(This post may not be of interest to those not curious about evolution and its machinations.)
I’m going to start with a joke that I suspect you will find amusing – over my 30 year writing career (my Amazon page will give an idea) I’ve found that laughter is the best way to grab a stranger’s attention. (Most of my writing has been for movies and television.)
A scientist invents a way of breathing life into dirt with a cosmic ray he’s developed. He looks heavenward and yells, ‘Hey, God! I can breathe life into dirt! We scientists don’t need you anymore!’
God says, ‘Let me see.’
The scientist sets up his equipment, a complex array of tubes and gauges and dials and a chamber where his cosmic ray gets focused just right. He picks up a handful of dirt and goes to put it in the chamber, where life will be breathed into it.
‘No, no,’ God says. ‘Get your own dirt.’
I’m hoping you see that this joke might come in handy, especially in a debating situation with the public looking on. Make folks laugh and you’re halfway to getting somewhere with your point of view. And I can assure you that one need not believe in a personal God to find the tale amusing: I don’t believe in a personal God and I find it hilarious. The punchline is about us humans, and our foibles, not ‘God.’
I’m hoping some of what follows will likewise be of use to you in your efforts to set straight those who continue to assume that Darwinian evolution (Neo-Darwinism) is sufficient to explain the diversity of life on earth; ditto life’s initial appearance, although this is a slightly different subject.
Until about three years ago I believed that Darwin had it right with his version of evolution, including random mutation as primary driver of change (coupled with natural selection). I recall watching the PBS version of the Dover trial and being annoyed at the hypocrisy of ‘Christians’ apparently prevaricating on the provenance of the Intelligent Design textbook, Of Panda’s and People. Although this and other aspects of the trial (the film thereof anyway) served to reinforce my pro-Darwin view, I remember watching a pro-evolutionist ‘debunking’ irreducible complexity by wearing a mousetrap as a tie clasp and thinking, ‘Well that’s a bunch of hogwash’ (it didn’t prove anything) – while the judge (and the filmmakers) nodded smugly, impressed by the guy’s ‘clever’ point. Having already learned not to trust PBS, I made a mental note to look into Dr. Behe and his notion of irreducible complexity. (The ‘irreducible complexity’ link explains the mousetrap reference.)
A few weeks later I watched a Youtube presentation by Dr. Behe and immediately saw his point, which resulted in my reading his second book, The Edge of Evolution, then, over the next few months, Dr. Meyer’s Signature in the Cell and, more recently, Dr. Axe’s Undeniable; How Biology Confirms Our Intuition That Life Was Designed.
As it turns out, my faith in Darwinism was based on ignorance.
Consider this letter my thank you for your work, and for putting up with the travails of going against mainstream science. What immediately follows is my recent correspondence with Carl Zimmer, a science correspondent for The New York Times and other magazines; he is the author of several books on evolution. He also teaches science writing and is a visiting scholar at major universities. As a hard core Neo-Darwinist, he probably does the most damage in his writing courses.
I had contacted him about my interest in how it came to be that humans have one less pair of chromosomes than the great apes – I had been able to find only scarce literature on this matter, which I found puzzling. How did such a radical and seemingly disadvantageous ‘one-off’ mutation become fixed in our genome? Although Mr. Zimmer’s response was not illuminating, he did take the time to attach a relevant paper (which dealt with when, not how, the mutation took place).
My more recent correspondence with Mr. Zimmer was regarding irreducible complexity and is self-explanatory. I’m hoping you find my observations of value.
Via email, I wrote:
Hi Mr. Zimmer,
As I hope I made clear previously, I’m not an ‘Intelligent Design’ advocate, in the sense of belief in the existence of a ‘Designing being’ of some sort, nor do I have theoretical problems with common ancestry or change over time (macro-evolution). But I still maintain that Neo-Darwinism has not shown that random mutation can account for the diversity of life, nor for the changes in body plans evidenced by ‘evolution’ (by my definition).
I believe I can make the case for Behe’s irreducible complexity using one of the ‘poster children’ of the concept, the eye, with an argument I came up with myself – anyway, I have not come upon it elsewhere. (If you’ve heard it before, please alert me to this.)
