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Biology 103
2001 Second Web Report
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Neo-Darwinism: Is It All It's Cracked Up To Be?

Alexis Baird

100 years ago, Charles Darwin proposed his theory of evolution. It was initially greeted with overwhelming criticism, but gradually became partially accepted. Darwin himself did not understand genetics; he believed parental characteristics are passed through the blood. (1) During the same century, Gregor Mendel discovered the laws of inheritance that would form the base of modern genetics. The modern theory of evolution called Neo-Darwinism is the fusion of these two men's work. Neo-Darwinism is defined as the combination of Darwin's theory of evolution of the species through gradual change guided by natural selection coupled with modern genetics. (1)It is this theory that has traditionally received the most support from the scientific community. Yet in recent years there has been growing criticism of Neo-Darwinism. Increasingly, this criticism appears to hold weight.

Some support for Neo-Darwinism still appears to exist. Observations of life will raise two important (though almost paradoxical) questions: Why are there so many different kinds of life? And why do there appear to be some over-riding similarities among organisms? The diversity of life is apparent in the vast number of different species of plants and animals that exist on earth. By the mid 20th Century, there was an estimated 1 to 2 million different types of organisms. (2) Now, however, the number is even higher and is expected to continue to climb as more discoveries are made. That there are prevailing similarities among organisms is equally apparent. (3) All organisms use the same biochemical mechanisms to function. For example, all organisms use DNA and many proteins that make up cells and serve as enzymes are the same across species. (2)Also, organisms that are supposed to be closely "related" tend to share certain characteristics. For example, the bones in a whale's front flipper are arranged in much the same way as the bones in human beings' arms and both whales and humans are mammals and therefore more closely related than say humans and squid. (2)Neo-Darwinism can explain both of these phenomena. Since all life on earth arose from one common ancestor it makes sense that they should have common characteristics. However, random genetic mutations, inbreeding, reproduction with variance, and crossbreeding over billions of years have resulted in the diversity of life.

Observations in nature would appear to support the claims of Neo-Darwinism. Just as Darwin hypothesized, organisms in nature do produce more offspring than can survive and reproduce given the constraints of the environment. (2) Richard Milton argues, however, that evolution does not arise from "survival of the fittest", but rather "survival of the most prolific". (3) This argument is valid to a point. However, if an organism has a characteristic that enables it to survive longer than its peers that organism will have time to breed more times and therefore have more offspring.

There have been studies proving that genetic mutations could serve as the mechanism by which evolution occurs. A group of scientists in London discovered a way in which trichromatic vision could evolve from dichromatic vision through minor genetic mutations. The switch from trichromatic vision to dichromatic vision would entail the change of only one nucleotide pair (out of 80) which would alter an amino acid which would modify color sensitivity. (5) There have also been instances of genes mutating without losing their function as well instances (albeit fewer) where genes mutate enough to alter their function. (5)Also, the insertion or deletion of a nucleotide could cause whole genes to be turned on or off. (5) These discoveries imply that it's relatively easy for a small genetic mutation to alter an organism physically. Yet, they tend to be the exception to the rule. (5) In the case of the color sensitivity example, though the trichromatic vision arose fairly easily from dichromatic vision, the study fails to address how dichromatic vision arose. Somewhere along the line of evolution, dichromatic vision had to arise from no vision (in a relatively short period of time) and that's a considerably larger leap—a leap that perhaps Neo-Darwinism can't explain.

In recent years, the theory of Neo-Darwinism has fallen under attack for a variety of reasons. Writes Richard Milton, a scientist censored for his criticism of Neo-Darwinism: "…much of the empirical evidence that was formerly believed to support the Neo-Darwinism mechanism of chance mutation coupled with natural selection has melted away like snow on a spring morning…" (3)

It appears improbable that chance mutations of DNA could produce the complex organisms that exist on earth today. The human eye, for example, is so complex and efficient that no scientist would ever be able to create something comparable using technology. (4) Yet Neo-Darwinism relies on chance point mutations to create new organisms. Point mutations may allow for the activation of an existing gene, but not the creation of an entirely new gene. Brig Klyce, a critic of Neo-Darwinism, compares the theory that point mutations could give rise to completely new genes to "saying that a great work of literature such as ‘Moby Dick' could emerge from lesser pre-existing books if there were enough typos and swapping of paragraphs along the way." (5) A single nucleotide substitution may be able to alter a virus's protein coat such that the host's immune system won't recognize the virus, but point mutations cannot account for something as complex as say the development of photosynthesis. (5) The example of the moths that switch color over a few generations to adapt to their surroundings and the example of viruses developing resistance to previously effective antibiotics, are both actually instances of organisms not in fact developing completely new genes, but rather utilizing existing, "latent" genes already present in the genome. (5) However, the critics of Neo-Darwinism do not explain what causes these "latent" genes to be used (though maybe it's obvious to people with more scientific knowledge than myself). The use of these "latent" genes raises another interesting question that the critics of Neo-Darwinism neglect to answer: Where do the "latent" genes come from? If one assumes that evolution took place (though not necessarily Neo-Darwinian evolution), is one to also assume that the first cell possessed all possible genes?

Statistically, the life that exists on earth today is highly, highly, HIGHLY improbable. As mathematician David Belinski points out "from a mathematical point of view, Darwinian theories appear far too weak to have brought about the remarkable structures evident in living creatures." (7) If one assumes that all life arose out of random generations of proteins then there's a problem. First of all, every known example of genetic mutation either produces no noticeable change or causes death (or in rare cases undoes the mistake of a past mutation). (9) Yet, Darwinian evolution relies on random point mutations creating lots of biological advantages. The ratio of useful proteins to possible random proteins is 1:10500. (8) Therefore, barring incredible luck, it would take about 10500 trials to produce one useful protein when a cell needs a minimum of one to two thousand proteins. (8) Hence, life appeared on earth (and evolved) too quickly for the Darwinian theory of evolution to be completely correct.

