Part 1: What's the matter with evolution?
Science | A ranking of the top five scientific problems found in evolutionary theory
by Casey Luskin
Posted 4/25/15, 09:32 am
Many reporters for decades have portrayed the evolution vs. creation debate as a battle of science vs. religion. With journalistic complicity, evolution backers have produced not only a chilling effect on debate within scientific ranks but a modern ice age, with anyone who dares to debunk Darwinism frozen out of most scientific employment and publishing opportunities.
Happily, Casey Luskin has graduate degrees in both science and law and does not depend on the high regard of the evolution lobby to earn his daily bread. Before law school he conducted geological research at the Scripps Institution for Oceanography, and he is now a program officer with The Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture.
In a chapter of More Than Myth: Seeking the Full Truth About Genesis, Creation and Evolution (The Chartwell Press, 2014) edited by Paul D. Brown and Robert Stockpile, Luskin succinctly points out 10 problems in evolutionary theory. Here are the first five. —Marvin Olasky
Problem 1: No Viable Mechanism to Generate a Primordial Soup
According to conventional thinking among origin of life theorists, life arose via unguided chemical reactions on the early Earth some 3 to 4 billion years ago. Most theorists believe that there were many steps involved in the origin of life, but the very first step would have involved the production of a primordial soup—a water-based sea of simple organic molecules—out of which life arose. While the existence of this “soup” has been accepted as unquestioned fact for decades, this first step in most origin-of-life theories faces numerous scientific difficulties.
In 1953, a graduate student at the University of Chicago named Stanley Miller, along with his faculty advisor Harold Urey, performed experiments hoping to produce the building blocks of life under natural conditions on the early Earth. These “Miller-Urey experiments” intended to simulate lightning striking the gasses in the early Earth’s atmosphere. After running the experiments and letting the chemical products sit for a period of time, Miller discovered that amino acids—the building blocks of proteins—had been produced.
For decades, these experiments have been hailed as a demonstration that the “building blocks” of life could have arisen under natural, realistic Earthlike conditions, corroborating the primordial soup hypothesis. However, it has also been known for decades that the Earth’s early atmosphere was fundamentally different from the gasses used by Miller and Urey.
The atmosphere used in the Miller-Urey experiments was primarily composed of reducing gasses like methane, ammonia, and high levels of hydrogen. Geochemists now believe that the atmosphere of the early Earth did not contain appreciable amounts of these components. (Reducing gasses are those which tend to donate electrons during chemical reactions.) UC Santa Cruz origin-of-life theorist David Deamer explains this in the journal Microbiology & Molecular Biology Reviews:
This optimistic picture began to change in the late 1970s, when it became increasingly clear that the early atmosphere was probably volcanic in origin and composition, composed largely of carbon dioxide and nitrogen rather than the mixture of reducing gases assumed by the Miller-Urey model. Carbon dioxide does not support the rich array of synthetic pathways leading to possible monomers …
Likewise, an article in the journal Science stated: “Miller and Urey relied on a ‘reducing’ atmosphere, a condition in which molecules are fat with hydrogen atoms. As Miller showed later, he could not make organics in an ‘oxidizing’ atmosphere.” The article put it bluntly: “the early atmosphere looked nothing like the Miller-Urey situation.” Consistent with this, geological studies have not uncovered evidence that a primordial soup once existed.
There are good reasons to understand why the Earth’s early atmosphere did not contain high concentrations of methane, ammonia, or other reducing gasses. The earth’s early atmosphere is thought to have been produced by outgassing from volcanoes, and the composition of those volcanic gasses is related to the chemical properties of the Earth’s inner mantle. Geochemical studies have found that the chemical properties of the Earth’s mantle would have been the same in the past as they are today. But today, volcanic gasses do not contain methane or ammonia, and are not reducing.
A paper in Earth and Planetary Science Letters found that the chemical properties of the Earth’s interior have been essentially constant over Earth’s history, leading to the conclusion that “Life may have found its origins in other environments or by other mechanisms.” So drastic is the evidence against pre-biotic synthesis of life’s building blocks that in 1990 the Space Studies Board of the National Research Council recommended that origin of life investigators undertake a “reexamination of biological monomer synthesis under primitive Earthlike environments, as revealed in current models of the early Earth.”
Because of these difficulties, some leading theorists have abandoned the Miller-Urey experiment and the “primordial soup” theory it is claimed to support. In 2010, University College London biochemist Nick Lane stated the primordial soup theory “doesn't hold water” and is “past its expiration date.” Instead, he proposes that life arose in undersea hydrothermal vents. But both the hydrothermal vent and primordial soup hypotheses face another major problem.
Chemical Evolution Is Dead in the Water
Assume for a moment that there was some way to produce simple organic molecules on the early Earth. Perhaps they did form a “primordial soup,” or perhaps these molecules arose near some hydrothermal vent. Either way, origin of life theorists must then explain how amino acids or other key organic molecules linked up to form long chains (polymers) like proteins (or RNA).
