Devolution, not evolution
Books | The inadequacy of Darwinism can be found at the molecular level
by Michael Behe
Posted 6/13/20, 12:31 pm
Two decades ago, in Darwin’s Black Box, Michael Behe flipped the conventional understanding that the evolutionary battle is one of science vs. faith. He showed scientifically that macro-evolution is a satisfactory explanation only for those who are true believers in the words of a 19th-century prophet. Now, in Darwin Devolves, Behe highlights new scientific discoveries that show how Darwin’s mechanism works by breaking down genes: devolution, not evolution. Darwin Devolves was our Science Book of the Year for 2019 because it shows that the evolutionary process can build or create nothing at the genetic level, but it can make a creature look different. Here’s an excerpt, courtesy of HarperOne. —Marvin Olasky
The Future Starts Now
To understand the profound inadequacy of Darwinism, we must first understand evolution’s foundation. Molecules are the basis of physical life. DNA, the carrier of genetic information, is itself a molecule. In turn DNA encodes another class of very complex molecules, proteins, which can join together to form literal machines—molecular trucks, pumps, scanners, and more—that carry out the work of the cell. Among other duties, those machines build the structural materials of everyday life, such as shells, wood, flesh, and bones, which also are all made of particular molecules carefully arranged in particular ways. So in order to more fully understand life, one must understand its molecular basis. The study of the molecular basis of life is the task of my own field, biochemistry.
Because molecules are the basis of life, they are also the basis of evolution. Mutations, the raw material for evolution, are changes in molecules—alterations of DNA and the proteins it codes for. For example, people with the sickle-cell gene have a simple change in their DNA that leads them to produce slightly altered hemoglobin and makes them resistant to malaria. People whose DNA has a small change in a gene dubbed OCA2 lose the ability to produce the molecular pigment melanin in their irises, turning their eyes blue. Most people who hear the word “evolution” probably think of fish with legs or dinosaurs with feathers. Yet they should think of proteins and DNA, because it is molecules that are the underpinnings of visible changes. To more fully understand evolution, one must understand its molecular basis, the biochemical level of life, which we’ll explore in subsequent chapters.
Through no fault of his own, Charles Darwin knew none of this. The science of the mid-nineteenth century was primitive compared to today’s. The very existence of molecules was still in doubt back then, and the cell, which we now know is filled with sophisticated molecular machinery, was thought to be made of a simple jelly called protoplasm. Perforce the Victorian naturalist was unaware of perhaps the central fact of biology: that heredity—a key prerequisite of his theory—is largely determined by an elaborate molecular code expressed through the intricate actions of hugely complex molecular machines. In the absence of such knowledge, Darwin hypothesized that hereditary traits were transmitted by nondescript theoretical particles he dubbed “gemmules,” which supposedly were shed by all parts of the body and somehow collected in the reproductive organs. Gemmules turned out to be wholly imaginary.
Although its components are often unwittingly conflated, Darwin’s theory of evolution is actually an amalgam of a handful of separate ideas, several of which do not depend as strongly as others on an understanding of biochemistry. For example, the ideas that life has changed over time and that organisms are related by common descent (both of which were controversial in Darwin’s time) are supported by evidence from geology, paleontology, and comparative anatomy. Those parts of his theory have withstood the test of time very well.
The situation is completely different for the parts of his theory that we now know do depend profoundly on the nature of the molecular level of life—in particular, for the crucial aspects that propose a mechanism for evolution. Those portions of Darwin’s theory that address the paramount question, “How in the world could such fantastic biological transformations possibly happen?” have for long years gone essentially untested, because research techniques that could probe the molecular level of life in the required detail were unavailable. Partly as a result, Darwin’s proposed mechanism of evolution is more widely questioned today than at any time since the role of DNA in life was discovered. To make up for what it is thought to lack, in the past few decades a number of scientists have proposed sundry alternatives to Darwin’s mechanism, such as neutral theory and natural genetic engineering. This book will advance a much different theory.
