Human cell anatomy.jpg
Human cell anatomy. 3d illustration..
Photo by Rasi on Adobe Stock

The Cell Declares His Handiwork

A Turning Point in the Evolution Wars? Published in New Oxford Review

The evolution wars continue, although less frequently these days in the headlines. Perhaps that’s because the Darwinists are slowly losing their grip. Most of the new research is at the molecular level, studying the interior of the cell. The findings are not encouraging to those whose philosophy obliges them to believe that organisms assembled themselves, bit by accidental bit. That philosophy is materialism, the belief that matter in motion is all that exists. But the newfound complexity of the cell implies that some higher power must have designed it, and all of life.

On the anti-Darwin side, several books have been published in recent years, among them Michael J. Behe’s The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism (2007) and Stephen C. Meyer’s Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (2009). A new book, The Myth of Junk DNA, by Jonathan Wells, the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design, has just come out.

Behe is a professor of biological science at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, and Meyer directs the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute in Seattle. Wells, who has two Ph.D.s — one in cell biology and one in theology — is also connected with the Discovery Institute. Discovery has played a major role in funding scientists associated with intelligent design, including the Biologic Institute directed by Douglas Axe. It undertakes original research in molecular biology. Discovery also publicizes the cases of academics who continue to be penalized for questioning Darwinism.

Supporters of intelligent design (ID) agree with creationists that Darwin’s theory of evolution cannot explain the existence of life. But unlike creationists, the advocates of ID rely solely on scientific and logical arguments and do not appeal to religious faith or to Scripture. Darwinists believe that random variation (mutation) and natural selection — the mechanism of evolution that was central to Darwin’s Origin of Species — sufficiently account for every living thing.

The supporters of Darwinism have also been busy. Jerry A. Coyne’s Why Evolution Is True and Richard Daw kins’s The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution were both published in 2009. Both authors are prominent atheists who believe that science and religion are in conflict and that science must be restricted to physical, material causes. Coyne teaches evolutionary genetics at the University of Chicago and Dawkins is now an emeritus professor at Oxford.

Microscopes, not field expeditions, yield most of the new evidence. Paleontologists still go digging for fossils, but their evidence is usually inconclusive and often repetitive. The late Colin Patterson, formerly the senior paleontologist at the British Museum of Natural History, told me some years back that a fossil is a “mess on a rock.” The evidence it provides can be hard to decipher. Anyway, the key research today is molecular, addressing not what we discover inside the earth but what we see inside the cell.

Darwin knew next to nothing about the cell. His German contemporary and supporter, embryologist Ernst Haeckel, called the cell “a simple little lump of albuminous combination of carbon.” In other words, “just some grey goo,” as Behe wrote in The Edge of Evolution. Since then, however, “science has learned that the cell is tremendously more complex than Haeckel thought.” In fact, the new molecular findings have been a game-changer in biology.

“Things are getting substantially worse for Darwinism,” Behe told me. “The more we know, the more complex and elegant life is seen to be.” The Darwinists “will strongly cling to naturalism, or materialism, but also admit they can’t know many of the details.”

The latest book by Jonathan Wells further complicates their task. It has been an article of faith — and Dar win ism really is a faith — that the human genome, consisting of about three billion nucleotides coiled inside the chromosomes of every cell, was mostly “junk.” Short stretches were known to be segments (“genes”) that gave instructions for the assembly of proteins, but (said the Dar­winists) the genome mostly had no meaning. And that supported evolution. If the human body was designed, presumably it would not include all the “junk” that had accumulated over the millennia. On the other hand, if evolution occurred by trial and error, then a lot of random stuff in the genome is exactly what we would expect to find.

The latest research, copiously cited by Wells, shows that a large proportion of this supposed junk (and perhaps all of it) is functional. Some evolutionists have tried to deny that they ever called DNA junk, but Wells has the quotes and provides them. The Genome Project, it turns out, delivered an unintended bonus. Treatments for disease, long promised, have proven to be elusive, but so has the Darwinists’ precious evidence.

