Professor Shapiro part 5

This series of posts deals with correspondence between Rabbi Blue (a pseudonym), Professor James Shapiro and me. Rabbi Blue is a Johannesburg educator at a Jewish day school. He contacted me after the school that employs him implemented a change to the biology curriculum. Rabbi Blue forwarded to me correspondence he had had with Professor Shapiro, a world-famous biologist at the University of Chicago (http://shapiro.bsd.uchicago.edu/). Here is the 5th and final part of the series.

***

Here is Rabbi Blue’s next email to Professor Shapiro

 Professor Shapiro,

 Thank you for that clarification, it helps understand these issues a lot. May I bother you with a few more questions? I hope I’m not taking too much of your time. 

Firstly, I’ve heard people say that there is a difference between Marco Evolution and Micro Evolution. Macro Evolution being the evolution from one species to the next; whereas Micro Evolution is the changes that occur within a species. Are these distinctions really valid? Or is the one merely a development of the other? What I mean to say is that given enough time, what appears to be a micro evolutionary changes within a species, eventually – given enough time – develops into a new species.

The other question I have, is that to what extent is Evolution really debated in the scientific community? The image my friend and colleague created is that Evolution is not universally accepted and there is much debate about the validity thereof. I’ve learned to understand from your E-mails and documents you’ve sent that the mechanisms of Classical Darwinian Evolution is contested but not Evolution as a whole – Micro or Macro. 

I really appreciate your time and effort with answering my questions. 

Warmest regards 

Rabbi Blue 

***

 Here is Professor Shapiro’s reply to Rabbi Blue:

 There is definitely a difference between macro events in evolution, when major new groups appear (e.g. plants, vertebrates), and micro events within species. We know from genome sequences that the major branches are often accompanied by cell fusions (two cells combining to make a new type of cell) or complete doublings of the genome (which typically happens when individuals of different species mate to form a hybrid). These macro events lead to changes throughout the genome and affect many characters at once. Microeveloutionary changes involve single changes and affect only one or a few characters. In between, there exist a whole range of events which lead to

greater or lesser changes in the genome, such as occurs when bacteria acquire a DNA molecule conferring antibiotic resistance or the ability to infect a new host. We really do not know where to draw a clear line between macro and micro events. However, we do know for certain that macro events have occurred which could not simply have been a long succession of small changes, such as Darwin postulated. 

Evolution is not seriously debated in the scientific community, either as to whether it took place (just about everyone agrees it did and still does) or how it occurred (few question the neo-Darwinian gradualist explanation). The mechanism is nonetheless being investigated at many levels (such as genome sequencing and analysis) that will ultimately lead us to realize there have to be novel processes at work in evolution. As in many fields, we often are much slower to question and modify basic principles than we are to gather information which may be inconsistent with conventional wisdom. 

Best wishes,

Jim Shapiro 

***

My response: 

Here is a slightly different definition of micro-evolution and macro-evolution. Micro-evolutionary changes are intra-species changes. They are small, have been known for centuries, and are entirely uncontroversial. The explanation for micro-evolution is straightforward: there is built-in flexibility within the genomes of all organisms. A classic example is the English sparrow, introduced into North America in 1850. Only a few individuals were introduced, and they were virtually identical to one another. Today, English sparrows live throughout most of the continental United States. Their body types vary according to the region of the US that they inhabit. In colder regions, they tend to have a rounder, chubbier shape. In warmer regions, they are more slender and have longer tails (this is similar, by the way, to the fact that Inuit are plumper than Africans who live in the tropics). Many species seem to display this polymorphism

Macro-evolution is a different kettle of fish. It refers to large-scale changes which, Neo-Darwinists claim, can lead to the process whereby the diversity of life seen today could have arisen from a unicellular ancestor. This is how Charles Darwin put it (in the first edition of Origin of Species): 

I can see no difficulty in a race of bears being rendered, by natural selection, more and more aquatic in their habits, with larger and larger mouths, till a creature was produced as monstrous as a whale.

 The Neo-Darwinian worldview – in which all species descend from one or a few ancestors – requires millions of macroevolutionary events. There is not the slightest evidence that such events can occur. The evidence offered to the public always consists of examples of microevolutionary events, with the promise that if you string enough such events together they will amount to macroevolutionary changes. Generations of students have thus been hoodwinked by the example of Darwin’s finches. Small changes in beak size (which are temporary – the average beak size reverts to normal after ordinary rainy seasons) are cited as evidence for evolution. The students unfortunately do not know enough to distinguish between these trivial changes and the grand claims of common descent. 

