Can Evolution Explain Life's Complexity?

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Can Evolution Explain Life's Complexity?

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What have we learned since Charles Darwin’s treatise on evolution, The Origin of Species, was first published in 1859? Science has advanced greatly since those horse-and-buggy days. In addition to a thorough exploration of the fossil record, a vast amount of other information is readily available.

As we saw in considering the fossil record, the controversy about evolution is increasing. Thomas Woodward chronicles the latest round of the intelligent design vs. evolution debate: “It was painfully real, and when the seething controversy exploded in August 2005—triggered by an offhand comment at the White House—millions of Americans shook their heads, either in disbelief or in anger, as it was discussed in headline news and network newscasts.

“Blamed for the growing crisis was an unlikely group of troublemakers, most with Ph.D.s after their names. This scattered group in recent years had grown into a network of several hundred scientists and other scholars . . . In case you hadn’t guessed it, the group bore a name: the Intelligent Design Movement” ( Darwin Strikes Back, pp. 19-20). The heated controversy quickly spread beyond the United States to most of the world.

Why the confusion and contention? Simply put, as we saw with the fossil record, the increasing scientific evidence doesn’t fit the Darwinian model—and evolutionists increasingly are finding themselves on the defensive.

Why has this happened? Mainly because the primary supposed proofs of evolutionary theory have not held up to further discovery and scrutiny.

What about natural selection?

After the fossil record, the second supporting pillar of evolution offered by Darwinists is natural selection, which they hoped biologists would confirm. “Just as the breeders selected those individuals best suited to the breeder’s needs to be the parents of the next generation,” explained British philosopher Tom Bethell, “so, Darwin argued, nature selected those organisms that were best fitted to survive the struggle for existence. In that way evolution would inevitably occur. And so there it was: a sort of improving machine inevitably at work in nature, ‘daily and hourly scrutinizing,’ Darwin wrote, ‘silently and insensibly working . . . at the improvement of each organic being.’

“In this way, Darwin thought, one type of organism could be transformed into another—for instance, he suggested, bears into whales. So that was how we came to have horses and tigers and things—by natural selection” (“Darwin’s Mistake,” The Craft of Prose, Robert Woodward and Wendell Smith, editors, 1977, p. 309).

Darwin saw natural selection as the major factor driving evolutionary change. But how has this second pillar of evolutionary theory fared since Darwin’s day? In truth, it has been quietly discarded by an increasing number of theorists among the scientific community.

Darwin’s idea that the survival of the fittest would explain how species evolved has been relegated to a redundant, self-evident statement. Geneticist Conrad Waddington of Edinburgh University defines the fundamental problem of advocating natural selection as a proof of Darwinism: “Natural selection . . . turns out on closer inspection to be a tautology, a statement of an inevitable although previously unrecognized relation. It states that the fittest individuals in a population . . . will leave most offspring” (p. 310).

In other words, the answer to the question of which are the fittest are those that survive, of course. And which ones survive? Why, naturally, the fittest. The problem is that circular reasoning doesn’t point to any independent criteria that can evaluate whether the theory is true.

Selection doesn’t change species

Darwin cited an example of the way natural selection was supposed to work: A wolf that had inherited the ability to run especially fast was better equipped to survive. His advantage in outrunning others in the pack when food was scarce meant he could eat better and thus survive longer.

Yet the very changes that enabled the wolf to run faster could easily become a hindrance if other modifications of the body did not accompany the increased speed. For example, the additional exertion required to run faster would naturally place an added strain on the animal’s heart, and eventually it could drop dead from a heart attack. The survival of the fittest would require that any biological or anatomical alterations would have to be in harmony and synchronized with other bodily modifications, or the changes would be of no benefit.

Natural selection, scientists have found, in reality deals only with the number of a species, not the change of the species to another. It has to do with the survival and not the arrival of the species. Natural selection only preserves existing genetic information (DNA); it doesn’t create genetic material that would allow an animal’s offspring to sprout a new organ, limb or other anatomical feature.

