The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism

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9780743296205: The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism

When Michael J. Behe's first book, Darwin's Black Box, was published in 1996, it launched the intelligent design movement. Critics howled, yet hundreds of thousands of readers and a growing number of scientists were intrigued by Behe's claim that Darwinism could not explain the complex machinery of the cell.


Now, in his long-awaited follow-up, Behe presents far more than a challenge to Darrwinism: He presents the evidence of the genetics revolution the first direct evidence of nature's mutational pathways to radically redefine the debate about Darwinism.


How much of life does Darwin's theory explain? Most scientists believe it accounts for everything from the machinery of the cell to the history of life on earth. Darwin's ideas have been applied to law, culture, and politics.


But Darwin's theory has been proven only in one sense: There is little question that all species on earth descended from a common ancestor. Overwhelming anatomical, genetic, and fossil evidence exists for that claim. But the crucial question remains: How did it happen? Darwin's proposed mechanism- random mutation and natural selection- has been accepted largely as a matter of faith and deduction or, at best, circumstantial evidence. Only now, thanks to genetics, does science allow us to seek direct evidence. The genomes of many organisms have been sequenced, and the machinery of the cell has been analyzed in great detail. The evolutionary responses of microorganisms to antibiotics and humans to parasitic infections have been traced over tens of thousands of generations.


As a result, for the first time in history Darwin's theory can be rigorously evaluated. The results are shocking. Although it can explain marginal changes in evolutionary history, random mutation and natural selection explain very little of the basic machinery of life. The "edge" of evolution, a line that defines the border between random and nonrandom mutation, lies very far from where Darwin pointed. Behe argues convincingly that most of the mutations that have defined the history of life on earth have been nonrandom.


Although it will be controversial and stunning, this finding actually fits a general pattern discovered by other branches of sciences in recent decades: The universe as a whole was fine-tuned for life. From physics to cosmology to chemistry to biology , life on earth stands revealed as depending uponan endless series of unlikely events. The clear conclusion: The universe was designed for life.

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About the Author:

Michael J. Behe is a Professor of Biological Science at Lehigh University, where he has worked since 1985. From 1978 to 1982 he did postdoctoral work on DNA structure at the National Institutes of Health. From 1982 to 1985 he was Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Queens College in New York City. He has authored more than forty technical papers, but he is best known as the author of Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. He lives near Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, with his wife and nine children.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One: The Elements of Darwinism

Life on earth developed over billions of years by utter chance, filtered through natural selection. So says Darwinism, the most influential idea of our time. If a rare random mutation in a creature's DNA in the distant past helped the lucky mutant to leave more offspring than others of its species, then as generations passed the species as a whole would have changed. Incessant repetition of this simple process over eons built the wonders of biology from the ground up, from the intricate molecular machinery of cells up to and including the human mind.

That's the claim, at least. But is it true? To answer that question, Darwin's theory has to be sifted carefully, because it isn't just a single concept -- it actually is a mixture of several unrelated, entirely separate ideas. The three most important ideas to keep straight from the start are random mutation, natural selection, and common descent.

Common descent is what most people think of when they hear the word "evolution." It is the contention that different kinds of modern creatures can trace their lineage back to a common ancestor. For example, gerbils and giraffes -- two mammals -- are both thought to be the descendants of a single type of creature from the far past. And so are organisms from much more widely separated categories -- buffalo and buzzards, pigs and petunias, yaks and yeast.

That's certainly startling, so it's understandable that some people find the idea of common descent so astonishing that they look no further. Yet in a very strong sense the explanation of common descent is also trivial. Common descent tries to account only for the similarities between creatures. It says merely that certain shared features were there from the beginning -- the ancestor had them. But all by itself, it doesn't try to explain how either the features or the ancestor got there in the first place, or why descendants differ. For example, rabbits and bears both have hair, so the idea of common descent says only that their ancestor had hair, too. Plants and animals both have complex cells with nuclei, so they must have inherited that feature from a common ancestor. But the questions of how or why are left hanging.

In contrast, Darwin's hypothesized mechanism of evolution -- the compound concept of random mutation paired with natural selection -- is decidedly more ambitious. The pairing of random mutation and natural selection tries to account for the differences between creatures. It tries to answer the pivotal question, What could cause such staggering transformations? How could one kind of ancestral animal develop over time into creatures as different as, say, bats and whales?

Let's tease apart that compound concept. First, consider natural selection. Like common descent, natural selection is an interesting but actually quite modest notion. By itself, the idea of natural selection says just that the more fit organisms of a species will produce more surviving offspring than the less fit. So, if the total numbers of a species stayed the same, over time the progeny of the more fit would replace the progeny of the less fit. It's hardly surprising that creatures that are somehow more fit (stronger, faster, hardier) would on average do better in nature than ones that were less fit (weaker, slower, more fragile).

