This is one of those beautiful coincidences. An article in the Guardian reports that Richard Dawkins, our most famous evangelizing atheist biologist, has been crowned the “world’s top thinker.” He received the honor from Britain’s Prospect magazine.
The very same day, celebrating the 60th anniversary of Watson and Crick’s elucidation of the DNA molecule, the world’s most prestigious science journal, Nature, criticized scientific spokesmen who spread the opinion that science has got evolution all figured out. Nature‘s No. 1 example of such a simplistic popularizer? Richard Dawkins.
Sixty years ago, the DNA’s double helix became the supreme icon of modern biology and of evolution. We are told that DNA makes RNA makes protein makes us — and that mutations in DNA, sifted by natural selection, produce evolutionary change.
Yet about 98% of our DNA does not code for proteins. For years many biologists regarded that 98% as junk, but last September the ENCODE Project published evidence that most of it is functional. Although many specific functions remain elusive, it is abundantly clear that non-protein-coding DNA is at least as important as protein-coding DNA in making an organism.
Now, in the latest issue of Nature, Philip Ball writes (“DNA: Celebrate the unknowns“):
We do not know what most of our DNA does, nor how, or to what extent it governs traits. In other words, we do not fully understand how evolution works at the molecular level…
Yet, while specialists debate what the latest findings mean, the rhetoric of popular discussions of DNA, genomics and evolution remains largely unchanged, and the public continues to be fed assurances that DNA is as solipsistic a blueprint as ever.
According to Ball, “it remains beyond serious doubt that Darwinian natural selection drives much, perhaps most, evolutionary change,” but scientists don’t really understand how DNA maps to an organism’s observable characteristics, and indeed researchers are “not agreed on whether natural selection is the dominant driver of evolutionary change at the molecular level.” Ball welcomes the uncertainty, because it opens the door for a new narrative, though “it is not yet clear which new story to tell.”
Yet science popularizers continue to mislead the public into thinking the old story is still intact. Ball writes,
Barely a whisper of this vibrant debate reaches the public. Take evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’ description in Prospect magazine last year of the gene as a replicator with “its own unique status as a unit of Darwinian selection”. It conjures up the decades-old picture of a little, autonomous stretch of DNA intent on getting itself copied, with no hint that selection operates at all levels of the biological hierarchy…
We have been saying such things here at ENV for quite some time.
There is a suppressed story in public discussions of evolution. In popular media and school textbooks, we’re told that Darwin’s theory — random variation, natural selection, unguided churning, reflecting no purpose or design, no author standing behind the origin or history of life — summarizes everything you need to know about how complex creatures developed.
But the truth is very different. As Stephen Meyer demonstrates in his forthcoming book, Darwin’s Doubt, the professional science literature is increasingly alight with debate about the plausibility of neo-Darwinian theory, and for many reasons more fundamental than even those reported in yesterday’s Nature story. Many in relevant scientific fields have left neo-Darwinism behind and gone in search of post-Darwinian explanations. The scene is set for exciting new discoveries. Meyer writes:
Popular defenses of [Darwinian] theory continue apace, rarely if ever acknowledging the growing body of critical scientific opinion about the standing of the theory. Rarely has there been such a great disparity between the popular perception of a theory and its actual standing in the relevant peer-reviewed scientific literature.
Ball suggests that popular accounts of evolution may be sanitized because of anxiety that the uncertainty might be exploited by people who want to undermine evolutionary theory. But, he writes, “We are grown-up enough to be told about the doubts, debates and discussions that are leaving the putative ‘age of the genome’ with more questions than answers.”
Yes, we are grown-up enough. Some people argue against academic-freedom legislation — laws that protect teachers who introduce high-school students to both sides of the scientific debate about Darwinism — on the grounds that kids aren’t mature enough to handle the complexities involved. But I don’t buy that criticism, on the grounds of pedagogy and personal experience: The best high school class I ever took required us to debate the merits of challenging ideas such as socialism versus capitalism. (The teacher was a socialist.) Yes, kids can handle it. I have faith that with skill, art, and sympathy, anything can be explained to anyone.
Surely Philip Ball is right that adults should not be sheltered from the fact that some aspects of evolutionary thinking are under intense criticism in the scientific community. Of course evolution is a fact in the sense that living things have changed over enormous periods of time. It is also a fact that the major groups of animals burst onto the scene some 530 million years ago in the Cambrian explosion — the subject of Stephen Meyer’s book, Darwin’s Doubt. But it is also a fact that science does not know what mechanism lies behind the evolutionary process.
The simplistic views of the world’s greatest thinker aside, that’s indeed a fact to celebrate, not to mourn or conceal.