At the political level, they have mounted a furious response to the ID challenge. They try to identify it with creationism because ridiculing those who accept Genesis seems simple. Unless I am much mistaken, the Darwinists today increasingly look back to the creationist wars of the 1980s with nostalgia.

In the biology departments of secular universities, discussion of intelligent design is forbidden. Philosophy and theology departments are a bit more relaxed, but according to William Dembski, the author of The Design Inference, not much so. He questions whether they will be any more hospitable to design than the biology departments. By way of explanation, he quotes Machiavelli:

There is nothing more difficult to carry out nor more doubtful of success, than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly for fear of their adversaries, who have the laws in their favor.

But science must confront the physical evidence, and the evolutionists have found it difficult to cope with the cell. Even a single-celled organism such as a bacterium is very difficult for materialists to account for by Darwinian reasoning.

According to microbiologist Michael Denton, the author of Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, a bacterium, the simplest of self-reproducing organisms, is a “micro-miniaturized factory, containing thousands of elegantly designed pieces of intricate molecular machinery, made up all together of one hundred thousand million atoms, far more complicated than any machinery built by man and without parallel in the non-living world.”

In an e-mail, David Berlinski, who wrote The Deniable Darwin (2010) and The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions (2009), says that intelligent design has “flourished” in recent years. Under its own name, it is “streng verboten in biology departments, but this is, I rather suspect, a matter of the orthodoxy of names.” He continued:

The ID movement itself has put on the table concepts such as specified complexity and irreducible complexity, and in one way or another, these ideas are making steady and inexorable progress. They are everywhere discussed; and they have played a significant role in experimental design. For the first time in one hundred years, the faithful [Darwinists] have been compelled to justify their claims by experiments.
In this, Mike Behe and Doug Axe have played a tremendous role. Behe cannot be dismissed: Every single time his claims have been put to experimental test, he has been proven right. There is an edge to evolution, and beyond that edge, Darwinian theories have nothing to say. Doug Axe has done the same thing, and because (working with Ann Gauger) he has designed and executed impeccable experiments, the molecular biologists have been forced to acknowledge them. And they have acknowledged them with their usual sour grace.

The weakness of ID is that “it has no real theory,” Berlinski added. “It has only one thing to put on the table, and that is what has always seemed to me an incontrovertible fact. Biological creatures look as if they were designed because they are designed. This is not a theory, but it is a very big fact, indeed, a revolutionary fact. It is a fact that both justifies and vindicates the great theological traditions of the West. It is what the tradition has always said and the tradition has always been right to say it.”

Materialists believe that everything can be reduced to some combination of chance and the laws of physics and chemistry. But the more we learn, the more improbable that becomes. All predictions that we would one day replicate life in the lab have met with failure. Stephen Meyer’s book Signature in the Cell, which deals with origin-of-life research, shows just how difficult — perhaps impossible — it will be to recreate life in the lab. And notice the further complication that the theory of evolution imposes. A structure such as a bacterium has to be assembled by a series of accidents. It must arise bit by bit, each new iteration better able to survive in its environment than it did in its previous state. Which is why the Darwinists insist that complexity can be reduced to a step-by-step process. But a part of a protein doesn’t do anything. As Behe says, using his mousetrap metaphor: All the parts of a mousetrap must be in place from the beginning if it is to catch any mice at all. When we turn to sexually reproducing animals, the evolutionist’s task becomes immensely greater.

Darwin, for example, proposed that whales evolved from bears. Both are mammals, he reasoned, and mammals may have first appeared on dry land. Ocean-going whales probably evolved from a land-dweller, therefore. Which one? Maybe something like a bear. (Evolutionary theory really is as guess-filled as that.) If you hired a world-class team of engineers, geneticists, and marine biologists and asked them if they could start with a bear and redesign it into a whale, they might say, in a moment of optimism, “Um, give us ten years and we’ll see what we can come up with.” But if you insisted that they had to start with a working bear and change it step by step, so that at each stage, as it began plunging into the watery depths, it functioned and left offspring better than it had done before it left dry land, its descendants becoming ever less bear-like and ever more whale-like, well, the engineers would throw up their hands in dismay. Impossible!

