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Peer-Reviewed Paper Cites Stephen Meyer to Critique Darwinian Evolution

Photo credit: Björn Wylezich on Adobe Stock.

In an article yesterday I noted that a peer-reviewed paper published last year in Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology, titled “Neo-Darwinism Must Mutate to Survive,” offered potent probability arguments against the Darwinian evolution of a complex molecular pathway. These arguments, presented by authors Olen R. Brown and David A. Hullender, in many respects resemble intelligent design probability arguments.

Importantly, the authors seem aware that intelligent design offers similar arguments, and they appear to agree that these hold some merit:

Probability reasoning has been applied to the evolution alternative known as intelligent design by Elliott Sober who argued that ‘Darwinian gradualism’ and ‘random genetic drift’ are reasonable ‘evolutionary processes’ to overcome weaknesses in natural selection by survival of the fittest (Sober, 2007). We challenge these assumptions. Stephen Gould, and Niles Eldredge initiated a controversy described in the book Punctuated Equilibrium (Gould, 2007). Their proposal was widely ridiculed but the problem they addressed was real and continues today e survival of the fittest is not a satisfactory explanation for macroevolution.

Indeed, the authors cite Stephen Meyer’s 2013 book Darwin’s Doubt and his arguments about “the combinational problem of the Cambrian explosion”:

There is much published evidence that Darwinian and Neo-Darwinian evolutionary theories are probabilistically extremely improbable. Stephen Meyer in his book Darwin’s Doubt (S. C. Meyer, n.d.) has intelligently examined the meaning of the rapid expansion of life forms that appeared in what is known as the Cambrian explosion. Many life forms with essentially new body types appeared quickly and without precursors in the Burgess Shale discovered in Canada’s Kicking Horse Valley in British Columbia in the 1880s.

Mainstream biologists have maintained that up to 20 million years was provided during this ‘explosion’ which they maintain is adequate for the presumed process of change with selection to have accounted for Neo-Darwinian Evolution as typified in a critique of Meyer’s book published in 2013 in the New Yorker (Cook, n.d.). Myer also has spoken about the combinational problem of the Cambrian explosion, including: “… the mystery of how the neo-Darwinian mechanisms of natural selection and random mutation [emphasis added] could have given rise to all these fundamentally new forms of animal life.” (S. Meyer, n.d.).

In this perspective, we seek to promote a sea change in mainstream biology to follow the evidence. We do not propose that probability alone is a solution, but that it is a useful initiative for redirecting prior efforts that have too often been met, unfortunately, with a mental shrug and the statement ‘we are here’.

The authors seem to have appreciated Meyer’s message — namely that some factor other than standard evolutionary mechanisms is needed to produce life’s complex features. 

Others Calling for New Models

The paper further notes that many sources are calling for new models of evolution, as it quotes Corning (2020) stating that there is no valid replacement paradigm for the Modern Synthesis: 

Many theorists in recent years have been calling for evolutionary biology to move beyond the Modern Synthesis — the paradigm that has long provided the theoretical backbone for the discipline. Terms like ‘postmodern synthesis’, ‘integrative synthesis’, and ‘extended evolutionary synthesis’ have been invoked by various critics in connection with the many recent developments that pose deep challenges — even contradictions — to the traditional model and underscore the need for an update, or makeover. However, none of these critics, to this author’s knowledge, has to date offered an explicit alternative that could provide a unifying theoretical paradigm for our vastly increased knowledge about living systems and the history of life on earth.

Similarly they quote Noble (2021):

[T]he illusions of the modern synthesis … something has gone deeply wrong in biology … [there is] the difficulty of trying to ‘break out of its attractive simplicity’ as it is still routinely taught in schools and universities … This is a serious and unnecessary situation that urgently needs rectifying … We have reached a critical turning point in evolutionary biology.

On the origin of life, the authors note that key problems are unsolved, quoting Mariscal et al. (2019) who offer a forceful critique of the state of the field of origin of life research:

[W]e provide brief summaries of debates with respect to (1) definitions (or theories) of life, what life is and how research should be conducted in the absence of an accepted theory of life, (2) the distinctions between synthetic, historical, and universal projects in origins-of-life studies, issues with strategies for inferring the origins of life, such as (3) the nature of the first living entities (the “bottom up” approach) and (4) how to infer the nature of the last universal common ancestor (the “top down” approach), and (5) the status of origins of life as a science. Each of these debates influences the others. Although there are clusters of researchers that agree on some answers to these issues, each of these debates is still open.

Opposition from Mainstream Biology

They know these are serious challenges, that they are in for some tough sledding, and that their claims may not be well received. So the introduction to the paper contains a pre-emptive statement expressing their awareness of the “opposition” their claims will face:

The central thesis of this perspective is that reasonable scientific challenges to evolutionary theories, like other theories in science, should be explored. We focus on assessing the weaknesses of survival of the fittest, evaluating alternatives, and proposing new ideas. Mainstream biology remains opposed to any opposition to the central concepts of evolution.

It’s quite striking to see a mainstream scientific journal acknowledging that “Mainstream biology remains opposed to any opposition to the central concepts of evolution.” They further state that they “are critical of accepting without question Darwinian evolution and Neo-Darwinism including what is generally referred to as the modern synthesis”— the implication being that many accept it uncritically. But they haven’t given up on mainstream biology, and thus attempt to remind readers of the scientific virtues of humility and openness to new ideas:

[T]he Templeton Foundation on its website in January 2022 described the ‘Joy of being wrong’ and said that Saint Augustine called humility the foundation of all other virtues. “Psychologists and philosophers are working to tease apart the ways we respond to new ideas and information — and the possible benefits of intellectual humility … a mindset that guides our intellectual conduct … it involves recognizing and owning our intellectual limitations in the service of pursuing deeper knowledge, truth, and understanding.” 

Again, I had not heard of these authors prior to the publication of this paper — but their courage and boldness inspire confidence that there are still people within the scientific community willing to follow the evidence where it leads.