No microevolutionary events have ever been observed to combine into anything remotely resembling macroevolution. And there is plenty of evidence to suggest that organisms can only tolerate tiny amounts of changes to their genomes before they become sterile or revert to their ancestral genome spontaneously. 

***

As far as debate within the community of biologists is concerned, let us begin with a historical note: How much discussion of quantum mechanics was there in the 1920s within the community of physicists? Well, if you were not working in Cambridge, Göttingen or Copenhagen, then there was almost none. For most physicists, there was no such thing as Quantum Mechanics. If they even heard of it, it was dismissed as extravagant and useless mathematics. There was nothing deeper than Newtonian Mechanics. 

How much discussion of plate tectonics (or continental shift) was there in the 1930s? Virtually none. Its most vigorous proponent, Alfred Wegener, froze to death in a polar expedition in 1930 and it would be years before his ideas were considered anything but those of a nutcase. 

When practising scientists say that a particular theory is not debated seriously within the scientific community, what they mean is that in any given field and at any given time, most scientists function within the reigning paradigm. The most influential philosopher of science in the twentieth century, Thomas Kuhn, did a marvellous job in describing how the most productive work done by the vast majority of scientists is in solving puzzles within the regnant ideology. [Thomas Kuhn, The structure of Scientific Revolutions, third edition, The University of Chicago Press, 1996.] Little attention is paid to all the loose ends – those parts of the paradigm which are not explained and, indeed, unexplainable. It is only when the difficulties accumulate to the point where the theoretical structure of the theory collapses that the bulk of the community of scientists takes cognizance of dissenters. 

Secondly, Rabbi Blue’s question and Professor Shapiro’s answer presuppose that all the dissent that exists is also openly expressed. Thus, if we find one in a hundred biologists expressing scepticism of Neo-Darwinism, it must be that the other 99 scientists adhere to the orthodoxy. This is part of a widespread romantic picture in which scientists are depicted as being perfectly objective, perfectly virtuous beings led only by the evidence. They have no agendas – no financial stakes (in the sale of textbooks, for example), no political or religious convictions, no background or training in which they were conditioned by their textbooks and professors to think in particular ways (they just start their research with a tabula rasa). Need I point out that this is about as accurate a description of scientists as it is of politicians? Part of the reason for there being less debate than is desirable is that open debate in this area is actively stifled. I am not going to use this brief correspondence to document this phenomenon. For an introduction to the subject, watch the documentary Expelled or contact Dr. Richard Sternberg, late of the Smithsonian (http://www.rsternberg.net/). [Interestingly, Sternberg and Shapiro have collaborated on several research papers.] 

Having said all of this, the truth is that there is a voluminous literature concerning criticism of Neo-Darwinism. Of course, much of the discussion has had to take place outside of professional journals. In said journals, concepts such as irreducible complexity are verboten, unless you refer to it with the most derisive remarks (preferably, without stating any facts). Ever since the publication of Darwin’s Black Box by Dr. Michael Behe, for example, there have been numerous papers in professional journals purporting to have demonstrated how irreducibly-complex cellular structures could have (or have) arisen (they all fail miserably, by the way).[1] A similar phenomenon followed Dr. Behe’s publication of The Edge of Evolution. Dr. Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell has precipitated a deluge of responses regarding the ability of natural systems to produce significant amounts of information. [I am well aware that these books’ primary purpose is to promote Intelligent Design. But the promotion of ID invariably involves a dismantling of Neo-Darwinism.] 

Within the literature, there is constant criticism of major aspects of Neo-Darwinism. Here is a typical statement, from Michael Lynch of Indiana University:

“… it is quite remarkable that most biologists continue to interpret nearly every aspect of biodiversity as an outcome of adaptive processes. This blind acceptance of natural selection as the only force relevant to evolution has led to a lot of sloppy thinking, and is probably the primary reason why evolution is viewed as a soft science by much of society.” [2]

Here is the opinion of evolutionary theoretician Armin Moczek:

“Given its importance and pervasiveness, the processes underlying evolutionary innovation are, however, remarkably poorly understood, which leaves us at a surprising conundrum: while biologists have made great progress over the past century and a half in understanding how existing traits diversify, we have made relatively little progress in understanding how novel traits come into being in the first place.” [3]

These statements are acceptable to the community of biologists because overall, the writers pledge allegiance to the paradigm, much as Professor Shapiro does. But if you string together the numerous instances of such criticisms, you find that there is an enormous amount of dissatisfaction with the paradigm. 

