In this post I present a summary of my understanding and takeaways from the book Evolution 2.0: Breaking the Deadlock Between Darwin and Design (Marshall, 2015) The author, Perry Marshall, presents a view of evolution as a middle ground between the dogmatic views of advocates on two sides. Advocates for Intelligent Design (ID) need to accept that evolution is real and advocates for Neo-Darwinism need to accept that evolution is not random, but goal-driven and designed.
In my opinion the author has presented solid evidence of the reality of evolution and that random mutation is not the primary driver of evolution. I found his arguments that DNA required a designer warrant further investigation, but not the “proof” the he claims.
From the Introduction:
In this book, I offer a 2.0 version of evolution, a brand new paradigm for biology. I will show you that scientists create new species in the lab every day, and I’ll show you how they do it. I’ll also demonstrate that to the extent science can prove anything, science proves design in DNA. In other words, I’ll prove that both sides, the Creationists and the Darwinists, are right. (Marshall, 2015, p. xxvi)
And from Appendix A:
Half the thesis of this book is that randomness does not create codes; and that once they exist, randomness can only destroy them. The other half of this thesis is that the origin of life required the creation of codes, and that nonrandom, linguistic adaptations of DNA continue to create codes and thus drive biological evolution. (Marshall, 2015, p. 282)
My bullet point summary of the book’s major points:
Evolution by natural selection is a documented and evidence based reality.
DNA is code; it meets all the requirements for being code, it is the main driver of evolution, it is goal-oriented, and it must have been designed.
Dogmatic adherence to ideology impacts both sides of the debate. Proponents of Creationism/ID are right to believe that life is designed by a designer outside of this natural world, but wrong to deny evolution as a threat to their beliefs. Proponents of Random Mutation are right to believe in evolution, but wrong to deny designed, goal-driven evolution as a threat to their beliefs.
- according to Charles Darwin: Gradual Variation + Natural Selection + Time
- according to Neo-Darwinism1: Random Mutation + Natural Selection + Time
- according to the latest science (Evolution 2.0): Adaptive Variation + Natural Selection + Time
Note the common components in each of the three definitions. The variety of biological forms of extant and extinct life has changed over long periods of time, winnowed through natural selection. The point in question is how does any change occur from one generation to the next.
Perry Marshall is an electrical engineer by training and has worked in digital communications, control systems, acoustics, and e-commerce. He was raised a Christian, but a conversation with his brother about the possibility of evolution challenged his faith and his assumptions. He felt he could no longer ignore the scientific findings concerning evolution, yet as an engineer he could not fathom the mechanism of evolution as random.
So I made a daring, perilous, frightening decision.
I was going to let science and engineering answer this question for me.
I promised that if science really told me that not God, no plan, no intentionality was needed for me to have a wonderfully engineered hand at the end of my arm, then I would make a massive, wholesale change in my belief system.2 (Marshall, 2015, p. 7)
The author embarked on ten years of research into the latest scientific understanding of evolution. As a result he presents a new Evolution 2.0 view of evolution and biology, and argues that as an outsider he is able to bring insights in genetics, communication theory, and bioinformatics.
Mechanisms of Evolution
The author spends a good deal of the book describing the known mechanisms of evolution. The strongest argument he makes is for the reality of evolution based on several hundred years of scientific investigation. The supporting evidence comes from the fossil record, the form and function of living beings today, and on the ever increasing amount of DNA evidence.
The term Darwinism formally refers to the theory of evolution as Charles Darwin expressed it in On the Origin of Species in 1859. He postulated that small variations in organisms over vast periods of time, filtered by natural selection, were responsible for the development of new species. Darwin’s original theory might be summarized like this:
Gradual Variation + Natural Selection + Time = Evolution (Marshall, 2015, p. 37)
The author presented several examples of descent with modification, or common ancestry, which started his exploration into evolution:
Blind mole rats have fully formed eyes which are completely covered by skin, an adaptation for their life underground. They have eyes because they descended from animals which used those eyes.
Humans are primates because they contain common pseudogenes (non functional segments of DNA) found nowhere else in the animal kingdom. Why would someone independently designing these species introduce the same nonfunctioning DNA code into both of them and nowhere else? Not proof of common ancestry, but strong evidence.
As I continued to research this, it became clear to me that evolution most definitely appeared to have happened. But How? I started hunting through a pile of research from the 1950s to today. I resolved to find some kind of mechanism that would explain it all. (Marshall, 2015, p. 20)
The author began by looking into random mutation of DNA as the mechanism for evolutionary changes.
