Feature Article - September 2006
by Do-While Jones

Implausible Life

Warning to Evolutionists: You have the right to remain silent. If you choose to give up that right, anything you do say may be so stupid that it destroys what little credibility the theory of evolution has left.

The theory of evolution suffered another great setback by the publication in 2005 of The Plausibility of Life—Resolving Darwin’s Dilemma by evolutionists Kirschner and Gerhart. They did an excellent job of describing “Darwin’s Dilemma,” and then could not resolve it. With friends like them, evolutionists don’t need any enemies.

They started digging evolution’s grave in the preface.

The brain, the eye, and the hand are all anatomical forms that exquisitely serve function. They seem to reveal design. … All are novel. And yet novelty implies the creation of something from nothing—it has always defied explanation. … What has eluded biologists is arguably the most critical: how can small, random genetic changes be converted into complex useful innovations? 1

They admit it is obvious that living things look like they were designed, and created from nothing. Furthermore, biologists have been unable to explain how they could have come about by unguided, natural processes. We absolutely agree with them.

In this book we propose a major new scientific theory: facilitated variation that deals with the means of producing useful variation. 2

One should not open a can of worms unless one is reasonably confident that one can put the lid back on it. What Kirschner and Gerhart have opened, they are unable to close. They try, but their feeble attempt at coming up with a natural explanation only highlights the inadequacy of the theory of evolution to explain the origin and diversity of life on Earth. If “facilitated variation” is the best evolutionists have to offer (and it might be), then evolutionists are in a heap of trouble.

Designerless Design

Kirschner and Gerhart (K&G, from now on) redefine the word, “design” to mean something other than its common meaning. According to Merriam-Webster, the verb “design” means,

de·sign 1 : to create, fashion, execute, or construct according to plan : DEVISE, CONTRIVE

2 a : to conceive and plan out in the mind b : to have as a purpose : INTEND c : to devise for a specific function or end 3

This is an anathema to evolutionists because it includes conscious intent, and purpose. That is totally unacceptable to evolutionists. So, K&G redefine the word.

Here and throughout this book we use the word design to mean a structure as it is related to function, not necessarily implying either a human or divine designer; it is a commonly used term in biology. 4 [italics in the original]

If they mean “functional,” why not just say, “functional?” It is a conscious attempt to decouple “design” from “designer” in order to create confusion. It’s a linguistic trick that allows them to say there is overwhelming evidence of design, but no evidence of a designer.

Chapter One begins with a review of Paley’s famous example of finding a watch on the ground and recognizing that it must have been designed. We must point out that Paley didn’t recognize that the watch was functional—it was designed. If the watch had been on the ground for a long time it might not have been functional any more—but it certainly was designed, and that was Paley’s point. The existence of a designed object requires a designer.

K&G admit:

Mutation only changes what already exists. It does not create new anatomy, physiology, and behavior from nothing, so we need to know how readily one structure can be transmuted to another, particularly when we consider structures of intricate design and interdependent activities. With an understanding of how random genetic change is converted into useful innovation, a theory of novelty can be devised. 5

A theory has to be devised because none currently exists. There is no theory that explains how one structure can be transmuted into another. But even such a theory would not explain how the first structure came from nothing.

Then K&G address a sensitive subject.

If genetic change were random, what could ensure that enough favorable phenotype variation had taken place for selection to have produced the exquisite adaptations we see on earth today? At various times, biologists have thought that genetic change must be directed in some way to produce enough of the appropriate kinds of phenotypic variation. 6

This is a very touchy subject for evolutionists. Deep down in their hearts, they know that random processes won’t get the job done for them. There are many more ways to miss a bull’s-eye than to hit it. If you point a gun randomly, without aiming it, you are most likely to miss. For a series of random changes to produce a functional structure, all the random changes have to hit the target. Any miss will cause the whole structure to malfunction. So, they recognize that whatever process causes the change must be biased toward the end result.

But evolutionists are generally adamant that evolution has no goal in mind. It is a purposeless, undirected process. Some evolutionists even bristle at phrases such as “more advanced creatures” or “higher forms of life” because these phrases imply progress toward some goal. If something is directing evolution toward a goal, it is just too close to theistic evolution for comfort. If undirected, impersonal, random natural processes can’t do the job, then there must be some sort of god behind the scenes directing the process. That’s simply unacceptable.

That’s why evolutionists keep vacillating. Random processes aren’t sufficient, so they have to lean toward some sort of directing force, but the idea of a directing force is so close to Christianity that they must flee from it. What is an evolutionist to do?

