Over the years I have written columns about the growing doubts among scientists and mathematicians over aspects of Darwinian evolution. The fury aroused among the faithful has been intense and often personal, the doubts being called “ridiculous” but with no explanation of why they are ridiculous. These assertions are frequently, but not always, made by people who couldn’t tell toluene from the Taj Mahal. The following, for what if anything it is worth, is a response I wrote to an internet acquaintance whom I will call Derek.
Since you have attacked me harshly and even insultingly for my doubts about what might be called doctrinaire evolutionism’s official story, perhaps you will permit me to defend myself.
I note that your castigation of me has been devoid of substance, being partly ad hominem (“Fred, you are just a retired reporter….”), partly crowd-sourced appeal to authority (“Ninety-nine point nine percent of biologists agree….”), and partly rank-pulling (“I hold the following imposing degrees from Berkeley, an imposing university….”)–none of these degrees, I note, related to evolution.
Should not a conversation on evolution deal with evolution rather than the personal virtues and defects of those conversing? And I am not clear just how you know regarding which matters I have, as you say, “absolutely no knowledge,” but there are many of these and I presume you have your sources.
But to the matter at hand:
Perhaps I err, but I do not believe that science can best be advanced by refusing to examine it. Had this approach been followed in the past, we would still believe in epicycles and the spontaneous generation of mice (as we now believe in the spontaneous generation of all life). The angry dismissal of questions seems to have less in common with science than with religious fanaticism, the more distant shores of Marxism, and conspiracy theories. I will add that in decades of journalism I have noticed that the intensity of outrage at the questioning of a belief is inversely proportional to confidence in the belief. It is not necessary to defend the invulnerable.
It is not true that virtually all biologists accept orthodox evolutionism. The ideas you deride in my writing are of course chiefly not mine. They are those of the substantial and growing number of highly qualified men who question Darwin. Many of them hold doctorates in the evolutionary sciences from such places as CalTech and Cambrigde and have done decades of research at these or similar institutions. Many have written books. From previous correspondence I gather that it is not your practice to read things that you might disagree with (I apologize preemptively if I am wrong) but I can give suggestions if you will make an exception. Perhaps obtusely, I adhere to my prejudice that it is unseemly to dismiss as ridiculous books that one has not read and ideas that one has not encountered.
That doubts arise regarding Darwin is not surprising since the theory when propounded was more a philosophical idea than a scientific principle, and based on almost nothing, which is how much was known of the relevant cell biology. The 161 years since the publication of The Origin is an awful long time for a scientific theory to go unquestioned. In that period physics suffered (among other astonishments) the Michaelson Morley experiment, special relativity, general relativity, the wave-particle duality, the EPR paradox, and quantization of light. In astronomy, the red shift, the 4K background, pulsars, black holes and all sorts of other things. Biology became a field that would have been unrecognizable in 1859. Why should evolution, uniquely among the sciences, enjoy an almost religious aura of infallibility?
I plead not guilty to the arrogance you charge me with. Most of what I have written on evolution consists of questions. A question is an admission of ignorance. How is that arrogant? Permit me an example:
Evolution proceeds by incremental, viable steps from earlier forms. (Is this not so? Am I misstating?) Today’s cells employ three nucleotides per codon, providing 64 permutations to code for 20 aminos, control codons, and some redundancy. (Is this not so?)
My question: from what simpler, viable system can this have evolved? From two nucleotides per codon, allowing coding for sixteen aminos with no control codons?
If no transition from two to three can be adduced, then how did the current system come about?
This is a clear and simple question about a simple and universally well understood coding system, probably taught in high-school biology. If you think the question stupid, tell me why it is stupid. Otherwise, please answer it clearly, or have a specialist of your acquaintance do so, whereupon I will stop asking. But if you do not answer, I will ask why it is not a clear case of irreducible complexity.
I offer the foregoing example because it is unambiguous and does not lend itself to evasion. But a great many other questions, quite fascinating, exist regarding the Ediacaran biota, the Calmbrian phyla, the Chengjiang Maotianshan shales, intraflagellar transport, the various protein fractions of sequence space, DGRNs, multiple simultaneous mutations, and the countless examples of what seem clearly to be irreducible complexity from Behe’s famous bacterial flagellum on.
You say that I am not an evolutionary biologist. I am not. i know no one who is. And as we have had pounded into our heads, A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring. On this basis only PhDs would be permitted to write and only on their subjects, not a particularly practical arrangement. You write on many subjects in which you have no formal expertise. We all do. But of course the warning is most wisely made against those going beyond the limits of their knowledge.
For example, while I am not a trained classicist, and you are, in a column I could name (though I am not sure why I would) the members of the Second Triumvirate or the competitors for the throne after the death of Nero, without going beyond the bounds of my competence. These are simple and uncontested facts within the purview of anyone who reads. By contrast, if I waded into the deep waters of classical controversy, such as whether Claudius really was pulled from hiding by Praetorians and made emperor against his will, or whether this story was concocted to keep him from seeming an usurper in a city still unhappy with the demise of the Republic, I would be going far beyond my competence. So I don’t do it. In short, the foundations of most fields are accessible to anyone bothering to open a book. A deep understanding is not.
So with technical subjects. If I were to write (God knows why) that vector cross products, being determinants, are not commutative, or that rotaxanes have been considered as bistable devices for computation, or that pH is the negative logarithm of the hydronium ion concentration, or mention the difference between Shannon information and specified information, or say that thrashing is what happens when the domain of a loop crosses a page-frame boundary, or other such basic stuff, I could do so with confidence though I am not a
mathematician, chemist, information theoretician, or professional programmer. But I do not pretend to be any of these. Most of the things mentioned above are the stuff of introductory undergraduate courses.
The same reasoning holds for the evolutionary sciences. For example, I certainly make no claim to authority in biochemistry. The little I know comes mostly from having read a single book, University Biochemistry, which is at the Dick and Jane level for a biochemist, presumably an undergraduate text. I do not doubt that you, being of a technical background, know vastly more than I do.
Yet the difficulty of the basics of deep subjects can be overestimated. For example, The first-grade level of biochemistry is just Tinker Toys and Legos, no more mysterious than the workings of an internal-combustion engine: DNA, the RNAs, peptide and phosphodiester bonds, purines and pyrimidines, ribosomes, codons and anticodons, methylation of histones, sugar code, ion channels, all are simple ideas made apparently difficult by technoglop names. The genetic code, which sounds terribly arcane, is far easier to understand than, say, high-school French
In conclusion, there really are many cracks in the official story and many intriguing questions regarding what arguably may be our most fascinating and intellectually important subject we know: Where did we come from, how, and why?. Perhaps investigation and thought would be more illuminating than vituperation and personal attack.