Darwin himself didn’t strongly evangelize his belief that the variations, or the mutations, were random. Randomness didn’t become dogma until the 20th century. Darwin didn’t know where the variations came from. He didn’t know about genetics and he didn’t know anything about cells or DNA.1 (Marshall, 2015, p. 36)
The author makes a good case that random mutation is neither the only nor even the primary mechanism of evolutionary change. Mutations do occasionally occur which would be beneficial, but most random mutations only cause failures in the biological systems, i.e. create “noise” in the “information channel” which would render the message unusable.
For example, since the beginning of the twentieth century scientists have been experimenting with fruit flies (Drosophilia melanogaster) due to their quick reproduction cycle. Many of those experiments have involved exposing them to radiation to induce mutations and observe the effects. When mutations occurred they were generally deleterious, never producing new species, although occassionally producing increased radiation resistence. Experiements on other animals and plants have produced similar results.
The author presents a wide range of scientific findings about how DNA, and the cells that host and maintain that DNA, have a goal-oriented design: they work to keep themselves alive and to reproduce.
“If we rank these [mechanisms] from most gradual to most sudden, the list looks like this” (Marshall, 2015, p. 144):
Transposition - cells rearranging their own DNA
Epigenetics - organisms passing acquired traits to offspring through cells switching DNA sequences on and off
Horizontal Transfer - cells exchanging DNA
Hybridization - two organisms (which normally don’t breed) reproducing sexually to form offspring with significantly new features
Symbiogenesis - organisms physically merging together (not through sexual reproduction) to form a brand new organism
With just a little cross referencing, I found these descriptions of adaptive variation to be scientifically credible.
The author argues that DNA is a code, just as in traditional information theory as laid out by Claude Shannon, involving transmission, processing, extraction, and utilization of information:
The code is written in the alphabet of DNA nucleotides (A, C, G, or T)
This alphabet is used to create words composed of three nucleotides, called codons
Each codon is an instruction to build one amino acid from specific elements
Genes are sequences of codons which specify assemblies of proteins
Information organization in DNA is the same as digital data. […] Combinations of genes form an interdependent complex of instructions and a matrix of code elements, packed into chromosomes. […] and just like digital data, the information in DNA is fragile. (Marshall, 2015, p. 45)
DNA, like many human-made codes, also has redundancy, error correction, checksums, linguistic structure, and codes layered inside of codes (Marshall, 2015, p. 39).
But are they the same? Digital layers are intentionally isolated from each other. DNA and biological systems have messy interdependencies and feedback loops, everything is tangled. People design digital systems to reduce complexity so that we can understand them. Do our formal systems of mathematics and information theory and discrete digital systems accurately model DNA and biological systems?
Design and the Supernatural
The author primarily covers natural processes and the science that uncovers them, but also adds some supernatural elements:
Before life can reproduce and before evolution has any chance of occurring, there must first be a code. Currently we have no evidence to suggest that the genetic code, or any code, can come into existence without intelligence. (Marshall, 2015, p. xxvi)
Spirituality is the thing that distinguishes us from animals. It doesn’t come from our bodies, it comes from our spirits. (Marshall, 2015, p. 19)
Man is a spiritual being, the first creature made in God’s image. Unlike the animals, man is both body and spirit. This is why the origin of man’s body plan, which is adapted from lower animals, doesn’t alter his spirit identity as a child of God. (Marshall, 2015, p. 315)
We know from scientific study that life has existed on earth for about 3.6-3.9 billion years. Bacteria reigned alone for half of this time, then came life with more complex, nucleated cells, then animals, fungi, and plants arrived for the final 15 percent of that time. By implication from the author’s statements, the origin of life is a designer who created the first cell with DNA code then set it loose to evolve via natural processes, driven by its goal-seeking design, for billions of years. Then at some point in the last 200,000 years or so the designer returned and attached a spirit to homo sapiens and we became both body and spirit.
I suppose it’s possible, but it’s not clear to me why an omnipotent and omniscient designer would follow this particular route.
In my personal experience, religious faith is based on evidence, past experience, history, and reason. […] experience includes things like documented healings, answered prayers, and extraordinary sequences of events far too remarkable to ascribe to chance.3 (Marshall, 2015, p. 218)
I’m not aware of any of this evidence, documented scientifically or in my personal experience. I think the author is simply motivated to justify his faith and ignore his basic statistics.
The Evolution 2.0 Prize and the Commercial Angle
The author includes in this book an announcement of a newly formed $10 million prize.