But the evolutionists must believe that all this happened as a result of random changes, or mutations. No designer can be admitted at any stage. To accept the world of evolution is indeed to embrace a new faith. And if you work for the biology department of a secular university today, it is a faith you will not be allowed to question.

Michael Behe addresses these and related issues in The Edge of Evolution. What can evolution actually achieve? By way of answer, he refers to the mosquito-borne malarial parasite which, over the centuries, has killed millions of people. Eventually, a mutation arose in humans to help ward off malaria. The mutation made it harder for the protein known as hemoglobin to transport oxygen around the body. The affected malarial blood cells assumed a sickle shape and were recognized by the body as damaged and killed off in the spleen. Even though this “sickle cell” mutation was inherently harmful, it was beneficial in countries where malaria was widespread. Therefore, the sickle mutation, which occurred maybe ten thousand years ago, became more common.

This is an example of Darwinian selection. In fact, Behe points out, in evolution literature it is “still called one of the best examples of natural selection acting on the human genome.” Something that is helpful in a particular (malarial) environment multiplies, or becomes more common.

At the same time, the human body has not been able to evolve a response that neutralizes the malarial parasite. We know that because it hasn’t happened over the millions of years and even larger number of bodies that have been engaged in the struggle. Because of the large numbers involved, it is “the best, most reliable basis we have for forming judgments about the power of random mutation and natural selection,” Behe writes. “Few other sources of information even come close.”

The take-home lesson is one we learn in everyday life: It is much easier to break a hi-tech gadget than it is to make one. The same applies inside the body. Bodies developed a measure of resistance to malaria by “breaking” the gene that makes hemoglobin. There are hundreds or thousands of ways of “breaking” a gene, by a mutation that happens to appear in the right place. But there may only be one way of building a new device in the body that will immobilize the malarial parasite without otherwise harming the body. And the chances of that happening are minuscule.

In other words, mutation and natural selection have been unable to generate the complex and interlocking parts of the human body. The usual metaphor describing the interaction between bodies and the environment is that of an arms race. But that is misleading, says Behe. It is more like trench warfare. What happened with the sickle cell was more like destroying a bridge used by enemy forces within one’s own country. In an arms race, new weapons are built; but against malaria nothing new has been created. Something was broken or disabled.

Incidentally, Columbia University geneticist Thomas H. Morgan argued as long ago as 1925 that natural selection was unable to create new features in fruit flies, which he spent decades studying. Natural selection can produce “more of certain kinds of individuals,” he concluded. But evolution means “producing new things, not more of what already exists.”

Behe’s book was reviewed in The New York Times by Richard Dawkins, who made the kind of argument that a nineteenth-century naturalist might use “before the elegance of the molecular foundation of life was discovered by modern biology,” Behe wrote. Dawkins was also “quite reluctant to engage” his argument.

In The Greatest Show on Earth Dawkins wrote that in his earlier books, he now realized, the evidence for evolution “was nowhere explicitly set out.” He would now close this “serious gap.” But his prime exhibit turned out to be the evidence that dog breeders had bred dogs that are smaller, larger, or fancier than ancestral dogs — a very weak claim. Demonstrating that dogs evolved from dogs was not quite what Darwin had in mind! If Dawkins could have better illustrated the claim that “evolution is a fact” he would surely have done so. He repeated his shaggy dog story in his review of Behe.

The truth is that Darwinian evolution has never been demonstrated by experiment. Alfred Russel Wallace proposed the idea of natural selection at the same time as Darwin, and his and Darwin’s papers were read together to the Royal Society in 1858. Wallace’s paper was titled “On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type.” But experimenters have never been able to demonstrate this “indefinite departure.” Dogs may become differently shaped, but dogs they remain. The same limit to variation has been encountered across the board. Julian Huxley wrote in 1942 that “in spite of intensive and long continued efforts,” horticulturalists have never been able to create blue roses or black tulips. This has been attributed to “a lack of modificational plasticity.” But that limitation is what we always encounter.

British bacteriologist Alan H. Linton, looking for evidence of speciation, concluded in 2001:

None exists in the literature claiming that one species has been shown to evolve into another. Bacteria, the simplest form of independent life, are ideal for this kind of study, with generation times of twenty to thirty minutes, and populations achieved after eighteen hours. But throughout 150 years of the science of bacteriology, there is no evidence that one species of bacteria has changed into another.