The speed of the progression of species we see in the fossil record is not consistent with the amount of time it would take for the gradual evolution proposed by Neo-Darwinism. It is almost certain that genes have diverged over time creating new species. (5) However, how these genes diverged is the debatable point. Neo-Darwinism maintains that genetic divergence results from chance mutations, however, life has evolved much too quickly for this theory to be plausible. Take for example, Chimpanzees and humans whom are supposed to share 98% of their DNA. If one assumes organisms with a generation time of 20 years could accumulate about 1700 mutations (about accurate for both chimps and humans), then it would still not be sufficient enough to explain the genetic difference between chimps and humans. (4)

Neo-Darwinism maintains that evolution is a gradual smooth process yet the evidence is to the contrary. There are numerous "gaps" in the line of evolution. For example, the evolution of horses—long thought to be a good example of neo-Darwinian evolution—has missing links. There is no link between Eohippus (a small dog-like animal that existed 50 million years ago) and its descendent Mesohippus (a sheep-sized animal that lived 30 million years ago). (3) No major changes occurred among the first life for about 2 billion years and then about 570 million years ago there appears to have been a general upsurge in evolution called the "Cambrian Explosion" in which a variety of multi-cellular organisms seemed to appear out of nowhere. (5) This "Cambrian Explosion" is inconsistent with Neo-Darwinism. Of course there does exist the possibility that for whatever reason, we've missed the links between ancient organisms and their descendents in the fossil record. Fossils (especially extremely old fossils) don't always survive for us to find them. There also exists the possibility that something occurred around the time of the Cambrian Explosion that caused an increase in chance mutations. There have been examples of fertilizers causing an increase in genetic change in tobacco and flax. (3) It would not, therefore, be too unreasonable to assume that there could exist something that would cause an acceleration in genetic mutation.

Several of the assumptions made by Neo-Darwinism are inaccurate. According to Neo-Darwinism, the closer two organisms are related (i.e. the later in time that they diverged), the closer their DNA should be and the more similarities they should have. Yet there can be greater variance in DNA between two species of frogs than between a bat and a blue whale. (3) I believe, however, (in my limited understanding of genetics) that this phenomenon is not quite so mystifying when one considers that not all DNA codes for a physical trait. The two species of frogs may share DNA that codes for physical characteristics, but not the other DNA in between the genes. This explanation doesn't exactly reconcile the evidence with Neo-Darwinism though (unless I'm missing something).

If Neo-Darwinism is correct, than one would expect to find that "simple" organisms have "simple" DNA because they didn't evolve. While this assumption may be true in some cases, it runs contrary to evidence in other cases. For example, goldfish have more than twice as many chromosomes as humans. (3) Yet, I don't think these observations necessarily disprove Neo-Darwinism. Neo-Darwinism does not state that evolving necessarily entails becoming more complex and gaining more DNA; it simply entails surviving to reproduce over other members of the same species. It would appear that complexity, quantity of DNA, and amount of evolvement are variables independent of each other.

The religious implications of Neo-Darwinism tend to color the evolution debate and add to its complexity. Tom Bethell writes, "If the Neo-Darwinian claim is true and all creatures great and small are here on earth as a result of a long chain of improbable accidents, then we have little reason to believe that God exists or that life has any meaning whatever." (6)Though his reaction seems dramatic, it is nonetheless indicative of many of the reactions towards Neo-Darwinism. Given this context, many of the critics of Neo-Darwinism (though definitely not all) have attacked the theory from a religious perspective.

Jonathan Sarfati, a creationist scientist, advances an alternative to Neo-Darwinism that he feels is consistent with his religious views and therefore more accurate. Sarfati proposes that God created several different kinds of organisms that then interbred to produce the vast variety of species seen today. "Thus each created kind may have been the ancestor of several present-day species." (4) Even ignoring the lack of fossil evidence for such a theory, there is little to no evidence of animals from vastly different species interbreeding today. Sarafati goes on to argue that his theory would explain the rapid change of species since the process of interbreeding among the animals on Noah's Ark would be faster than chance genetic mutations. (4) Yet this argument doesn't address any "evolution" that occurred prior to 4,500 years ago (the time of Noah's Ark).

I conclude that some sort of evolution most likely occurred. However, the mechanisms that brought about this evolution are probably not the random genetic mutations proposed by neo-Darwinists. In spite of this conclusion, I still have questions: Why do some organisms appear to have diverged little from their ancestors millions of years ago while others appear to have evolved greatly? If Neo-Darwinism is not a plausible explanation for the evolution of life, than what is a better explanation? These questions will most likely only be addressed in future as scientists study evolution in more depth.

WWW Sources

1) From Darwinism to Neo-Darwinism

2) Why Teach Evolution?

3) Neo-Darwinism: Time to Reconsider , by Richard Milton

4) Episode 1: Darwin's Dangerous Idea, by Jonathan Sarfati; a creationist website

5) Neo-Darwinism: The Current Paradigm , by Brig Klyce

6) Neo-Darwinism: What is at Stake?, by Tom Bethell, correspondent for the American Spectator

7) The Limits of Darwinism , by David Berlinski

8) The RNA World , by Brig Klyce

9) Viruses: Imported Genetic Software , by Brig Klyce




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