This essay is going to look at the idea of Random Genetic Mutation; a concept which might be called the principal supporting precept of contemporary evolutionary theory. I am also later on going to look at an idea, quite prevalent, because an easy lapse to settle into; that somehow evolution is an active principle, a force, blind maybe, but nonetheless, a guiding star to a host of clustered hopes and presumptions.
First a few historical facts.
Charles Darwin, is considered to be the man who put the theory of evolution centre stage and on the map for modern biology, and he died in 1882.
The first recorded usage of the word ‘gene’ in its given contemporary biological usage today was by an American in 1909
The idea of mutation being an important factor in the elvolution of living things was put as a theory for the first time by a man called Hugo Devries; and not before 1886
The connecting up of all this history; of mutation and of genes and then connecting both to an idea of randomness; was all pieced together subsequently as theory during the earlier years of the 20th century.
From looking above at the dates of these events one is able to assume with some certainty that:
Darwin had no real knowledge of genes and of their mutation, whether random or otherwise; and the idea of random genetic mutation is one which has been built upon the groundwork of his evolutionary theory since Darwin laid it out.
Darwin therefore was the foundation; and so he became the item of understanding to be taken as a given element; and upon which embellishment and development of his groundwork over the course of time since, has raised up the building to the state of evolutionary theory which we have today.
That Darwin’s work became work taken as given is an important fact, at the least in a broad based and general sense of approval and embrace of it, as supplied by subsequent biologists. This fact is important because, only if Darwin was in general correct about his evolutionary theory, is it possible for the structures built since upon that theory potentially to be valid and so hold water.
Were Darwin to be shown to be mistaken; then also everything built up upon his groundwork since would be placed in jeopardy of having been misguided.
Now we have this introductory consideration cleared up and made lucid – I hope – and so we can move on to consider certain reservations which I believe are sound and relevant to a general public refusing merely to accept as given items of knowledge or understanding of the natural world, nor to accept the way in our times these items are widely supposed to be playing out.
Time has moved on since Darwin’s work was taken generaly as a given basic element in biological science. Time has moved on since the subsequent builders added more to Darwin’s work; and what they added such as Random Genetic Mutation has also been accepted into the biological canon as authoritative and to be taken as a given element.
Science calls this (very often) progress. Yet in the Scots court of law the best verdict on this progress that would be able to be reached is ‘not proven’. I say this here generally about much of what we call science in our days; but especially hereabouts right now I am limiting the impact of my understanding upon ‘progress’ specifically to biological evolutionary beliefs and ideas.
I ask the main question first: how do biologists know that mutations of genes are random? Ask yourself how might one set about investigating this question oneself so as to get at a truthful answer to it.
Now if a person were a scientist one might decide to make some investigations by empirical experiment. For instance, and I ask this as another question: are there any studies of large numbers of samples of offspring of a species, and studies over a reasonable duration which have looked specifically at:
a) What discretely differentiated mutations of genes are recorded as havibg happened
b) Of mutations which have made it into adaptation phase and those that did not make it
c) Are evidence of patterns, sequences, other regularities in mutations, well ruled out
d) The impact on the species of benefits arisen out of the adaptive mutations
e) The impact on the species of the non-beneifts of adaptive mutations
f) The impact on the species of the disadvantages of adaptive mutations
g) The imapct on the species of the benefits of non-adaptive mutations
h) The imapct on the species of the non-benefits of non-adaptive mutations
i) The imapct on the species of the disadvantages of non-adaptive mutations
j) The impact on the species of the benefits of continued non-mutation
k) The impact on the species of the non-benefits of continued non-mutation
l) The impact on the species of the disadvantages on continued non-mutation
This list of requirements for making an empirical scientific investigation of the actual action of genetic mutations upon a speices, and in all their discrete manifestations for over a sufficient duration of time; maybe it needs some unpacking here before we carry on?