Chemically speaking, however, the last place you’d want to link amino acids into chains would be a vast water-based environment like the “primordial soup” or underwater near a hydrothermal vent. As the National Academy of Sciences acknowledges, “Two amino acids do not spontaneously join in water. Rather, the opposite reaction is thermodynamically favored.” In other words, water breaks protein chains back down into amino acids (or other constituents), making it very difficult to produce proteins (or other polymers) in the primordial soup.
Materialists lack good explanations for these first, simple steps which are necessary to the origin-of-life. Chemical evolution is literally dead in the water.
Problem 2: Unguided Chemical Processes Cannot Explain the Origin of the Genetic Code
Let’s assume, again, that a primordial sea filled with life’s building blocks did exist on the early Earth, and somehow it formed proteins and other complex organic molecules. Origin of life theorists believe that the next step in the origin of life is that—entirely by chance—more and more complex molecules formed until some began to self-replicate. From there, they believe Darwinian natural selection took over, favoring those molecules which were better able to make copies. Eventually, they assume, it became inevitable that these molecules would evolve complex machinery—like that used in today’s genetic code—to survive and reproduce.
Have modern theorists explained how this crucial bridge from inert nonliving chemicals to self-replicating molecular systems took place? The most prominent hypothesis for the origin of the first life is called the “RNA world.” In living cells, genetic information is carried by DNA, and most cellular functions are carried out by proteins. However, RNA is capable of both carrying genetic information and catalyzing some biochemical reactions. As a result, some theorists postulate the first life might have used RNA alone to fulfill all these functions.
But there are many problems with this hypothesis.
For one, the first RNA molecules would have to arise by unguided, non-biological chemical processes. But RNA is not known to assemble without the help of a skilled laboratory chemist intelligently guiding the process. New York University chemist Robert Shapiro critiqued the efforts of those who tried to make RNA in the lab, stating: “The flaw is in the logic—that this experimental control by researchers in a modern laboratory could have been available on the early Earth.”
Second, while RNA has been shown to perform many roles in the cell, there is no evidence that it could perform all the necessary cellular functions currently carried out by proteins.
Third, the RNA world hypothesis does not explain the origin of genetic information.
RNA world advocates suggest that if the first self-replicating life was based upon RNA, it would have required a molecule between 200 and 300 nucleotides in length. However, there are no known chemical or physical laws that dictate the order of those nucleotides. To explain the ordering of nucleotides in the first self-replicating RNA molecule, materialists must rely on sheer chance. But the odds of specifying, say, 250 nucleotides in an RNA molecule by chance is about 1 in 10 to power of 150—below the universal probability boundary, or events which are remotely possible to occur within the history of the universe. Shapiro puts the problem this way:
The sudden appearance of a large self-copying molecule such as RNA was exceedingly improbable. … [The probability] is so vanishingly small that its happening even once anywhere in the visible universe would count as a piece of exceptional good luck.
Fourth—and most fundamentally—the RNA world hypothesis does not explain the origin of the genetic code itself. In order to evolve into the DNA / protein-based life that exists today, the RNA world would need to evolve the ability to convert genetic information into proteins. However, this process of transcription and translation requires a large suite of proteins and molecular machines—which themselves are encoded by genetic information. This poses a chicken-and-egg problem, where essential enzymes and molecular machines are needed to perform the very task that constructs them.
The Chicken and the DVD
To appreciate this problem, consider the origin of the first DVD and DVD player. DVDs are rich in information, but without the machinery of a DVD player to read the disk, process its information, and convert it into a picture and sound, the disk would be useless. But what if the instructions for building the first DVD player were only found encoded on a DVD? You could never play the DVD to learn how to build a DVD player. So how did the first disk and DVD player system arise? The answer is obvious: a goal directed process—intelligent design—is required to produce both the player and the disk at the same time.
In living cells, information-carrying molecules (e.g. DNA or RNA) are like the DVD, and the cellular machinery which reads that information and converts it into proteins are like the DVD player. Just like the DVD analogy, genetic information can never be converted into proteins without the proper machinery. Yet in cells, the machines required for processing the genetic information in RNA or DNA are encoded by those same genetic molecules—they perform and direct the very task that builds them.
This system cannot exist unless both the genetic information and transcription / translation machinery are present at the same time, and unless both speak the same language. Biologist Frank Salisbury explained this problem in a paper in American Biology Teacher not long after the workings of the genetic code were first uncovered:
It’s nice to talk about replicating DNA molecules arising in a soupy sea, but in modern cells this replication requires the presence of suitable enzymes. … [T]he link between DNA and the enzyme is a highly complex one, involving RNA and an enzyme for its synthesis on a DNA template; ribosomes; enzymes to activate the amino acids; and transfer-RNA molecules. … How, in the absence of the final enzyme, could selection act upon DNA and all the mechanisms for replicating it? It's as though everything must happen at once: the entire system must come into being as one unit, or it is worthless. There may well be ways out of this dilemma, but I don't see them at the moment.