“Natural selection,” said Professor Waddington, “is that some things leave more offspring than others; and you ask, which leave more offspring than others? And it is those that leave more offspring; and there is nothing more to it than that. The whole guts of evolution —which is, how do you come to have horses and tigers and things—is outside the mathematical theory [of neo-Darwinism]” ( Wistar Symposium, Moorehead and Kaplan, 1967, p. 14).

Tom Bethell gets to the heart of the problem with natural selection as the foundation of evolution: “This was no good at all. As T.H. Morgan [1933 Nobel Prize winner in medicine for his experiments with the Drosophila fruit fly] had remarked, with great clarity: ‘Selection, then, has not produced anything new, but only more of certain kinds of individuals. Evolution, however, means producing new things, not more of what already exists’ ” (Bethell, pp. 311-312, emphasis added).

Bethell concludes: “Darwin’s theory, I believe, is on the verge of collapse. In his famous book, [ The Origin of Species ], Darwin made a mistake sufficiently serious to undermine his theory. And that mistake has only recently been recognized as such . . . I have not been surprised to read . . . that in some of the latest evolutionary theories ‘natural selection plays no role at all.’ Darwin, I suggest, is in the process of being discarded, but perhaps in deference to the venerable old gentleman, . . . it is being done as discreetly and gently as possible, with a minimum of publicity” (pp. 308, 313-314).

Sadly, the critical examination of natural selection has been undertaken so discreetly that most people are unaware of it—so the pervasive deception that began a century and a half ago continues.

Yet more scientists are becoming vocal. Writing in the June 26, 2007, New York Times, Douglas Erwin, a senior scientist at the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution, dared to admit the present confusion about the role of natural selection in evolution:

“Is Darwin due for an upgrade? There are growing calls among some evolutionary biologists for just such a revision, although they differ about what form this might take . . . In the past few years every element of this [evolutionary] paradigm has been attacked. Concerns about the sources of evolutionary innovation and discoveries about how DNA evolves have led some to propose that mutations, not selection, drive much of evolution, or at least the main episodes of innovation, like the origin of major animal groups, including vertebrates” (“Darwin Still Rules, but Some Biologists Dream of a Paradigm Shift”).

A look at random mutation

If natural selection is not the answer, what about the third supporting pillar of evolution, random mutation?

Curiously enough, Darwin himself was one of the first to discount beneficial effects from rare changes he noted in species. He did not even include them in his theory. “He did not consider them important,” says Maurice Caullery in his book Genetics and Heredity, “because they nearly always represented an obvious disadvantage from the point of view of the struggle for existence; consequently they would most likely be rapidly eliminated in the wild state by the operation of natural selection” (1964, p. 10, emphasis added).

In Darwin’s lifetime the principles of genetics were not clearly understood. Gregor Mendel had published his findings on genetic principles in 1866, but his work was overlooked at the time. Later, at the beginning of the 20th century, Hugo De Vries rediscovered these principles, which evolutionists quickly seized on to support evolution. Sir Julian Huxley, one of the principal spokesmen for evolutionary theory in the 20th century, commented on the unpredictability of mutations: “Mutation . . . provides the raw material of evolution; it is a random affair and takes place in all directions” ( Evolution in Action, 1953, p. 38).

So, “shortly after the turn of the [19th to the 20th] century, Darwin’s theory suddenly seemed plausible again,” writes Francis Hitching. “It was found that once in a while, absolutely at random (about once in ten million times during cell division, we now know) the genes make a copying mistake. These mistakes are known as mutations, and are mostly harmful. They lead to a weakened plant, or a sick or deformed creature. They do not persist within the species, because they are eliminated by natural selection . . .

