Will Darwinism End With a Big Bang?
We may be seeing the end of Darwinism as we know it. Eugene Koonin of the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, has written a devastating critique of traditional Darwinism in an open-source journal, Biology Direct.1 Koonin, an evolutionist himself, basically said that all major life forms, with all their complexity, appear suddenly in the record without intermediate forms, and this fact can no longer be denied.
Major transitions in biological evolution show the same pattern of sudden emergence of diverse forms at a new level of complexity. The relationships between major groups within an emergent new class of biological entities are hard to decipher and do not seem to fit the tree pattern that, following Darwin’s original proposal, remains the dominant description of biological evolution. The cases in point include the origin of complex RNA molecules and protein folds; major groups of viruses; archaea and bacteria, and the principal lineages within each of these prokaryotic domains; eukaryotic supergroups; and animal phyla. In each of these pivotal nexuses in life’s history, the principal “types” seem to appear rapidly and fully equipped with the signature features of the respective new level of biological organization. No intermediate “grades” or intermediate forms between different types are detectable.
We saw Koonin a few months ago wondering what human-like genes were doing in a sea anemone (07/08/2007). Last year, he was wondering about the origin of introns (03/09/2006). It seems these and other evolutionary puzzles have taken their toll.
In place of traditional Darwinian theory, Koonin proposed a new hypothesis: the “Biological Big Bang” (BBB). He drew parallels with the inflationary big bang of cosmology:
I propose that most or all major evolutionary transitions that show the “explosive” pattern of emergence of new types of biological entities correspond to a boundary between two qualitatively distinct evolutionary phases. The first, inflationary phase is characterized by extremely rapid evolution driven by various processes of genetic information exchange, such as horizontal gene transfer, recombination, fusion, fission, and spread of mobile elements. These processes give rise to a vast diversity of forms from which the main classes of entities at the new level of complexity emerge independently, through a sampling process. In the second phase, evolution dramatically slows down, the respective process of genetic information exchange tapers off, and multiple lineages of the new type of entities emerge, each of them evolving in a tree-like fashion from that point on.
But is this just an argument from analogy? What possible relevance does the physical origin of universe have to the biological development of species? It appears that Koonin’s hypothesis was motivated not so much from the plausibility of comparing life to the sudden origin of the universe from nothing, but by the observational facts: it became clear to him that life did not evolve by Darwin’s slow, branching method.
Koonin’s paper shows a “bush of life” instead of Darwin’s tree of life. The diagram shows a variety of lineages all emerging suddenly from a center point. He describes how in almost every sphere, from protein folds to the major kingdoms of life to the animal phyla, a tree pattern cannot be found. Instead, sudden emergence, with all the complexity in place from the start, is the rule. He admits, for instance, that the Cambrian Explosion (see 10/04/2007), a “highly publicized enigma,” is unlikely to be solved by proposing molecular changes in the Precambrian. “In an already familiar pattern,” he said, “the relationship between the animal phyla remains controversial and elusive.”
Koonin drew attention to other writers who have noted the same patterns: Carl Woese, Stephen Jay Gould, Cavalier-Smith, and most recently Doolittle and Bapteste (see 02/01/2007). There is no universal tree of life. Evolutionists need to face that fact and come up with alternatives. Will his Biological Big Bang stand up to critical review by fellow evolutionists?