Despite decades of work, origin-of-life theorists are still at a loss to explain how this system arose. In 2007, Harvard chemist George Whitesides was given the Priestley Medal, the highest award of the American Chemical Society. During his acceptance speech, he offered this stark analysis, reprinted in the respected journal, Chemical and Engineering News:
The Origin of Life. This problem is one of the big ones in science. It begins to place life, and us, in the universe. Most chemists believe, as do I, that life emerged spontaneously from mixtures of molecules in the prebiotic Earth. How? I have no idea.
Similarly, the aforementioned article in Cell Biology International concludes: “New approaches to investigating the origin of the genetic code are required. The constraints of historical science are such that the origin of life may never be understood.” That is, they may never be understood unless scientists are willing to consider goal-directed scientific explanations like intelligent design.
But there is a much deeper problem with theories of chemical evolution, as well as biological evolution. This pertains not just to the ability to process genetic information via a genetic code, but the origin of that information itself.
Problem 3: Random Mutations Cannot Generate the Genetic Information Required for Irreducibly Complex Structures
According to evolutionary biologists, once life got started, Darwinian evolution took over and eventually produced the grand diversity we observe today. Under the standard view, a process of random mutation and natural selection built life’s vast complexity one small mutational step at a time. All of life’s complex features, of course, are thought to be encoded in the DNA of living organisms. Building new features thus requires generating new information in the genetic code of DNA. Can the necessary information be generated in the undirected, step-by-step manner required by Darwin’s theory?
Most everyone agrees that Darwinian evolution tends to work well when each small step along an evolutionary pathway provides some survival advantage. Darwin-critic Michael Behe notes that “if only one mutation is needed to confer some ability then Darwinian evolution has little problem finding it.” However, when multiple mutations must be present simultaneously to gain a functional advantage, Darwinian evolution gets stuck. As Behe explains, “If more than one [mutation] is needed, the probability of getting all the right ones grows exponentially worse.”
Behe, a professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University, coined the term “irreducible complexity” to describe systems which require many parts—and thus many mutations—to be present—all at once—before providing any survival advantage to the organism. According to Behe, such systems cannot evolve in the step-by-step fashion required by Darwinian evolution. As a result, he maintains that random mutation and unguided natural selection cannot generate the genetic information required to produce irreducibly complex structures. Too many simultaneous mutations would be required—an event which is highly unlikely to occur.
Observation of this problem is not limited to Darwin-critics. A paper by a prominent evolutionary biologist in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the U.S. National Academy of Science acknowledges that “simultaneous emergence of all components of a system is implausible.” Likewise, University of Chicago evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne—a staunch defender of Darwinism—admits that “natural selection cannot build any feature in which intermediate steps do not confer a net benefit on the organism.” Even Darwin intuitively recognized this problem, as he wrote in Origin of Species:
If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.
Evolutionary scientists like Darwin and Coyne claim they know of no real-world case where Darwinian selection gets blocked in this manner. But they would agree, at least in principle, that there are theoretical limits to what Darwinian evolution can accomplish: If a feature cannot be built by “numerous, successive, slight modifications,” and if “intermediate steps do not confer a net benefit on the organism,” then Darwinian evolution will “absolutely break down.”
The problems are real. Modern biology continues to uncover more and more examples where biological complexity seems to outstrip the information-generative capacity of Darwinian evolution.
In his book Darwin’s Black Box, Michael Behe discusses molecular machines which require multiple parts to be present before they could function and confer any advantage on the organism. Behe’s most famous example is the bacterial flagellum—a micromolecular rotary- engine, functioning like an outboard motor on bacteria to propel it through liquid medium to find food. In this regard, flagella have a basic design that is highly similar to some motors made by humans containing many parts that are familiar to engineers, including a rotor, a stator, a u-joint, a propeller, a brake, and a clutch. As one molecular biologist writes in the journal Cell, “[m]ore so than other motors, the flagellum resembles a machine designed by a human.” However the energetic efficiency of these machines outperforms anything produced by humans: the same paper found that the efficiency of the bacterial flagellum “could be ~100%.”
There are various types of flagella, but all use certain basic components. As one paper in Nature Reviews Microbiology acknowledges, “all (bacterial) flagella share a conserved core set of proteins” since “Three modular molecular devices are at the heart of the bacterial flagellum: the rotor-stator that powers flagellar rotation, the chemotaxis apparatus that mediates changes in the direction of motion and the T3SS that mediates export of the axial components of the flagellum.” As this might suggest, the flagellum is irreducibly complex. Genetic knockout experiments have shown that it fails to assemble or function properly if any one of its approximately 35 genes are missing. In this all-or-nothing game, mutations cannot produce the complexity needed to provide a functional flagellar rotary engine one incremental step at a time, and the odds are too daunting for it to assemble in one great leap. Indeed, the aforementioned Nature Reviews Microbiology paper admitted that “the flagellar research community has scarcely begun to consider how these systems have evolved.”