By 1940 it was clear that genetic variation was random and unlinked to environmental conditions. Stripped of these concerns, evolutionary biologists formulated a theory based on purely random (unfacilitated) genetic variation and on selection. This was the Modern Synthesis, the current consensus model of evolution. 7

The Modern Synthesis is a valuable model, but an incomplete one. It lacks the third pillar required of a general theory of evolution, a pillar needed to explain the feasibility of evolutionary change. 8

K&G spend several pages explaining why Darwin’s and Lamark’s ideas about use and disuse causing inheritable changes were wrong, and why Darwin’s idea that the environment causes inheritable changes was wrong. They are really conflicted because they recognize the need for a “facilitated” model of genetic change, but they can’t stand the idea of a facilitator.

Macromutation isn’t the answer they need.

Macromutation seemed to solve many of the problems of heredity and evolution in Darwin’s theory of gradual change. Small changes would not need to accumulate over many generations, each generation running a very real risk of being diluted by interbreeding with normal individuals. … Macromutation in the evening primrose was a complete dead end for the study of evolution. 9

They lament,

Modern molecular and genetic analysis has revealed no hint of directed genetic change in response to physiological need or experience. 10

Furthermore,

Without some account of how complex novelty arises, mere refuge in the sufficiency of time is unconvincing. 11

What is their answer?

Novelty usually comes about by the deployment of existing cell behaviors in new combinations and to new extents, rather than drastic modification or the invention of completely new ones. True novelty in the invention of cellular processes is rare. 12

Often genes appear long before their modern function is fully realized. Consider, for example, some of the proteins involved in milk production. Found in modern reptiles and birds, they must have existed in the reptilian ancestors before mammals separated from them. Presumably the earlier proteins had different purposes. 13

The key word is “presumably.” There isn’t any evidence. It is just wishful speculation.

As molecular biologists inspected the genes for various functions in bacteria, they found that more than half of them are extensively conserved with genes of human beings, even though their anatomy, physiology, and behavior could not be more different. 14

Yes, there are common building blocks. But what K&G don’t seem to realize is that when I build something, I go to Home Depot and buy the hardware and lumber I need to build it. I don’t invent new kinds of lumber or new kinds of screws. Most of the things I build use the same size nuts and bolts, even though the things I build have different appearance and function. Our whole industrial society is built on the notion of common, reusable, interchangeable parts. You can buy most of the things you need at the hardware store because of conscious design, not random chance.

Their “new” theory is just a warmed-over version of the same old baseless assertions.

… we can assert that around three billion years ago bacteria-like organisms were present that had DNA, RNA, a genetic code for 20 amino acids, and ribosomes as factories for making proteins under the direction of RNA. The basic process of DNA replication, transcription into an RNA copy, and translation into protein had been established. This organism must also have been a self-replicating cell enclosed by an impermeable membrane of two layers (a bilayer) of lipids. It must have contained several hundred kinds of enzymes for synthesizing the major components of the cell, including 20 amino acids, the cell membrane lipids, and the DNA bases. An energy metabolism based on the breakdown of sugars must have been established at that time. The synthesis of cofactors, which later became vitamins, would have been established as well. … The chemistry of the processes was evolved at least three billion years ago; the components and their activities have been retained unchanged to this day, transmitted to all offspring of this ancestor. It is an amazing level of conservation. 15

Yes, amazing indeed. All of these complex chemicals and processes just popped into existence from nothing three billion years ago, and creatures have been inheriting them ever since. But the main point of their book is that complex things don’t arise de novo—they are modifications of existing things.

Everything about evolution before the bacteria-like life forms is sheer conjecture, so we start this narrative with the bacteria-like ancestor and its complex collection of biochemical and molecular biological core processes. 16

The “bacteria-like ancestor” is also pure conjecture, and everything they assert after it is pure conjecture, so why not imagine how the bacteria-like ancestor came to be, too? It is because they can’t even imagine it.

That unknown ancestor has evolved into all multicellular eukaryotes—namely, the kingdoms of plants, animals, and fungi. In one line, a descendant leading to the plants engulfed a cyanobacterium and achieved photosynthesis in one step. 17

There is no science here. It is all just myth without any evidence to back it up.

Rather suddenly, diverse macroscopic anatomy appeared on the Cambrian scene of 543 million years ago. By the Midcambrian, representative animals of all but one of the 30 modern phyla were present, according to fossil records (especially from the Burgess Shale in Canada and the Chengjiang formation in China). … The abruptness of the emergence of so many complex anatomies may be an artifact of the special features of fossilization at that time, or of some special environmental condition that favored large and more complex animals, or it may be the result of some breakthrough in regulatory control on the cellular level. ... It would indeed be informative to find Precambrian fossil remains of the ancestor, but none have been found.Nonetheless, we can surmise that the bilateral ancestor had a through-gut (two openings) rather than a blind gut (one opening) … The ancestor probably had a heart-like pumping organ (common to many but not all bilateral animals), anterior light-receptive cells, and a complex nervous system perhaps centralized into a structure at the back or in the belly, or more likely diffuse around the whole body. 18

They sure know an awful lot about something that has never been found!