There are then three modes of continuation of the life of a speicies for any living thing. These are:
1. No change – no genetic mutation in a discrete item of reproduction
2. Genetic change which is not adapted to the species, and so dies away
3. Genetic change which is adapted to the species, and so flourishes
There are three modes also of outcome for any genetic mutation acting upon an item of species. These three modes, because change works on all things, natural or else artefact, which are physical objects and so they suffer outcomes, might within a single item of species, say, subsist as outcomes present either singly, or else by twinning, or else all three modes of outcome present simultaneously: and all in various amounts of pressure for good or ill. They are:
1. Beneficial outcome of change
2. Non-beneficial outcome (neutral) of change
3. Disadvantaged outcome of change
This large-scale physical experiment is a hard call to make; and yet without its being attempted, and in some measure attempted well, how might a biologist, or any scientist be able to assure any person that:
a) Some mutations adapt a species
b) Some mutations do not adapt a species
c) Those that adapt a species are overall beneficial
d) Those that do not adapt a species overall are not beneficial or else detrimental
e) Some offspring do not mutate
f) There is always a trade-off in mutations
i) Most mutations have mixed good and bad outcomes
ii) Preponderance of good outcome tips the balance for adaptation
iii) Preponderance of bad outcome tips the balance against adaptation
Only by scientists supplying empirical answers to these lists of considerations laid out above here; and by results of experiment, might we begin to accept that in fact: evolution by genetic mutation might be an empirical fact.
Of course a critic might ask me by what criterion, other than by success in adaptation, might any such experimenter judge adequately of the benefit or otherwise of any particular mutation to an item of offspring of a species. And thus we come to the maxim: Survival of the Fittest.
I survive because I am fitter than those who do not survive
I am fitter than those who do not survive because I have survived
No, not Lewis Carroll, evolutionary theory.
And how many offspring might one need to examine over how long a time in order to get a real handle on mutation and adaptation? It would be different numbers of offspring according to which particular species is being examined; and likewise time durations for experiments would vary accordingly also.
How many species might one have to examine over the course of how many experiments before one might be able to draw any conclusions with any sense of assurance of their soundness?
The fact is, since most species are insects, microbial, bugs etc, and so this means that most species are multiplying hourly by the billion per item of species; how might a scientist begin to get a handle on these sets of questions let alone on their answers?
Experiments might be made only on those species which multiply slowly, at a rate of a few dozen over a course of years perhaps, and so the samples examined can never become even close to being representative of the full diversity of life forms, nor of the full fecundity of reproduction in general..
Hereabove we have it clearly in black and white the reasons why the scientific method is not easily, at least at present, to be applied to substantiating by empirical experiment the workings and action of mutation upon living species.
How might the essential doctrine – I use the word deliberately – of Random Genetic Mutation be established empirically, when any sample one might be able to take will always be far too small, and will also be far to restricted within its limitations, and also when any percived absence of order, shape, and regularity, might be erroneous, because all the potential avenues for such per se are in fact inexhaustible
Hereabove we have clearly in black and white the evidence which says that much of what is accepted in the biological community as given and established scientific fact is not testable and so is at best based on general and act of faith assumptions, and at worst upon a dogmatic antagonism towards what I am going to call An Unseen Hand being at work in nature and the world. For what is able to confirm these beliefs by using scientific method?
1. Mutation in general might possibly be random
2. That evolution by random genetic mutation might be an empirical fact.
What might be some other of these act of faith assumptions? Here are a few that come to my mind:
1. Is the fact that no-one has (yet) perceived a pattern sufficient evidence for randomness? NO
2. Could there be A Guiding Hand even though the mutations were proven to be random? YES
3. Could such A Guiding Hand have a pattern not percevied/pecrcptible by people? YES
4. Is there a way, by use of reasoning and logic, one could be certain this might be the case? NO
5. Is there any way, via use of reasoning and logic, one could prove it was not the case? NO
This ‘extra-step’ I have put into the mix, of me proposing a possibility for A Guiding Hand, is considered by many scientists to be an unnecessary one. The argument is taken from the scientific method and is used to support a popular assumption that no Guiding Hand need be posited. But we have seen and I think we have shown that the scientific method no longer applies in this realm of A Guiding Hand which we are now talking about. Elegance of a theory, the most simple answer that makes sense and aswers the most queries being the one to elect, is usually cited as being the one which disalows A Guiding Hand being at work.