Yet the flagellum is just one example of thousands of known molecular machines in biology. One individual research project reported the discovery of over 250 new molecular machines in yeast alone. The former president of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Bruce Alberts, wrote an article in the journal Cell praising the “speed,” “elegance,” “sophistication,” and “highly organized activity” of these “remarkable” and “marvelous” molecular machines. He explained what inspired those words: “Why do we call the large protein assemblies that underlie cell function protein machines? Precisely because, like machines invented by humans to deal efficiently with the macroscopic world, these protein assemblies contain highly coordinated moving parts.” Biochemists like Behe and others believe that with all of their coordinated interacting parts, many of these machines could not have evolved in a step-by-step Darwinian fashion.
But it’s not just multi-part machines which are beyond reach of Darwinian evolution. The protein-parts themselves which build these machines would also require multiple simultaneous mutations in order to arise.
Research Challenges the Darwinian Mechanism
In 2000 and 2004, protein scientist Douglas Axe published experimental research in the Journal of Molecular Biology on mutational sensitivity tests he performed on enzymes in bacteria. Enzymes are long chains of amino acids which fold into a specific, stable, three- dimensional shape in order to function. Mutational sensitivity experiments begin by mutating the amino acid sequences of those proteins, and then testing the mutant proteins to determine whether they can still fold into a stable shape, and function properly. Axe’s research found that amino acid sequences which yield stable, functional protein folds may be as rare as 1 in 10 to the power of 74 sequences, suggesting that the vast majority of amino acid sequences will not produce stable proteins, and thus could not function in living organisms.
Because of this extreme rarity of functional protein sequences, it would be very difficult for random mutations to take a protein with one type of fold, and evolve it into another, without going through some non-functional stage. Rather than evolving by “numerous, successive, slight modifications,” many changes would need to occur simultaneously to “find” the rare and unlikely amino acid sequences that yield functional proteins. To put the matter in perspective, Axe’s results suggest that the odds of blind and unguided Darwinian processes producing a functional protein fold are less than the odds of someone closing his eyes and firing an arrow into the Milky Way galaxy, and hitting one pre-selected atom.
Proteins commonly interact with other molecules through a “hand- in-glove” fit, but these interactions often require multiple amino acids to be ‘just right’ before they occur. In 2004, Behe, along with University of Pittsburgh physicist David Snoke, simulated the Darwinian evolution of such protein-protein interactions. Behe and Snoke’s calculations found that for multicellular organisms, evolving a simple protein-protein interaction which required two or more mutations in order to function would probably require more organisms and generations than would be available over the entire history of the Earth. They concluded that “the mechanism of gene duplication and point mutation alone would be ineffective … because few multicellular species reach the required population sizes.”
Four years later during an attempt to refute Behe’s arguments, Cornell biologists Rick Durrett and Deena Schmidt ended up begrudgingly confirming he was basically correct. After calculating the likelihood of two simultaneous mutations arising via Darwinian evolution in a population of humans, they found that such an event “would take > 100 million years.” Given that humans diverged from their supposed common ancestor with chimpanzees only 6 million years ago, they granted that such mutational events are “very unlikely to occur on a reasonable timescale.”
Now a defender of Darwinism might reply that these calculations measured the power of the Darwinian mechanism only within multicellular organisms where it is less efficient because these more complex organisms have smaller population sizes and longer generation times than single-celled prokaryotic organisms like bacteria. Darwinian evolution, the Darwinian notes, might have a better shot when operating in organisms like bacteria, which reproduce more rapidly and have much larger population sizes. Scientists skeptical of Darwinian evolution are aware of this objection, and have found that even within more-quickly evolving organisms like bacteria, Darwinian evolution faces great limits.
In 2010, Douglas Axe published evidence indicating that despite high mutation rates and generous assumptions favoring a Darwinian process, molecular adaptations requiring more than six mutations before yielding any advantage would be extremely unlikely to arise in the history of the Earth.
The following year, Axe published research with developmental biologist Ann Gauger regarding experiments to convert one bacterial enzyme into another closely related enzyme—the kind of conversion that evolutionists claim can easily happen. For this case they found that the conversion would require a minimum of at least seven simultaneous changes, exceeding the six-mutation-limit which Axe had previously established as a boundary of what Darwinian evolution is likely to accomplish in bacteria. Because this conversion is thought to be relatively simple, it suggests that more complex biological features would require more than six simultaneous mutations to give some new functional advantage.
In other experiments led by Gauger and biologist Ralph Seelke of the University of Wisconsin, Superior, their research team broke a gene in the bacterium E. coli required for synthesizing the amino acid tryptophan. When the bacteria's genome was broken in just one place, random mutations were capable of “fixing” the gene. But even when only two mutations were required to restore function, Darwinian evolution seemed to get stuck, with an inability to regain full function.
