Evolution, Then and Now - Evolution News & Views

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Evolution, Then and Now

Let's set the record straight; things have changed a lot since "then."

When Darwin first ventured to propose an explanation for the origin of species, he didn't really try to address the question of the origin of life. No one, at that point, had any good idea of what even really needed to be explained.

When early optical microscopy gave us our first images of cells, what we saw was puzzling, but not particularly awe-inspiring. As microscopy advanced, in conjunction with advances in physics and chemistry, what came clearer into focus was that cellular structure, function and metabolism, and thus biochemistry as a whole, was a universe awaiting new discoveries of its own.

Who could have guessed that the micro-world would dwarf in complexity and organization the macro-cosmos we had only recently come to more fully appreciate? Or that additional discoveries on all orders of scale would point more cogently to deliberative design than ever?

A parable might help. Two people are walking down the beach; one is a philosopher, the other a geologist. As they walk along, they take in the view, and appreciate the beauty of the scene. The geologist explains the visible coastal rock formations, the action of plate tectonics, erosion and sedimentation, and -- wait; what is that?

Both stare in unbelief. There in the sand, about six foot square, is... well, apparently, a sand painting. Miles from anywhere, on the open beach, is an image of the Mona Lisa.

They study it. It's not perfect, but awfully close. The philosopher begins to form a hypothesis. Perhaps the image we call the "Mona Lisa" is just an archetype of a fundamental pattern recurring in nature. The painting by Leonardo da Vinci was, perhaps, just a particular manifestation of this pattern. A closer study of the grains of sand show that the various pigments each possess are a function of the weight and size of each grain. The areas of lighter sand lay, mysteriously, a little lower than the areas with darker, denser sand.

If swirling coastal winds had selectively removed the lighter sand from some areas, the remaining image could be an accidental production of chance variations in the sedimentary deposition of the underlying sand.

The geologist is not convinced. The odds against a pattern match this good, on this scale, are just too improbable. It looks like a product of deliberate artistry. They decide to come back in a few months, to see what changes, if any, develop in the pattern. Six months later, they return. It seems to have changed, imperceptibly, but the pattern is undeniably the same.

Ten years later, it's a tourist destination. It has still only changed imperceptibly. In a concerted effort to explain it, several forensic scientists have decided to sample various grains of the sand, to see if there are any telltale signs of human manipulation or manufacture. Under powerful microscopes, the individual grains reveal something astonishing -- they're not sand at all! They're three-dimensional crystalline-compound computer chips, complete with micro-circuitry and logic processors.

It turns out the persistence of the pattern derives from pre-programmed electro-chemical affinities, specified individually within each grain, mapping to surrounding grains, with reference to the pattern as a whole, which is also present within each grain. The electrical force each uses derives from tiny solar cells embedded in their structure.

The case for random sedimentary origination becomes untenable, and a whole new generation of scientists sets itself to work on understanding the logic of the programming in these chips.

As a parable of the developments of the last 50 years of biochemical research and discovery, this is not an unreasonable characterization of the situation. The closer we've looked, the more we've understood, the more we've been challenged to be able to hold onto theories of chance or unaided development which used to seem adequate.

Lifelong academic atheist Antony Flew, before his death at age 87, summarized his change of mind about the issue of intelligent design in an October 30th, 2007 interview with Dr. Benjamin Wiker. When asked to explain his reasoning, Flew said:

There were two factors in particular that were decisive. One was my growing empathy with the insight of Einstein and other noted scientists that there had to be an intelligence behind the integrated complexity of the physical universe. The second was my own insight that the integrated complexity of life itself - which is far more complex than the physical universe - can only be explained in terms of an intelligent source. I believe that the origin of life and reproduction simply cannot be explained from a biological standpoint despite numerous efforts to do so. With every passing year, the more that was discovered about the richness and inherent intelligence of life, the less it seemed likely that a chemical soup could magically generate the genetic code. The difference between life and non-life, it became apparent to me, was ontological and not chemical. The best confirmation of this radical gulf is Richard Dawkins' comical effort to argue in The God Delusion that the origin of life can be attributed to a lucky chance. If that's the best argument you have, then the game is over. No, I did not hear a voice. It was the evidence itself that led me to this conclusion.

There is more to explain now than ever before. A half a decade of studied observation has brought us closer to an answer for the origin of life, mostly by virtue of failed research paradigms. And that's the way of science; we gain in knowledge not merely by validating hypotheses, but by rejecting those which fail. The more we've rejected hypotheses involving mere chance, and allowed for a theory of intelligent organization, origination and even perhaps periodic intervention, the more we've come to understand the distinctives of the fossil record, the prospects for rapidity of change, and the subtleties of genetic programming.

Research into "junk DNA," pseudogenes, and other areas of supposedly vestigial code degradation, is yielding avenues of new discovery and practical application, as active functions are discovered for these areas of former confusion. The odds are too long to continue to bet against, much less exclude by definition, the involvement of a designing intelligence.

Despite millions spent in research, a myriad of discoveries made, and many legitimately helpful applications of that knowledge, a strictly naturalist paradigm is becoming vestigial, and it's more necessary now than ever to seek to understand the instrumentalities employed by life's intelligent designer.