Streetwise Professor

May 16, 2019

The Science Is Never Settled

Filed under: Uncategorized — cpirrong @ 6:21 pm

Anyone who says that “the science is settled” is a fool or a charlatan. Case in point: Darwinism and its more rigorous heir Neo-Darwinism. These have been “settled science” (in the case of the former) since no later than the Scopes Trial in 1925. But as this fascinating review article by the estimable David Gelertner demonstrates, these theories cannot do what they purport to do: explain “macro-evolution,” or to quote the title of Darwin’s famous work, explain the “origins of the species.”

The eminent statistician George Box once quipped, “all models are wrong, but some are useful.” Darwinism and Neo-Darwinism have proved incredibly useful. They have provided the models that have resulted in the incredible strides in understanding, and manipulating, genetics and the genome. That is, they have proved enormously useful at a micro level–that is, within a species

But that’s not what Darwin set out to do, nor what neo-Darwinists claim to be able to do–explain how life forms evolved from one celled organisms to incredibly complex ones like humans. And Gelertner (or more exactly the author of the book Gelertner reviews, Stephen Meyer) explains why. It’s a matter of probability. Ironically, the discoveries in genetics derived from working in the Darwinian model/paradigm undermine its macro claims.

Evolution in the Neo-Darwinian framework is driven by mutation: “pure chance and lots of time” as Gelertner phrases it. But the odds against a useful mutation are so immense, that there is never enough time. Genes make proteins, and proteins are chains of 150+ amino acids:

The total count of possible 150-link chains, where each link is chosen separately from 20 amino acids, is 20150. In other words, many. 20150 roughly equals 10195, and there are only 1080 atoms in the universe.

What proportion of these many polypeptides are useful proteins? Douglas Axe did a series of experiments to estimate how many 150-long chains are capable of stable folds—of reaching the final step in the protein-creation process (the folding) and of holding their shapes long enough to be useful. (Axe is a distinguished biologist with five-star breeding: he was a graduate student at Caltech, then joined the Centre for Protein Engineering at Cambridge. The biologists whose work Meyer discusses are mainly first-rate Establishment scientists.) He estimated that, of all 150-link amino acid sequences, 1 in 1074 will be capable of folding into a stable protein. To say that your chances are 1 in 1074 is no different, in practice, from saying that they are zero. It’s not surprising that your chances of hitting a stable protein that performs some useful function, and might therefore play a part in evolution, are even smaller. Axe puts them at 1 in 1077.

In other words: immense is so big, and tiny is so small, that neo-Darwinian evolution is—so far—a dead loss. Try to mutate your way from 150 links of gibberish to a working, useful protein and you are guaranteed to fail. Try it with ten mutations, a thousand, a million—you fail. The odds bury you. It can’t be done.

There is also the problem of creating whole new life forms:

To help create a brand new form of organism, a mutation must affect a gene that does its job early and controls the expression of other genes that come into play later on as the organism grows. But mutations to these early-acting “strategic” genes, which create the big body-plan changes required by macro-evolution, seem to be invariably fatal. They kill off the organism long before it can reproduce. This is common sense. Severely deformed creatures don’t ever seem fated to lead the way to glorious new forms of life. Instead, they die young.

Evidently there are a total of no examples in the literature of mutations that affect early development and the body plan as a whole and are not fatal. The German geneticists Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard and Eric Wieschaus won the Nobel Prize in 1995 for the “Heidelberg screen,” an exhaustive investigation of every observable or inducible mutation of Drosophila melanogaster (the same patient, long-suffering fruit fly I meddled with relentlessly in an undergraduate genetics lab in the 1970s). “[W]e think we’ve hit all the genes required to specify the body plan of Drosophila,” said Wieschaus in answering a question after a talk. Not one, he continued, is “promising as raw materials for macroevolution”—because mutations in them all killed off the fly long before it could mate. If an exhaustive search rules out every last plausible gene as a candidate for large-scale Drosophila evolution, where does that leave Darwin? Wieschaus continues: “What are—or what would be—the right mutations for major evolutionary change? And we don’t know the answer to that.”

. . . .

Darwin would easily have understood that minor mutations are common but can’t create significant evolutionary change; major mutations are rare and fatal.

So where does that leave us? With very unsettled science. And this in the area in which scientists are justly proud of the enormous progress they have made working within the established paradigm. Progress that has changed lives in almost unfathomably ways, and which will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

But that is what Kuhn called “normal science”: incremental progress within an established paradigm. This is fertile ground for a Kuhnian paradigm shift. An accepted paradigm cannot explain vital facts–macroevolution, in this instance. Indeed, here it cannot explain the very phenomenon it purports to be able to explain and was in fact developed to explain. That failure will trigger the hunt for a new paradigm. And likely sometime someone will develop it.

Keep this in mind whenever you hear that the science is settled, especially in fields–like climate science–where the underlying problem (the behavior of a dynamic, non-linear system) is as complicated or perhaps more complicated than biological evolution, and where the normal science in the existing paradigm has been far less successful than Darwinism/Neo-Darwinism.