These kind of results consistently suggest that the information required for proteins and enzymes to function is too great to be generated by Darwinian processes on any reasonable evolutionary timescale.
Darwin Skeptics Abound
Drs. Axe, Gauger, and Seelke are by no means the only scientists to observe the rarity of amino acid sequences that yield functional proteins. A leading college-level biology textbook states that “even a slight change in primary structure can affect a protein's conformation and ability to function.” Likewise, evolutionary biologist David S. Goodsell writes:
[O]nly a small fraction of the possible combinations of amino acids will fold spontaneously into a stable structure. If you make a protein with a random sequence of amino acids, chances are that it will only form a gooey tangle when placed in water.
Goodsell goes on to assert that “cells have perfected the sequences of amino acids over many years of evolutionary selection.” But if functional protein sequences are rare, then it is likely that natural selection will be unable to take proteins from one functional genetic sequence to another without getting stuck in some maladaptive or non- beneficial intermediate stage.
The late biologist Lynn Margulis, a well-respected member of the National Academy of Sciences until her death in 2011, once said “new mutations don't create new species; they create offspring that are impaired.” She further explained in a 2011 interview:
[N]eo-Darwinists say that new species emerge when mutations occur and modify an organism. I was taught over and over again that the accumulation of random mutations led to evolutionary change-led to new species. I believed it until I looked for evidence.
Similarly, past president of the French Academy of Sciences, Pierre- Paul Grasse, contended that "[m]utations have a very limited ‘constructive capacity’” because “[n]o matter how numerous they may be, mutations do not produce any kind of evolution.”
Many other scientists feel this way. Over 800 Ph.D. scientists have signed a statement agreeing they “are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life.” Indeed, two biologists wrote in Annual Review of Genomics and Human Genetics: “it remains a mystery how the undirected process of mutation, combined with natural selection, has resulted in the creation of thousands of new proteins with extraordinarily diverse and well optimized functions. This problem is particularly acute for tightly integrated molecular systems that consist of many interacting parts …” Perhaps it would be less mysterious if the theoretical conceptions could be expanded beyond unguided evolutionary mechanisms like random mutation and natural selection to explain the origin of complex biological features.
Problem 4: Natural Selection Struggles to Fix Advantageous Traits into Populations
In 2008, 16 biologists from around the world convened in Altenberg, Austria to discuss problems with the modern neo-Darwinian model of evolution. The journal Nature covered this “Altenberg 16” conference, quoting leading scientists saying things like:
- “[T]he origin of wings and the invasion of the land … are things that evolutionary theory has told us little about.”
- “You can't deny the force of selection in genetic evolution … but in my view this is stabilizing and fine-tuning forms that originate due to other processes.”
- “The modern synthesis is remarkably good at modeling the survival of the fittest, but not good at modeling the arrival of the fittest.
In Problem 3, we learned that mutations cannot generate many complex traits in living organisms on reasonable evolutionary timescales. But mutations are only part of the standard evolutionary mechanism—there is also natural selection. And Darwinian evolution not only commonly fails to explain the “arrival of the fittest” via mutations, but also often struggles to explain the “survival of the fittest” via natural selection.
Evolutionary biologists often assume that once mutations produce a functionally advantageous trait, it will easily spread (become “fixed”) throughout a population by natural selection. For example, imagine a population of brown-haired foxes which lives in a snowy region. One fox is born with a mutation which turns its fur coat white, rather than brown. This fox now has an advantage in hunting prey and escaping predators, because its white fur provides it with camouflage in the snow-filled environment. The white fox survives, passing its genes on to its offspring, which are also adept at surviving and reproducing. Over time, the white-haired trait spreads throughout the population.
This is how it’s supposed to work—in theory. In the real world, however, merely generating a functionally advantageous trait does not guarantee it will persist, or become fixed. For example, what if by chance the white fox trips, breaks a leg, and gets eaten by a predator—never passing on its genes? Random forces or events can prevent a trait from spreading through a population, even if it provides an advantage. These random forces are lumped together under the name “genetic drift.” When biologists run the mathematics of natural selection, they find that unless a trait gives an extremely strong selective advantage, genetic drift will tend to overwhelm the force of selection and prevent adaptations from gaining a foothold in a population.
This underappreciated problem has been recognized by some evolutionary scientists who are skeptical of the ability of natural selection to drive the evolutionary process. One of those scientists is Michael Lynch, an evolutionary biologist at Indiana University, who writes that “random genetic drift can impose a strong barrier to the advancement of molecular refinements by adaptive processes.” He notes that the effect of drift is “encouraging the fixation of mildly deleterious mutations and discouraging the promotion of beneficial mutations.” Likewise, Eugene Koonin, a leading scientist at the National Institutes of Health, explains, genetic drift leads to “random fixation of neutral or even deleterious changes.”
