The Book of Life: Revised Edition
On April 5, 2005, the prominent British genetics professor Steve Jones published a witty essay in the London Daily Telegraph that explained with unusual frankness just how strange, and even paradoxical, is the role of mutation in neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory.
According to chemical laws, wrote Jones, who teaches at University College, London, we all ought to be dead by now. The basis for this gloomy prognosis is “thermodynamics, meaning the random noise that interferes with all chemical reactions and causes them to go wrong.” The chemistry of DNA ensures the continual production of much mutational noise, because “the chances of physical error as each DNA molecule is copied are such that mistakes—mutations—should build up with great speed and stop most of the dividing helices in their tracks. Even those that make it would be so damaged that their carriers would not survive.”
To explain why we don’t see genomic mutational meltdown, Jones appealed not to Darwinian natural selection, but to the DNA’s fantastic error-correction machinery, which he likened to a word processor’s spell-check software: “Special enzymes clean up the mess as they snip out a mutated segment, join together broken bits of the molecule, or replace a faulty piece with the correct version.”
This error-correction machinery can only work because the cell has access to a correct copy of the gene to compare with mutant genes for identifying errors. “In fact, the genome is built on backups, with repeat copies of genes that can be used to check when one has gone wrong.” Without the genes involved in the process, “we could not survive.”
Botanists recently announced the discovery of “a spectacular new talent in the world of biological proofreading.” One of the mutations in the plant Aradopsis makes parts of its flower fuse. According to the laws of inheritance, if both parents have two copies of the damaged gene, their offspring must be mutated, yet they often produce perfectly normal offspring.
The damaged gene has been fixed—but without a backup. “A closer look at the DNA shows that, in every case, the version restored is present not in the parents, but in an unmutated ancestor, as far back as a great-grandparent.”
“Somehow,” Jones continued, “the altered gene has checked back for several generations to see what the correct answer should be (which is rather like turning to the ghost of Dr. Johnson for advice on how to spell ‘lexicographer’).” He did not attempt to explain how Darwinian natural selection would preserve a ghost-copy of a gene for use only in some possibly distant future generation.
The genome’s ability to correct errors is so spectacular that one wonders, as does Jones, why it allows any errors to persist. Why is the observed mutation rate not even lower than it is?
“We have no idea,” Jones cheerfully conceded, “but the errors are essential. Without mutations we would all certainly be dead (or, at least, unborn) for a system that copies itself precisely cannot move forwards. Evolution is a series of successful mistakes. Mutations are the fuel of the Darwinian machine and without them it could not keep running.”
There you have it. It is common to describe neo-Darwinism as “evolution by natural selection,” but it is more accurate to describe it as “evolution by creative copying errors.” Natural selection is merely a metaphorical term for the fact that some organisms fail to survive or reproduce. The role of natural selection is only to preserve or eliminate new characteristics mutation has created.
It is as if an accumulation of random scribal errors in copying the Torah were to produce eventually a readable copy, however error-strewn, of the New Testament, via a chain of coherent intermediate books. I will not argue that such a thing is impossible, but claims of that nature will inspire understandable skepticism until the process of creation by accumulation of random mistakes can be demonstrated, at least in some significant part.
I am sure that Steve Jones continues to be as devoted a Darwinist as he has always been, because neo-Darwinists have always cast mutation in the dual role of degenerator of existing genetic information and also of provider of new genetic information. Whatever his intent, his essay gave his readers plenty of reason to be skeptical. This testifies to his honesty, which deserves respect.
I would only recommend taking his own logic to the next step. If mutations inexorably cause genomic information to degenerate, in the manner of manuscript copying mistakes, then to rely upon similar mistakes to create vast new kinds and amounts of functional information is to presuppose what may seem to be a prodigious series of naturalistic miracles.
If neo-Darwinian evolution is the only method by which plants and animals could conceivably have been created, then perhaps the great odds against its occurrence do not matter. In that case, the fact that we exist is all that is needed to prove that Darwinian evolution created us.
If, on the other hand, the mechanism of creative evolution has to be supported by unbiased scientific testing, rather than conclusively presumed because of the absence of an acceptable alternative, then the grand creative story of neo-Darwinism seems to be built on the shaky foundation of an unobserved and unlikely accumulation of information-building mistakes.
On July 7, 2005, Christoph Schönborn, the Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna, published a major essay titled “Finding Design in Nature,” on the opinion page of the New York Times, correcting the flood of misunderstandings that have accumulated around some phrases in a 1996 letter by Pope John Paul II. In this letter, John Paul wrote that the theory of evolution (which he did not define) was “more than a hypothesis” and also “more than one hypothesis.”
When carefully read, the letter approves evolution only in the general and relatively uncontroversial sense of a gradual descent from ancestral to descendant forms of organisms, but, as tends to happen when one speaks without enormous caution on such a loaded subject, some journalists interpreted the letter as if it were an unqualified endorsement of neo-Darwinism. Cardinal Schönborn corrected the misunderstanding by writing, “Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense—an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection—is not.”
He then quoted some more carefully considered teaching by John Paul II, which squarely affirmed that “the evolution of living beings, of which science seeks to determine the stages and to discern the mechanism, presents an internal finality which arouses admiration. This finality (meaning final cause, purpose, or design) which directs beings in a direction for which they are not responsible or in charge, obliges one to suppose a mind which is its inventor, its creator.”
Driving home the point, Cardinal Schönborn quoted the new pope, Benedict XVI (of whom he is known to be a close confidant): “We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.” I wonder if the Darwinists who are protesting Cardinal Schönborn’s essay think that Pope Benedict’s own statement is consistent with their theory.
Most tellingly, Cardinal Schönborn positioned the church to be the defender not only of Christian faith, but also of reason, against the excesses of modernist philosophies:
Cardinal Schönborn’s powerful essay was received with alarm by Darwinists, including some Catholics. A few of these scientists are pressing the Vatican for a clarification of its position towards neo-Darwinism. No doubt discussion will long continue about whether the apparent existence of design in the cosmos and in living organisms reflects a reality, or is only an illusion of design.
However the discussion proceeds, thanks to Steve Jones, Cardinal Schönborn, and people like them, it is at least clear now that the point at issue was not definitively settled in the nineteenth century, or the twentieth.
Steve Jones’s article can be found at http://connected.telegraph.co.uk/connected/main.jhtml?xml=/connected/2005/05/04/ecrview04.xml.
Phillip E. Johnson is Professor of Law (emeritus) at the University of California at Berkeley. He is the author of Darwin on Trial, The Wedge of Truth, The Right Questions (InterVarsity Press), and other books challenging the naturalistic assumptions that dominate modern culture. He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.
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“The Book of Life: Revised Edition” first appeared in the October 2005 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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