The Edge of Evolution: A Note from Dr. Ussery

| By David Ussery


Over the past two weeks, Dr. Ussery has been offering his review of Michael Behe’s book The Edge of Evolution, focusing particularly on the view of evolution, mutations, and genetics that Behe puts forth in the book. However, while the first three pieces have generated some interesting discussion, not all of it has been beneficial or in line with our site’s ground rules for commenting. Before we continue with the next part of the review series, Professor Ussery would like to take a moment to address the responses to the first three parts.

The Edge of Evolution: A Note from Dr. Ussery


There are three things I'd like to say, in relation to the first three parts that have been posted from my review.

Firstly, thank you very much for many useful comments and discussion. One good thing about this discussion is that it can be used as a teaching tool, in order to get students interested in the controversy (and hence the science) about genomic sequences and evolutionary biology. I use Meyer's Signature in the Cell in my first lecture, talking about the information in DNA - this makes a nice introduction, about exactly what it is that DNA codes for. Then from there I build up slowly a discussion about genome sequences, comparison of genomes, then metagenomics, then finally evolution of bacterial genomes, the last chapter, where I discuss Behe's Edge of Evolution. This is found both in my course schedule at DTU as well as a set of lectures I gave a few weeks at a course at Oxford University.

Last week I was at a meeting on synthetic biology, in China. It was quite fun, with discussions about how we could design life with 6 or 8 DNA bases, rather than 4, for example. Imagine “growing” computers which can replicate (and repair) themselves and can even design and build better computers. This requires a mixture of engineers, chemists, mathematicians, and even a few molecular biologists. Again, I think some of the implications of this are relevant for the discussion here. For example, there was some discussion about using rational and “irrational” design - the latter being evolution in a test tube. I think both are important and viable methods for designing new life. If one wants to think about possible limits to evolution, do a Google search with the following three words: directed evolution company. Poke around and see what the various commercial companies seem to think are the limits to evolution, in terms of novel proteins they are designing.

I talked with some of the students in my course this morning, and they've been following my posts here on The BioLogos Forum. For the Danish students it's a bit of a culture shock to see such a free-for-all discussion, particularly with religious overtones (since Denmark is quite secular). The students told me that they were surprised at some of the comments, which seemed quite personal.

Which brings me to the second point: I want to give a reply to "Bilbo" - in his comment (# 36210), responding to my complaint that he was sad to learn that I was a Christian:

Dave: “Are you REALLY disappointed to learn that I say the Nicene Creed, that I believe in Jesus Christ as the son of God?”

Bilbo: "Yes I am disappointed. First, it means that you will be held to a higher standard than an atheist at the last judgment. You will be asked why you, a supposed Christian, thought it was all right to lie about someone else. You’re replying that you can say the Nicene Creed will avail you little comfort. Second, it means that you are making the rest of us Christians look bad."

To me this sounds pretty presumptuous, to speak for God. Does Bilbo think that he knows the mind of God, and “knows” that I will be judged for daring to have a different opinion than he or Behe? I asked Bilbo what it would take to convince him maybe Behe was not always right, and all I got was a quip: "What do YOU think?"

I would have no problem if Behe made claims that are found in the scientific literature, and what he said proved to be true. If when I poke around, I find him to be truthful, then fine. I am not a materialist! I am not trying to prove Behe wrong just because he is proposing something outside of nature exists! Once again, I have to keep saying this, because the gut reaction of many seems to be that I am against Behe because I am a materialist. But I'm not! My problem is, when I look in the literature, I find things that he says should not be there. Bilbo says this is because I am an atheist, or if I'm not an atheist, maybe I should be an atheist. What about having a civil discussion here?

Take a deep breath and have a look at what's happened here. Bilbo and another commenter, PDS, say that I am distorting what Behe says (PDS even puts this claim on his own web page); then when pressed, PDS says that all he wants to see is something like a paper published where someone shows the evolution of the cilium. Iproduced such a paper about the evolution of the cilium, proposing that there were 8 gene duplications involved in a gradual, step-by-step evolutionary route of cilium evolution, including evidence from genome sequence data that this is a plausible route, and yet PDS still seems to think I “haven't shown anything", that this is still not enough. What, then, would be enough?

I was hoping to have a discussion about ways science and religion can get along together and am a bit frustrated that I am being attacked personally, rather than discussing the issues. Why can't we just talk about the science and religion issues, instead of attacking the integrity of anyone who disagrees?

This brings me to the last point: The question I'd like to throw out for discussion is as follows - what sort of alternative might there be to this Boolean (0,1, either/or) choice between science and religion? Is it a war? Are there REALLY only two choices? Both Richard Dawkins and Mike Behe think so. Dawkins claims science can prove there is no God; Behe thinks science can show there IS a God. But is this our only choice? What other alternatives might there be? Is science really the best (or only) tool that can be used to evaluate the truth, especially about something that, by definition, is outside nature? Does one have to choose between modern evolutionary science and belief in God?

Editor’s Note: In your discussion, it might be helpful to reflect on Ian Barbour’s four models of the science-religion relationship, put forth in his book Religion and Science. The four models are:

1. Conflict, the Boolean choice that Ussery mentions, assuming that only science OR religion can stand, not both.

2. Independence, similar to Stephen Jay Gould’s NOMA theory, in which science and religion address separate, non-overlapping realms.

3. Dialogue, the idea that science and religion can share in fruitful discussions over overlapping ideas and themes despite differences.

4. Integration, the idea that science and religion both stem from the same quest for truth, with each one being able to inform the other.


About the Author

David Ussery

David Ussery is an associate professor of comparative microbial genomics at the Center for Biological Sequence Analysis at the Technical University of Denmark and on the faculty at the University in Oslo, Norway. Ussery is the co-author of Computing for Comparative Microbial Genomics and has authored or co-authored 130 articles for science and professional journals. He is also a frequent public speaker on the topic of bacterial genomics.


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