There is a lot of good biology in this book. For example, it contains the best explanation I have ever read of how blood carries oxygen from lungs to the body tissues and releases it there, and brings carbon dioxide back to the lungs. Of course, I’ve known since grade school that blood does this, and I’m sure you know it, too; but I’ve never been able to explain how the mechanism actually works (because nobody has ever been able to explain it to me). Why does blood attract oxygen when it is in the lungs, but repel oxygen when it isn’t? Now, thanks to K&G, I know.

They also do an excellent job of explaining that there is more to biological development than just the DNA code. For example, the DNA in your fingernails is identical to the DNA in your hair, and is identical to the DNA in your blood; but fingernails, hair, and blood are clearly very different structures even though they contain identical DNA. The difference is the result of gene expression. That is, there are regulatory processes that determine which genes on the DNA molecule will be expressed in the various cells, based on where they are physically located in the embryo (or body). Furthermore, the DNA in a butterfly is the same as the DNA in a caterpillar, but different genes are expressed in different phases of its life cycle. They explain how this works very well.

There’s a lot you can learn from this book. The only time they get into trouble is when they try to explain how all the marvelous “core processes” could have evolved. That’s where their skill works against them. If they were inept bunglers who could not explain how to tie shoe laces, then their inability to explain evolution could be chalked up to incompetence. But when they can explain complex biological processes so clearly and can’t even begin to explain evolution, the only conclusion one can reach is they can’t explain how evolution happened because it didn’t happen.

In Chapter Seven, after laying all the groundwork, they try to summarize their new theory of “facilitated variation.” Central to their theory is the concept of “core processes.”

The core processes are built in special ways to allow them to be easily linked together in new combinations, and to be used at new times and places, to generate new phenotypes. 19

They use the passive voice (“processes are built”) to avoid stating who or what built them. That’s the primary weakness in their new theory. They have no explanation for how these core processes came to be. They just assert that core processes have been a characteristic of life since the very beginning. They evolved almost instantly without explanation shortly after life itself evolved. The “proof” is simply that all living things have these same core processes.

Application to Engineering

Stepping outside science itself to view the possible impact of facilitated variation, we consider some aspects of the influence of evolutionary theory in general society. … We will indicate how the inclusion of facilitated variation in the theory of evolution may have some application to engineering and institutional design at the beginning of the twenty-first century. 20

Excuse me, but the first time I ever published a paper on the concept of facilitated variation was at the Ninth West Coast Computer Faire in 1987. It was titled, “Software Integrated Circuits,” and the point of it was that software engineers could use facilitated variation the same way hardware engineers had been using facilitated variation for more than a decade since the invention of integrated circuits. (Of course, there were general purpose vacuum tubes, like the 12AX7 and the 6L6GC, long before that.)

Let’s not forget the wheel, the screw, and the lever. Engineers have been reusing these common components, and reusing bridge designs, and reusing building designs, for millennia. Modular design, reusable components, and adaptation of previous designs have been the stock and trade of engineers since Leonardo daVinci. Sorry, K&G, but you are a little bit late presenting your great “new” idea to the engineering world.

From an engineer’s perspective, The Plausibility of Life argues much more strongly for life being the product of a very intelligent designer than unguided random processes. Engineers know how important it is, and how much thought it takes, to create a storehouse of reusable components that can be assembled in various ways to do various things. The existence of a limited number of core processes that are essential for all forms of life, and used so artfully in so many different ways, demands a designer even more strongly than Paley’s watch. Life is not only complex, but it is optimally designed to make the broadest use of a limited number of proteins and processes. K&G want you to accept by faith, without proof, that all the biological core processes evolved by chance before the Precambrian era, and were able to assemble themselves into so many different configurations by luck because they had “weak linkage.”

The New Theory

Proposal of a new theory requires two steps. Step one is to discredit the old theory. Step two is to propose a credible replacement. K&G did an excellent job of discrediting the old theory (because, honestly, it isn’t that hard to do—the weaknesses are well known in scientific circles, if not in judicial, educational, or journalistic ones).

Step two requires that one accept, without evidence, the premise that weakly linked core processes, which can be combined in limitless ways to produce limitless effects, somehow appeared without explanation in the unknown ancestor of all living things. Random mutations relinked these core processes in various viable, exploratory ways, and random selection favored the innumerably large number of combinations that exist in living things today.