In Lynch’s view, there are many cellular systems which aid in survival, but are redundant. As a result, they serve as backup mechanisms that are only used when a highly effective primary system fails. Because they are only seldom used, these systems are only occasionally exposed to the sieve of selection. Yet these systems can be extremely complex and efficient. How can a system which is only rarely used, or only occasionally needed, evolve to such a high and efficient level of complexity? After observing the many “layers” of complex cellular mechanisms which are involved in processes like DNA replication, Lynch poses a crucial question:
Although these layered lines of defense are clearly advantageous and in many cases essential to cell health, because the simultaneous emergence of all components of a system is implausible, several questions immediately arise. How can selection promote the establishment of additional layers of fitness-enhancing mechanisms if the established primary lines of defense are already highly refined?
Lynch doesn’t believe natural selection is up to the task. In a 2007 paper in Proceedings of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences titled “The frailty of adaptive hypotheses for the origins of organismal complexity,” he explains that among evolutionary biologists, “What is in question is whether natural selection is a necessary or sufficient force to explain the emergence of the genomic and cellular features central to the building of complex organisms.” Using similar language, a paper in the journal Theoretical Biology and Medical Modelling concludes that “it is important for biologists to realistically appraise what selection can and cannot do under various circumstances. Selection may neither be necessary nor sufficient to explain numerous genomic or cellular features of complex organisms.” Lynch is clear in his views: “there is no compelling empirical or theoretical evidence that complexity, modularity, redundancy or other features of genetic pathways are promoted by natural selection.”
Damned If You Appeal to Selection, Damned If You Don’t
In place of natural selection, however, evolutionary biologists like Lynch propose random genetic drift to explain the origin of complex biological features. According to Lynch, “many aspects of complexity at the genomic, molecular and cellular levels in multicellular species are likely to owe their origins to these non-adaptive forces, representing little more than passive outcomes …” But he recognizes that these “nonadaptive forces of evolution are stochastic in nature.”
Stochastic, of course, means random. Can a strictly random force—which has no reason to preserve features that might provide some advantage—explain the highly complex biological features—like DNA replication or bioluminescence—which appear finely tuned to perform useful biological functions? Biologist Ann Gauger is skeptical of Lynch’s explanation, as she observes that he “offers no explanation of how non-adaptive forces can produce the functional genomic and organismal complexity we observe in modern species.” Jerry Coyne similarly points out the major deficiency in appeals to genetic drift:
Both drift and natural selection produce genetic change that we recognize as evolution. But there’s an important difference. Drift is a random process, while selection is the anti-thesis of randomness. … As a purely random process, genetic drift can’t cause the evolution of adaptations. It could never build a wing or an eye. That takes nonrandom natural selection. What drift can do is cause the evolution of features that are neither useful nor harmful to the organism.
Coyne further observes: “The influence of this process on important evolutionary change, though, is probably minor, because it does not have the molding power of natural selection. Natural selection remains the only process that can produce adaptation.” But in a sense agreeing with Lynch, even he recognizes that “genetic drift is not only powerless to create adaptations, but can actually overpower natural selection.”
The debate over whether natural selection, or genetic drift, is more influential in evolution will undoubtedly continue. But there is little reason to believe that whichever side wins this debate, a viable materialistic solution will be offered. Evolutionary biology now finds itself facing a catch-22:
- Natural selection is too inefficient a mechanism to overcome random forces and fix the sort of complex adaptations we observe in populations because it is easily overpowered by random forces like genetic drift.
- Life is full of highly complex and efficient adaptations, but random genetic drift offers no justifiable reason to believe that such features will have any reason to arise.
In essence, genetic drift is like invoking the “mutation-selection” mechanism, but minus all of the selection. This subjects drift to all of the difficulties we saw in Problem 3, where random mutations were unable to build biochemical features like functional proteins, or simple protein-protein interactions, because multiple coordinated mutations were required to produce those traits. Absent selection, there is no reason for random mutations alone—i.e. genetic drift—to produce anything useful.
Unfortunately, the public is rarely made aware of these problems or this debate. According to Lynch, natural selection is typically portrayed as an “all powerful (without any direct evidence)” mechanism that can build complex biological features. He warns that “the myth that all of evolution can be explained by adaptation continues to be perpetuated by our continued homage to Darwin’s treatise in the popular literature.” The reality is that neither non-random forces like natural selection, nor random forces like genetic drift, can explain the origin of many complex biological features.
Problem 5: Abrupt Appearance of Species in the Fossil Record Does Not Support Darwinian Evolution
The fossil record has long-been recognized as a problem for evolutionary theory. In Origin of Species, Darwin explained that his theory led him to believe that “[t]he number of intermediate varieties, which have formerly existed on the earth, [must] be truly enormous.” However, he recognized that the fossil record did not document these “intermediate” forms of life, asking, “Why then is not every geological formation and every stratum full of such intermediate links?” Darwin’s answer showed the tenuous nature of the evidence backing his ideas: “Geology assuredly does not reveal any such finely graduated organic chain; and this, perhaps, is the most obvious and gravest objection which can be urged against my theory.”
