What Is the Best Way to Deal With Supernaturalists in Science and Evolution?

04/16/2012 01:12 pm ET | Updated Jun 16, 2012
  • James A. Shapiro Author, 'Evolution: A View from the 21st Century'; Professor of Microbiology, University of Chicago

In commenting on my last blog, Lyaeus 10 pointed out how serious the problem has become with the introduction of supernatural ideas into the classroom: "I live in a state that just passed laws to 'teach the controversy' in regards to controversial sciences which is rather obviously a way to get special creation and flood geology and other such hypotheses of no relevant intellectual value into the classrooms."

What is the best way to deal with such intrusions into science education?

The conventional approach has been to circle the wagons around mid-19th and mid-20th century ideas (Darwinism and neo-Darwinism). This approach has not been successful. One reason Darwinism has failed to convince skeptics may be that it ignores over 60 years of molecular science.

Thirty years ago, I was at a conference in Cambridge, England, to celebrate the centennial of Darwin's death. There, Richard Dawkins began his lecture by saying, "I will not only explain that Darwin had the right answer, but I will show that he had the only possible right answer."
Hearing this (and knowing that alternative explanations inevitably arise in science), I said to myself that the Creationists have a point. They are dealing with a form of religious belief on the "evolution" side. Dawkins' transformation into an aggressive proselytizer for his undoubting and absolutist version of atheism confirms this conclusion.

One of the Creationists' main tools is the argument that evolutionists are simply militant atheists in drag, who care more about dissing religion than about understanding evolution. Dawkins' ill-considered crusade just bolsters their position.

Rather than accept that evolution science is always a tentative work in progress, conventional evolutionists make absolutist statements like "all the facts are on my side." Making obviously inflated and unrealistic assertions is hardly likely to convince anyone who has serious questions.

What is the alternative?

Let me suggest that we can take a more modern, more realistic and more truly scientific approach. It contains the following elements.

1. We need to emphasize that science operates strictly within the natural world and treats all theories as subject to criticism, revision and (ultimately) replacement. Think of Newtonian ideas of space, time and gravity as compared to Einsteinian general relativity. There is no reason to believe that evolution science is in any way special in this regard.

2. As we apply new technologies, such as genome sequencing, our confidence becomes stronger in the relatedness of all existing life forms, including human beings. In particular, our insights into the details of these relationships become ever more explicit. We can point to numerous specific features of primate genomes that are difficult to understand except as resulting from common ancestry between humans, apes, chimpanzees and other primates.

3. Among the recent discoveries of genome sequencing are several new features of the evolutionary process. Proteins evolved through combinatorial natural genetic engineering events. Cells from different species fused to create a third novel species (symbiogenesis). Unrelated organisms exchanged large chunks of DNA (horizontal DNA transfer). Entire genomes have doubled at critical junctures in evolution. When reigning evolutionary theories were formulated in the 19th and 20th Centuries, non-Mendelian events like these that simultaneously affect multiple traits were unknown or ignored.

4. Experimental research has discovered numerous cell-mediated processes of genome restructuring in all realms of life. These cellular natural genetic engineering capabilities replace accidental events as the real sources of heritable genome change. Since natural genetic engineering is subject to cell regulatory circuits and can be targeted within the genome, random copying errors can no longer be considered a basic feature of evolutionary change.

5. The newly discovered processes of genome change do indeed have the potential to generate "irreducibly complex" new functions. Such complex evolutionary inventions are at the center of the Intelligent Design critique of neo-Darwinian explanations, which are based exclusively on random genetic accidents and natural selection. Doubling the whole genome, distributing copies of mobile elements to different sites, and incorporating similar domains in different proteins provide the necessary raw materials for generating complex interactive networks in cells. A future task for experimental evolution science is to find out how this happens in real time.

6. In order to be truthful, we must acknowledge that certain questions, like the origins of the first living cells, currently have no credible scientific answer. However, given the historical record of science and technology in achieving the "impossible" (e.g., space flight, telecommunications, electronic computation and robotics), there is no reason to believe that unsolved problems will remain without naturalistic explanations indefinitely.

In summary, pro-evolution debaters will enjoy far more success by active engagement with evolution doubters. We need to demonstrate that evolution science is alive and well, as well as show how it is making remarkable progress through the application of molecular technologies -- even though it does not have all the answers.

To the thoughtful scientist whose job is to uncover natural processes, this is surely a better way of advocating the scientific method than dogmatically asserting that we found all the scientific principles we need in centuries past.