It did not escape Koonin’s notice, nor that of the reviewers, that his hypothesis would be latched onto by creationists and promoters of intelligent design theory (ID). William Martin (U of Dusseldorf) looked at this statement in the paper: “In each major class of biological objects, the principal types emerge ‘ready-made’, and intermediate grades cannot be identified” and had this reaction: “Ouch, that will be up on ID websites faster than one can bat an eye.” Koonin knew that his ideas could be grist for the ID mill, but answered that even though he tried to avoid ID allusions, he had to face the situation as honestly as possible:
…. there is little I can do because this is an important sentence that accurately and clearly portrays a crucial and, to the very best of my understanding, real feature of evolutionary transitions. Will this be used by the ID camp? Perhaps – if they read that far into the paper. However, I am afraid that, if our goal as evolutionary biologists is to avoid providing any grist for the ID mill, we should simply claim that Darwin, “in principle”, solved all the problems of the origin of biological complexity in his eye story, and only minor details remain to be filled in. Actually, I think the position of some ultra-darwinists is pretty close to that. However, I believe that this is totally counter-productive and such a notion is outright false. And, the ID folks are clever in their own perverse way, they see through such false simplicity and seize on it. I think we (students of evolution) should openly admit that emergence of new levels of complexity is a complex problem and should try to work out solutions some of which could be distinctly non-orthodox….
After this, he assured himself that ID doesn’t offer a viable answer to any problem. Presumably this means that materialism is safe, in his view. It follows that any radically unorthodox naturalistic answer is better than the current paradigm which is no longer tenable.
Nicholas Matzke (formerly of the National Center for Science Education, NCSE) noticed this paper and left his calling card at the Reader’s Comments. “Well,” he began dryly, “since it is clear that this paper will be on every ID/creationist blog on the planet in under 12 hours, I might as well put in my 2 cents early.” Matzke defended the traditional slow-and-gradual Darwinism. Surprisingly, one of his defenses was to claim that the Linnean category of phylum is an illusion. “Down with phyla!” he shouted. His other arguments disputed that the apparent sudden transitions were inaccessible to gradualistic interpretations.
In his concluding remarks, Matzke acknowledged that shoving this problem under the rug is counter-productive.
Until this week I worked at the National Center for Science Education, where we oppose the ID/creationists and develop a finely-tuned sense of the sorts of things they will pluck from the literature and desperately portray as evidence that they aren’t completely nuts. However, I am well aware that telling scientists to censor themselves to avoid giving creationists talking points is a non-starter, so hopefully my comments came out as being substantive rather than just the boring voice of orthodoxy.
Since the complete paper and Matzke’s rebuttal are online and freely available, the reader can decide who is desperately portraying themselves as not completely nuts.
Update 10/22/2007: Another molecular biologist has commented on the paper (see Comments). Shi Liu of the Eagle Institute of Molecular Medicine in North Carolina was not surprised because he had already proposed a similar biological big bang back in 1991. His ending comment might jolt awake some historians of science:
Thus, while we may still appreciate the role of Darwin in helping scientists wining [sic] a upper [sic] hand in fighting against the creationists for filling our intellectual void of understanding life’s origin and evolution, we must realize that Darwin’s fetal [sic?] mistakes have also misled science into a dead end of fruitless search for the non-existent last common ancestor (LCA) and some useless constructions of some untruthful universal tree of life (TOL).
This quote might be compared with Doolittle and Bapteste’s illustration of the “the ladder that helped the community to climb the wall of acceptance and understanding of evolutionary process” (see 02/01/2007 entry and commentary). Liu apparently agrees with them that “now that we have climbed it,” (i.e., winning the war against the creationists), “we do not need this ladder anymore.” See Big Lie in the Baloney Detector.
1Eugene V. Koonin, “The Biological Big Bang model for the major transitions in evolution,” Biology Direct 2007, 2:21doi:10.1186/1745-6150-2-21.
We are at a critical time in the history of ideas. Marx fell, Freud fell, and now Darwin is in free-fall with little hope of recovery. It’s a little like the Yeltsin stage of the fall of Russian communism. It was late summer of 1991. Gorbachev had softened up the West with talk of an ease of tensions, but this allowed his rival Boris Yeltsin to amass a large popular following. Fearful of Yeltsin’s popularity among the masses, the hardline communist party bosses put Gorbachev on house arrest, staged a coup and re-seized power. But it was a complete joke. Boris was outside with the people, standing on a tank with a bullhorn receiving cheers from the freedom-hungry crowds, while TV cameras showed the communist bosses inside their fortress with trembling hands, reading prepared statements claiming they were still in control. Other Soviet officials in the room were clearly drunk. This could not have happened were not evident to everyone that Marxism-Leninism had decayed from within and could no longer support the power structure erected around it.