Once again I ask; what determines elegance and simplicity? Is elegance and simplicity a fewer number of steps or stages posited? Or is it a more extensive proposition which clears up far vaster amount of the most diverse and unweildy data and its data relations and connections? And is it elegance and simplicity to call a halt to thought and to further consideration and to do so arbitrarily at a point where we declare authoritatively and unilaterally, for Random Genetic Mutation, and thus as we have seen, leaving a million million things hanging in the air, and without the least explanation bar a return to primordial chaos?
Why indeed should investigation into the chain of causality stop at an assumed Random Genetic Mutation? Even though empirically-based scientific reasoning can go no further, and even though the application of logic and speculation are no longer empirically-based when one ventures to go beyond such a point?
By attempting to halt reasoning and specualtion on the chain of causation at the point at which one posits Random Genetic Mutation, one is effecting in actuality a prohibition of ALL metaphysical speculation of any kind. Thus to do so is an imposition, a ruling, a human judgement and call, and it endures by the force of authority only, in those places where it endures. Thus the fact is that there is a widespread and deliberate attempt being made, quite commonly in places of repute and learning, to prevent the chain of causation being sought beyond the use only of empirical data.
Thus this stopping at this point of investigating the chain of causation is an ideological decision. It is an actual barrier being set up across the highway which otherwise would lead us onwards in our quest for truth. Those who mistakenly think that they recognise in this barrier a fact of nature are being decieved; either by their own blind wishes or by those who are placing the barrier before their eyes. Many influential persons who do know better or ought to know better, are deliberately placing a barrier here, and usually their main motivation for doing so at bottom is them aiming to do all they can to discourage religious thought and to bolster their own anti-religious dogmas.
Further, why should the realm of investigation in general hit the buffers at Random Genertic Mutation; at that point beyond which a return primordial chaos is reputed, supposed, to kick in ? It is certainly a convenient supposition of randomness, for it to be said to create such a point beyond which lies chaos; for those who would deny any use or right or duty of human minds to venture any further. Yet ask oneself: why should nature which up to this point of the declaration of randomness, has always without fail been amenable to reasoning and observation; to human thought and investigation, why should it, at that very point where one’s tools can no longer be used; suddenly go ape and turn absolutely anarchic? Is it not those scientists who say such things closing the sweetshop to other children because they themselves have run out of money?
Now the word ‘speculation’ has become a dirty word in many people’s considerations. It has stock exchange overtones of exploitation and opportunism; it has alchemical associations of pie in the sky mumbo-jumbo spells and witchcraft and so on. It is use pejoratively often to pre-empt further discussion and to bring an abrupt close to an argument or disagreement. It has ambush qualities which the powerful use to silence lesser objectors and to close down their rights to wonder and to ask. Cast some muck and regardless, some will stick.
Yet speculation does carry in its tote bag of meanings and relations a very clear sense of space and freedom, of absence of duress, and offers a sense of the free play of imagination, even taking some people to new places not before arrived at by the mind of humankind. Thus are our artists, and other other creative thinkers.
On the other side are the regulators, the law-enforcers, the more matter-of-fact, no-nonsense, tell -it-like-it-is types; types whose world is hidebound by limitations they wish to impose on others as well as on themselves. The phrase tell-it-like-it-is gives their game away; for how might one tell-it-like-it-is when nobody really knows how it is; when nobody has a clue which might unlock some of the least and humdrum everyday mysteries which are so familiar to us that we no longer see them as glorious mysteries. Thus telling-it-like-it-is disregards this ineffable and astounding quality of being and existence; as if one who espouses such an ethos would have things all sewn up, done and dusted, in the bag, and so give implicit assurances that they know things they do not know, and that there is nothing to wonder at in anything; that all is mundane and matter-of-fact.
