Darrel Falk is a geneticist and past president of BioLogos. Currently he serves as our Senior Advisor for Dialog. Because we value gracious dialog with organizations who do not agree with our perspective, we asked Darrel to participate in the reviews we are running of Meyer’s Darwin’s Doubt. Originally his comments were informal, but we thought they were important enough to develop into a blog post. Later, he read an early draft of Robert Bishop’s review, and passed along some thoughts on it as well. We also encouraged him to develop these into a blog post for our series. These two posts will run on our blog today and tomorrow.
Bishop, Falk, and Stearley respond to Darwin’s Doubt from their disciplinary perspectives, and it is important to note that none of them represents some kind of official BioLogos response to the book. We’re interested in presenting a range of responses that scholars from our perspective have made to the book (and Meyer has agreed to respond to them on our blog). As will become apparent, Falk is more sympathetic than Bishop to Meyer’s claim that there is significant revision ahead for evolutionary developmental biology. But like Bishop, Falk doesn’t think the prospects are good for Meyer’s alternative scientific proposal. Today’s post is Falk’s overall impression of the book prior to reading Bishop’s review; tomorrow’s post is his reflection afterwards.
Part I - Thoughts on Darwin's Doubt
I was trained as a developmental geneticist, a person who explores the role of genes in the process of development from an embryo to an adult organism. My graduate student and post-doctorate days date back into the “dark ages” of this field—the late 1960’s through the mid-1970’s. At that point all we had were glimpses of how genes influenced the process of development. Those all-too-fuzzy peeps were tantalizing to young impressionable minds, but that’s all they were—just little hints—and they were deeply enshrouded in mystery. Everything changed beginning in the late 70’s as a result of two wonderful technical revolutions which started to provide elegant answers to simple questions about genes and proteins and what actually takes place following the momentous arrival of a sperm cell at the egg’s threshold.
The first revolution was created by the advent of recombinant DNA: Amazingly genes could be manipulated in test tubes using techniques not unlike the sorts of things that we all did in high school chemistry. The second involved a technique for identifying almost all of the genes which control the early stages of the developing embryo in the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster. Eric Weischaus and Christiane Nusslein Volhard exposed flies to DNA-damaging chemicals and identified a slew of mutant strains that stopped embryonic development at highly specific stages. Using these mutant strains and the elegant techniques of manipulating DNA that had just become available, various investigators were able to characterize in fairly specific details the molecular processes at work in generating a fly. Not only that but the scientists quickly began to show that the rules that governed the development of a little fruit fly were similar to those which applied to vertebrates—even humans. Indeed, the “molecular toolkits” (the genes and their products) which are used to build a body were found to be remarkably similar in a wide spectrum of animals.
Stephen Meyer summarizes this quite nicely in his book. He also provides, I think, an accurate state of the impact these developments have had on biology, especially evolutionary biology. Here is what I wrote to Deborah Haarsma as I reflected on the book.
I expected the book would be largely about paleontology, but as you know that represents only the first four chapters of a twenty chapter book. What the book really is, is a continuation of Signature in the Cell. In essence, it is about the generation of the information needed for animal development. To be frank, I think it's an amazingly effective book. I think he's wrong, of course, and there are certain things that I think he does which are misleading... But as a whole, it is, in my opinion, somewhat of a masterpiece for accomplishing their agenda. Part of its success is that it really is a fairly accurate summary of the state of the biology. The depth of knowledge he displays in molecular genetics, developmental biology, and population genetics in addition to paleontology, animal diversity, biochemistry, and even some cell biology is very impressive.
I went on from there to summarize my reaction to Stephen’s statements about a revolution taking place in mainstream biologists’ thinking about macro-evolution:
Meyer has successfully put his finger on one of the great mysteries in evolutionary biology today. He documents the mystery well—Eric Davidson is the single most important person in the field of the molecular genetics of development dating back almost 50 years and he [Meyer] refers knowledgeably, I think, to his work.
