How biology is evolving to encompass its critics

by
10 October 2014

The certainty, even arrogance, of some biologists is having to adapt to a new level of complexity, reports Mark Vernon

EVOLUTION is the headline challenge to Christianity in the so-called culture wars. Various apologists make the case that there needn't be a clash, but the fact remains that humans are apes, life is a bloody struggle, nature produces great variety but even greater waste, and where believers foolishly sense design, there are really only random processes.

Biologists seem to know as much. Research from YouGov published last month concluded that almost half of British biologists are atheists, compared with less than one in five of the general population. A smaller proportion of atheists is found among physicists, even.

And yet what this story of stand-off often fails to note is that the theory of evolution is far from settled. Moreover, unease about neo-Darwinian orthodoxy, the version of Darwin's theory championed by Professor Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene, has been growing in recent years. There are a number of figures in the field who, although they wholeheartedly accept that life evolves, are now questioning it.

Take the problem of "missing hereditability", the suggestion that genes can account for only a fraction of what we inherit from our forebears. It has become impossible to ignore this since the sequencing of the human genome in 2003. This impressive achievement has, none the less, dramatically failed to deliver on its promise to account for human diseases and behaviours through genetic mechanisms.

A handful of breakthroughs have been made, and modern science's efficient PR machine ensures that newspapers still carry headlines about genes for this and that. Massive funding is at stake. But, in truth, the stated goals of the project have not materialised.


BUT something far more interesting, particularly for theists, has emerged. The failure has led to the mainstreaming of the new science of epigenetics. This acknowledges that the environment and nurture - even a parent's experiences - directly influence what is passed on to offspring. It undermines the idea that inheritance happens only via DNA, and that evolution is built solely on random mutations. To put it simply, life is far more complicated and responsive than "selfish-geneism" allows.

Genetic determinism was, in fact, challenged from its inception by a now forgotten biologist, Walter Weldon. He argued that the environment and nurture were required to account for the inherited variations within species observed in nature. Further, Weldon's view might have won the day, and saved us from a century of biological reductionism; but he died young. What is known as Mendelian genetics had better PR and, then as now, that often matters more than pure science.

Epigenetics might interest believers because it is one step away from the mechanistic interpretation of evolution which appears to land such blows on theism. It is a new piece in the puzzle of life which raises the possibility that evolutionary processes many not be blind and random, but might have direction, even purpose.

To that extent, it chimes with another critic of the status quo, the NYU philosopher, Thomas Nagel. In Mind and Cosmos: Why the materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false, he asks whether life may tend towards the emergence of consciousness. When you immerse yourself in all the extraordinary intricacies and syntheses at play in biological systems, it can certainly seem as if the universe wills itself to become aware of itself in the organism Homo sapiens.


AT A recent conference, "The Uses and Abuses of Biology", organised by the Faraday Institute of Cambridge University, Dr Simon Conway Morris, Professor of Palaeobiology at Cambridge, speculated that we might do well to return to the insights of the co-discoverer of evolution, Alfred Russel Wallace.

Right from the start, Wallace argued that human consciousness was far more sophisticated than would be needed merely to afford human beings survival advantages. We don't use language just to warn our fellows of danger but to compose sublime, searching poems. We don't use sound just to attract a mate but to nurture the ecstasy and insights of music.

Neo-Darwinism puts language and music down as an evolutionary by-product or excess. But that is scientifically unsatisfactory, because it is, in effect, saying that there is no direct explanation. It also feels humanly inadequate, leading to comments such as those of the Harvard professor Stephen Pinker, who describes music as "auditory cheesecake". Don't sit next to him during a performance of Bach's St Matthew Passion.

Theists can be intrigued by this sort of debate, since it might change the narrative of a "clash" with science. But they also shouldn't get too excited. As Professor Conway Morris continued, biology would have to become an unimaginably different science were it to embrace any teleological dynamics. The taboo against directionality is strong.

Then again, paradigm shifts occur regularly in the history of science. Perhaps biologists are about to make an evolutionary breakthrough.

Dr Mark Vernon is a writer and the author of God: All that matters (Hodder).


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