Friday, March 27, 2009

If Princeton Doesn't Understand Evolution, What Hope is There for the Rest of Us

For a long time I have been trying figure out why it is so difficult for some people to accept, let alone understand, the process of evolution. Then I found this article.

Notice, it is actually from the Princeton University website and it discusses research being done at the campus. The article focuses on the work of Raj Chakrabarti, Herschel Rabitz, Stacey Springs and George McLendon. While working on understanding the proteins that make up the Electron Transport Chain (ETC), part of the process of cellular respiration, they discovered something quite interesting. The proteins in the chain exhibit what can only be described as feedback control.

Now, for those of you unfamiliar with control systems, feedback control is how cruise control in your car works. Basically, a desired speed is set with a button in your car. A computer then reads your current speed and compares it to the desired speed. It subtracts the two values and feeds the output back into the computer where it decides to either speed you up or slow you down. This is a very basic feedback control system.

Well, according to the new research at Princeton, the proteins in the ETC respond to environmental stimuli in a similar fashion. Any imbalance in the system is corrected through a molecular control system, allowing the ETC to function properly under a range of stresses. This is truly exciting research and it should really open a lot of doors in modern biology. My problem is not with the research or what it implies, it is with the article written about the research. Many passages in the article seem to contain misconceptions about science and evolution, and the mechanisms that drive the process of evolution. For example, the first paragraph of the article says:

"A team of Princeton University scientists has discovered that chains of proteins found in most living organisms act like adaptive machines, possessing the ability to control their own evolution."

I don't know about you, but when I read that I immediately thought "pseudoscience." For an organism to "control its own evolution" it would need to have actual conscious control over the molecules in each cell of its body. For those of you who have seen the film What the Bleep Do We Know!? you know that a common, but incorrect interpretation of quantum mechanics is that the observer somehow creates the reality that is around him/her. This paragraph seems to imply something similar to this interpretation. That somehow, an organism, when confronted by changes in their environment can consciously alter the way that their cells work, allowing them to adapt.

Not only is this a gross misinterpretation of the results of the research but it also points out a basic error in the writer's understanding of evolution. A single organism does not evolve ON IT'S OWN, but rather, the population that the organism is a part of evolves AS A WHOLE. This is a very common misunderstanding of evolution, and it can lead to full blown denial of the process.

Raj Chakrabarti is quoted as saying:

"The discovery answers an age-old question that has puzzled biologists since the time of Darwin: How can organisms be so exquisitely complex, if evolution is completely random, operating like a 'blind watchmaker'?...Our new theory extends Darwin's model, demonstrating how organisms can subtly direct aspects of their own evolution to create order out of randomness."

Evolution is NOT, I repeat, NOT completely random, and for a scientist of this apparent caliber to make a statement like this really worries me. The theory of evolution describes the change of species over time through two mechanisms. The first is the rare random mutation that takes place in the gametes (sex cells) of every organism during meiosis. Second, and most important, is the real revolutionary part of the theory, natural selection. This is the NON-random process that drives the change towards increasing fitness. Without natural selection there would be no evolution.

Now to be fair, natural selection is discussed later in the article. My problem is that this quote, possibly taken out of context, seems to imply actually says that evolution is completely random. Whether or not this is an error on the part of the writer, I don't know, but this is what creationists absolutely love. A scientist in the field of evolutionary biology stating that evolution is random. Also, the second half of the quote reasserts the initial misconception of an organism evolving on its own.

The article continues to restate the same thing over and over again, that this process of feedback control somehow directs the evolution of the organism. That is, until you reach the ninth paragraph, where the first inkling of a real understanding of evolution comes in. This paragraph seems to backpedal on many of the incorrect statements made earlier in the article. It states that populations evolve, which is correct. It also brings up the idea of natural selection, albeit in "quotes," seemingly discounting the idea as a mere hypothesis. Then it brings up the theory of evolution as understood by Darwin's contemporary Alfred Russell Wallace. Wallace's vision of natural selection was that it acted like a control system. The example he gives in his 1858 paper compares it to the centrifugal governor in a steam engine. According to the article, the research done at Princeton provides some evidence to support Wallace's theory.

The real problem I have with this article is that it misinterprets the findings of the research. It claims that the research provides evidence to show that the molecular control system present in the function of the ETC is somehow directly related to the evolution of a single organism, and that the presence of the control system cannot be explained by modern evolutionary theory, as quoted:

"The authors sought to identify the underlying cause for this self-correcting behavior in the observed protein chains. Standard evolutionary theory offered no clues….the proteins had developed a self-regulating mechanism, analogous to a car's cruise control or a home's thermostat, allowing them to fine-tune and control their subsequent evolution."

I'll use an analogy to explain why this is not only completely incorrect, but it fosters further misunderstanding of evolution by the layman.

In every automobile there is a way to control the ratio of the air/fuel mixture that is combusted in the engine. Carburetors were used for a long time before the fuel injector was invented. The air/fuel ratio needs to stay within a certain range or it will not ignite in the cylinder and your car will not work. The concentration of oxygen in the atmosphere stays at about a constant 21% no matter what the altitude. However, the pressure decreases as the altitude increases. So when your car is at sea level it has no problem mixing the air and fuel together at the proper ratio. However, at higher altitudes the lower pressure causes the ratio to get worse. Fuel injectors use a feedback control system to adjust the mixture ratio in response to changing altitude. If they could not do this, an airplane using an internal combustion engine would need one type of fuel injector for the runway and one for flight.

The research done at Princeton shows that the ETC uses a similar process so that it will work for organisms in very different environments. This shows that very early in evolutionary history, a feedback control system was formed through the process of evolution to allow organisms to survive in very different environments. An alternative to this ingenious solution is to evolve a brand new ETC for every environment. This is clearly outside of the scope of evolution. I think that evolution would eventually be able to create a new ETC for each environment, allowing life to thrive, but it would have taken way too long. This article suggests that a feedback system could not have arisen by evolution. This is clearly not the case. In fact, it seems to be the best answer for such a problem. If evolution had to reinvent a the ETC every time a population moved to a new environment, life would still only exist as single-celled organisms in only the most similar of environments. It only makes sense that the ETC would function in the way as described by the research. Now, I'm not attempting to trivialize the research done at Princeton, I am only attempting to show that the article does not properly convey the results.

On a positive note, near the end of the article, it says:

"The scientists do not know how the cellular machinery guiding this process may have originated, but they emphatically said it does not buttress the case for intelligent design…"

That warmed my heart, although it concerns me that it needed to be said.

Overall, the article is shocking in its misconceptions and faulty interpretation, especially coming from one of the best schools in the world, Princeton University. Things like this really alarm me about how evolution is being conveyed to the public, and I am beginning to understand where many false impressions of evolution come from.

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