Depending on how you respond, I intend to expand upon what follows in a blog post. I hope you’ll agree to a Q & A. I’ve taken both sides as an example of how it might go – I suspect you’ll do better than I in backing up random mutation’s case (as far as I take it):
AW: Mr. Zimmer, as an advocate of Neo-Darwinism, including random mutation as primary driver of change over time, I’d ask you to respond to my assertion that the eye as we know it could not have evolved as claimed by Darwin and his modern followers.
CZ?: Okay, Allan, give it your best shot.
AW: First, let me quote from an article you wrote for the New York Academy of Sciences Magazine:
‘The earliest eyes were probably just simple eyespots that could only tell the difference between light and dark. Only later did some animals evolve spherical eyes that could focus light into images.’
Would you please define what you mean by the phrase ‘tell the difference’…
CZ?: That’s short hand for ‘light sensitive,’ ‘sensitive’ being defined as ‘able to react to environmental stimuli; in this case, light.
AW: How does the eyespot do that?
CZ?: Chemically, the basic light-processing unit of eyes is the photoreceptor cell, which contains a light sensitive specialized protein called opsin. A primitive eyespot permits organisms to gain only a very basic sense of the direction and intensity of light, but not enough to discriminate an object from its surroundings.
AW: Okay… Let’s assume the sudden appearance of a light sensitive spot on a simple organism’s skin, or outer membrane, depending on its complexity. What’s the selective advantage?
CZ?: As mentioned, the organism (assumingly aquatic) can tell where the light is coming from.
AW: I’ve studied about a score of different (Neo-Darwinian) scientists’ theories about the evolution of the eye and they all use words like ‘tell’ or ‘know,’ or ‘discriminate,’ referring to the very simple, in some cases brainless, organisms they posit. As if they were processing information.
CZ?: I suppose that in a very simple sense, they do.
AW: Given this, could you please explain how it works, showing how the eyespot gives selective advantage. Let’s assume – although it could go either way – that the organism would better survive in darkness because light is damaging to its DNA. Or because there is more food or less predators in the dark. Take your pick.
CZ?: As the organism moves away from the light, it will sense the light getting dimmer and continue going in that direction–
(AW laughs, interrupting CZ): I’m sorry, but I just thought of an old joke: A thermos keeps cold things cold and hot things hot, right? Well… how does it know?
I realize that this is only a metaphor; it’s not directly comparable but still… how does the organism know it will do better if it moves away from the light?
CZ?: That would depend on the specific organism.
AW: As I say, take your pick of an organism and advantage/disadvantage of light intensity. We are assuming that the organism has never before had an eyespot and now a ‘random mutation’ has given it one. I would submit that as a Neo-Darwinian who believes in random mutation as change-driver, you must be able to show even just in theory how the organism, any organism, is going to gain selective advantage from the ‘light sensitive’ spot it was just now randomly blessed with.
Mr. Zimmer: This is where I run out of possible responses and am hoping you will fill in the blank.
In wondering how it might have gone with an organism’s first ‘glimpse’ of light. I’ve looked into how humans who were blind since birth react when suddenly given sight – and this is after being told they would experience something new and amazing, a new way to perceive the world around them (how do you prepare them for seeing?). From an article in The New Yorker:
In 2011, Dr. Pawan Sinha, a professor of vision and computational neuroscience at M.I.T., published his answer to an almost-four-hundred-year-old philosophical problem. The philosopher William Molyneux, whose wife was blind, had proposed a thought experiment in the seventeenth century about a person, blind from birth, who could tell apart a cube and a sphere by touch: If his vision were restored and he was presented with the same cube and sphere, would he be able to tell which was which by sight alone? The philosophical camps on Molyneux’s question divided roughly through the centuries into those who believe that certain qualities, such as the roundness of spheres, are innate and shared among the senses (the Yeses), and those who insist that, to understand roundness, the eyes must have already seen roundness (the Nos).
