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Textbooks Refuted — Three Case Studies


Textbooks evolve, but not by natural selection. Intelligent minds write textbooks. Those minds, however, are fallible, and don’t know everything. It’s not surprising to see the need for revisions as new discoveries are made, but we should consider three possible outcomes: (a) knowledge is converging on the truth; (b) knowledge is diverging from fake “truth”; or (c) knowledge could just be wandering in a random walk. Let’s look at three recent examples where the news says textbooks need to be rewritten.

Van der Waals Forces

The first discovery, coming from the University of Luxembourg, sounds potentially important. “Textbook knowledge in molecular interactions refuted,” Science Daily says, indicating that the textbook knowledge is not being improved, but overturned. What happened?

Van der Waals interactions between molecules are among the most important forces in biology, physics, and chemistry, as they determine the properties and physical behavior of many materials. For a long time, it was considered that these interactions between molecules are always attractive. Now, for the first time, Mainak Sadhukhan and Alexandre Tkatchenko from the Physics and Materials Science Research Unit at the University of Luxembourg found that in many rather common situations in nature the van der Waals force between two molecules becomes repulsive. This might lead to a paradigm shift in molecular interactions. [Emphasis added.]

The team found that, under confinement, these molecular forces can be repulsive. Those are exactly the conditions in cells and cell membranes. So here we have a situation where textbooks have been wrong for decades. Now that “the true nature of these van der Waals forces differs from conventional wisdom in chemistry and biology,” conventions must change, and previous wisdom becomes folly.

DNA Packing

This textbook challenge is quite exciting and deserves a more detailed write-up. For now, let’s look at the headline from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineeering, which states, “New imaging technique overturns longstanding textbook model of DNA folding.” Basically, it means that existing diagrams of hierarchical folding of DNA into chromosomes is too simplistic. What goes on in the nucleus is much more elegant and complicated:

How can six and half feet of DNA be folded into the tiny nucleus of a cell? Researchers funded by the National Institutes of Health have developed a new imaging method that visualizes a very different DNA structure, featuring small folds of DNA in close proximity. The study reveals that the DNA-protein structure, known as chromatin, is a much more diverse and flexible chain than previously thought. This provides exciting new insights into how chromatin directs a nimbler interaction between different genes to regulate gene expression, and provides a mechanism for chemical modifications of DNA to be maintained as cells divide. The results will be featured in the July 28 issue of Science.

The old models portrayed chromatin like spheres of protein all the same size. Now, “Contrary to the longstanding text book models, DNA forms flexible chromatin chains that have fluctuating diameters between five and 24 nanometers that collapse and pack together in a wide range of configurations and concentrations.”

It is truly astonishing how a 6.5-foot strand of DNA can be packed into a cell nucleus. One biologist was overheard commenting that it sounds like “putting 1,000 people in a VW bug, maybe a million.” The potential for ID research here seems high:

The newly observed and diverse array of structures provides for a more flexible human genome that can bend at varying lengths and rapidly collapse into chromosomes at cell division. It explains how variations in DNA sequences and interactions could result in different structures that exquisitely fine tune the activity and expression of genes.

Whatever it means, “This is groundbreaking work that will change the genetics and biochemistry textbooks,” the lead author says.

Cambrian Fossils

Chaetognaths (“bristle-jaws”), also called arrow worms, are long slender animals with bristles at the mouth. Most are very small, just a few millimeters at most. They comprise a major component of drifting plankton. So distinctive are they, they belong in their own phylum that dates back to the Cambrian, as Stephen Meyer shows in his diagram of first appearances of animal phyla on page 32 of Darwin’s Doubt.

Derek Briggs, whom we saw in October of 2015 committing propaganda to de-fuse the Cambrian explosion, has now found big chaetognaths in Burgess Shale-like beds in Canada. With his colleague Jean-Bernard Caron, Briggs reveals in the newest issue of Current Biology “one of the largest chaeotognaths known, living or fossil.”

The problem is that these fossil specimens turn textbook expectations of Darwinian evolution upside down, because they are bigger and badder than living representatives. They found 50 well-preserved examples in the fossil beds. This species is “unique” in bearing more spines, “as many as 25 spines in each half” of its mouth. And that’s not all. Briggs and Caron reveal additional surprises:

  • Age: Chaetognaths originated “early in the Cambrian period, if not earlier,” they say.
  • Soft tissue: So well preserved are these specimens, they “preserve evidence of soft tissues.
  • Burial: “Clusters of specimens preserving the body indicate that they were rapidly buried, providing indirect evidence that they swam near the seabed,” unlike the drifting plankton today.
  • Complexity: “The feeding apparatus comprises up to ∼25 spines in each half, almost double the maximum number in living chaetognaths.”
  • Ecological revolution: “The large body size and high number of grasping spines in C. praetermissus may indicate that miniaturization and migration to a planktonic lifestyle were secondary” — i.e., they got smaller and less specialized.
  • Geographical distribution: “Fossilized chaetognath bodies, in contrast, are very rare: only two unequivocal specimens have been reported, both from the early Cambrian of China,” they say. Well, lo and behold, here are scads of big ones on the other side of the globe!
  • Misinterpretation: “Chaetognath grasping spines, originally reported as conodonts, occur worldwide in many Cambrian marine sediments.” This means that they are distinct from conodonts, not related by ancestry, and that they appear explosively around the world.

Clearly these fossils overturn a lot of what was known about this phylum, even though the authors do not mention textbook being wrong. We already knew (as Darwin knew) that the Cambrian fossils represent a severe challenge to evolution. How many times recently have we seen that the details only exacerbate the problem? The best was first, and evolution in this phylum at least has been downhill since its explosive appearance without any ancestors.

Concluding Thoughts

So what kind of knowledge change do we see in these examples? Materialists like to portray the triumphal march of scientific progress as new findings come to light. It’s not clear that any of these three prominent examples help their case:

  • Physicists were wrong about van der Waals forces, and the implications could be far-reaching across many disciplines, especially molecular biology.
  • Geneticists were wrong about chromatin, applying evidence in vitro to evidence in vivo, where conditions are in fact very different — and much more complicated.
  • Paleontologists were wrong about phylum Chaetognatha, assuming that Darwinian evolution moves from simple to complex.

It’s hard to find convergence toward the truth in these cases. What’s interesting is that each of these findings exacerbates problems for Darwinian evolution while favoring intelligent design. Life is far more capable of exploiting the nuances of atomic forces than thought. DNA packing is far more sophisticated than thought. And the earliest animals were already advanced and apparently more specialized than their living counterparts.

Image: Chaetognath, by Zatelmar (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.