Today, some 150 years later, out of thousands of species known from the fossil record, only a small fraction are claimed to be candidates for Darwin’s intermediate forms. Fossil evidence of evolutionary intermediates is generally lacking, as the late evolutionary paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould admitted: “The absence of fossil evidence for intermediary stages between major transitions in organic design, indeed our inability, even in our imagination, to construct functional intermediates in many cases, has been a persistent and nagging problem for gradualistic accounts of evolution.”
Darwin attempted to save his theory of gradual evolution by maintaining that intermediate fossils are not found because of “the extreme imperfection of the geological record.” Even Gould noted that Darwin’s argument that the fossil record is imperfect “persists as the favored escape of most paleontologists from the embarrassment of a record that seems to show so little of evolution directly.” But in the last few decades, this excuse has lost credibility.
Paleontologists today generally recognize that while the fossil record is imperfect, it is still adequate to assess questions about evolution. One study in Nature reported that “if scaled to the … taxonomic level of the family, the past 540 million years of the fossil record provide uniformly good documentation of the life of the past.” Another paper in Paleobiology evaluated our knowledge of the fossil record and concluded that “our view of the history of biological diversity is mature.” Paleontologists now increasingly recognize that “jumps” between species, without intermediates, are not simply the result of an incomplete record. Niles Eldredge, an evolutionary paleontologist and curator at the American Museum of Natural History, puts it this way with Ian Tattersal: “The record jumps, and all the evidence shows that the record is real: the gaps we see reflect real events in life's history—not the artifact of a poor fossil record.” This conclusion did not come easily, as one scientist who studied under Gould felt the need to implore his colleagues that “[e]volutionary biologists can no longer ignore the fossil record on the ground that it is imperfect.”
A Pattern of Explosions
The eventual realization that the fossil record is not entirely incomplete has forced evolutionary biologists to accept that the record shows a pattern of explosions, not gradual evolution of living organisms. One biology textbook explains this:
Many species remain virtually unchanged for millions of years, then suddenly disappear to be replaced by a quite different, but related, form. Moreover, most major groups of animals appear abruptly in the fossil record, fully formed, and with no fossils yet discovered that form a transition from their parent group.
Probably the most famous instance of abrupt appearance is the Cambrian explosion, where nearly all of the major living animal phyla appear in the Cambrian period. An invertebrate biology textbook explains this:
Most of the animal groups that are represented in the fossil record first appear, ‘fully formed’ and identifiable as to their phylum, in the Cambrian, some 550 million years ago. These include such anatomically complex and distinctive types as trilobites, echinoderms, brachiopods, molluscs, and chordates. … The fossil record is therefore of no help with respect to the origin and early diversification of the various animal phyla …
Evolutionary scientists acknowledge that they cannot explain this rapid appearance of diverse animal body plans by classical Darwinian processes, or other known material mechanisms. Robert Carroll, a paleontologist at McGill University, argues in Trends in Ecology and Evolution that “The extreme speed of anatomical change and adaptive radiation during this brief time period requires explanations that go beyond those proposed for the evolution of species within the modern biota.” Another paper likewise maintains that “microevolution does not provide a satisfactory explanation for the extraordinary burst of novelty during the Cambrian Explosion” and concludes “the major evolutionary transitions in animal evolution still remain to be causally explained.” Likewise a 2009 paper in BioEssays concedes that “elucidating the materialistic basis of the Cambrian explosion has become more elusive, not less, the more we know about the event itself.”
But the Cambrian explosion is by no means the only explosion of life recorded in the fossil record. Regarding the origin of major fish groups, former Columbia University geoscientist Arthur Strahler writes that, “This is one count in the creationists’ charge that can only evoke in unison from paleontologists a plea of nolo contendere [no contest].” A paper in Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics explains that the origin of land plants “is the terrestrial equivalent of the much-debated Cambrian ‘explosion’ of marine faunas.” Regarding the origin of angiosperms (flowering plants), paleontologists have discovered a “big bloom” type of explosion event. As one paper states:
In spite of much research and analyses of different sources of data (e.g., fossil record and phylogenetic analyses using molecular and morphological characters), the origin of the angiosperms remains unclear. Angiosperms appear rather suddenly in the fossil record … with no obvious ancestors for a period of 80-90 million years before their appearance.
In a similar way, many orders of mammals appear in an explosive manner. Niles Eldredge explains that “there are all sorts of gaps: absence of gradationally intermediate ‘transitional’ forms between species, but also between larger groups—between, say, families of carnivores, or the orders of mammals.” There is also a bird explosion, with major bird groups appearing in a short time period. One paper in Trends in Ecology and Evolution titled “Evolutionary Explosions and the Phylogenetic Fuse” explains:
A literal reading of the fossil record indicates that the early Cambrian (c. 545 million years ago) and early Tertiary (c. 65 million years ago) were characterized by enormously accelerated periods of morphological evolution marking the appearance of the animal phyla, and modern bird and placental mammal orders, respectively.
