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Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
SEE MORE ESSAYS WRITTEN BY DAVID LANE
The Faith of
Presenting the Evidence
for Biological Evolution
David Lane & Andrea Diem-Lane
Professor Alexander Astin in his second reply to my article Frisky Dirt and to Frank Visser, founder of Integral World, has further clarified why he has severe doubts in an evolutionary theory that relies on random mutations. He also expresses his disdain for Richard Dawkins and other evolutionists for having a metaphysical faith in the science of physical causes. Writes Professor Astin:
“You and Dawkins et al are stating a metaphysical position masquerading as 'science.' It's metaphysical because it assumes knowledge of the origins of extraordinarily complicated events (mutations) about which nobody has any direct knowledge. There's plenty of evidence for selection, so this particular part of Darwin's thought has a solid scientific basis. But that's not the case for mutations. They're definitely not 'random;' that's just a convenient pseudo-scientific dodge for 'I haven't a clue as to how they happened.' None of us knows whether this planet has been around long enough for a trial and error process to produce all these organisms. Evolutionists would argue, circularly, that 'there must have been enough time because the organisms are here!'
I'm not at all sure whether some kind of intelligence is guiding the mutations that make organisms the way they are. You are sure that there is not, because that metaphysical position is incompatible with your metaphysical position. I simply don't know how they got to be the way they are. And neither do you or Dawkins. You are thus operating on faith, a faith in the notion that all physical events must have physical causes. Your metaphysics is a possible explanation for the existence of organisms that relies on countless highly improbable events happening in a highly improbable way. We haven't a clue as to what these probabilities are, in part because we don't have any idea what the base (sample size) of possible mutations is that we're operating from, and in part because we don't have any idea what the possible alternatives to the mutations that actually occur(ed) are (or were). Moreover, we know virtually nothing about the dead-end mutations that didn't enhance survival. Has this planet had enough time to experience all the 'random' (trial and error) mutations that would be needed to produce all these complex organisms? Maybe, but maybe not.
That you and Dawkins would answer an unqualified 'yes' is pure metaphysics, since you maintain a strong belief in the truth of something for which you really have no evidence. Can we find enough monkeys and enough typewriters, and enough time and enough people to read what they type, to get Hamlet? Maybe, but i doubt it. I prefer to believe that Hamlet has only one possible origin: Shakespeare intended to write that play and shaped it through an act of will into its present form.
I realize that diehard evolutionists are uncomfortable with supernatural explanations of origins. But think for a minute about the notion of a 'random' mutation. Which is more 'scientific'? To say (1) I don't know why a particular mutation occurred, or how this organism came to have the genetic structure that it has, or (2) 'Well, it must have been caused by physical events about which I have no direct knowledge, which I will choose to call 'random,' because it surely was NOT caused by some force that I don't yet understand'?” [End of Letter, January 18th, 2011].
I must admit that I find Professor Alexander Astin's sweeping generalization that nobody has a clue about what causes mutations a bit surprising, especially when about five minutes of research on the subject of genetics would show him that scientists have already pinpointed how many of these alterations do, in fact, occur.
For example, ultraviolet light can modify nucleotide bases, such that an impinged guanine base which would normally connect with cytosine instead forms a pair with thymine.
In addition, external factors such as nuclear radiation can damage DNA by “breaking the bonds between oxygens (O) and phosphate groups (P).” Such a rupture of the phosphate backbone of DNA within a gene “creates a mutated form of the gene. It is possible that the mutated gene will produce a protein that functions differently. Cells with broken DNA will attempt to fix the broken ends by joining these free ends to other pieces of DNA within the cell. This creates a type of mutation called 'translocation.' If a translocation breakpoint occurs within or near a gene, that gene's function may be affected.” (learn.genetics.utah.edu)
We are also keenly aware now of how DNA replication can on occasion make a mutation. On average about 1 out of 100,000,000 duplications (with the statistic usually being lower because of backup and corrective systems within the cell which tends to repair incorrectly aligned bases) will result in an alteration from the original version when a protein entitled DNA polymerase misplaces one part of the code.
That such a thing occurs is not all that surprising when one takes into consideration the probabilistic nature of subatomic materials which are themselves the building blocks to acid compounds.