***

 In conclusion, I would like to address Rabbi Blue. 

Think about these three statements made by Professor Shapiro: 

There are no detailed Darwinian accounts for the evolution of any fundamental biochemical or cellular system, only a variety of wishful speculations. It is remarkable that Darwinism is accepted as a satisfactory explanation for such a vast subject – evolution – with so little rigorous examination of how well its basic theses work in illuminating specific instances of biological adaptation or diversity. 

Darwin’s natural selection of “numerous, successive, slight variations” is neither accurate nor adequate to account for the dramatic genome changes we can document through DNA sequencing.

 However, we do know for certain that macro events have occurred which could not simply have been a long succession of small changes, such as Darwin postulated.

 These criticisms go well beyond anything that the typical, tendentious textbook will convey to the biology students at your school. The students will be exposed only to the sanitized, white-washed version of Neo-Darwinism peddled by the likes of the NCSE.

 I assume that Professor Shapiro stands by his words. Furthermore, he does not consider himself to be a crank or someone on the fringes of science. I assume that he would want biology students to be exposed to the fact that competent scientists – such as he – reject the textbook picture that nothing but the accumulation of slight, successive modifications (in the form of unguided mutations) have led to the plethora of life forms that we see today. He is right. But having dealt with Professor Shapiro, I hope that you will still be able to appreciate that he is not the only voice of reason in this debate. Take a look at www.dissentfromdarwin.org and you will see a list of about 800 (eight-hundred) scientists who profess scepticism of Neo-Darwinism. Some of them reject only certain aspects of Neo-Darwinism, as does professor Shapiro, and some reject it altogether. Many are just as accomplished as he (for example, Philip Skell was a member of the US Academy of Sciences and Henry Schaefer has been nominated for the Nobel Prize 4 times). There is no reason to deny your students exposure to their views. This is true as far as their technical training is concerned – every good scientist is a sceptic, and the students at your school should be exposed to competing viewpoints simply as part of their training. As you indicated in your email, you are aware that you have not conducted a thorough investigation of this subject. I assure you that if you make an effort to contact dissenters from Neo-Darwinism, you will find many of them to be as approachable, knowledgeable and rational as you found Professor Shapiro to be. 

But there is more. אמונת חכמים does not mean that we pat גדולי תורה on the back when they happen to make pronouncements that conform to our prejudices. A school that purports to be a Torah institution should never have taken decisions as momentous as this – whether to accept the biology syllabus change – without guidance from גדולים. I doubt that this will now change. The horses have bolted and shutting the stable door won’t do much good. But one fact remains. In South Africa, as opposed to the USA, integrating supplementary material into the syllabus is relatively fuss-free. Your influence can be used to ensure that my audio-visual seminars will be integrated into the biology syllabus. This will at least give the students some exposure to the fact that their textbooks (and course content) are deeply flawed and also introduce them to relevant Torah sources. 

These were the last words in your email to me: 

I have not changed my position on the matter that Evolution is in no-way heretical and can be (and for educational purposes, should be) taught in Torah schools.

 כפירה is very narrowly defined in הלכה. However, aside from כפירה, one need also consider the categories of מגלה פנים בתורה שלא כהלכה, דורש דרשות של דופי and מלגלג על דברי חכמים. They, too, carry a consequence of אין לו חלק לעולם הבא. 

As I emphasised throughout this exchange, it is imperative that you consider the fact that we are talking about hundreds of teenagers (over the coming years) who will live with the consequences of the decisions taken by you and the school administration. Are you satisfied that those who were involved in taking this decision – the principal, you, and perhaps the biology teacher – have wide-enough shoulders to decide on issues whose consequence is possibly אין לו חלק לעולם הבא? 

I wish you much הצלחה in your endeavours. 

Yoram Bogacz 

References:

[1]: Here is one example, by Jamie Bridgham, Sean Carroll and Joe Thornton:  “Evolution of Hormone-Receptor Complexity by Molecular Exploitation,” Science 312 (7 Apr 2006):97-101. Professor Thornton states on his University of Oregon website that one of his main research goals is to illustrate how a complex, tightly integrated molecular system – one which appears to be ‘irreducibly complex’ – evolved by Darwinian processes hundreds of millions of years ago.

[2] Lynch, Michael. 2007. The Origins of Genome Architecture. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates, xiii

[3] Moczek, Armin. 2008. On the origins of novelty in development and evolution. BioEssays 30:432-47.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: