INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
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Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion, SUNY 2003Frank Visser, graduated as a psychologist of culture and religion, founded IntegralWorld.net in 1997. He worked as production manager for various publishing houses and as service manager for various internet companies and lives in Amsterdam. Author of Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion” (SUNY Press, 2003), which has been translated into 7 languages, and of many essays on this website.
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Our DNA as Proof
for God's Existence?

Review of Perry Marshall's "Evolution 2.0:
Breaking the Deadlock Between Darwin and Design"

Frank Visser

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.”
— Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (1871)
The last straw of these creationists often is saying that evolution is just God's way of creating.

Creationists are always on the lookout for things "science can't explain". Given the way science proceeds, this strategy unavoidably leads them to retreat backwards to smaller and smaller islands of supposed mystery. At first, species were supposed to be created by God. Then, it was conceded some variation within species could occur, but the "basic types" remained. Others have conceded the evolution of species, one from the other, all the way down to the last common ancestor: a bacterial cell. But perhaps that first living cell was the result of a divine creation? Until again science proceeds to enter into that domain as well and finds clues (though not yet final answers) to that ageless question of the origin of life. But then perhaps God created his universe with exactly the right parameters, "fine-tuned for life", so that billions of years later, on some tiny planet in a backward corner of the universe, life could arise? Other creationists accept the general scientific story of life's evolution, but see the hand of God in either a few decisive interventions, such as the evolution of brainy humans from their ape-like ancestors, or a more pervasive, "gentle push" throughout evolution in support of higher consciousness. These directed or guided versions of evolution are, typically, never specified as to their precise mechanism—nor could they ever be, given God's mysterious ways. The last straw of these creationists often is saying that evolution is just God's way of creating (e.g. BioLogos).

What they all have in common is their skepticism regarding the neo-Darwinist doctrine of random chance and natural selection, as being sufficient to create the manifold complexities of nature. Often statistical arguments are used to demonstrate that there simply isn't enough time in the history of the universe to create complex organisms if left to chance alone. Ken Wilber's half-hearted attempts at refuting neo-Darwinism along these lines are notorious and have been documented elsewhere on Integral World. In his worldview, a mysterious and unspecified "Eros in the Kosmos", a "Spirit of Evolution", is responsible for the emergence of ever-higher forms of consciousness. He has never bothered to point to other fields of biology, that could shed light on how complex organisms have arisen, or how the speed of evolution could have been increased. By recommending Michael Behe's Darwin's Black Box (1996) to learn about what "neo-Darwinism can't explain", in a web posting no longer online, he showed his lack of knowledge of this field of science:

Instead of a religious preacher like Dawkins, start with something like Michael Behe's Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. And then guess what? Neo-Darwinian theory can't explain shit. Deal with it.

Over the years, Behe has conceded many things he considered first as unsolvable by science, except that he now believes in "directed mutation" (The Edge of Evolution, 2007). As Jerry Coyne's review of that book in The New Republic was titled, that would turn God into some kind of "Great Mutator". Or as Sean B. Carroll put it in his review of the same book: “God as Genetic Engineer” (ScienceMag.com).

God, however, can also be seen as a Programmer. Evolution 2.0 by online marketing guru Perry Marshall is a book that claims to break the deadlock between neo-Darwinism and creationism. Marshall started out as a Young Earth creationist, believing that the Earth was only a few thousand years old, but evolved into an Old Earth creationist, with a deep interest in science. His technical background made him approach the field from the perspective of information technology. His God can therefore be seen as an Engineer or even a Programmer. His main claim is that, since DNA is "real" code, and nature doesn't created codes, it must have been designed. He also claims that "cells are intelligent", so they "know" what to do when attacked from outside by bacteria or other negative influences. This approach is primarily fostered by James A. Shapiro, author of the highly controversial Evolution: A View from the 21st Century (2011). In terms of explanatory value, this concept doesn't really help. We might as well say: "Human beings are intelligent because they have the power of thought". Of course, we always want to know how these processes of "natural genetic engineering" exactly work—and have evolved.