I was immediately in the ‘No’ camp, and I was right. It took weeks for the newly sighted to ‘understand’ what visual images represented, what they meant. (They had to learn to tell a cube from a sphere, for example, which they could do perfectly when blind, by their sense of touch.)
You may be thinking that this is not relevant to our situation but at the very least the above is a reminder that you – as a Neo-Darwinian – have to show how a sudden new sense would lead to altered behavior, and how that behavior would be of selective advantage.
At the level of phenotype, you need to show the physical connection between the eyespot and the nervous system (no matter how primitive) and then in turn with the mode of movement of the organism (wiggling, a flagellum, whatever), in order to merely show the physical possibility of altered behavior, let alone the selective advantage. (If you’re going to use words like ‘know,’ ‘tell,’ or ‘discriminate’ I suggest you need to show the species’ past ‘learning’ history that will apply to the new sense of sight the organism suddenly possesses.)
Once you see it this way, you realize how astronomically improbable (physically impossible) it would be to have all the mutations necessary to occur by random chance, since they would all have to occur simultaneously. (A ‘light sensitive’ cell or group of cells with no means by which to affect behavior is not sufficient to afford selective advantage.)
‘Have you ever seen a mutation simultaneously affecting two separate components of the body and producing structures that fit one another precisely? … have you ever beheld three, four or five simultaneous mutations with matching structures producing coordinating effects? … These are vital questions that demand an answer. There is no way of getting around them, or evading the issue. Every biologist who wants to know the truth must answer them, or be considered a sectarian and not a scientist. In science there is no “cause” to be defended, only truth to be discovered. How many chance occurrences would it take to build this extraordinary creature [or organ, such as the eye?] [Myrmelion formicarius]’? [I lost the link but no matter]
Keep in mind that – unlike the ID folks — I am not making any assertions as to how evolution works. I am merely showing you that your base assertion (random mutation as change mechanism) does not account for what we observe — at least regarding the evolution of the eye, although the above argument could apply to other situations/organs/organisms (such as the bacterial flagellum) . Yes, the essence of my argument is irreducible complexity, and the observation that the Neo-Darwinist view has not thought through the complexity. What makes the case of the eye particularly interesting is that for Neo-Darwinism it represents a problem on still another level, that of the sudden appearance of a new mode of sensing the world (sight).
Thank you for your past communications (other than the ‘Beaver issue’) [I’ll add the ‘Beaver issue’ at the end of this]. I hope you find my emails stimulating and not annoying. I do find it odd that no one has pointed out the above ‘devil-in-the-details’ issue in the conflict over evolution’s machinations. If I’ve just flat missed something I trust that you will point it out.
A few hours later Mr. Zimmer emailed back:
To which I replied:
Mr. Zimmer quickly replied:
Your last email was focused on photodetection and other aspects of vision. There is an abundance of scientific literature online (freely available through the National Library of Medicine) on that particular subject. [red herring]
I won’t ‘bother’ you further with my facts and numbers but since you asked where I got my numbers:
‘Third and most important of all: functioning proteins must have amino acids that link up in a specific sequential arrangement, just as the letters in a meaningful sentence do. Because there are twenty biologically occurring amino acids, the probability of getting a specific amino acid at a given site is 1/20. Even if we assume that some sites along the chain will tolerate several amino acids, we find that the probability of achieving a functional sequence of amino acids in several functioning proteins at random is still “vanishingly small,” roughly 1 chance in 10^65–an astronomically large number–for a protein one hundred amino acids in length. (Actually the probability is even lower because there are many non-proteinous amino acids in nature that we have not accounted for in this calculation.)
‘If one also factors in the probability of attaining proper bonding and optical isomers, the probability of constructing a rather short, functional protein at random becomes so small (1 chance in 10^125) as to approach the point at which appeals to chance become absurd even given the “probabilistic resources” of our multi-billion-year-old universe. Consider further that equally severe probabilistic difficulties attend the random assembly of functional DNA. Moreover, a minimally complex cell requires not one, but roughly one hundred complex proteins (and many other biomolecular components such as DNA and RNA) all functioning in close coordination. For this reason, quantitative assessments of cellular complexity have simply reinforced an opinion that has prevailed since the mid-1960s within origin-of-life biology: chance is not an adequate explanation for the origin of biological complexity and specificity.’ (my emphasis) [yes, of course this quote is from Dr. Meyer. I didn’t credit him because I didn’t want to give Zimmer an excuse for any (more) fallacious reasoning, of the ad hominem/poisoning of the well variety.]
