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Recent discoveries in biological research

17 October 2014


From Professor R. J. Berry

Sir, - I am a theist. I am also a biologist - worse, an evolutionary biologist. According to Dr Mark Vernon (Comment, 10 October), I am being buffeted by "failures" in my professional discipline, especially by complexities revealed through "the mainstreaming of the new science of epigenetics". But he is wrong.

I want to testify that I rejoice in new discoveries, surely uncovering "God's thoughts, after him". Years ago, I was among those integrating ecology into conventional evolutionary theory and thereby challenging the (then) orthodoxy about genetic load and evolutionary rates. It was exciting, not upsetting.

Current evolutionary understanding is not failing, but (like all proper science) reacting and adjusting to new facts. What is failing is the reductionist assumption that any current understanding is absolute. God is the Creator, but scripture does not tell us how he creates. Discovering more about God's work in the natural world is the joy and privilege of any scientist who is a Christian.

All science, evolutionary biology included, is subject to change; this is not the same thing as being in disarray. I am sure that Professor Simon Conway Morris, quoted with approval in Dr Vernon's article as a prophet of the "new evolution", would describe himself as an orthodox neo-Darwinian. Evolutionary biology properly under-stood and the biblical text properly interpreted are entirely complementary.

The tragedy is that we alienate outsiders - especially young people - by over-dogmatic claims about God's methods of involvement in his world. Christian biologists like me have too often failed in getting this message over, but we are repeatedly opposed by the doctrinaire conservatism of religious people. Clear thinking about science and faith is a vital evangelistic and pastoral tool, which is consistently neglected.

And for the record: epigenetics is not all that new. I published two scientific papers on epigenetics in 1963, 51 years ago. . .

Professor Emeritus of Genetics
University College London
London WC1E 6BT


From Dr Richard Crockett

Sir, - I find Dr Mark Vernon's attack on the integrity of science and its practitioners - especially biologists - profoundly depressing. Biology is not my science, but I am glad to stand alongside those that he dismisses as arrogant and in thrall to an efficient PR machine.

His view that environment and nurture must supplement variation in DNA sequencing as being the driver of evolution would move us away from a rigorously demonstrable neo-Darwinism to a discredited neo-Lamarckism that is at best vague, and at worst gives comfort to extreme fundamentalists. It may be no coincidence that the high proportion of atheists among biologists is because their discipline more than any other attracts the attention of scientific illiterates.

The historic insights of Darwin and Wallace were all the more remarkable in that they lacked much of the data that are available to us. The past century has brought paradigm shifts not only in genetic biology, but also in fields as diverse as post-Newtonian cosmology, quantum physics, and, within my own training, the radiometric and plate-tectonic underpinning of earth science.

While the science that lies behind such revolutions is robust, much detail and the consequences for human civilisation may still need to be assessed. Dr Vernon's prediction of an imminent new paradigm shift in biology, if true, will not necessarily take a direction with which he will be comfortable, or one that will encompass its critics.

Within the whole breadth of biological diversity, the cultural achievements of Homo sapiens are certainly almost, if not quite, unique. Lascaux cave art and the St Matthew Passion may be evidence of some higher purpose. I incline to that view, but many will not. To that very limited extent, I share space with Dr Vernon on the opposite side of the fence from Professor Stephen Pinker.

31 Ladhope Drive, Galashiels
Scottish Borders TD1 2BL


From Dr Gerald Atkinson

Sir, - In the debate about chance versus design, Dr Mark Vernon expresses the hope that "Perhaps biologists are about to make an evolutionary breakthrough." There is good news: they already have.

One of the most significant, least expected, and most under-reported fallouts from the Human Genome Project is that genes, which were expected to be "function-specific", most decidedly are not. In fact, they multi-task. So, for example, it takes an astonishing six thousand genes, operating in total harmony, to build the human heart. Change any by mutation or by human intervention, and very odd, mostly unpleasant, consequences occur.

In Why Us? - a most excellent summary of developments in this and the field of neuroscience, which the layman can understand - James Le Fanu writes that "every finding - the paucity of genes, their multi-tasking, these shared 'master genes' - is a nail in the coffin of Darwin's proposed mechanism of natural selection acting on numerous small, random genetic mutations."

I suggest that this particular debate is over. For the reasons given by Dr Vernon and in particular the vested interests that there are in sustaining the myth, it will take time for the paradigm to change. But together with the ever-increasing evidence of design, not chance, showing across the whole spec- trum of scientific inquiry, we as Christians are given renewed confidence, confidence that is so sorely needed.

Laburnum Cottage,
Inkpen, Hungerford
West Berkshire RG17 9QS

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