While it may be exceedingly difficult (given our current state of technology) to isolate each and every mutation, it is misleading and inaccurate to say that we are simply clueless about the causes of these mutations in molecular evolution.
Professor Alexander Astin also indulges in a number of dubious claims (without evidential support) which do not hold up under closer scrutiny. He alleges that “none of us knows whether this planet has been around long enough for a trial and error process to produce all these organisms,” giving the impression that some other factor (Wilber's Eros?) may have generated them.
However, evolutionary developmental biology (“evo-devo”) has made tremendous progress in precisely this area by focusing on how “through development, an organism's genotype is expressed as a phenotype, exposing genes to the action of natural selection.”
In this regard, the genetic toolkit has led to stunning discoveries that were hitherto thought nearly impossible. As Harvard biologist Cliff Tabin explains in "What is Evo-Devo?",
“The revolution in developmental biology, and the revolution in biological sciences as a whole, has gotten us to the point where we actually can start to understand how genes make an embryo form the way it does, why a limb forms in the first place, and then why the arm is different from the leg, why the heart that starts as a tube in the middle folds up to be on the left and not the right. We're starting to understand those sorts of really fundamental questions, and that's amazing in itself. We are also getting to the point where we can understand not only how you make a limb, but how the process can be altered in what are actually subtle ways such that the limb takes the form of a bat wing versus a human hand versus a flipper. And that to me is enormously exciting. So, to me, the fundamental aspect of evo devo is understanding how development is tweaked over evolutionary time.”
By tracing fossilized DNA we are now able to map the “trial and error” of how favorable and not so favorable mutations, selections, and genetic drifts occurred and locate them both temporally and spatially. For example it is now understood that
“one gene, called Distal-less, is responsible for limb formation in organisms ranging from marine worms to mice to humans.” We now understand “that [an] ancestral set of genes was powerful and versatile enough to provide the material for generating the diverse forms of animal life we now see on Earth. That was something that nobody expected, and it's made the study of various organisms very profound. It means what you learn from studying the development of a fly really has direct implications for understanding the way we are made ourselves, because as different as a fly is from a human and as long ago as we diverged, we're using basically the same genes to do the same thing—to make organization emerge in an embryo.”
While I can readily sympathize with Professor Alexander Astin's concern that much of evolution may seem implausible, what he neglects to reconsider in his hurried judgments is that significant breakthroughs have been made in the last twenty years which graphically illustrate how a simpler set of genetic material can indeed produce the wide and varying complexity we see around us. While it may have been a mystery in Dr. Astin's day at the University of Maryland, it is no longer.
As the Evolution Library explains,
“Only in the past two decades has the answer begun to emerge. The development of body plans in all animals is controlled by a remarkably small number of genes -- and those genes are virtually identical in all animals. Clues came from instances in which the pattern is marred by mutations in these crucial genes. In fruit flies, for example, a malfunctioning body-plan gene can produce a fly with legs sprouting from where the antennae should be on the head. Or the fly has an extra set of wings -- or no wings at all. The genes containing developmental instructions for the body plan are known as homeobox-containing genes. The DNA code in homeobox genes directs the cell to make chemical sequences, which in turn regulate still other genes that affect the positioning of cells in the embryo. While this sounds complicated, it is a far more elegant and simple mechanism than scientists thought could possibly be responsible for the enormous variation we see when we survey the animal kingdom.”
Dr. Alexander Astin's seems bewildered by the idea that evolution by natural selection is just too improbable to occur and that scientists (out of some misplaced faith that all things must be explained naturalistically) are indulging in an undiluted form of “pure metaphysics” in order to justify their unwarranted belief in the science of just physical causes.
But it is right here where I think Dr. Alexander Astin has created an unnecessary confusion for himself, particularly when he boldly, but quite mistakenly, asserts that Richard Dawkins, Frank Visser, and apparently all other evolutionary biologists
“maintain a strong belief in the truth of something for which you [they] really have no evidence.”
