has anything to do with real evolution. Perhaps Darwin was right about the big picture, but wrong about the mechanism. Maybe even Paley was right after all. But whatever the truth, it must surely be a Bugatti Veyron rather than a cobbled together kit car with which we are dealing.

If not, and if the string-and-sealing-wax view of evolution is all there is, then we have a third illusion – the illusion of splendour in nature – to add to the illusion of design and (in the case of DNA) the illusion of information. Nothing, in fact, is as it seems. Surely there must come a point where it is more parsimonious to conclude that the theory is the illusion?

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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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2 Responses to Maladapted to perfection

  1. Avatar photo penman says:

    Good stuff as always, and best wishes for yourself and the blog for 2012, whenever you think that begins! (I still hanker after March 25th as new year’s day…)

    Again you underscore, rightly but sadly, that one of the most widespread weaknesses among Evolutionary Creationists / Theistic Evolutionists is a theological weakness, viz. the too-common abandonment of God’s sovereignty over His creation in favour of demiurge-like forces (chance, freedom, call it what you will) which are then blamed for everything unpleasant. What we need is a new Warfield….

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Reciprocal good wishes to you, Penman. Sometimes it’s just good to rejoice in creation as is. We have a fox who seems to do that, sitting at the top of the hill on our patch (next to the bench where we sometimes admire the view) and just taking in the sunshine as we pick up pony poo below.
    Mr Fox has a pretty cool design, too, even though he occasionally takes advantage of my chickens’ stupidity for a poultry meal. I could say the same (about design, not chickens) for every one of the 70+ species of vertebrates I’ve seen on our land, not to mention the innumerable invertebrates and plants.

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