This book issues a challenge: “Show an example of a code that’s not designed. All you need is one”. To date no one has documented the emergence of a naturally occurring code. If such a process were found, it would be one of the most celebrated discoveries of the last 100 years. A group of private investors and I are offering a prize for this discovery, if the process that produces codes can be patented. (Marshall, 2015, p. 338)
I find this to be a bit confusing and seemingly contradictory. The author posits that we don’t know of any naturally occurring codes. This points to there being a designer of the code, which supports his religious belief. But then he says that such a naturally occurring code would be a commercial bonanza (eg, for engineering and artificial intelligence) so he is willing to back such a discovery with his own money. It seems odd to be putting so much behind a discovery which might prompt him to “make a massive, wholesale change in [his] belief system”.
What is his motivation? Here is one possibility: the author is hedging his bets. The prize itself attracts attention to his book and his evolution 2.0 theory. If no one wins the prize he can claim that as further proof that a designer was required. If the prize is claimed then he and his investors stand to make a good deal of money. In either case, perhaps his faith won’t be shaken because his assertion that DNA is code which requires a designer isn’t the reason he retained his faith in the first place. Or in other words his belief is based on principles other than those discoverable by science.
Here are some topics I would like to explore further, based on reading this book:
How well does information theory, a formal system, really model the messy world of organic life? Does science prove design in DNA?
What is the latest scientific research on the mechanisms of evolution and on the origins of life?
To what extent is randomness still dogma in science and education?
What is the nature of evidence and provability in science and faith?
And these are on now on my list of books to read:
Acquiring Genomes: A Theory of the Origins of Species (Margulis & Sagan, 2002)
Information Theory, Evolution, and the Origin of Life (Yockey, 2005)
The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (Collins, 2006)
Origins of Life (Dyson, 1999) (I already had this one, now I’m motivated to finish it)
- Collins, F. S. (2006). The Language of God : A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. Free Press.
- Dyson, F. J. (1999). Origins of Life (Rev. ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- Margulis, L., & Sagan, D. (2002). Acquiring Genomes: A Theory of the Origins of Species (First edition.). Basic Books.
- Marshall, P. (2015). Evolution 2.0: Breaking the Deadlock between Darwin and Design. BenBella Books, Inc.
- Yockey, H. P. (2005). Information Theory, Evolution, and the Origin of Life. Cambridge University Press.
Darwin himself didn’t strongly evangelize his belief that the variations, or the mutations, were random. Randomness didn’t become dogma until the 20th century. Darwin didn’t know where the variations came from. He didn’t know about genetics and he didn’t know anything about cells or DNA. (Marshall, 2015, p. 36)
For simplicity, in this book I will normally refer to Neo-Darwinism and the Modern Synthesis as Darwinism. Here, the use of Darwinism emphasizes assumptions of randomness. (Marshall, 2015, p. 37)
I found the author’s practice of “normally”, but not always, referring to Neo-Darwinism as Darwinism to be confusing, because it became difficult to distinguish when he is referring to random mutation versus natural selection. In addition, the term Neo-Darwinism itself may not be as strongly tied to randomness as the author suggests.
Neo-Darwinism is generally used to describe any integration of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection with Gregor Mendel’s theory of genetics. It mostly refers to evolutionary theory from either 1895 (for the combinations of Darwin’s and August Weismann’s theories of evolution) or 1942 (“modern synthesis”), but it can mean any new Darwinian- and Mendelian-based theory, such as the current evolutionary theory. The term “Neo-Darwinism” marks the combination of natural selection and genetics, as has been variously modified since it was first proposed. (Wikipedia: Neo-Darwinism)
I promised that if science really told me that no God, no plan, no intentionality was needed for me to have a wonderfully engineered hand at the end of my arm, then I would make a massive, wholesale change in my belief system.
I thought about how my family life could change.
My wife might wake up one day to find an atheist sleeping in her bed. I could end up staying home while she took my kids to church. Would I have to bite my lip, or would I try to enlighten all my friends and family that their beliefs are based on fantasy? Would Thanksgiving dinner turn into a brawl over science and religion with my devoutly faithful relatives? I might lose lifelong friends over this. (Marshall, 2015, p. 7)
I can certainly relate to this dilemma, having faced it myself. ↩
More of the passage:
In my personal experience, religious faith is based on evidence, past experience, history, and reason. Evidence includes things like the observations in this book, the beauty of nature, the fine-tuning of the universe, archaeology, and history; experience includes things like documented healings, answered prayers, and extraordinary sequences of events far too remarkable to ascribe to chance; and reason includes things like moral philosophical arguments. (Marshall, 2015, p. 218)