“However, followers of Darwin have come to believe that it is the occasional beneficial mutation, rarely though it happens, which is what counts in evolution. They say these favorable mutations, together with sexual mixing, are sufficient to explain how the whole bewildering variety of life on Earth today originated from a common genetic source” ( The Neck of the Giraffe, p. 49, emphasis added).

Mutations: liability, not benefit

What has almost a century of research discovered? That mutations are pathological mistakes and not helpful changes in the genetic code.

C.P. Martin of McGill University in Montreal wrote, “Mutation is a pathological process which has had little or nothing to do with evolution” (“A Non-Geneticist Looks at Evolution,” American Scientist, January 1953, p. 100). Professor Martin’s investigations revealed that mutations are overwhelmingly negative and never creative. He observed that an apparently beneficial mutation was likely only a correction of a previously deleterious one, similar to punching a man with a dislocated shoulder and inadvertently putting it back into place.

Science writer Richard Milton explains the problem: “The results of such copying errors are tragically familiar. In body cells, faulty replication shows itself as cancer. Sunlight’s mutagenic [mutation-inducing] power causes skin cancer; the cigarette’s mutagenic power causes lung cancer. In sexual cells, faulty reproduction of whole chromosome number 21 results in a child with Down’s syndrome” ( Shattering the Myths of Darwinism, p. 156). Yet evolutionists would have us believe that such genetic mistakes are not only not harmful to the afflicted creature but are helpful in the long run.

Professor Phillip Johnson observes, “To suppose that such a random event could reconstruct even a single complex organ like a liver or kidney is about as reasonable as to suppose that an improved watch can be designed by throwing an old one against a wall” ( Darwin on Trial, p. 37).

We can be thankful that mutations are extremely rare. An average of one mistake per 10 million correct copies occurs in the genetic code. Whoever or whatever types 10 million letters with only one mistake would easily be the world’s best typist and probably would not be human. Yet this is the astounding accuracy of our supposedly blind genetic code when it replicates itself.

If, however, these copying errors were to accumulate, a species, instead of improving, would eventually degenerate and perish. But geneticists have discovered a self-correcting system.

“The genetic code in each living thing has its own built-in limitations,” says Hitching. “It seems designed to stop a plant or creature stepping too far away from the average . . . Every series of breeding experiments that has ever taken place has established a finite limit to breeding possibilities. Genes are a strong influence for conservatism, and allow only modest change. Left to their own devices, artificially bred species usually die out (because they are sterile or less robust) or quickly revert to the norm” (pp. 54-55).

Writing about zoologist Pierre-Paul Grassé, Alan Hayward says: “In 1973 he published a major book on evolution . . . First and foremost, the book aims to expose Darwinism as a theory that does not work, because it clashes with so many experimental findings.

“As Grassé says in his introduction: ‘Today our duty is to destroy the myth of evolution . . . Some people, owing to their sectarianism, purposely overlook reality and refuse to acknowledge the inadequacies and the falsity of their beliefs’ . . .

“Take mutation first. Grassé has studied this extensively, both inside his laboratory and in nature. In all sorts of living things, from bacteria to plants and animals, he has observed that mutations do not take succeeding generations further and further from their starting point. Instead, the changes are like the flight of a butterfly in a green house, which travels for miles without moving more than a few feet from its starting point. There are invisible but firmly fixed boundaries that mutations can never cross . . . He insists that mutations are only trivial changes; they are merely the result of slightly altered genes, whereas ‘creative evolution . . . demands the genesis of new ones’ ” ( Creation and Evolution, p. 25).

Embarrassingly for evolutionists, mutation is also not the answer. If anything, the self-correcting system to eliminate mutations shows that a great intelligence was at work when the overall genetic system was designed so that random mutations would not destroy the beneficial genes. Ironically, mutation shows the opposite of what evolutionism teaches: In real life, random mutation is the villain and not the hero.

This takes us to one last point on mutations: the inability of evolution to explain the appearance of simple life and intricate organs.

