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It’s Time For a “New” Biology

It’s Time For a “New” Biology


Among biologists, there have always been mavericks who dared to take a stand for the creation model. Point by point, these scientists have contested evolutionary speculation. But all too often such individuals have seemed like voices crying in the wilderness. The public often perceived creation based arguments as offering little but negativity. It is indeed the case that rearguard skirmishes won’t win a war. What is clearly needed, is a frontal assault on biological thinking. It is time to re-examine the foundations of biology. Thus it was in August 2001 that the Center for Origins Research and Education of Bryan College in Dayton, Tennessee; the Institute for Creation Research in El Cajon, California; and Cedarville University of Cedarville, Ohio — jointly sponsored a conference entitled “Discontinuity: Understanding Biology in the Light of Creation.”

The theme of the conference was a counter statement to the famous claim of geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky (1900-1975) that “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” In 1972, Dr. Dobzhansky used this theme as the title of his address to the National Association of Biology Teachers (in the United States). Indeed throughout his life, this very influential biologist insisted that “the implications of biological evolution must reach beyond biology into philosophy, sociology and even socio-political issues.” (F. J. Ayala. 1977. J. of Heredity 68 p. 3) The conference in Cedarville, alternatively, was devoted to an examination of living creatures in the light of the Creation model.

Todd Wood, a biochemist specializing in DNA sequencing, cell biology and computer modeling, introduced the scientific theme of the conference. It is not good enough, he said, to attack evolution theory. Even if every single aspect of evolution theory could be discredited, he said, evolution science would still persist because of its claim to represent a unified theory covering many diverse fields of evidence. Dr. Wood pointed out that “Although evolution may be poorly capable of explaining specific features of individual fields of science, the ability of evolution to explain the general features of so many fields of science is a piece of evidence strongly in its favor…. The unified explanation of distinct pieces of evidence with a single, simple theory is called consilience.”

In order to displace a theory so entrenched as evolution, declared Dr. Wood, Christians must construct an alternative consilient explanation from similar types of evidence. Scientists will not abandon a paradigm such as evolution if they have nothing to replace it. The task of Christian biologists of today is to build a new way to explain the diversity of living creatures. The objective of the conference then was to make the consilient argument that characteristics universally found in all living creatures as well as major differences in certain important characteristics are both to be expected in the creation paradigm. While evolution theory predicts universals such as DNA, it explains discontinuities (major differences) only in a post hoc fashion. That is, the gaps are not expected, and they must each be explained only after each situation has been identified. The Creation Model on the other hand explains universals as the result of a Common Designer, while discontinuities are predicted on the basis of separate acts of creation.

Dr. Wood warned that the task of reclaiming biology for the great Designer of Life, was a massive task that would require the efforts of many specialists for many years to come. While this conference thus represented a mere beginning, the expertise of the speakers and variety of topics discussed were encouraging indeed. While the topics ranged from breeding studies on mammals such as the cat family and dog family, to cell biology, to DNA sequences, to developmental biology and palaeontology, many speakers focused on ideas, on ways to deal with the data which we already have. The idea was to identify the created kinds through such modern methodologies as breeding experiments, DNA sequence comparisons and computer generated plots of similarity of organisms based on many characteristics.

Currently in biological thinking, evidence for gaps between various organisms is treated as non data. For example, consider two groups of animals, one with a body cavity and one with solid construction. This is quite a dramatic difference in body organization. There is clearly a gap between the two groups. Biologists speculate however that in the past, some organisms with initially solid construction, in fact developed a body cavity. Thus the two groups are typically regarded as examples of one group or one line of descent. There was no gap in that some from the one group developed into the other group. Scientists at this conference however have set out to identify such major gaps and to discover what these tell us about biological relationships.

One of the most interesting speakers at the conference was Richard Sternberg. His specialty is taxonomy, or organization of various organisms into logical groups. Most modern taxonomists look for evolutionary patterns among organisms. They base their analyses on the idea that “simple” organisms gradually developed into more complicated ones. Dr. Sternberg, however, pointed out that only a few of the theoretically possible organism designs actually exist. In view of the wonderful diversity of organisms that we know today, this may seem surprising. Nevertheless we could try out some thought experiments. Suppose that we could describe an infinite number of organisms. Let’s start with dogs. Imagine that there are dogs with feathers, dogs with scales, dogs with six legs, eight legs, more eyes etc etc. The possible number of variations on already known organisms is almost endless even before we proceed to fantastic creatures, totally unlike anything ever seen. All these possible designs occupy an idea called morphospace. This is a theoretical multidimensional grid in which similar organisms are plotted nearby and more unlike are plotted further away.

When we consider theoretical morphospace, and then plot the organisms that we actually know, we find that much of the available space is empty. The organisms that we know are highly clumped in morphospace. All the insects, for example, have six jointed legs and an exterior skeleton. They are all clumped together, close to spiders and crustaceans which have similar exterior skeletons but different numbers of jointed legs. The insects, spiders and crustaceans are clumped far from starfish type animals (echinoderms) or clams or sea squirts etc. Even between closely similar groups there are gaps, and between very unlike animals there are huge gaps. The question arises as to whether these gaps are real, or were they ever bridged? Unlike evolutionists, certain schools of biological thought have long treated the gaps as real. These are the structuralists exemplified in the past by Baron Georges Cuvier and Richard Owen and Louis Agassiz and by various individuals today including Brian Goodwin.

The aim of structuralists has always been to identify groups of organisms which conform to patterns of form with no variation outside specific small parameters. According to this view, the embryological development of each member organism within such a group, follows a program which is the product of a plan. All organisms within the group reflect this basic inbuilt design program such that only certain variations are possible. The structuralist view is that these rules of development never evolved, but were provided from outside nature by a “formal or final cause” (in other words God). Thus there are large gaps between representatives of different plans or archtypes. According to Dr. Sternberg, as data are found more and more to clump around certain patterns in morphospace, many molecular biologists are no longer even trying to plot evolutionary trees (lines of descent) from their data. Rather they are using maximum likelihood equations which yield clumped patterns. Indeed, he said, evolutionary tree building has collapsed and everyone involved is aware of the situation.

Other speakers identified gaps in the structure and chemistry of various groups of living cells, genetic control of embryo development in a wide array of organisms, tooth design in many animals, and the characteristics of several mammal groups. Attention was also paid to philosophy and the history of biological ideas. In general, it was in the area of ways to marshall data that this conference was so interesting. The speakers and their audiences definitely went home inspired to pursue their own disciplines with new vigour. As creation based scientists further identify the gaps (discontinuities) between various body plans, the groupings of created kinds will become easier to identify. A new day is coming for biology teaching. It can’t come too soon.

Margaret Helder
October 2001

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