An understanding of the existing molecular basis of life is necessary for an evaluation of any proposed mechanism of evolution, but by itself is woefully insufficient. In addition to that knowledge, the many ways life can change at the molecular level also have to be understood—and then the frequencies of helpful ones must be measured and compared for a huge number of organisms over many generations. For all practical purposes that was impossible to do until very recently, when advanced laboratory equipment and new techniques became available to determine the exact DNA sequence of genomes and other critical molecular details. Only in the past few decades could the adequacy of Darwin’s proposed mechanism of evolution even begin to be tested.
To put a point on it, up until quite recently speculations on the topic by even the brightest minds were of no more account than were guesses about Earth’s place in the universe before the invention of the telescope. So forget what you’ve heard about how evolution happened. Only now do we have sufficient data to understand the causes of evolution.
Building a solid foundation for understanding that data does require some work. But it brings the substantial reward of a much better appreciation for the place of humanity, and indeed of all life, in the universe. At a minimum, we need a grasp of the outlines of the history of biology, the strengths and weaknesses of Darwin’s theory and modern extensions of it, the latest pertinent research results, and crucial philosophical topics. All of that this book will provide in a way that aims to be accessible to the general reading public. The book’s goal is to give readers the scientific and other information needed to confidently conclude for themselves that life was purposely designed.
So let’s delve right into it. Our first order of business is one of those crucial philosophical topics that’s indispensable for evaluating the relevant data: basic epistemological difficulties for Darwin’s theory. In other words, how do we know what we think we know about evolution? We’ll see compelling reasons to conclude that it is not nearly as well supported as it’s often portrayed to be.
Evolution and Economics
The study of evolution has a big economics problem. In his 1974 Nobel Prize lecture in economics Friedrich von Hayek decried the “pretense of knowledge.” Governments looked to economists for advice on policy questions, and they eagerly gave it. But in reality no one actually knew how to solve the rampant inflation of the time or other pressing problems. Intricate mathematical models were built that included what were thought to be the most important economic factors, but to little avail. Hayek lamented, “As a profession we [economists] have made a mess of things.”
The problem wasn’t that economists weren’t smart. The problem, thought Hayek, was physics envy. Physics envy is the always disappointed yearning by those in a thoroughly complex field to imitate those in a comparatively simple, wildly successful one. As difficult as physics seems to undergraduates, it deals mostly with inanimate matter and can focus on single variables in splendid isolation. Economics, on the other hand, must consider many interacting factors, including people. Economic results are affected not only by supply and demand, but also by competition, taxes, government regulations, technology, and more. They’re also influenced by noneconomic human factors such as culture, education, corruption, innovation, jealousy, ambition, disease, population density, greed, charity, and so on. It is effectively impossible to rigorously isolate one of the myriad influences for study away from all others.
So too for the study of evolution. As University of Chicago evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne once said with a sigh: “In science’s pecking order, evolutionary biology lurks somewhere near the bottom, far closer to phrenology than to physics.” To be charitable, let’s just say closer to economics. Like economics, biology has to deal with, in Hayek’s phrase, “structures of essential complexity.” Yet the problem is very much worse for the study of evolution, because it concerns processes—many still largely unknown—that occur at the molecular level over thousands or millions of years, involving not only biological factors, but also geological, meteorological, and even celestial ones. Whatever considerations economic science has that confound the accuracy of its prognostications, evolutionary biology has those that affect its pronouncements with exponentially greater force.
Like economics, much of modern evolutionary biology is also cloaked by a thick pretense of knowledge. Of course, biologists can study fossils, genes, and other data to map the history of life reasonably well, just as economic historians can chart how the financial fortunes of industries and nations rose and fell over time. But even at best that just tells us what happened. The sticking point is not so much what happened, but how. What caused events to unfold as they did? That’s the question Charles Darwin had hoped to answer.