According to Marshall, gene mutations can be compared to typos in the text of DNA, and since typos make any text less readable, not more, he is skeptical of the neo-Darwinian thesis that mutations offer the raw material for natural selection to work on and to produce new species. Random changes into the code of DNA can only be harmful and unproductive, given this metaphor. His general strategy of researching the fields of science until one stumbles upon the final frontier (in his case, the irreducible nature of DNA code) is common to all creationists, but leaves him vulnerable to any new findings of science. Has he covered the relevant fields when it comes to the genetic base of evolution and the origin of life?

Resistance to (the dominance of) neo-Darwinism comes from two camps: the creationists who don't believe in (all parts of) evolutionist doctrine, and the large and diverse group of biologists who differ in their opinion as to what weight to assign to natural selection over and against other possible naturalist mechanisms of evolution. These groups may seem to be allies in their opposition to neo-Darwinism but are of course opponents when it comes to the role Spirit has played in the scheme of Nature. Claiming there is dissent within the biological community (which is appropriate for any scientific field) is not the same as claiming support for Spirit.

Apparently so confident of his claim that DNA code has been "Designed", Marshall offers a multi-million dollar award (but only if patentable) to those who can demonstrate how code can be created by natural means alone—is he playing the Devil's Advocate here? Since 2015, three entries have been recieved, all of them have been rejected by Marshall.

The Swiss Army Knife of Evolution

Swiss Army Knife

Given his rejection of the standard "random mutation and non-random selection"-scenario offered and defended by neo-Darwinism, Marshall argues that neo-Darwinism offers no explanation for evolution at all. Instead, he offers five major approaches as being able to do the job, which may be likened to a Swiss Army Knife with multiple functions:

  1. Transposition - a mutation in which a chromosomal segment is transferred to a new position on the same or another chromosome. Building on Barbara McClintock's work on genetic changes in maize, for which she received the Nobel Prize in 1983, Marshall claims mutations are not (always) random, but a case of "natural genetic engineering" (a term used by her collaborator James Shapiro).
  2. Horizontal gene transfer - the movement of genetic material between unicellular and/or multicellular organisms other than via vertical transmission. Cells, both of bacteria and of complex organisms, can exchange DNA material with other cells, which fundamentally changes our idea of the Tree of Life. Carl Woese, who discovered the archaea class of bacteria, saw this as the dominant mode of evolution for single-cell organisms.
  3. Epigenetics - the study of stably heritable traits (or "phenotypes") that cannot be explained by changes in DNA sequence. Contrary to orthodox theory cells can change their DNA by turning on or off their genes. Environmental pressures cause these changes. It turns out that (some of) these genetic changes can be passed on to offspring, producing different cell types in fetal development. (Most genes in a cell are turned off).
  4. Symbiogenesis - an evolutionary theory of the origin of eukaryotic cells from prokaryotic organisms. Largely due to the work of Lynn Margulis it is now common knowledge that the mitochondria and chlorophyll in animals and plants were free-living bacteria in the dim past before they got "swallowed up" (but not digested) by one-celled amoebas. Thus the animal, plant and fungal kingdoms have become possible because of bacteria.
  5. Genome Duplication - cells and organisms are those containing more than two paired (homologous) sets of chromosomes. Japanese geneticist Susumu Ohno was the first to point out that genome duplications, sometimes followed by another duplication, caused early vertebrates to grow more complex. These duplications fuelled sudden, radical transformations of body plans, giving rise to new species.

At the very end of the book, in the Recommended Books section (p. 337), Marshall mentions the role of viruses as a possible sixth Army Knife Blade, so we add it to the list:

  1. Transduction - when our genome was sequenced, not only was it discovered to be shockingly simple (only 10 times more complex than bacteria), but large fragments of viral DNA were discovered that turned out to be vital for the evolution of all organisms. Marshall bases himself here on the work of Frank Ryan, author of the book Virolution (2009).

