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National Association of Biology Teachers Versus the Ribosome


Theodosius Dobzhansky famously wrote in 1973 that “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution.” The phrase has since become a staple amongst evolutionists. It appears throughout the literature, from popular works to journal papers, and it motivates the view that evolution is fundamental. Students must learn biology through the lens of evolution. Researchers must formulate experiments from a Darwinian perspective. Medical students must understand the human body as the result of evolution, and so forth. As the National Association of Biology Teachers explains:

The frequently-quoted declaration of Theodosius Dobzhansky that “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” accurately reflects the central, unifying role of evolution in the science of biology. … Just as nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution, nothing in biology education makes sense without reference to and thorough coverage of the principle and mechanisms provided by the science of evolution. Therefore, teaching biology in an effective, detailed, and scientifically and pedagogically honest manner requires that evolution be a major theme throughout the life science curriculum both in classroom discussions and in laboratory investigations. … Biology educators at all levels must work to encourage the development of and support for standards, curricula, textbooks, and other instructional frameworks that prominently include evolution and its mechanisms

Clearly the NABT thinks highly of Dobzhansky’s phrase and it draws some fairly important conclusions from it. But there is one slight problem: Dobzhansky’s phrase is unequivocally false.

Is it really true that nothing in biology makes sense except with evolution? No it is not, as I have discussed many times (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). Dobzhansky’s phrase is equivalent to: “Everything in biology only makes sense in light of evolution,” or “If-and-only-if evolution is true, then will we find what we find in biology.” In its logical form, Dobzhansky’s phrase is clearly not even scientific. Indeed, the phrase comes from the title of a paper which appeared in the American Biology Teacher, the official journal of the National Association of Biology Teachers, and in that paper Dobzhansky gave a litany of theological arguments that mandated evolution.

But it gets worse. Not only is this famous phrase a theological claim, it also fails the test of comparative anatomy. For example, consider the various types of echolocation found in different species of bats. As I have discussed (here, here, and here), the echolocation designs do not fit the expected evolutionary pattern. In other words, here we have something in biology that does not make sense with evolution. Evolution does not help to explain what we observe. Instead, with evolution we must resort to ad hoc stories. As one paper concluded:

[T]he animal’s habitat is often more important in shaping its [echolocation] call design than is its evolutionary history.

If you want to understand a bat’s echolocation design, look to its habitat, not its supposed evolutionary history. The scientific evidence makes no sense on the theory of evolution.

Or again, consider how glycan molecules compare across the different species. Again, it isn’t according to the evolutionary model (see here). As one paper explained, glycans show “remarkably discontinuous distribution across evolutionary lineages,” for they “occur in a discontinuous and puzzling distribution across evolutionary lineages.” This dizzying array of glycans can be (i) specific to a particular lineage, (i) similar in very distant lineages, (iii) and conspicuously absent from very restricted taxa only. The patterns contradict what evolution expected. As another paper admitted:

There is also no clear explanation for the extreme complexity and diversity of glycans that can be found on a given glycoconjugate or cell type. Based on the limited information available about the scope and distribution of this diversity among taxonomic groups, it is difficult to see clear trends or patterns consistent with different evolutionary lineages.

In other words, the glycans make no sense on evolution.

Echolocation and the glycans are but two examples. There are many, many more examples where they came from. The biological world is full of patterns of comparative anatomy across different species that make no sense on evolution.

But it gets worse.

It is not just comparative anatomy where the evidence fails to make sense in light of evolution. In design after design, what we observe in biology does not reflect contingency, as Darwin and later evolutionists predicted, but functional need. In fact, the designs we find are highly efficient and optimal in various ways. To cite just one example of a great many, consider the work of William Bialek.

Bialek discusses compound eyes of insects such as the fly. These compound eyes have a large number of small lenses packed into an array. A large number of small lenses gives high resolution, just as does a digital camera with a large number of pixels.