If the subject matter of evolutionary biology is much more difficult than that of economics, then why are its conclusions often presented to the public as indisputable? That of course is a complicated question, but I think a large part of the answer is that evolutionary biology gets little outside feedback when its theories are going awry. Screaming politicians and failing national banks can prod economists into thinking that maybe, just maybe, their computer models missed an important factor or two. But, although its long-term influence on culture may be profound, the idea of evolution has few consequences for practical daily life. And since its main claims are very difficult to test, it can drift along for a long time by dint of intellectual and social inertia, without pushback. Economic proposals often get roasted in popular newspapers and magazines. Evolutionary ones are routinely applauded. Why look for new ideas when everyone is patting your back?
So many evolutionary stories—fish with wrists, hobbits on islands, a predicted disappearance of males—get so much uncritical, gee-whiz-that’s-neat media attention that it can be hard for readers to spot serious problems lurking just under the surface. To raise consciousness before we look much deeper, let’s next examine three bright-red danger flags that alert us to claims of evolutionary biology that are just make-believe understanding. We’ll focus on the first one in this section, and the others in the following two sections.
Red flag number one: Consider the following sentence from an article in Scientific American by a writer who was pondering the question of how people differ from other primates:
Humans have evolved a sense of self that is unparalleled in its complexity.
Contrast it with this sentence:
Humans have a sense of self that is unparalleled in its complexity.
Now, what information has been lost by deleting the word “evolved”? There have been no studies demonstrating how evolutionary processes could produce a mind with a sense of self. The entire subject of what the mind even is has been controversial for thousands of years, with no resolution in sight. In fact, the word “evolved” in the sentence carries no information. It’s just a science-y, content-free salute to the notion that everything about living beings—pointedly including the human mind—simply must have come about by the ordinary evolutionary processes that biologists study.
That territorial imperative to plant Darwin’s flag everywhere holds even when the topic descends from the sublime to the ridiculous. From an article by a New York Times science writer on the pedestrian matter of how some birds clean their rumps:
Birds like the silky flycatcher, Phainopepla nitens, that are mistletoe specialists have evolved a “waggle dance.”
Birds like the silky flycatcher, Phainopepla nitens, that are mistletoe specialists have a “waggle dance.”
What information has been lost by leaving out “evolved”? No careful studies have been done documenting, for example, how birds lacking that behavior develop it by random genetic changes to specific neural pathways under some identifiable, measurable selective pressure. The word does no real work. It’s pretend knowledge.
If you’re sensitive to it, as I am, you’ll find such gratuitous language used routinely in popular science writing and media pretty much every time the topic of evolution comes up.
But, you might ask, isn’t that just a peccadillo of popular media? Aren’t professional scientists more rigorous than that? No, the same empty phrases often taint publications for working scientists too. For example, in a very technical journal article discussing cellular protein folding, the author remarks offhandedly:
Another important constraint is the inability of a cell to tolerate significant amounts of unfolded, nonfunctional protein. As a result, every cell has evolved mechanisms that identify and eliminate misfolded and unassembled proteins.
But in fact we have no actual knowledge of how such sophisticated mechanisms could have come about by evolutionary means.
 By “biochemistry” I mean to include all disciplines that study life at the molecular level, such as molecular biology, biophysics, genetics, and others.
 F.A. von Hayek, “The Pretense of Knowledge,” December 11, 1974, https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/economic-sciences/laureates/1974/hayek-lecture.html.
 J.A. Coyne, “Of Vice and Men: The Fairy Tales of Evolutionary Psychology,” a review of A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion by Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer, New Republic, April 3, 2000.
 C. Zimmer, “The Neurobiology of the Self,” Scientific American, November 2005.
 O. Judson, “The Hemiparasite Season,” New York Times, December 25, 2014.
 A.E. Johnson, “The Co-translational Folding and Interactions of Nascent Protein Chains: A New Approach Using Fluorescence Resonance Energy Transfer,” FEBS Letters 579 (2005): 916–20.
Michael is a professor of biological sciences at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania and a senior fellow at Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture.