19 July 2007

"More scientists are admitting it"

Below is a short excerpt from Michael Crichton's fine book "The Lost World" that touches on the evolution-ID debate. What I liked about it is that he has no problem at all in describing some of the problems with evolution. (The chapter is entitled "Problems of Evolution".) You should know that Ian Malcom, the main speaker below, is an archetypal scientist-oracle whose words can be fairly construed as Crichton's own. The below starts on page 205 (hardback). I make no further comment at the present and all that follows is from the book (heavily edited for space).

... "I think it's fair to say that every scientist in the world agrees that evolution is a feature of life on earth," Malcom said. "And that we are descended from animal ancestors. Yes."
"Okay," K. said. "So, what's the big deal now?"
Malcom smiled. "The big deal," he said, "is that everybody agrees evolution occurs, but nobody understands how it works. There are big problems with the theory. And more and more scientists are admitting it."
[Discovery of extinction precedes theory of evolution.]
"Then along came Darwin, .... The implications ... upset lots of people. But [Darwin] ... made an overwhelming case. So gradually his idea ... was accepted .... But, the question remained: how does evolution happen? For that, Darwin didn't have a good answer."
"Natural selection," A. said.
"Yes, that was Darwin's explanation. ... But as many people realized, natural selection isn't really an explanation. It's just a definition: if an animal succeeds, it must have been selected for. ...."
"But it's genes," K. said.
"[History of subsequent rediscovery of genes and discovery of DNA.] ... , evolution is just the result of a bunch of mutations that either survive or die. right?"
"But there are problems with that idea," Malcom said. "First of all, there's a time problem. A single bacterium - the earliest form of life - has two thousand enzymes. Scientists have estimated how long it would take to randomly assemble those enzymes from a primordial soup. Estimates run from forty billion years to one hundred billion years. But the earth is only four billion years old. So, chance alone seems too slow. Particularly since we know bacteria actually appeared only four hundred million years after the earth began. Life appeared very fast - which is why some scientists have decided life on earth must be of extraterrestrial origin. Although I think that's just evading the issue."
"Second, there's the coordination problem. If you believe the current theory, then all the wonderful complexity of life is nothing but the accumulation of chance events - a bunch of genetic accidents strung together. Yet when we look closely at animals, it appears as if many elements must have evolved simultaneously. Take bats, which have echolocation -- they navigate by sound. To do that, many things must evolve. Bats need a specialized apparatus to make sounds, they need specialized ears to hear echoes, they need specialized brains to interpret the sounds, and they need specialized bodies to dive and swoop and catch insects. If all these things don't evolve simultaneously, there's no advantage. And to imagine all these things happen purely by chance is like imagining that a tornado can hit a junkyard and assemble the parts into a working 747 airplane. It's very hard to believe."
"Next problem. Evolution doesn't always act like a blind force should. Certain environmental niches don't get filled. Certain plants don't get eaten. And certain animals don't evolve much. ...."
T said, "Are you saying evolution is directed?"
"No," Malcom said. "That's Creationism and it's wrong. Just plain wrong. But I am saying that natural selection acting on genes is probably not the whole story. It's too simple. Other forces are also at work. ... And it turns out, again and again, that living things seem to have a self-organizing quality. ... From complexity theory, we're starting to have a sense of how this self-organization may happen, and what it means. And it implies a major change in how we view evolution."


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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks, I was actually researching Crichton's conservative credentials for a school project and came upon your page. This and the other page on crichton clarified some things for me.


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