Post Author: Bill Pratt
I am told again and again by blog commenters that there is absolutely no controversy over any aspects of Darwinian evolution among those who study biology in the scientific community. Here is a typical quote from a recent commenter, who was speaking about the pro-intelligent design Discovery Institute’s advocacy of teaching the controversy over certain aspects of evolution:
There is no scientific controversy. None. Not one bit. At all. This is purely a religiously motivated, and intentionally manufactured one, to appear as a scientific controversy. But appearances can be deceiving, especially when it is done intentionally to try to create controversy where none exists in scientific terms, one that does not match up to the evidence science has revealed from the reality we share.
But this is simply not true. There is plenty of controversy in the world of evolutionary biology. You just have to read.
I thought it would be helpful to point out just one prominent biologist’s disagreement with the standard evolutionary account. His name is James Shapiro and he is a molecular biologist at the University of Chicago. A pro-ID scholar, William Dembski, wrote a review of Shapiro’s latest book, Evolution: A View from the 21st Century, where he carefully describes Shapiro’s disagreement with the standard account.
Dembski starts by quoting evolutionary geneticist Jerry Coyne, who gives a succinct definition of evolution:
There is only one going theory of evolution, and it is this: organisms evolved gradually over time and split into different species, and the main engine of evolutionary change was natural selection. Sure, some details of these processes are unsettled, but there is no argument among biologists about the main claims . . . While mutations occur by chance, natural selection, which builds complex bodies by saving the most adaptive mutations, emphatically does not. Like all species, man is a product of both chance and lawfulness.
Coyne here depicts the form of Darwinism that currently reigns, what is called the neo-Darwinian synthesis, which combines classical Darwinism (which holds to universal common ancestry, evolutionary gradualism, and natural selection) with modern genetic theory (which locates the source of heritable variation in genetic mutations, i.e., writing errors in DNA).
So, if this is the standard view of evolution, and there is no controversy over it, then we should expect Shapiro to agree with his colleague, right? Wrong. According to Dembski,
Of all these elements, Shapiro only subscribes to one, namely, universal common ancestry, or common descent, the claim that all organisms trace their lineage to a common ancestor (thus making all organisms alive today cousins). On every other point, Shapiro demurs.
Read that again. Shapiro only agrees with common descent and disagrees with the rest of Coyne’s description of evolution.
Thus, when it comes to the claim that evolution proceeds gradually, Shapiro writes (p. 89): “Do the sequences of contemporary genomes fit the predictions of change by ‘numerous, successive slight variations,’ as Darwin stated, or do they contain evidence of other, more abrupt processes…? The data are overwhelmingly in favor of the saltationist school that postulated major genomic changes at key moments in evolution.”
If Shapiro simply left matters there, however, he might align himself with proponents of punctuated equilibrium who, keeping faith as much as possible with neo-Darwinism, see the principal source of biological variation in genetic copying errors, otherwise known as “mutations.” But Shapiro rejects this view as well. For him, variation, which is always the creative potential of any evolutionary theory (no variation, no evolution), is not a random affair at all. Rather, organisms intelligently control their variation and thereby facilitate the evolutionary process.
Shapiro writes (143): “Living cells and organisms are cognitive (sentient) entities that act and interact purposefully to ensure survival, growth, and proliferation. They possess corresponding sensory, communication, information-processing, and decision-making capabilities. Cells are built to evolve; they have the ability to alter their hereditary characteristics rapidly through well-described natural genetic engineering and epigenetic processes as well as cell mergers.”
Dembski then concisely summarizes Shapiro’s view of evolution:
Organisms behave purposefully. They evolve themselves. They do this by intentionally modifying their own DNA. Within neo-Darwinism, DNA is a read-only memory subject to occasional copying errors. For Shapiro, DNA is a read-write memory, with the organism itself deciding when and where to modify its DNA.
Enough said, I think. Shapiro differs dramatically from evolutionary orthodoxy. He is representative of the active debate that is occurring among scientists who study evolution. Why should these differing views not be openly discussed? Why am I told that there is no controversy when there clearly is? Let’s just admit that there are scientific debates within the evolutionary community, instead of pretending they don’t exist.