Because empirical sicience cannot go there, then should no-one nor anything else attempt to go there? Is it mere jealousy? Mere arrogance – that our science can do it all without aid from anything or anyone else? Mere tired and dreary belief that ‘the age of miracles is over’ and we humankind have advanced, have grown-up, grown out of, our infancy of beliefs in supernatural beings and magical charms. We are now a race which has reached its majority; and we look back on and reject all those childish things we thought we saw and experienced – just like teenagers who get outrageously embarassed at their parents showing off baby photos of them.
What I am saying here is not simple and utter wind and bluster. There is a book by a philospher of the 20th century named Bertrand Russell. It is called ‘The Problems of Philosophy’. It is a thin book; about 70 or 80 pages. The first chapter, some five pages, is worth a read if you are skeptical or unconvinced by my own attempts here to lay out further potentialities for endeavour. I was taught by a philosophy professor who in his way had been eminent in his field; and who confessed that every year bringing in a new intake of first year philosophy students, he had yet to get past the first chapter of Russell’s ‘The Problems of Philosophy’ with any class.
This was not the fault of the class itself – we were not a complete bunch of thickoes – but the material Russell moves through in chapter one was always found to be more than sufficient to keep the professor and his classes occupied a whole fresher year. It really is worth a read. You can find it online. It’ s out of copyright by now. If you have not yet had your eyes opened to the potentialities of what might be, then you are going to be blown away.
Russell I recall talks about colour. He says that colour as a perception of the sight cannot be analysed more deeply than to say it is a ‘sense datum’. One cannot get beyond a ‘sense datum’ since we are hidebound in our physical world, as opposed to in our thinking capacities about the physical world; hidebound by our sense perceptions. In this regard colour is colour is colour. For our eyes, that is all. Of course we can study optics and analyse colour scientifically; we can assess the effects of colour on our psychology; we can paint and use colour for effects; but as a sense datum a colour can be nothing deeper to us than a colour.
But, says Russell, asking, what is the colour of that wall, say, he points out correctly that in the evening when the sun is going down it looks a very different colour than it does at midday when the sun is at its height; and again in the early evening when the street lights show it in yet another very different colour. No single colour which it displays is the definitive colour of the wall, even though we might, for convenience and for general agreement, call it a green or a blue wall.
So that not even our primary sense data like colours are pin-downable in fact, in actuality; and so Russell goes on to ask, how might people rely on the belief and assumption that what they see is ‘reality’; how might we concede that the buck on being and existence stops with what our senses are telling us; when they are telling us different and incompatible things about the same object at different times: and is there any reason to think that there is nothing behind, beyond, primary sense data, and that these possible things are things which we canot sense or have temporal knoweledge of except by means of something which we call specualtion.
Here we have then a parallel to the Random Genetic Mutation debacle – in that empirical science can proceed no further in its regard once this random element in mutation is posited as having been reached– cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war – chaos is come again – but philosophy and theology are able to boldly go further. Yet on the other hane whereas our sense organs on their own can proceed no further than to perceive sense data, but reasoning on the instability of these percieved sense data (colours diffentiating at different times of day for instance) leads our minds to consider a possibility of the sense data themselves being not the actual last word on what is real and what is not real, and that there is a powerful possibility that beyond behind sense data there might be a further deeper level or two, or maybe more, of reality to be considered?
What is the evidence you might ask, for any suspected deeper level of reality being present in fact? Well, it cannot be the evidence empirical science can offer, of course. But nonetheless empirical science helps us here, perhaps rather inadvertantly so. Let me explain by example.
It seems to many of us of late that we have seen several unmanned space probes to the outer solar system; and these probes have sent back data and images which have thorougholy overturned all previous accpeted understanding of what was to be expected to be found on the moons of Jupiter and in the rings of Saturn. Everyone, especially the astronomers and those in related fields of science, have been uterly surprised by what these distant probes into space have shown to us. I take the items of revelation which have caused this surprise collectively to be an instance of the unreliability of assumed facts marshaled as a result of working with scant and to some extent controvertial data, even data being empiricaly observed or else based on observation.