I’d be happy to send the whole paper but I doubt that you’re interested. My number (10 to the 274th power), which I called ‘close enough’ is based on the fact that you WOULD need simultaneous mutations to make the eyespot functional, let alone selectively advantageous — without organism movement (as a result of what the eyespot ‘sees’), the eyespot HAS NO FUNCTION.
Now I come to my selfish reason for writing you. I have a question – or rather a thought experiment – I’d like to run by you (and anyone reading this) in order to ascertain how you really perceive the development of life on earth. So I ask you to imagine the following:
All three of you undoubtedly have a photograph of your parents, right? Your father? How about your grandfather? Good chance. How about your great grandfather? If not, you can imagine one, a full body shot, say… of a man, a Caucasian, with basic ‘family features.’ Now take it further and imagine a photo of your great great grandfather, imagining the full body shot, possibly with clothes appropriate to the mid 19th century.
Now do this going back to your great grandfather to the 100,000th ‘degree,’ which would be somewhere around a million years ago. Please describe the being in general appearance. Now please do the same for 5 million years ago. And so forth, going back in the huge stack of photos to the first one. What do you see?
Are there ‘moments’ (photographs!) that are particularly evocative of your worldview? Is there an ‘Adam’ where the stack ends?
One reason I ask this is that it seems to me that we have two and only two choices regarding the subject of speciation. Either macro-evolution (with the causal mechanism known or unknown) brings us back to a one-celled organism or we have the ‘Beam me down, Scotty!’ scenario, wherein species poof into existence, presumably via the ‘will of God.’ There would be many millions of these ‘miracles,’ one for each species that ever existed.
If you see a third possibility, I’m all ears. And feel free to use the thought experiment to make any point you care to about life and its development.
I’ve read three (of your) books and listened to countless Youtube lectures and debates yet I do not have a sense of what you’ll say. None of you has (to my knowledge) spoken about your view of ‘how we got here,’ how life actually developed, specifically. I also find it odd that in all your debates and lectures no one has asked you a question that would imply your view. (I have heard one or two of you say that you don’t necessarily take issue with common ancestry or change over time (macro-evolution?) but I have also heard you — Dr. Meyer, at least — point out that the Cambrian explosion produced new body types ‘almost overnight.’ Mmmm. Sounds like a bit like ‘poof!’)
That you are all three devout Christians adds to my uncertainty. (I find that posing the photo thought experiment is the only way to assure an unequivocal answer.)
Okay, gentlemen, thank you again for your work and insights. I hope to be able to post your response to my thought experiment in an upcoming blog.
Here’s a more complete cv for Carl Zimmer:
Carl Zimmer is a lecturer at Yale University, where he teaches writing about science and the environment. He is also the first Visiting Scholar at the Science, Health, and Environment Reporting Program at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.
Zimmer’s work has been anthologized in both The Best American Science Writingseries and The Best American Science and Nature Writing series. He has won numerous fellowships, honors, and awards, including the 2007 National Academies Science Communication Award for “his diverse and consistently interesting coverage of evolution and unexpected biology.”
His books include Soul Made Flesh, a history of the brain; Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea; At the Water’s Edge, a book about major transitions in the history of life; The Smithsonian Intimate Guide to Human Origins; and Parasite Rex, which the Los Angeles Times described as “a book capable of changing how we see the world.”
His newest book, The Tangled Bank: An Introduction to Evolution, will be published this fall to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species.
You might recall that the above evolutionary scholar wrote to me: ‘Mutations do not have to be simultaneous, nor do they all have to increase fitness, to give rise to new adaptations.’
I’ll paste here my ‘Beaver’ email, which Mr. Zimmer likewise did not answer (or respond to). It was posted on my last blog: