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July 7, 2004 9:36 PM

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Evolution on Trial

by Andrew Zimmerman Jones

In law courts, the burden of proof rests with the person who makes a claim. They present the evidence for their case and, on the basis of that evidence, a decision is made. If there are any gaps (a very technical term) in the evidence, then reasonable doubt is created. With reasonable doubt, the case has not been proven. It is still possible that the case is valid, but it cannot be considered an absolute.

There are several differences between the law and science. The similarity is that all it takes is a single gap to demonstrate that a scientific theory is not absolute. It can still be useful, as Newtonian physics is useful despite being "incorrect" by terms of special relativity. It is with this in mind that we will consider the cornerstone of twentieth century biology: Evolution. There are a number of things that this argument against Evolution will not say. The argument does nothing to alter the geological age of Earth. It does not go against the idea that life was, at one time, limited to single-cell creatures. Nor does it negate the concept of Darwinian Microevolution. Living things obviously change over time, diverging into new species and subspecies. It does not, in short, do anything to negate or invalidate the findings of fossil records.

Evolution (note the capital "E") is much broader than these concepts. It is the theory that life began centuries ago by chance and has changed through time into the diverse lifeforms that exist today. The basis of it, as with Microevolution, is mutation and natural selection. It is a theory that is so widely respected among science that it is rarely questioned. An entire field, evolutionary biology, is devoted to the subject. Textbooks take Evolution as a fundamental principle.

But how fundamental is this theory really? And it is a theory. It has never been proven absolutely, despite impressive efforts. Stanley Miller performed one of the most crucial of these experiments. After World War II, he combined elements common in the primordial sludge of the Earth and applied electricity (simulated lightning). Out of this experiment came amino acids, proving that the building blocks of life could be created.

Impressive findings, but even with amino acids we're a far cry from life itself. No one has ever performed an experiment showing how these amino acids could have formed proteins, and then into cells. Granted, there is a really large time window in which this could have happened. Is it possible? Of course. But this sort of handwaving is not science. It is tantamount to saying, "And then a miracle occurred." Certainly a logical possibility, but definitely not scientific.

Even if we grant that a cell came into being somehow, there's still a lot to account for. Somehow, these early cells had to form every biological entity, every biological system, that is in existence today. Again, the time that life has had for this is on the order of hundred of millions of years. It's logically possible that it could happen, but how it happened rests on the "miracle" explanation again.

Going a step further, Michael J. Behe (a biochemist) presents excellent arguments against this theory in his book Darwin's Black Box. Darwinian Evolution rests on the idea of gradual changes through mutations. A creature gains a benefit, survives because of it, and thus passes the benefit on. These changes are made in a gradual, step-by-step manner. Behe contends that many biological systems are so biochemically complex that they could not have developed in this manner. Examples of such systems as blood clotting, cilia (moving "hairs" on cells), the immune system, and transport within a cell contribute to his arguments, involving many biochemical details that I will not recount here.

The basic premise of the argument is simple enough. These systems are "irreducibly complex." If you do not have a number of fundamental components then the system don't do anything. A cell with a small hair on it has no benefit unless the structures are in place that cause the hair to move, or vice versa. Blood clotting and immune systems are significantly more complicated, with a number of components that have to function together in precise balance. Evolution does not allow for several changes that "happen" to spring into being at the same time, and just "happen" to work together in just the right way. The changes have to be gradual, and each step has to have a survival benefit.

What if Behe is right? If there is a single system that isn't explained by Evolution, then the theory cannot be accepted as the explanation for life. Behe argues that this means intelligent design must be the source of life. In short, his argument is that if Evolution isn't true then intelligent design is the only other answer. (Behe is careful to note that the findings themselves tell us nothing about who the "designer" might be. It does not force a divine intervention and could be explained just as easily by aliens, time travel, or similar concepts that would put cells "programmed" to develop these complex systems over time.) If science does, in fact, disprove Evolution, are we necessarily left with intelligent design as our only possibility?

But isn't it equally possible that there's a third explanation? Something that is so totally out in left field that no one has ever considered it before. Until Darwin, there was no theory other than Creationism to explain life. As the biotechnology industry grows by leaps and bounds in the next century, might not some new theory become apparent? Or maybe new research will answer the arguments posed by Behe. But this can only happen if we accept that work still needs done in this area.

I have always liked the theory of Evolution, personally. It's elegant and beautiful. I, in turn, dislike the idea of intelligent design from an intellectual perspective because it can never be disproven. Even if Evolution is true, there's no way to prove that design of some kind still isn't behind it. Therefore, intelligent design strikes me as a cop-out.

By the same token, if science is able to eliminate every other option, we might have to admit that the true answer lies outside the realm of science. This is not as unreasonable as it may sound. In 1931, Viennese mathematician Kurt Godel proved that one cannot prove the self-consistency of arithmetic. Some theorems can't be proven correct or incorrect from the axioms of arithmetic. Mathematics will always be incomplete. Imagine the irony if science proves that it cannot, by itself, account for everything.

And so the burden of proof is on the scientists to deal with these challenges as they are presented. They can perform their experiments and bring forth from it greater knowledge and, in the end, perhaps we will have enough information for the jury to finally come up with a verdict on Evolution. What the verdict can only be told by the course of time.

© 2000 by Andrew Zimmerman Jones