Nobody is going to fall for Koonin’s BBB model of evolution. It is tantamount to believing in miracles. Cosmic inflation, even if there were such a thing, says nothing about the origin of information, genetic codes, body plans and all the other things Darwin needed to explain. Like Marxism, Darwinism was an ideology that sounded good on paper. It fueled a lot of revolutionary fervor in its day. In practice, though, it quickly became a dead orthodoxy. It had to be enforced by totalitarian thought police and by waves of purges. In a stunning repeat of recent history, we see today the Darwin Party bosses preaching their Darwinist dogma and claiming everything is under control, when in their heart of hearts they know it doesn’t fit the way the world is.
If this is indeed the Yeltsin stage of the fall of Darwinism, the next steps are critical to the future of Western civilization. Yeltsin stood at a tipping point in Russian history but was too tipsy to take advantage of it. His penchant for vodka, and his lack of personal integrity, led to his becoming an embarrassing footnote to the story of the Soviet empire’s demise. Koonin is the Gorbachev figure. He recognizes that it is no longer a viable policy to pretend that “business as usual” can forestall a collapse. He offers perestroika, an easing of tensions, to appeal to the masses who are leaning toward the Reaganesque doctrine of intelligent design, recognizing full well that Reagan supporters will capitalize on this perceived weakness of Soviet ideology. Outside, ID supporters are winning the hearts and minds of the world with their shouts of Tear down this wall. Matzke is the Soviet hardliner wanting to rein in Gorby Koonin before he opens the floodgates of mass revolt. His restatement of traditional Darwin doctrine, however, is unlikely to convince knowledgeable insiders, or stop the momentum of intelligent design.
What happens next is anyone’s guess. The Darwin Party still wields tremendous power. It is very possible they will continue to succeed with “business as usual” through exercise of raw power or subterfuge (threats, intimidation, decrees by judges, and official propaganda). This could keep the status quo going for many years. But the empirical engine of Darwin’s balloon is dead; how long can they keep it aloft with their own hot air? Meanwhile, onlookers see the intelligent design balloon reaching new heights. The hardliners can’t hide the truth much longer.
Change could happen very fast. All that is needed is for enough high-ranking Darwin Party officials to break ranks, and you could see a rapid mass exodus of scientists confessing “I never really believed all that stuff, anyway.” (Is this possible? Read this article on Evolution News). Darwinism is as unnecessary to science as a parade float is to the vehicle underneath. Evolutionary explanations are, like NAS member Phil Skell noted, a mere narrative gloss after the engine of science has done the work (02/28/2006). Darwinists have erected huge, elaborate floats on the engines of science, parading their materialist ideology down main street, where Grand Marshall Charlie can display his imperial new clothes. Science got by just fine without all the decor. The Darwin parade serves the interests of the regime, not the interests of scientists. Science will be less burdened and free to explore the open roads of evidence when its engines are no longer obligated to perform rituals for the regime.
If change does come rapidly, we must also learn from recent Russian history that not all change was for the better. Here we are, 16 years after one of the most dramatic bloodless revolutions in history, and the Russian people are once again victims of a virtual dictatorship. What happened? It was almost too good. TV viewers around the world were astonished to see jubilant crowds hammering down the Berlin wall, and around Moscow the police joining the masses in support of free speech and freedom of religion. The faces of peasants were euphoric with the hope of freedom. But the Union unraveled; each former Soviet republic pulled away, and in some cases, imposed even stricter regimes on their people. Some of these independent states (especially the ones ending in -stan) are persecuting Christians as harshly as the Stalinists did but under a different ideology.