In 1988 Michigan State University bacteriologist Richard Lenski began what Behe has called the “largest, most ambitious controlled evolutionary study,” observing the unfolding cultures of the bacterium E. coli. He has studied them for twenty-three years and fifty thousand bacteria generations — the equivalent of a million years for human evolution. The genome of E. coli has been sequenced and enough spontaneous mutations have arisen that every possible point mutation must have occurred many times. But it remains the same species of bacterium. Behe is a “huge fan” of Lenski et al.’s work because, “rather than telling Just-So stories they have been doing the hard laboratory work that shows what Darwinian evolution can and likely cannot do.”

Lenski’s experiments contrast with the reports by Her mann Muller and others in the 1920s. Because x-rays greatly increased mutation rates, they thought they had found a way to “speed up” evolution. They zapped fruit flies and they did indeed emerge with odd-looking body parts, but in the end the flies either died or gave rise to a new fly generation that “reverted to the mean.” They never could demonstrate that the fruit flies turned into anything different.

Jerry Coyne gave Behe a lengthy and hostile review in The New Republic,showing the difficulty that committed evolutionists have in coming to grips with the molecular evidence. In any future dictionary of logical fallacies, Behe suggested, entries on “begging the question” will include a picture of Jerry Coyne. He tried to answer Behe’s point that protein structures could not have been built up step by step — because all the steps are needed together if anything is to work at all. Coyne replied that the process “could have begun” with “weak” associations that were “beneficial to the organism,” and were then “gradually strengthened.” He was admitting that he didn’t know how proteins are constructed so that they fit together exactly. He was just following the Darwinian playbook, which requires that everything must happen step by step (because the probability of such complex structures appearing in one fell swoop is prohibitively small).

Coyne’s reply suggests that Doug Axe and his assistants at the Biologic Institute may end up surpassing the Darwinists in pure research, for a reason that is rarely mentioned. The restrictive worldview of committed materialists such as Dawkins and Coyne guides them down preconceived channels. They “know” how solutions must be reached, if Darwinism is accepted as true. Yet if they insist on confining themselves to such preconceived searches, they will find (given the complexity of the cell) statistical impossibilities staring them in the face. It is for these reasons that the Darwinists are quietly losing the battle with the advocates of intelligent design, and it is also why they respond to ID with crude insults.

There’s much more to say. Last year, a leading American philosopher, Jerry Fodor of Rutgers, in his book What Darwin Got Wrong, attacked Darwin’s prize exhibit (natural selection) as “incoherent” and “conceptually flawed.” Fodor used a difficult and much-resisted argument, but the fact that it was made at all may be a sign of the times. Also, we no longer know what a gene is. Mark Gerstein of Yale was recently quoted in The New Scientist as saying, “What a gene is depends on who you ask.” Like the cell, it turns out to be something far more complicated than was thought, and in fact the concept of the gene may in the end not be helpful at all. The molecular biology textbooks are going to have to be rewritten, and that will take a generation.

The paleontologist and fossil critic Colin Patterson said in public lectures thirty years ago that he didn’t know of any evidence for evolution and he asked an audience to provide some. In interviews he also stressed that he was an atheist with no religious agenda. Some considered his comments to be outrageous. Since then, however, the evidence from the cell — as complex as a hi-tech factory — has tended to support him. It has also greatly complicated the Darwinists’ task. They still control the academy, government funding, and the peer-reviewed journals. But increasingly the scientific facts are not on their side.

Tom Bethell

Tom Bethell graduated from Oxford University and is a long-time journalist who has served as Washington editor for Harper’s, a contributing editor to Washington Monthly, and a senior editor at The American Spectator. He has written articles for many magazines, including Fortune, the New York Times Magazine, and The Atlantic Monthly. Praised by Tom Wolfe as “one of our most brilliant essayists,” Bethell is the previous author of The Noblest Triumph: Property through the Ages, Eric Hoffer: The Longshoreman Philosopher, and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science. He resides in Washington, DC.