I taught a course in General Genetics each year beginning in 1977 and extending throughout most of my career as a professor. Near the end of every year’s class, I would come to the population genetics section. It was just assumed that what we taught about microevolution—the chief focus of population genetics—held for macro-evolution1 as well. Indeed once I moved into a Christian college setting in the mid-80’s, I would sometimes tell my students that we had come to a very critical part of the course—the genetics behind the process of creation of all life forms—understanding God’s tools for carrying out God’s handiwork. They were always a little disappointed in this section, partly because the mathematics made it seem somewhat abstruse and partly because the concepts seemed so far removed from the real point of it all—the generation of new body plans and structures. So it was with no little frustration on both of our parts that this section of the course came to a close. Indeed, so anti-climactic was it that I eventually tried to find ways of rearranging the course—moving the population genetics topic to an earlier part of the course—so that we could end our semester together on a more exciting note.
I now understand that what I as a geneticist was trying to do at that time was wrong. The heart of explaining the process of macro-evolution is not a description of the quantitative details of changes in the frequency of genetic variants in response to migration, or natural and sexual selection. As important as all of that is at the species level and genus level, the really interesting questions relate to how mutational changes resulted in altered developmental processes that generated whole new body plans. How have novel structures been generated through evolutionary time? Is the evolutionary process itself evolving such that what we observe today is fundamentally different not only because the environment is different but because the cellular machinery itself has stabilized? Natural selection is a real phenomenon and an important filter, but it’s not the driving mechanism, and we are at a fascinating time as biologists from an array of sub-disciplines explore this matter using the new and powerful techniques at hand.
In the final chapters of the book, Stephen goes on to explore the best explanation of the current conundrum. Here is my reaction to that section.
I know that others know much more about his philosophy of science section, but I will say that I was very impressed with the case he made. He was careful to emphasize that science simply seeks the best explanation and doesn't seek to prove. He has laid out each of the alternatives and has dismissed them as unlikely in a manner not unlike how it is really done in science. (True he dismisses some too quickly, but still he is very effective—given that this book is for a general audience.)
So have I softened on Intelligent Design as a scientific endeavor? I don’t think so, but I have grown to appreciate the skill and the sincerity of various individuals I have met in the ID movement over the last five years. Many of them share my faith, a faith firmly grounded not just in polite interchange, but outright love. I don’t take back my opinion on the other ID biology books that have come out over the past quarter century or so. I have long thought that Darwin on Trial, Darwin’s Black Box, Icons of Evolution, The Edge of Evolution, and Signature in the Cellwere not scientifically strong and still do. And I don’t think Darwin’s Doubt makes scientifically warranted conclusions either (see part II tomorrow). Still, Stephen has identified one of the most exciting questions in all of biology. I respect his skill in becoming well-informed about a vast swath of biological material and to communicate it in such an engaging fashion. I do not think he’s right, but I do appreciate the sincerity of his lifelong perseverance in laying out the case for something to which he and others have given their careers and a large part of their lives. They think the philosophical naturalism of many leading scientists has significantly influenced their conclusions, and I certainly agree that there have been times when that is the case. However, where we don’t agree is that the whole applecart of evolutionary biology needs to be turned upside down and replaced with a new science—one grounded in the scientific demonstration of Intelligence. I see no scientific, biblical, or theological reason to expect that. Natural processes are a manifestation of God’s ongoing presence in the universe. The Intelligence in which I as a Christian believe, has been built into the system from the beginning, and it is realized through God’s ongoing activity which is manifest through the natural laws.2 Those laws are a description of that which emerges, that which is a result of, God’s ongoing presence and activity in the universe. I see no biblical, theological, or scientific reason to extend that to extra supernatural “boosts” along the way, although I also perceive no good reason to close the door on that possibility.
So there is value in questioning and there is value in pushing the envelope as long as it is done in a manner that fairly and accurately represents the state of affairs. In the next post, I will reflect on Robert Bishop’s critique of Darwin’s Doubt.