By far the most critical aspect of Darwin's multifaceted theory is the role of random mutation. Almost all of what is novel and important in Darwinian thought is concentrated in this third concept. In Darwinian thinking, the only way a plant or animal becomes fitter than its relatives is by sustaining a serendipitous mutation. If the mutation makes the organism stronger, faster, or in some way hardier, then natural selection can take over from there and help make sure its offspring grow numerous. Yet until the random mutation appears, natural selection can only twiddle its thumbs.

Random mutation, natural selection, common descent -- three separate ideas welded into one theory. Because of the welding of concepts, the question, Is Darwinism true? has several possible answers. One possibility, of course, is that those separate ideas -- common descent, natural selection, and random mutation -- could all be completely correct, and sufficient to explain evolution. Or, they could all be correct in the sense that random mutation and natural selection happen, but they might be inconsequential, unable to account for most of evolution. It's also possible that one could be wholly right while the others were totally wrong. Or one idea could be right to a greater degree while another is correct to a much lesser degree. Because they are separate ideas, evidence for each facet of Darwin's theory has to be evaluated independently. Previous generations of scientists readily discriminated among them. Many leading biologists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries thought common descent was right, but that random mutation/natural selection was wrong.

In the past hundred years science has advanced enormously; what do the results of modern science show? In brief, the evidence for common descent seems compelling. The results of modern DNA sequencing experiments, undreamed of by nineteenth-century

scientists like Charles Darwin, show that some distantly related organisms share apparently arbitrary features of their genes that seem to have no explanation other than that they were inherited from a distant common ancestor. Second, there's also great evidence that random mutation paired with natural selection can modify life in important ways. Third, however, there is strong evidence that random mutation is extremely limited. Now that we know the sequences of many genomes, now that we know how mutations occur, and how often, we can explore the possibilities and limits of random mutation with some degree of precision -- for the first time since Darwin proposed his theory.

As we'll see throughout this book, genetic accidents can cause a degree of evolutionary change, but only a degree. As earlier generations of scientists agreed, except at life's periphery, the evidence for a pivotal role for random mutations is terrible. For a bevy of reasons having little to do with science, this crucial aspect of Darwin's theory -- the power of natural selection coupled to random mutation -- has been grossly oversold to the modern public.

In recent years Darwin's intellectual descendants have been aggressively pushing their idea on the public as a sort of biological theory-of-everything. Applying Darwinian principles to medicine, they claim, tells us why we get sick. Darwinian psychology explains why some men rape and some women kill their newborns. The penchant for viewing the world through Darwinian glasses has spilled over into the humanities, law, and politics. Because of the rhetorical fog that surrounds discussions of evolution, it's hard for the public to decide what is solid and what is illusory. Yet if Darwinism's grand claims are just bluster, then society is being badly misled about subjects -- ranging from the cause of illnesses to the culpability of criminals -- that can have serious real-world consequences.

As a theory-of-everything, Darwinism is usually presented as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. Either accept the whole theory or decide that evolution is all hype and throw out the baby with the bath water. Both are mistakes. In dealing with an often-menacing nature, we can't afford the luxury of elevating anybody's dogmas over data. The purpose of this book is to cut through the fog, to offer a sober appraisal of what Darwinian processes can and cannot do, to find what I call the edge of evolution.

The Importance of the Pathway

On the surface, Darwin's theory of evolution is seductively simple and, unlike many theories in physics or chemistry, can be summarized succinctly with no math: In every species, there are variations. For example, one animal might be bigger than its brothers and sisters, another might be faster, another might be brighter in color. Unfortunately, not all animals that are born will survive to reproduce, because there's not enough food to go around, and there are also predators of many species. So an organism whose chance variation gives it an advantage in the struggle to survive will tend to live, prosper, and leave offspring. If Mom or Dad's useful variation is inherited by the kids, then they, too, will have a better chance of leaving more offspring. Over time, the descendants of the creature with that original, lucky mutation will dominate the population, so the species as a whole will have changed from what it was. If the scenario is repeated over and over again, then the species might eventually change into something altogether different.

At first blush, that seems pretty straightforward. Variation, selection, inheritance (in other words, random mutation, natural selection, and common descent) seem to be all it takes. In fact, when an evolutionary story is couched as abstractly as in the previous paragraph, Darwinian evolution appears almost logically necessary. As Darwinian commentators have often claimed, it just has to be true. If there is variation in a group of organisms, and if the variation favorably affects the odds of survival, and if the trait is inherited, then the next generation is almost certain to have more members with the favorable trait. And the next generation after that will have even more, and the next more, until all members of the species have it. Wherever those conditions are fulfilled, wherever there is variation, selection, and inheritance, then there absolutely must be evolution.

So far, so good. But the abstract, naive logic ignores a huge piece of the puzzle. In the real world, random mutation, natural selection, and common descent might all be completely true, and yet Darwinian processes still may not be an adequate explanation of life. In order to forge the many complex structures of life, a Darwinian process would have to take numerous coherent steps, a series of beneficial mutations that successivel...

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