In point of fact, the real reason evolutionary biology has been successful is because, unlike most creationist and intelligent designs (which are either guided by revealed holy books or a priori emotional convictions), it proffers divergent and unexpected lines of information that have verifiably empirical consequences. As I repeatedly remind my students, the underlying reason we are required to take all of our prescribed antibiotics when we are sick from a bacterial infection is due to the unassailable fact that such tiny organisms will mutate into more robust and virulent forms if they are not eliminated. Even creationists, some of whom may dispute the very mechanism of mutation, tend to follow the doctor's order when taking their Zithromax.
To say there really is “no” evidence for evolution by natural selection (which is, lest we forget, the real import of Professor Alexander Astin's first and second salvos concerning Frisky Dirt: Why Ken Wilber's New Creationism is Pseudoscience) is to be completely blind to the numerous findings in the field. It is akin to suggesting that there is no evidence for gravity existing or that our planet doesn't orbit the sun.
Yes, there are still many unanswered questions in evolutionary biology that need further investigation. And, yes, we shouldn't buy hook, line, and sinker a scientific claim simply because a known authority (such as a Richard Dawkins) pontificates upon it. However, just because we ourselves may not stomach a particular theory (either because our intuitions or religious upbringing tells us otherwise) does not mean that equal weight should be given to theories like Ken Wilber's New Creationism which are (to quote the infamous words of Niels Bohr, the distinguished quantum theorist) “not even wrong.”
It may be one thing to ask deep and skeptical questions about a well-supported theory such as evolution by natural selection, but it is quite another to infer that something as untested and as speculative as intelligent design should be given equal consideration because one personally “prefers” it. Personal preferences are one thing and science is another. To conflate the two can only lead to unnecessary confusion and may be one of the reasons why science and religion have had such warring difficulties in the past.
Finally, Professor Alexander Astin reveals his creationist leanings when he writes near the end of his rejoinder,
“I prefer to believe that Hamlet has only one possible origin: Shakespeare intended to write that play and shaped it through an act of will into its present form.”
I don't want to get unnecessarily sidetracked here questioning how Hamlet was actually composed (some scholars claim that Shakespeare appropriated famous phrases and other lines—apparently “appropriate” for his time—into his plays and refashioning them into his own distinctive style, what some may call a literary mutation), but I do want to underline the two key words in Professor Astin's autobiographical confessional: “I prefer”.
I think admitting what we prefer (and what we don't) is a healthy thing to do. But science works best when after confessing our preferences we try to see beyond them by looking at the data which directly contradicts our cherished presumptions.
It is for this reason that I wish to thank Professor Alexander Astin once again for giving me the opportunity to think anew about a subject that has a continual fascination for me. I often tell my college students that the best way to understand an idea that we don't particularly like or that we might structurally resist is to plunge right into the subject and try to see if we can understand it better than its adherents. As my old surf buddy, Pat Donahue, quotes whenever we are about to ride large surf, “he who hesitates is lost.”
I think the same holds true in contentious intellectual debates. While I personally may be an avid champion for evolutionary biology, I have for years found myself consciously going to Christian bookstores seeking out the latest literature on intelligent design and creationism. Why? Because whenever I find myself convinced of a particular position, I find it is fruitful and advantageous to reason through the opposing argument. Whenever a creationist Christian or Muslim or Hindu comes by my office to tell me about how much they don't get (or dislike) Darwinian evolution, I always suggest that they should try to understand the theory better than most majors in biology. Only in that way can they make more fully informed decisions.
To strike an even more autobiographical note, I have realized over the years that placing ourselves amidst those who disagree with us and our positions most can be an invigorating awakening. I certainly found this to be the case when I placed myself right in the middle of the online forum, alt.religion.eckankar, where due to my earlier skeptical work on Paul Twitchell and Eckankar, my posts were rightly viewed with deeply critical eyes. I think we learn much more from our critics than we might at first realize. This is why I believe Ken Wilber's reaction to Frank Visser and many of the analytical essays on Integral World, has been entirely inappropriate. Ken has been given a wonderful opportunity to hear from his critics, even if he chooses not to interact directly with them. Hopefully, he can incorporate some of the pertinent points Frank Visser and others have made with regard to his understanding and presentation of evolutionary biology.
In any case, my kudos to Professor Alexander Astin for engaging in this important discussion and for providing the title of this article.. I know for myself that I have thought more deeply about “random mutations” and the “faith of physical causes” because of his insightful input than I would have otherwise done this past week.