The wondrous cell

Cells are marvelous and incredibly complicated living things. They are self-sufficient and function like miniature chemical factories. The closer we look at cells, the more we realize their incredible complexity.

For example, the cell membrane is a wonder in itself. If it were too porous, harmful solutions would enter and cause the cell to burst. On the other hand, if the membrane were too impervious, nourishment could not come in and waste products could not go out, and the cell would quickly die.

Dr. Michael Behe, professor of biological sciences at Lehigh University, summarizes one of the fundamental flaws of evolution as an explanation for any form of life: “Darwin’s theory encounters its greatest difficulties when it comes to explaining the development of the cell. Many cellular systems are what I term ‘irreducibly complex.’ That means the system needs several components before it can work properly.

“An everyday example of irreducible complexity is a mousetrap, built of several pieces (platform, hammer, spring and so on). Such a system probably cannot be put together in a Darwinian manner, gradually improving its function. You can’t catch a mouse with just the platform and then catch a few more by adding the spring. All the pieces have to be in place before you catch any mice.”

Professor Behe’s point is that a cell missing a tenth of its parts doesn’t function only one tenth less as well as a complete cell; it doesn’t function at all. He concludes: “The bottom line is that the cell—the very basis of life—is staggeringly complex. But doesn’t science already have answers, or partial answers, for how these systems originated? No” (“Darwin Under the Microscope,” New York Times, Oct. 29, 1996, p. A25).

Miniature technological marvel

Michael Denton, the molecular biologist and senior research fellow at the University of Otago in New Zealand, contrasts how the cell was viewed in Darwin’s day with what today’s researchers can see. In Darwin’s time the cell could be viewed at best at a magnification of several hundred times. Using the best technology of their day, when scientists viewed the cell they saw “a relatively disappointing spectacle appearing only as an ever-changing and apparently disordered pattern of blobs and particles which, under the influence of unseen turbulent forces, [were] continually tossed haphazardly in all directions” ( Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, p. 328).

The years since then have brought astounding technological advancements. Now researchers can peer into the tiniest parts of cells. Do they still see only formless blobs, or do they witness something far more astounding?

“To grasp the reality of life as it has been revealed by molecular biology,” writes Dr. Denton, “we must magnify a cell a thousand million times until it is twenty kilometres in diameter and resembles a giant airship large enough to cover a great city like London or New York. What we would then see would be an object of unparalleled complexity and adaptive design.

“On the surface of the cell we would see millions of openings, like the port holes of a vast space ship, opening and closing to allow a continual stream of materials in and out. If we were to enter one of these openings we would find ourselves in a world of supreme technology and bewildering complexity. We would see endless highly organized corridors and conduits branching in every direction away from the perimeter of the cell, some leading to the central memory bank in the nucleus and others to assembly plants and processing units.

“The nucleus itself would be a vast spherical chamber more than a kilometre in diameter, resembling a geodesic dome inside of which we would see, all neatly stacked together in ordered arrays, the miles of coiled chains of the DNA molecules . . .

“We would wonder at the level of control implicit in the movement of so many objects down so many seemingly endless conduits, all in perfect unison. We would see all around us, in every direction we looked, all sorts of robot-like machines. We would notice that the simplest of the functional components of the cell, the protein molecules, were astonishingly complex pieces of molecular machinery, each one consisting of about three thousand atoms arranged in highly organized 3-D spatial conformation.

“We would wonder even more as we watched the strangely purposeful activities of these weird molecular machines, particularly when we realized that, despite all our accumulated knowledge of physics and chemistry, the task of designing one such molecular machine—that is one single functional protein molecule—would be beyond our capacity . . . Yet the life of the cell depends on the integrated activities of thousands, certainly tens, and probably hundreds of thousands of different protein molecules” (pp. 328-329).

This is a molecular biologist’s description of one cell. The human body contains about 10 trillion (10,000,000,000,000) brain, nerve, muscle and other types of cells.

