January 28, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Woese Slays Darwin

The king is dead!  Long live the king!  Such were the oxymoronic cries of olden times when royal succession took place.  Has Charles Darwin been dethroned?  One would think so, after reading Mark Buchanan’s article, “Horizontal and vertical: the evolution of evolution” in New Scientist.  Buchanan sets the stage:

Just suppose that Darwin’s ideas were only a part of the story of evolution.  Suppose that a process he never wrote about, and never even imagined, has been controlling the evolution of life throughout most of the Earth’s history.  It may sound preposterous, but this is exactly what microbiologist Carl Woese and physicist Nigel Goldenfeld, both at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, believeDarwin’s explanation of evolution, they argue, even in its sophisticated modern form, applies only to a recent phase of life on Earth.

Woese and Goldenfeld champion horizontal gene transfer as the overriding process that led to the genetic code and established biology as we know it.  The Darwinian part is like a footnote, acting on the last episodes of biological history.  Subsequent quotes show even more how far and deep this coup goes:

  • Earth for most of the time that life has existed – billions of years, in fact – the most ancient and prevalent form of evolution probably wasn’t Darwinian at all, Woese and Goldenfeld say.
  • “Biology built up a facade of mathematics around the juxtaposition of Mendelian genetics with Darwinism,” he [Woese] says.  “And as a result it neglected to study the most important problem in science – the nature of the evolutionary process.
  • This is all very different from evolution as described by Darwin.
  • Darwinian evolution simply cannot explain how such a [genetic] code could arise.
  • “With vertical, Darwinian evolution,” says Goldenfeld, “we found that the code evolution gets stuck and does not find the true optimum.
  • “In some sense,” says Woese, “the genetic code is a fossil or perhaps an echo of the origin of life, just as the cosmic microwave background is a sort of echo of the big bang.  And its form points to a process very different from today’s Darwinian evolution.
  • Today, at least in multicellular organisms, Darwinian evolution is dominant but we may still be in for some surprises.  “Most of life – the microbial world – is still strongly taking advantage of horizontal gene transfer, but we also know, from studies in the past year, that multicellular organisms do this too,” says Goldenfeld.
  • If a paradigm shift is pending, [Norman] Pace [U of Colorado] says it will be in good hands.  “I think Woese has done more for biology writ large than any biologist in history, including Darwin,” he says.  “There’s a lot more to learn, and he’s been interpreting the emerging story brilliantly.”

Will this be a Kuhn-style paradigm shift of epic proportions as these excerpts make it seem?  If so, will the Darwin Bicentennial be the last hurrah of a dying paradigm?  Will future scientists be celebrating the Woese Bicentennial some day?
    Any replacement paradigm in a scientific revolution needs to explain anomalies better than the old paradigm.  On page 2 of the article, Buchanan writes, “Darwinian evolution simply cannot explain how such a [genetic] code could arise.  But horizontal gene transfer can, say Woese and Goldenfeld.”  There’s the gauntlet.  OK, how?  First, they point to the universality of the code.  Then, they point to its degeneracy – the fact that multiple codons in DNA can translate to the same protein in amino acids, giving the code redundancy, and thus, some tolerance to mutation.  Third, they point to the remarkable error tolerance of the code:

In 1991, geneticists David Haig and Lawrence Hurst at the University of Oxford went further, showing that the code’s level of error tolerance is truly remarkable.  They studied the error tolerance of an enormous number of hypothetical genetic codes, all built from the same base pairs but with codons associated randomly with amino acids.  They found that the actual code is around one in a million in terms of how good it is at error mitigation.  “The actual genetic code,” says Goldenfeld, “stands out like a sore thumb as being the best possible.” That would seem to demand some evolutionary explanation.  Yet, until now, no one has found one.  The reason, say Woese and Goldenfeld, is that everyone has been thinking in terms of the wrong kind of evolution.

So far, it sounds like they have discovered evidence for intelligent design.  It’s not like followers of the Darwinian paradigm were ignorant of these properties, even if they thought little about them.  Woese has challenged them to explain the emergence of an optimal code by Darwinian means, and claims they can’t.  So what is his new explanation in terms of another naturalistic, evolutionary processes?  Here is the key paragraph:

Goldenfeld admits that pinning down the details of that early process remains a difficult task.  However the simulations suggest that horizontal gene transfer allowed life in general to acquire a unified genetic machinery, thereby making the sharing of innovations easier.  Hence, the researchers now suspect that early evolution may have proceeded through a series of stages before the Darwinian form emerged, with the first stage leading to the emergence of a universal genetic code.  “It would have acted as an innovation-sharing protocol,” says Goldenfeld, “greatly enhancing the ability of organisms to share genetic innovations that were beneficial.”  Following this, a second stage of evolution would have involved rampant horizontal gene transfer, made possible by the shared genetic machinery, and leading to a rapid, exponential rise in the complexity of organisms.  This, in turn, would eventually have given way to a third stage of evolution in which genetic transfer became mostly vertical, perhaps because the complexity of organisms reached a threshold requiring a more circumscribed flow of genes to preserve correct function.  Woese can’t put a date on when the transition to Darwinian evolution happened, but he suspects it occurred at different times in each of the three main branches of the tree of life, with bacteria likely to have changed first.

In sum, horizontal gene transfer made the sharing of innovations easier.  But where did the innovations come from?  The answer: emergence: “the emergence of a universal genetic code” that just happened to be optimal.  Don’t ask how; just believe.  After all, believing the Darwinian alternative is no longer credible, so what else is there?

If you are reading this explanation in utter disbelief, good.  There’s hope for you.  Surprised?  Not if you have been reading Creation-Evolution Headlines for long.  This is another in a long series of articles on evolutionary theory, from within the secular, naturalist camp, that might be titled, “Everything you know about Darwinian evolution is wrong, and our only replacement for it is to tell you that miraculous Stuff Happens sometimes.”  Example: 01/22/2009: For His Birthday, Darwin Loses His Tree.
    You may be thinking that Woese’s conquest only applies to microbes.  King Charles gets to keep all his multicellular icons (finches, horses, whales, humans) which evolved under his reign, so he still maintains a large territory.  Consider, though, that the article quoted Jan Sapp [York U, Canada] saying, “The microbial world holds the greatest biomass on Earth, but for most evolutionists it’s a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’.  They tend to focus on visible plants and animals.”  Consider, secondly, that horizontal gene transfer essentially scrambles genetic signals between species and makes the construction of phylogenetic trees impossible.  Consider, finally, that invoking the emergence miracle-word at the beginning of life effectively pulls the rug out from any credible naturalistic explanation of life at all.  Adding “then a miracle happens” to a derivation undermines the whole derivation.  We shouldn’t see Woese as a conqueror, therefore, but as a traitor, selling out the Darwin Party’s dirty little secrets to the Intelligent Design conquerors.  He has revealed their basal vulnerability: they cannot account for the origin of the genetic code.  That is, without miracles.  Read that last blockquote and count the miracle words like emerged, arose, innovation-sharing protocol, etc.  They’re pervasive.
    It should be obvious now that everyone believes in miracles: i.e., instances where information became intruded into nature that was not subject itself to nature running its own undirected course.  The intelligent design conquerors are very open and transparent about this.  The Darwinists deceive themselves and their listeners by couching their miracles in euphemisms like it emerged, it arose, it evolved, without a clue as to how that could happen without a mind.  So pay them no mind; let their bankruptcy become self-evident.

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