Friday, December 18, 2015

The Theology of Science-Fiction V*: Genesis and Darwin's Radio

HAR1, gene for accelerated human development
See Wikipedia
"Whatever one may think about the possibility of a designer, the prevailing doctrine—that the appearance of life from dead matter and its evolution through accidental mutation and natural selection to its present forms has involved nothing but the operation of physical law—cannot be regarded as unassailable. It is an assumption governing the scientific project rather than a well-confirmed scientific hypothesis. [emphasis added]” 
― Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False
 "What you seem to be implying, however, is a hitherto undiscovered mechanism whereby the genome takes control of its own evolution, somehow sensing the right time to bring about change." Greg Bear, Darwin's Radio, p. 272


Although I believe that evolution, the descent of species, is a fact, I have always been puzzled by the apparent simultaneous (i.e. appearing within a relatively short time span) appearance of favorable mutations leading to new species.   Where is a mathematical description of evolution, giving the probability of n favorable mutations simultaneously appearing?   I've searched for such on the web, but haven't found any resources.    

That such is implausible has also occurred to others, not all of whom believe in God:  Thomas Nagel (quoted above); Stuart Kauffman; Michael Behe, Stephen Meyer, among others.   Kauffman's approach is spontaneous self-organization. Behe and Meyer would replace the neo-Darwinian model for evolution by Intelligent Design (ID).    I would argue for ID as a philosophic or metaphysical proposition, but not as a scientific one.**

As is often the case, science-fiction does offer answers (not always satisfying) to theological questions: a classic science-fiction novel, Darwin's Radio, by Greg Bear, answers the question "What is the mechanism by which the Designer might form new species?".    Whether this mechanism is a possible one (or testable), I won't judge, since I have minimal expertise in molecular biology.   However, it is an interesting idea, so let's see what Greg Bear has to say.


I'm not going to summarize the plot of Darwin's Radio; that is done elsewhere, and if you haven't read the book (on the Best-Seller list of the NY Times for many weeks) and want to do so, it would be a spoiler.     An extended discussion of the molecular biology on which the plot is based is also given, so I'll not repeat that here.

We'll summarize the salient points. (WARNING: semi-spoiler if you want to read the book.) HERV (Human Endogenous RetroVirus) cause an epidemic: the HERV is transmitted by men to women with whom they have a "steady" sexual relation; the virus causes spontaneous abortions, but the aborted fetus carries an egg that produces a second pregnancy. The child born in this second pregnancy has unusual and different capabilities, including parallel processing in the brain, pherenomes and facial pigmentation changes to convey subtleties in communication--in short a new species.

That such an evolutionary change has occurred before is shown in the novel by the discovery of a prehistoric couple preserved in a glacial cave; the male and female are some 15000 years old, and apparently Neanderthals--but there is also a baby, which is apparently Homo Sapiens. The discovery in this prehistoric couple of the HERV that occurs in the modern epidemic suggests that this was the cause of change to Homo Sapiens from early forms. (In this Bear make a paleontological error; Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens were both present over a fairly long time period, and various human races contain up to 3% of Neanderthal genes.)

So, Bear's suggestion is that somehow, a concerted epidemic carried by ERV, is the mechanism by which jumps to new species occurs. An important question (not answered in the novel) is "who sends the signal for Darwin's Radio to sound?", i.e. what causes this epidemic to occur over a limited time span?   Is it God, or is the time span set by some Designer, so that after some period of time, the mutations will occur?  

My own scientific expertise is not in molecular biology, so I welcome criticisms of Bear's speculative mechanism for speciation and suggestions for alternatives.

I'll add that Robert Sawyer has given a fine treatment of parallel evolution of Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens in his trilogy The Neanderthal Parallax, but I won't discuss it here, since it doesn't touch my principal interest, the mechanism for species change in evolution.    The same can be said for a whole host of other SF (book, TV and cinema) works which don't deal with the scientific issues of evolution.

*This is the fifth in a series about how science-fiction deals with theological issues.   The others are

**See the post Reflections on Intelligent Design: Good, Bad or Indifferent Science.  In this post I argue that proponents of ID do not offer a mechanism by which the Designer implements evolution, nor do they propose any experiments or  measurements by which  ID could be tested/falsified.

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