In summary, we believe that evolvability—the capacity for organisms to evolve—is a real phenomenon. We believe that facilitated variation explains the variation side of evolvability, through the reuse of a set of conserved processes in new combinations and in different parts of their adaptive ranges due to genetic modulations of nonconserved regulatory components. … Facilitated variation has arisen and increased by selection, we say. 21

Note the use of the words, “believe” and “say.” Their theory is simply speculation and assertion.

The transformations from prokaryotes to eukaryotes or from single-celled to multicellular organisms are profound, and evidence is sparse. 22

“Sparse” is an over-statement.

These cases suggest that the great innovations of core processes were not magical moments of creation but periods of extensive modification of both protein structure and function. The changes are not achieved by facilitated variation of the regulatory kind we have described throughout this book. Instead, during great waves of innovation, preexisting components of prokaryotes changed their protein structure and function in fundamental ways to generate the components of new core processes of the eukaryotic cell. These changes are clear when we compare the eukaryotic tublin gene to its prokaryotic relative (FtsZ). Tubulin is highly conserved protein in eukaryotes, and its bacterial homologue is equally conserved in bacteria. Yet tubulin and its bacterial distant cousin differ so much in sequence that they are virtually unrecognizable as relatives. 23

It’s this kind of heads-I-win-tails-you-lose doubletalk that makes facilitated variation so unbelievable. All evolution is the result of facilitated variation, except for the part that isn’t. Similarity is evidence of evolution. Difference is evidence of evolution. Therefore, everything is evidence of evolution.

It is amazing that they so frankly admit that their theory of facilitated variation is insufficient to solve the really hard problems with the theory of evolution. Facilitated variation could not produce the core processes, and could not produce the true innovation needed to provide the foundation for evolution. Facilitated variation can only make changes to the things that appeared spontaneously through some other unknown process that produced waves of innovation.

Evolutionist, Censor Thyself!

In the section on Creationism and Intelligent Design starting on page 264, they take the usual stand that students should be exposed only to textbooks approved by evolutionists, and sheltered from any evidence against evolution. The ironic thing about this section is that, if we were teaching high school biology, the first book we would assign as outside reading is their book! It is full of evidence against evolution, so local school boards should ban it. Yes, a lot of The Plausibility of Life would be over the heads of most high school students, but we are confident that most high school students would write something like the following as a book report.

Drs. Kirschner and Gerhart believe that Darwin was wrong in nearly every particular point of this theory of evolution. Never-the-less, they still think the theory is correct in principle. Therefore, they have come up with a completely new theory, called facilitated variation. They say this new theory, despite being totally different from Darwin’s theory, is actually compatible with Darwin’s theory, because it is really the same. In their view, evolution is an unbiased process that is naturally biased towards favorable results. They recognize that innovation is the most difficult thing for the theory of evolution to explain. However, they explain it by saying that most innovation isn’t really innovation, but merely reconfiguration of things that already existed—except for those things (core processes) that arose without explanation out of the blue.

Doubletalk

We confess that we had a really hard time explaining facilitated variation to you because the book is full of contradictions. It is hard to pin down what they really mean. It reminds us of a campaign speech in which the candidate says everything everyone wants to hear.

For example, if you are an evolutionist who believes that the evolutionary process is unbiased, you can find numerous quotes from the book that prove evolution has no goal or direction. But if you are an evolutionist who believes that random chance simply isn’t capable of producing anything of non-trivial complexity that is truly functional, you can find numerous quotes in the book proving that evolution isn’t really random, but actually is programmed for success.

K&G aren’t stupid. The parts of the book that explain actual biological processes are clear and coherent (providing you have the necessary biological background to understand the vocabulary). But when they try to explain the imaginary process of evolution, they fail miserably because the process just isn’t real.

Alchemists tried and tried to turn lead into gold, and failed every time. Eventually, they failed enough times that they realized they should stop wasting their time trying. How many failures will it take before biologists give up on the theory of evolution?

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Footnotes:

1 Kirschner and Gerhart, The Plausibility of Life, 2005, Yale University Press, page ix (Ev+)
2 ibid., page x
3 http://www.m-w.com/dictionary/design
4 Kirschner and Gerhart, The Plausibility of Life, 2005, Yale University Press, page 2 (Ev+)
5 ibid., page 9
6 ibid., page 13
7 ibid., page 13
8 ibid., page 14
9 ibid., pages 24 - 25
10 ibid., page 27
11 ibid., page 33
12 ibid., page 39
13 ibid., page 41
14 ibid., page 44
15 ibid., pages 46-47
16 ibid., page 50
17 ibid., page 55
18 ibid., pages 58 - 59
19 ibid., page 223
20 ibid., page 245
21 ibid., page 252
22 ibid., page 253
23 ibid., page 255