Of course there are a handful of examples where evolutionary scientists believe they have found transitional fossils documenting gradual Darwinian evolution. The origin of whales has been called a “poster child for macroevolution,” where it is believed that around 55 million years ago, certain land mammals lost their hind-limbs and evolved into fully aquatic whales. In particular, it is claimed there are fossil land-mammals with ear-bones similar to whales, and fossil whale- like mammals that retain their hindlimbs.
Even though vertebrate and whale expert Phillip Gingerich admits that we only have “fossils illustrating three or four steps that bridge the precursor of whales to today's mammals,” let’s assume for a moment that a full sequence of fossils exists. Is this enough to demonstrate that this transition occurred? Even if there are fossils that look like potential intermediate forms, if the overall evolutionary story does not make sense, then the fossils cannot be transitional. In this case, the Darwinian evolution of whales from land-mammals faces serious mathematical challenges from population genetics.
Many changes would have been necessary to convert a land-mammal into a whale, including:
- Emergence of a blowhole, with musculature and nerve control
- Modification of the eye for permanent underwater vision
- Ability to drink sea water
- Forelimbs transformed into flippers
- Modification of skeletal structure
- Ability to nurse young underwater
- Origin of tail flukes and musculature
- Blubber for temperature insulation
Many of these necessary adaptations would require multiple coordinated changes. But as we saw in Problem 3, such simultaneous mutations require extremely long periods of time to arise via the Darwinian mechanism. Whale evolution now runs into a severe problem. The fossil record requires that the evolution of whales from small land mammals would have to have taken place in less than 10 million years. That may sound like a long time, but it actually falls dramatically short, especially given that whales have small population sizes and long generation times. Biologist Richard Sternberg has examined the requirements of this transition mathematically and puts it this way: “Too many genetic re-wirings, too little time.”
Whale origins thus provides an interesting case study of evolutionary transitions: On a rare occasion where there actually are fossils that potentially show intermediate traits, unguided neo-Darwinian evolution is invalidated by the short amount of time allowed by the fossil record. If this “poster child” of macroevolution doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, what does this tell us about other cases where evolutionists tout supposed transitional fossils?
Human Origins and the Fossil Record
Indeed, the public is commonly told that there are fossils documenting the evolution of humans from ape-like precursors, but a closer look at the technical literature tells a different story. Hominid fossils generally fall into one of two groups: ape-like species and human-like species, with a large, unbridged gap between them. In 2004, the famed evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr recognized the abrupt appearance of humans:
The earliest fossils of Homo, Homo rudolfensis, and Homo erectus, are separated from Australopithecus by a large, unbridged gap. How can we explain this seeming saltation? Not having any fossils that can serve as missing links, we have to fall back on the time-honored method of historical science, the construction of a historical narrative.
In light of such evidence, a paper in the Journal of Molecular Biology and Evolution called the appearance of Homo sapiens “a genetic revolution” where “no australopithecine species is obviously transitional.” The lack of fossil evidence for this hypothesized transition is confirmed by Harvard paleoanthropologists Daniel E. Lieberman, David R. Pilbeam, and Richard W. Wrangham:
Of the various transitions that occurred during human evolution, the transition from Australopithecus to Homo was undoubtedly one of the most critical in its magnitude and consequences. As with many key evolutionary events, there is both good and bad news. First, the bad news is that many details of this transition are obscure because of the paucity of the fossil and archaeological records.
As for the “good news,” they still admit: “although we lack many details about exactly how, when, and where the transition occurred from Australopithecus to Homo, we have sufficient data from before and after the transition to make some inferences about the overall nature of key changes that did occur.” In other words, the fossil record provides ape-like australopithecines (“before”), and human-like Homo (“after”), but not fossils documenting a transition between them. In the absence of intermediates, we’re left with “inferences” of a transition based strictly upon the assumption of Darwinian evolution. One commentator proposed the evidence implies a “big bang theory” of the appearance of our genus Homo. This does not make for a compelling evolutionary account of human origins.
Rather than showing gradual Darwinian evolution, the history of life shows a pattern of explosions where new fossil forms come into existence without clear evolutionary precursors. Evolutionary anthropologist Jeffrey Schwartz summarizes the problem:
[W]e are still in the dark about the origin of most major groups of organisms. They appear in the fossil record as Athena did from the head of Zeus—full-blown and raring to go, in contradiction to Darwin’s depiction of evolution as resulting from the gradual accumulation of countless infinitesimally minute variations …”
This poses a major challenge to Darwinian evolution, including the view that all animals are related through common ancestry.
Reprinted by permission from the website of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture.
See “Part 2: What’s the matter with evolution?” for the next five scientific problems found in evolutionary theory.
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Casey coordinates research at the Discovery Institute.