Crucial for Marshall's argument is that our genome contains fingerprints of a Designer (since Nature, by itself, cannot generate "code"). Now that it was discovered that 97% of our DNA, which had been called "Junk DNA" in the seventies, might still after all partly have a useful function, or even a decisive one, in that it contains the "regulatory genes" that govern the on- and off-turning of genes, Marshall opines:

If we assume purposeless in evolution, as is done in the 1.0 version [of neo-Darwinism], it's logical to expect a lot of junk. If we assume a designer, we assume there's a purpose to its inclusion, and therefore look into it until we discover it's not really junk at all. (p. 273-274)

Even more interesting perhaps, this unknown part of our DNA turns out to contain so called "retroviral" DNA, which points to viral infections in our past heritage, as a result of which viral DNA got included in our genome—in some cases to our advantage!

Marshall doesn't specify (surprise) how this Designer has been or is at work in our genomes, and that of other organisms. He seems to hold this notion as an ultimate explanation, which in no way should block the scientific quest for explanations (as in the case of Junk DNA). He hopes for a reconciliation between science and religion (presumably the Christian one), or at least a mutual respect:

If... we take "Designer" to be an ultimate explanation, with an unknown number of layers in between, then both nature and God receive their due respect. Science is freed from the corset of reductionism and scientists gain greater reasons to pursue ambitious research programs. A Designer as an ultimate explanation employs scientists, instead of denigrating their work (p. 213-214)

Not sure how that could possibly work in practice: telling working scientists that "ultimately" everything is designed?

HOW TO MAKE AN ELEPHANT

Perry Marshall
Perry Marshall

Marshall's outsider-approach is fresh and informative. He also points correctly to political factions within the biological community which don't really get along very well. I remember attending a lecture by Lynn Margulis over here in Amsterdam in 2008, in which it became clear to me what it meant to a scientist (and a female one at that) to have to fight for a hearing for ideas for decades, ideas that have now become commonplace in textbooks. I am looking with interest to groups which try to steer a middle course between "ultra-darwinism" and creationism. (For example, at The Third Way website, various "rebellious" authors such as James Shapiro have gathered who feel biology should go beyond these two camps).

One is left, however, with a lot of puzzling questions. Just how is the introduction of God or Spirit illuminative for any scientific problem at hand? And more close to home, have these five or six unorthodox approaches mentioned above made it in any way more easy to explain why an elephant has a trunk? Or four legs? Or why there is an elephant in the first place, for that matter? Was that really a case of transposition, genome duplication or retroviral induction? Or does natural selection still play a large role in producing adapted organisms? Marshall never gets specific enough to enter into these questions. There is a pervasive emotionalism in his book, an indignation at the rejection or even the supposed suppression of non-mainstream scientific, and religious notions. ("Why Is Neither Side Telling You the Whole Story?").[1] It might be that all five or six blades of the evolutionary Swiss Army Knife add pieces to the evolutionary puzzle, but that to get to your garden variety of animal or plant species, you would still resort to old fashioned variation (by whatever means) and selection.

A remarkable omission in this book is a reference to the field of evo-devo, or short hand for evolutionary developmental biology. It has turned out that Junk DNA harbored many varieties of "regulatory genes" which are responsible for the turning on and off of gene activity in cells. In this way, regulatory genes are a true source of variation. Sean B. Carroll's popular books (Endless Forms Most Beautiful, The Arrival of the Fittest, and his more technical but fabulous From DNA to Diversity: Molecular Genetics and the Evolution of Animal Design) spell this out in great detail. What was a big surprise to the biological community was that all creatures, from simple to complex, were in possession of the same "genetic toolkit" of so called hox genes, which could be utilized to form body parts and appendages of great variety. (It is here that the neo-Darwinist orthodoxy might have held too long on to their belief in random variation and selection). Even at the time of the Cambrian explosion this genetic toolkit seems to have been in place. A creationist could have jumped on that phenomenon as proof for a Designer, but wait... Carroll tells us more about the evolution of the genetic toolkit. And of course, another scientist has already claimed that this idea of a common genetic toolkit is by now out-dated...