Another problem was that the fall of the Iron Curtain opened the door not just for solid humanitarian and Christian missions that had so long been prohibited, but also for cults and charlatans. The influx of cultists prompted the government to crack down on all but the “official” Russian Orthodox Church, leading to some of the same violations of human rights as before but for different reasons. The Russian government found itself unprepared to deal with these challenges, and the people were unaccustomed to the responsibilities of living in a free society. Dictatorship is always a quick fix to social turmoil. So now, we have Vladimir Putin, a former Soviet KGB boss, ruling Russia much like a Romanov or Kruschev.
Darwinism is, of course, an intellectual rather than a political ideology, but there are enough parallels and overlaps to provide warning. When Darwinism falls, will cults demand equal time for their scientific views? Will this prompt a crackdown that lets in some views and persecutes others? Who is to decide? What will get funded? How do we allow a wide spectrum of people with different belief systems to be involved in scientific institutions, without making them the toy of any and every ideology that wants to leverage science’s perceived epistemic authority? Here are some principles for post-Darwinist science.
- Keep science out of the worldview business. Whether Darwin intended it or not, his disciples got carried away trying to explain ultimate origins and ultimate destiny. Scientists in their day-to-day operations have no business speculating about matters that are the domain of theologians and philosophers. As individual thinkers and citizens, they are certainly free to write and publish their own opinions about such things on their own time and dime, but should not receive federal grants to speculate on matters that go far beyond the evidence.
- Restrict scientific work to matters of observation: The work that receives funding and support should be observable, testable, and repeatable. It should promise practical applications that support the government and the taxpayers, because they have a right to expect ROI (return on investment). This should have no impact on the bulk of the legitimate sciences, but will keep out the cultists as well as the Darwinists. No one need worry that authors of journal papers will praise Allah or Moroni, but neither should Darwinists be able any more to rhapsodize about their father figure in Nature or Science. No more just-so storytelling. No more attributing any and all observations (human morals, homologies, biodiversity) to Darwinian mechanisms based on materialistic presuppositions. If it is not observable, testable and repeatable, it’s out of bounds.
It is true that science depends on certain presuppositions that are not themselves matters of science, such as regularity and the reliability of sense impressions, but those who evaluate an individual’s work do not need to know or care about his or her private world view. They can judge the quality of the work by its fruits.
- Discontinue use of the E-word in biology. Microevolution is uncontroversial but is often invoked as evidence for macroevolution when it is no such thing. Both Koonin and young-earth creationists allow for significant variation within lineages, but calling this evolution will only continue to obfuscate and equivocate. The E-word has become so encrusted with philosophical baggage it should be avoided. Use variation instead. Reserve evolution for reminiscing about Darwinian macroevolution (that defunct idea once taught as fact).
- Demote the status of scientific consensus. As we see from the downfall of Darwinism, having a scientific consensus confers no guarantees of a theory being correct. “All scientists accept evolution” was trumpeted ad nauseum in the face of creationists. Well, “all” scientists (an exaggeration) were wrong, then. The history of science is replete with cases of the scientific consensus being on the losing side. While following a consensus may be a pragmatic necessity when politicians need to formulate a policy under time pressure (depending on the degree of confidence one can have in the verifiability of the theory), scientists must stop making claims that consensus represents truth. One maverick who’s right trumps a hundred who agree with each other, as King Ahab found out the hard way (I Kings 22).
- Keep science out of politics. It is no secret that the big journals and research labs are almost uniformly left-leaning, socialist and liberal, feeling entitled to all the money they want for anything they want to do. This must stop. Universities and journals must open their doors and welcome scientists of all religious and political stripes provided they do good lab work. They should be graded on the quality and fruitfulness of their experimental work and the persuasiveness of their scientific reasoning. If an individual scientist has strong feelings about matters beyond science, no one is stopping him or her playing the marketplace of ideas outside the science lab.
