Biology Needs Design, Not Darwin
Scientists need to stop using
Darwin like a lucky charm.
There was a time when Darwin’s name added prestige to biology research. That was in the naive days of vestigial organs, junk DNA and other myths. Biology in the 21st century is about engineering design, communication, and networking. It’s about cellular machines of bewildering complexity. It’s about genome sequences that act like software and systems that push the limits of the possible.
Instead of fondling the Darwin-brand rabbit’s foot for good luck, biologists need to look at the design specifications in real rabbits, whose feet are engineered for a lifetime of hopping in ways that robot designers envy. Darwin is trending down. If biologists want to get with the times, they should think twice before name-dropping that racist storyteller. Biology needs Darwin like a political candidate needs the KKK’s endorsement.
Bad Example: The Immune System Is Not Darwinian
Discovering new drugs with Darwin (University of Geneva). In their haste to sound cool, six researchers at the University of Geneva tossed Darwin into the mix like whiskey in party punch. It only clouded their reason. Their press release and paper betrays a dismal misunderstanding of Darwin’s evolutionary theory, if it can even be hallowed with the noble word theory. Didn’t they learn in high school that Darwin’s notion of natural selection has no target, aim, goal or purpose?
Our body must constantly defend itself against bacteria and viruses. It generates millions of different antibodies, which are selected to recognise the enemy and trigger the best possible immune response. Scientists use these antibodies to for therapeutic purposes to target proteins and disrupt their harmful. However, identifying the small molecules that will form the basis of the drug is a long and tedious process. Chemists at the University of Geneva (UNIGE), Switzerland, have developed a technique inspired by the theory of Darwinian evolution: amplifying the best combinations and generating diversity allows biology to find solutions to new problems. They have created a new methodology that rapidly generates millions of combinations of small molecules through programmed assembly using DNA-pairing processes, finding the best possible combination to counter a target protein within two weeks. These results, published in the journal Nature Chemistry, will open up a new and untapped space for drug development.
This paragraph is permeated with misunderstandings, as is the subsequent subheading, “Drawing inspiration from Darwinian evolutionary forces to find efficient assemblies.” First of all, evolution is not a force; that’s a farce. It is no more a force than a bumper nub in a pinball machine that just sits there and lets balls bounce off. The only force in pinball is the player who, using his mind and skill, times his flicking of the levers to push the ball where he wants it to go, sometimes taking advantage of the nubs to make targeted bounces to score points. Darwin’s comparison of artificial selection (e.g., animal breeding) with natural selection commits this fallacy. Darwin would make the pinball player blindfolded and unconscious. The Geneva team’s paper says that they performed “iterative cycles of selection, amplification and diversification,” indicating that they honed in on the target in a step-wise goal-directed manner, using insight and intelligence.
The Geneva team seriously misconstrued evolutionary search. They need to read Dembski’s book, No Free Lunch, where he applied the “No Free Lunch Theorem” to cases like this. The theorem proves that no evolutionary algorithm is superior to blind search: i.e., sampling the available space with hopes of hitting upon success without having to sample all the space. Darwinism has less going for it. So-called “natural selection” (a contradiction in terms) is like digging at random for buried treasure blindfolded, not even being able to identify the treasure or care if it is found.
A successful search requires two things. First, it needs to know and care about finding a target. Second, it needs auxiliary information, like a treasure map, to guide it to the target. This is why Richard Dawkins’ analogy of randomly varying letters to “evolve” the Shakespeare phrase “Methinks it is like a weasel” was non-Darwinian. He had a target phrase, and he artificially “selected” the letters that matched it. (See “Beethoven Rolls Under Darwin,” 18 June 2012, for another example.)
The human immune system, which the Geneva dropouts referenced, also meets the two design requirements. It knows what fits the antigen, and it has the information to test a success. The body generates millions of mutants to seek a match, starting with information and refining it in a series of steps. It recognizes when it finds one, and rapidly makes copies. This illustrates how algorithms can be programmed to perform so-called “evolutionary” searches – not by randomly sampling the space of possibilities, but by tailoring a search with insight and understanding.
Biochemist Doug Axe explains the No Free Lunch theorems in relation to Darwinian evolution in a video clip at Evolution News. For more information applying this to the immune system, read Donald Ewert’s explanation here and here about why the adaptive immune system is not a random search, but is targeted by an algorithm involving stepwise affinity maturation. Also read Dr Howard Glicksman’s explanation here and here about irreducible complexity in the immune system’s multi-part process of constructing antibodies.
With a proper understanding of search, information and the immune system, it becomes clear that the Geneva team’s appeal to the immune system as a “Darwinian” form of selection is false. The searches they are performing to design new drugs are not Darwinian. Instead, they are intelligently designed from start to finish, because they have a target, and insight on how to reach the target by conscious and intelligent choice, even though they employ search algorithms through millions of combinations of small molecules. The Darwin lucky charm did nothing. Intelligent design did all the heavy lifting.
Good Example: Darwin Need Not Apply
Larry York: Rooting out solutions for better crops (Oak Ridge National Laboratory). In this press release, biologist Larry York is also involved in a search: a search for ways to improve crops. His approach is to understand plant roots (which can be as thin as a human hair). He searches for ways to increase their uptake of nutrients, especially nitrogen, one of the key elements in fertilizers. He is also seeking to understand the responses of roots when these nutrients are lacking.
As a plant physiologist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, York examines the ways roots take up nutrients, looking for traits that improve crop productivity. His research has centered mainly on corn, soybeans and wheat with a more recent focus on bioenergy crops such as switchgrass and poplar.
“The more I work with roots, the more fascinated I become,” York said. “They are important for many reasons, and there’s a growing acknowledgement of their influence on soil carbon storage and climate change.”
Whether or not climate change impacts his work is beside the point. York displays a love for science and gratitude for his opportunities in biology. Darwinism played no part in the press release. He applied his intelligent design to create a technology that allows other biologists to study roots in greater detail than ever before. And he hopes that their findings will make crops more productive to feed a hungry world.
Work for the day when the antiquated Victorian myth of Darwinism vanishes from the public sphere, only to be remembered as a silly fad from a bygone era. He’s already a has-been, but not everybody has gotten the news. First, get the scientists to see that Darwinism adds nothing but superstition to their work. Then the journals. Then the textbook writers. Then the schools. Then the national parks, museums and general conversation. What will propel the advance is an inrush of design-based science that is viewed as more productive and fun. The appeal of the old lucky rabbit’s foot with Darwin’s name and hoary face on it will seem so 1859.