Did this come about by chance?

Yet as complex as cells are, the smallest living things are even far more intricate. Sir James Gray, a Cambridge University professor of zoology, states: “Bacteria [are] far more complex than any inanimate system known to man. There is not a laboratory in the world which can compete with the biochemical activity of the smallest living organism” (quoted by Marshall and Sandra Hall, The Truth: God or Evolution? 1974, p. 89).

How complex are the tiniest living things? Even the simplest must possess a staggering amount of genetic information to function. For instance, the bacterium R. coli is one of the tiniest unicellular creatures in nature. Scientists calculate that it has some 2,000 genes, each with around 1,000 enzymes (organic catalysts, chemicals that speed up other chemical reactions). An enzyme is made up of a billion nucleotides, each of which amounts to a letter in the chemical alphabet, comparable to a byte in computer language. These enzymes instruct the organism how to function and reproduce. The DNA information in just this single tiny cell is “the approximate equivalent of 100 million pages of the Encyclopaedia Britannica” (John Whitcomb, The Early Earth, 1972, p. 79).

What are the odds that the enzymes needed to produce the simplest living creature—with each enzyme performing a specific chemical function—could come together by chance? Astrophysicists Sir Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe calculated the odds at one chance in 10 40,000 (that is, 10 to the 40,000th power: mathematical shorthand for a 10 followed by 40,000 zeros, a number long enough to fill about a dozen pages of this publication).

Note that a probability of less than 1 in 10 50 is considered by mathematicians to be a complete impossibility (Hayward, pp. 35-37). By comparison, Sir Arthur Eddington, another mathematician, estimates there are no more than 10 80 atoms in the universe! (Hitching, p. 70).

As long as evolutionists keep their conceptions as vague abstractions, they can sound plausible. But when rigorous mathematics are applied to their generalities, and their assertions are specifically quantified, the underpinnings of Darwinian evolution are exposed as so implausible and unrealistic as to be impossible.

Scientists’ revealing reaction

Professor Behe comments on the curious academic and scientific reaction to discoveries about the intricacy of the cell: “Over the past four decades modern biochemistry has uncovered the secrets of the cell. The progress has been hard won. It has required tens of thousands of people to dedicate the better parts of their lives to the tedious work of the laboratory . . .

“The results of these cumulative efforts to investigate the cell—to investigate life at the molecular level—is a loud, clear, piercing cry of ‘design!’ The result is so unambiguous and so significant that it must be ranked as one of the greatest achievements in the history of science. The discovery rivals those of Newton and Einstein, Lavoisier and Schrödinger, Pasteur, and Darwin. The observation of the intelligent design of life is as momentous as the observation that the earth goes around the sun or that disease is caused by bacteria or that radiation is emitted in quanta.

“The magnitude of the victory, gained at such great cost through sustained effort over the course of decades, would be expected to send champagne corks flying in labs around the world. This triumph of science should evoke cries of ‘Eureka!’ from ten thousand throats, should occasion much hand-slapping and high-fiving, and perhaps even be an excuse to take the day off.

“But no bottles have been uncorked, no hands slapped. Instead a curious, embarrassed silence surrounds the stark complexity of the cell. When the subject comes up in public, feet start to shuffle, and breathing gets a bit labored. In private people are a bit more relaxed; many explicitly admit the obvious but then stare at the ground, shake their heads, and let it go at that.

“Why does the scientific community not greedily embrace its startling discovery? Why is the observation of design handled with intellectual gloves? The dilemma is that while one side of the elephant is labeled intelligent design, the other side might be labeled God” (pp. 232-233, original emphasis).

These discoveries reveal that the simplest living cell is so intricate and complex in its design that even the possibility of its coming into existence accidentally is unthinkable. It is clear that evolutionists don’t have a rational answer to how the first cells were formed. This is just one of their many problems in trying to explain a wondrous creation that they argue had to come together by chance.