Without doubt such revelations as the larger planets have given us of late, tells me that the field is wide open still on human endeavour for knowledge. Despite Bertrand Russell himself; and Stephen Hawking himself having been confiident that very soon physics and the sciences will be all completed and sewn up as studies and disciplines – with only the smaller detail left to be worked out; despite their eminences this is not so,. The quest will go on and maybe indefinitely; for ‘God’s ways are unsearchable’ in the final instance. There I have given myself away, haven’t I – I believe in A Guiding Hand – I belive in God.
So although empirically, at least at present, it is too big a job to try to affirm genetic mutation is indeed random – frankly I don’t see how empirically this might be proven at all – then this means that – at least for now – and in my opinion for always – we are not allowed by the fact of science and buy the law of humility in all things – to propoposed with any soundness – and rather not allowed at all to be dogmatic – about random genetic mutation, but allow it as yet another possibility in the cloud of the general panorama of specualtion.
But why do I myself so strongly posit God as being amongst this very nebulous and amorphous general cloud of specualtion? Well, it’s a long story; as far as I’m concerned you can read about it empirically in The Bible. And then you might go and also meditate upon it, speculate on the skies and on the electron dance, and the local sunset; about how despite random genetic mutation all things have a place as says The Book of Ecclesiasites, a motion, a delimitation, and boundaries; and yet all intermingles with all, and coalesces in a way which for the greater part supports all life, existence and being in a marvelous ineffable and unsearchable singularity of holisticness.
Looking at the whole of things, one best sees in this way in our present surroundings the mind behind them, the love, and the grace, and the sheer power of creation.
I offered earlier to you some thoughts on the belief inherent in the usage of ‘doing words’ – parts of speech known as verbs – to describe evolution as an entity. I said that to say something living ‘evolves’ or ‘has evolved’ or ‘is evolving’ is to propose that that living thing is active, is doing something.
Yet, and this is where holistic ideas enter in, evolution is represented by science as being straight accommodations to new environments (adaptation) and this accommodation based on thos eplaces wherever genetic mutation in its offspring likes to take living things as species. Another mere accommodation then. These accommodations have appparently no consciousness located within the living thing itself, nor belonging in any way to the living thing itself, so as to acti as a guide or director to its future offspring. In this way people concede evolution to be ‘blind’. I don’t want to analyse this any further. Most of you know what I am meaning.
The genetic mutations coupled with the environment together make all the preconditions for any changes to offspring of items of species. But the environment is not working in isolation; it is part of the Gaia; which is part of The Solar System; part of ‘The Milky Way’; part of space and beyond too perhaps. Like those letter addresses you used to delight in writing as a kid. The whole thing is one and single. A polar bear at The Restaurant at the End of The Universe sneezes and in the Amazon jungle a flowering orchid drops a pearl of morning dew to the rainforest floor; and all is one and the one leads into the other and back again, forward and backwards, here and there and madly in multiple exponentials beyond count in their ramifications and concatenations. Nothing remains unconnected, unaltered.
All our joint life experiences in every item of their particulars is able to confirm this interactional, intertwined, intergalactical holisticness. Look into your own and confirm it for yourself.
This is not necessarilly determinism; God’s ways are inscrutable beyond measure. And who are we to second-guess him on his most impenetrable, magnificent, and wonderful, mysteries of creation?
I would not like to say that human freedom is illusory – in my hope and desire for a fulfillment by God of his promises to humankind I stay with the belief that we have free-will and ability to choose indeed.
Yet as far as we as a human species evolve within and as part of a natural order we do so without our knowledge or our infleunce being able to affect it; just like the rest of living and non-living nature. Change goes on all around us for all things all the time and we call it natural.
Of us affirming an absolute certainty placed somewhere discretely within things created; our Lord has this to say; also at the same time he is pointing out that all change in nature is not controlled discretely, particularly, anywhere within nature itself:
“Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne: Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.
Offspring of items of species then, do not ‘evolve’ in any active sense – like everything else they go seamlessly, blindly, without volition or aversion, along with the flow of all things. This flow; just as the probes that recently we sent to the outer planets have shown us; brings us ever-unexpected, ever-surprising new and novel things into our lives and our world; and these things are all part of the astonishing glory of God’s grace love and condescension.