- Never forget. The extent of hubris and control exercised by Darwinists, and the persecution that followed, must remain a stern lesson to scientists in the post-Darwin world. Budding scientists must be trained in humility and restraint about their work. Science is not a pathway to ultimate truth. Insights from other fields (history, theology, philosophy) must be respected. Quotes by dogmatic Darwinists of the past should be held up to public scorn repeatedly as an antidote to those who would try it again.
- Persuade, don’t legislate. Science is supposed to be part of the open marketplace of ideas. There should be no place for prior restraint of one’s beliefs. Mavericks have often proved to trump the consensus. The question is not whether one is in the majority or minority, but how one can prove one’s theory is right.
This partial list can help science recover from decades of abuse by the Darwin Party. Creationists and intelligent design people can now have a seat at the table. They must not become the new dogmatists. The Islam of Harun Yahya is a real concern if it were able to co-opt science and make it the lapdog of Islamic totalitarianism (cf. Lysenko in Stalinist Russia), but if the Turkish creationists are obligated to show observability, testability and repeatability like everyone else, they will have to win by persuasion and the quality of their operational science, not by coercion. Civilization cannot exercise prior restraint against a Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness or Hindu who has a scientific hypothesis. The burden of proof, though, is on the scientist. Whether or not it gets funded is a different question, but science as an endeavor to find truth about the natural world cannot know where the next great insight will come from. Does the hypothesis explain the phenomenon convincingly? Does it lead to further insights that are observable, testable and repeatable? Most likely the cults will not do very well at this game. The demise of Darwinism should remind us, however, of the power of an entrenched dogma to stifle free inquiry for a century.
A word to two groups of Darwinists: the incorrigible hardliners and the disillusioned scientists. Hardliners take warning: we have over a century of quotes by your dogmatic brethren, and we are not going to let you forget what they said. You have been the most intransigent, puffed-up and combative people of the 20th century. If you think you can just lay low and wait for this ID wave to pass, so that you can seize power again, we are onto your tricks. School boards and universities take heed: accepting hardline Darwinists into the discussion is as risky as letting Lenin or Osama run for Parliament. There are certain people who will use the institutions of free inquiry and democracy for revolutionary ends, and then will destroy those very freedoms once empowered. Beware.
To the disillusioned researcher, we offer a word of comfort. It is hard for anyone when the basis for a strongly-held belief system evaporates. Many questions follow from the collapse of a belief. We want you to know that Christian creationists (contrary to adherents of some religions that would try to terrorize or pressure you into conformity) are accepting and forgiving. They believe in reasoning with love. There are Christians who would like nothing better than to help you work through these issues. If you write our Feedback line, we will try to link you up with someone you can talk to privately without pressure or obligation. Don’t despair about your scientific career, either. There is a great future in post-Darwinist science. Look at the wonderful gains being made in biomimetics, systems biology, and biomedical research – each of which owe nothing to Darwin. Evolutionary theory, in fact, appears more like a parasite than a vitamin to biology. There is still a place for the study of natural variation among populations, without the assumption that an unguided mechanism is able to generate new complex information. Most of biology will get by just fine after the Darwinian storytelling fluff is no longer fashionable.
Finally, to creationists and proponents in ID, realize that the transformation to a post-Darwinist world is going to be a long haul. The collapse of Soviet communism was not the end of communism. In fact, Marxist ideology continues unabated and vicious in Vietnam, North Korea, Cuba, China, and American universities. Dogmatic Darwinism is not going away any time soon. The debate may open up, and alternative viewpoints may finally get a hearing, but gaining a hearing is not the same as being heard. Materialism for many is too seductive a philosophy to give up; expect battles long after the war is won.
Now, therefore, more than ever, is the time to become knowledgeable about the creation-evolution controversy. Complacency is not an option. Good and bad things will try to fill the vacuum left by Darwin. What follows the collapse of Darwinism could be worse than what preceded it, unless freedom-loving minds stay alert and take the initiative to produce a better scientific enterprise for all. Get informed, get active, get prepared. Stay tuned here for the latest developments.