DNA codon chart

As to the origin of life, Nick Lane's books (especially his latest The Vital Question) are highly relevant, given his clarification of how life is able to combat the forces of entropy (Marshall only sees Spirit as being able to do that). Lane expounds what we now know about the parallel evolution of the two large groups of bacteria and archaea (which superficially look the same but have a completely different makeup, both as to their genes and their membranes) and how they relate to the complex organisms that came after them. Who cares we don't have the final answers yet? This is absorbing reading! What is more, in his more popular and prize winning Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution, Lane devotes a whole chapter to the evolution(!) of DNA—so much more interesting reading than any semi-spiritual evolutionary or creationist treatise. Marshall comments, as an information engineer, on the fact that the third of the three base pairs in a DNA codon seems to be redundant (for this system can accommodate 4x4x4 or 64 instead of the 20 amino acids life is based on—see diagram below: both AGA and AGG code for Arginine). How smart of the Programmer behind all this!, says Marshall. But Lane explains that this points to a possible pre-DNA precursor which used only two base pairs (enough for 16 or 4x4 of the 20 amino acids). As always, evolutionary studies can always be pushed back further in time.

One wonders if Perry Marshall really believes that some Cosmic Spirit decided that the DNA of living beings should consist of three base pairs.

One wonders if Perry Marshall really believes that some Cosmic Spirit decided that the DNA of living beings should consist of three (and not two or four) base pairs. How believable is that? Does God regulate our genes through the regulatory genes in our "Junk DNA", or did he just "code" them? Did he design and produce the first cell, and then let evolution run its course? Or did he supervise this evolutionary process so he could tweak or debug it here and there, when things went not according to Plan? The moment this notion is introduced, the excitement of discovery dampens, and we are left with the empty statement that "God did it". Even if Marshall explicitly denies he wants to argue for such a "God of the Gaps" approach, as the Intellligent Design camp does, one is left questioning what the added value is in science by introducing a Designer, even as ultimate explanation.

Marshall ends his book on evolution on an optimistic note, and with a quip:

Let's try a new rhythm: Let's propose that God (or a supremely powerful being, if that makes you more comfortable) made a rabbit hole so deep, we don't know how far it goes. We only know there's always more to discover. And that's how we break the deadlock between Darwin and Design. (p. 260)

But what would that actually mean for God's real influence on the evolutionary process? Our planet Earth, nay our Solar System, can't even be found in the galaxies of galaxies in the known universe. Would a Cosmic Spirit really take in interest in this speck of cosmic dust? I can't resist the Flat Earth flavour of these conceptions.

APPENDIX: THE SPIRIT-MATTER SLIDER

It is instructive to rank the various metaphysical or theological positions along a Spirit-Matter-slider. Where you you position yourself? From Left to Right:

  • Young Earth creationism - God created the cosmos, the earth and all of the species on it, including mankind, just a few thousand years ago.
  • Old Earth creationism - the science on the history of the cosmos and the earth is accepted, but God is still the creator of species or basic types.
  • Guided evolution - God has created the evolutionary universe, but intervenes at specific moments in time (DNA tweaking?, apes becoming human?).
  • Fine-tuned universe - God created the universe, fine-tuned it for life, stepped back and from then on, cosmic and biological evolution ran its course.
  • Chance & lawfulness - Evolution is seen as a dual process of random chance and non-random processes (selection, elimination, gravity, self-organization).
  • Chance Alone - Everything has been come about as a result of chance (actually nobody in science believes this, it is a straw-man argument of creationists).

NOTES

[1] Consulting just one popular introduction on evolution, The Tangled Bank: An Introduction to Evolution (2010) by science writer and New York Times journalist (see his columns here) Carl Zimmer, we find all these topics covered: gene transfer, endosymbiosis, horizontal gene transfer, genome duplications, retrovirusses and many more. Zimmer is also author of Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea (2001) and the more recent Evolution: Making Sense of Life (2012). Marshall is definitely overstating his case that these topics are being neglected in popular textbooks on evolution. Zimmer is great in describing current controversies.

For a great repository of evolutionary textbook reviews, see wasdarwinwrong.com by Dutch biologist Gert Korthof.

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If you Google "DNA" and "Proof of God" you get many examples of creationist reasoning around this subject. Here's just one example:

And here's Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project, on CNN, explaining why DNA convinced him of the existence of God:






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