But when the lens gets to be too small, its optics become distorted due to diffraction. So in determining the best lens size, there is a tradeoff between resolution and diffraction. In the optimum solution the lens size is roughly proportional to the square root of the radius of the head. And indeed, Bialek shows an old paper surveying the compound eye designs in more than two dozen different insects. That paper shows that for the different size insects, the lens size is proportional, as predicted, to the square root of the head size.

This is one of Bialek’s half a dozen or so examples showing the optimization of biological designs and, as Bialek assures us, there are many, many more. Here is how one science writer explained it:

Yet for all these apparent flaws, the basic building blocks of human eyesight turn out to be practically perfect. Scientists have learned that the fundamental units of vision, the photoreceptor cells that carpet the retinal tissue of the eye and respond to light, are not just good or great or fabulous at their job. They are not merely exceptionally impressive by the standards of biology, with whatever slop and wiggle room the animate category implies. Photoreceptors operate at the outermost boundary allowed by the laws of physics, which means they are as good as they can be, period. Each one is designed to detect and respond to single photons of light — the smallest possible packages in which light comes wrapped.

And where did those “apparent flaws” come from? Evolutionists of course. From an evolutionary perspective, vision systems were full of “flaws.” But in fact those systems were optimized — we just had to stop looking at biology in terms of evolution.

This brings us to the protein synthesis machine — the ribosome. A paper from last month out of Johan Paulsson’s laboratory elaborates on several of the ribosome’s highly efficient, or optimal, design features. Ribosomes are comprised of both protein and RNA molecules, and their proteins make up a sizable fraction of the total protein content of many cells. Cells contain many ribosomes, and naturally in order for the cell to duplicate, the ribosomes must be duplicated. This means a lot of protein synthesis must take place, in order to create all the proteins in all the ribosomes.

One way to help alleviate this production problem would be to have yet more ribosomes in the cell. But that would, in turn, create an even greater protein synthesis burden, since even more proteins would be needed for those additional ribosomes. One way to solve this conundrum is to use RNAs in ribosomes rather than proteins, where possible.

It is a fascinating problem, and the paper concludes that we can understand the solution not as the result of evolutionary contingencies, but as a solution to a functional need:

Rather than being relics of an evolutionary past, the unusual features of ribosomes may reflect an additional layer of functional optimization that acts on the collective properties of their parts.

These are but a few examples and there are many more showing that evolution is by no means required to understand biology. Indeed, evolution is usually redundant — a “multiplied entity” in the language of Ockam’s Razor.

There is no question that Dobzhansky’s famous phrase has failed. It simply is not true that “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution.” Indeed, it would be difficult to imagine a perspective more at odds with the science of biology. But while a few rare voices, such as Massimo Pigliucci, admit that the phrase is “patently wrong,” evolutionists for the most part continue to rehearse it in robotic fashion, revealing an underlying agenda that has strayed badly from the science.

Evolutionists are so heavily invested in Dobzhansky’s phrase they will never admit it has failed. Even Pigliucci soft-pedaled the problem, explaining that “Dobzhansky was writing for an audience of science high school teachers,” as though it is OK to misrepresent science to high school teachers. Also, Pigliucci’s admission was limited to the fact that spectacular progress has occurred in the life sciences while ignoring evolutionary theory. True enough, and that certainly demolishes Dobzhansky’s phrase, but it is only the tip of the iceberg. It is a safe criticism that avoids the more damning problems.

There simply is too much at stake here. It isn’t like admitting that a particular prediction went wrong. Dobzhansky’s phrase was not merely a prediction, it was meta-prediction — the rallying cry for an entire world view — and walking it back in any genuine way would be to reveal the man behind the curtain. Suddenly all those epistemological claims, such as that evolution is as much a fact as is gravity, heliocentrism, and the round shape of the earth, are left hanging, open to scrutiny, and with a long, long way to fall.

The National Association of Biology Teachers’ feverishly holding up of Dobzhansky’s phrase reveals the underlying, nonscientific dogma at work. We are seeing a fascinating dissonance and hypocrisy, for the phrase is unequivocally false and yet it cannot be abandoned.

Photo: “Ribosome Sculptures,” New York Hall of Science, Ryan Somma via Flickr.

Cross-posted at Darwin’s God.