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  1. “origins of the species.” Noooooooo. It was “The origin of species”. Unless you were making a joke about the evolution of misremembered phrases.

    Comment by dearieme — May 17, 2019 @ 5:48 am

  2. a striking variety of new organisms—including the first-ever animals—pop up suddenly in the fossil record over a mere 70-odd million years.

    Suddenly…over 70 million years. Lol

    70 million years is an absolutely colossal time span. Humans cannot even comprehend a million years, let alone 70 million. Just about anything could have evolved, glacially slowly, in that time period. There is nothing ‘sudden’ about a 70 million year process.

    Comment by Rob — May 17, 2019 @ 7:52 am

  3. Abiogenesis is not evolution. How (or if) life arose from randomness is unrelated to Darwin.

    Your second quote is also a straw-man. A “large-scale mutation”, as described in the article, has never been observed and is not predicted by the theory of evolution.

    Comment by Ryan — May 17, 2019 @ 8:04 am

  4. Gelernter has been taken in, I’m afraid, on the protein-probabilities front. There’s been systematic research proving that viable protein functions are very close in mutation space to one another, forming a sparse but connected network that spans the entire space. The book Arrival of the Fittest lays this out in fascinating and readable detail. Here’s a promotional review of the book from the Santa Fe Institute:

    Comment by srp — May 17, 2019 @ 7:27 pm

  5. Dunno about the science, but German foreign policy seems to have been settled in August of 1939, never to change again.

    Get this:

    Foreign Minister
    : “It is good news that we agreed that Russia should remain in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Especially because this preserves the right of Millions of Russians to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. ”

    So it is Russian citizens’ access to ECHR (de jure and de facto ignored by Russia) they are so worried about. The world has never seen greater humanitarians.

    Comment by Ivan — May 18, 2019 @ 5:21 am

  6. Heartily agree. Time for a new paradigm in evolution. Oddly, it’s probably also time for a new paradigm in particle physics. The promiscuous proliferation of new weird particles, some existing for only zillionths of a second, the lingering puzzles over dark matter, dark energy, the abrupt changes in the physics of the Universe in the first million years or so … reminiscent of the ideational gymnastics (and contortions) the astronomers of the Ptolemaic system went obliged to undertake in order to adjust the movements of the Spheres so as to match actual observations of the heavenly bodies.

    Comment by Simple Simon — May 19, 2019 @ 5:18 am

  7. Are you an intelligent design supporter, prof? I’ve only ever heard the term “macroevolution” used by those arguing against Darwinian evolution specifically those arguing for ID.

    Stephen C Meyer – the author of the book being reviewed – is a prominent intelligent design advocate who rejects Darwinism.

    The fossil record is – surprise, surprise – very incomplete. When novel fossils are observed in the record, it’s because our record is so patchy – and not evidence – as the author of the reviewed book suggests – that a higher intelligence started meddling with the earth’s biology at that time.

    Not one of your best pieces, prof.

    Comment by derriz — May 20, 2019 @ 2:51 pm

  8. @derriz. No. I am not an ID supporter/believer. Nor is Gerletner, who wrote the review and as he made clear. Further, Meyer’s critique was not the only one reviewed. Further still, one can have a cogent critique of a particular theory and be wrong in one’s proposed alternative. I think it was quite clear that I was agnostic about alternatives, just that there was likely to be one.

    Comment by cpirrong — May 20, 2019 @ 9:40 pm

  9. The estimable David Gelertner never mentions homeobox (HOX) genes. Fancy that. HOX genes are upstream to developmental genes – the ones that influence fetal development.

    See for example.

    HOX genes switch on and off the developmental genes. They control body patterns and developmental timing. Small mutations in HOX genes can produce large changes in an organism, including speciation steps.

    Some of this can happen due to a developmental process called heterochrony. Heterochrony refers to the amount of time a developmental gene operates. Short times, and one can have a tiny brain. Long times and get a large brain, for example.

    Mutations in HOX genes plus heterochrony can produce a new species in literally a single generation.

    Most people, including apparently the estimable David Gelertner, don’t realize that most of natural selection occurs in the uterus. Unsuccessful mutations produce developmental abnormalities and miscarriage, or resorption, of the fetus.

    Mice, for example, lose nearly 90% of their conceptions to developmental abnormalities. Their damaged fetuses are resorbed.

    The rate of loss of human conceptions is not well known. But it’s estimated at 50-90%. Most of the time a sexually active woman trying to get pregnant will just experience a late period. That is an early miscarriage due to early severe developmental abnormalities in the fetus.

    There’s no doubt that most mutations are harmful. But the cost is low when miscarriage is early. The occasional beneficial mutation produces a superior phenotype. And occasionally the first member of a new species. In one generation.

    Intelligent Design, by the way, is not a theory in any scientific sense. It’s a religious crock.

    I published a paper demolishing the idea in 2004,”On the Assumption of Design.”

    Happy to send a reprint.

    Comment by Pat Frank — May 21, 2019 @ 8:49 pm

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