Sometimes I get sidetracked from what I think are more important topics of discussion to things that are arguably less consequential. This is one of those times. So, instead of writing about convergent evolution, or intelligent design in Prometheus1, today I’ll be touching on the “bioessentialist” views of James Barham, an atheistic, yet anti-naturalistic, blogger over at TheBestSchools.org.
Normally I wouldn’t bother engaging with a person so confused, but he’s now regularly mentioned by Evolution News & Views and Uncommon Descent, the two most popular pro-intelligent design blogs, so they at least think he’s worthy of attention, which – while not saying much – is enough to get me interested. And upon reading some of his latest thoughts on the topic of evolution, there’s quite a bit there that merits discussion, at least with the goal of clarifying the links between evolution, genetics, molecular biology, emergence and reductionism.
In short, Barham believes that heredity/reproduction should be subservient to metabolism/physiology when trying to understand the fundamental nature of life. If this doesn’t make much sense, bear with me: it might be about to make a whole lot less sense. Perhaps. Hopefully I’ll be able to clear up some of the twisted logic, but I’m not going to promise anything.
Let’s begin with his list of ideas that all “Darwinists” (read: mainstream evolutionary biologists and people that accept the consensus position of evolutionary biology) believe:
There are so many things wrongs [sic] with the Darwin-determined way most of us think about life, it is hard to know where to start.
Here is a short list of widely accepted ideas that dominate most discussions of life and evolution, either explicitly or implicitly:
The Darwinian View of Life
- There is no deep difference between living and nonliving matter; therefore, it is idle to seek “essential” properties or a “definition” of life.
- In any case, the most fundamental fact about a living thing is its ability to undergo natural selection.
- Therefore, evolution—and hence replication—are conceptually more fundamental than physiology (or “metabolism”).
- Therefore, DNA is more important than the other main chemical components of the cell: proteins bound to water and/or lipid membranes.
- Therefore, genes are fundamental and the most important question to be asked about any functional trait is its evolutionary origin; everything else is just biochemical detail.
- In this way, the seemingly teleological and normative features of living things can be “reduced” to the effects of the genes, and so satisfactorily explained by the theory of random genetic mutation and natural selection.
That Barham has not cited a single paper, expert or statement by any professional scientific organisation to back up these declarations is extremely telling. Why? Because they’re not representative of the views of most, if not all, of the evolutionary biologists I know. There’s so much wrong here it’s hard to think of where to start, so let’s just go through them one by one.
There is no deep difference between living and nonliving matter; therefore, it is idle to seek “essential” properties or a “definition” of life.
Providing a definition for “life” is a contentious issue in philosophy of biology, even amongst those philosophers and biologists who fully accept the mainstream consensus of evolutionary theory, so Barham isn’t being honest when he claims that “Darwinism”2 necessarily means that life has no definition.
But putting that aside, what does he mean by “deep difference” in this instance? That life and non-life are different states of matter? That’s probably the deepest possible distinction you can make under the current models of physics we have, and it isn’t remotely true – the organic chemistry revolution, arguably started in 1828 by Friedrich Wöhler’s successful attempt at synthesising urea, has irrefutably demonstrated that living things are composed of the same physical kinds of matter as non-living things (non-baryonic objects excluded). Proteins are composed of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen, sulfur, phosphorus and a few other elements in vanishing abundance, all of which can be used to form smaller, inorganic molecules. Biochemistry is a subsection of chemistry generally: this is something that I’m not sure Barham would argue with, but if so, at what level does his “deep difference” reside?
So if there is no “deep difference” between the atoms comprising a cell and those comprising a rock, are living and non-living things therefore identical? Most, if not all, biologists and philosophers don’t think so. If the differences aren’t at the level of fundamental physical particles, then they must reside in the specific organisations of the matter comprising living and non-living things. Just as a cell containing nucleic acids is alive, yet a microfuge tube full of nucleic acids isn’t, life is most likely an emergent property that certain configurations of matter possess – and it is the certain kinds of configurations and the resulting emergent properties that are debated amongst those seeking a definition of life. Is life a local, sustained decrease in entropy? Or perhaps a series of perpetuating chemical reactions? Maybe it’s a configuration of matter that is able to copy its configuration and replicate? Or even a chemical system able to undergo natural selection? The philosophical jury’s still out. But the main point here is that accepting “Darwinism” doesn’t mean that a definition of life suddenly becomes meaningless – otherwise most academics would have given up on it a long time ago.
In any case, the most fundamental fact about a living thing is its ability to undergo natural selection.
Well this can’t be true right off the bat, because individuals don’t undergo natural selection, populations do. But let’s conflate individuals and populations for the sake of argument and grant the premise that individuals can undergo natural selection: would evolutionary biologists say this is the most fundamental fact about an organism? Probably not. While natural selection, along with a whole lot of other evolutionary mechanisms, would have been instrumental in the existence of an organism, once it is exists, that organism is free to simply exist – its subsequent existence is not dependent on natural selection acting upon it. Take, for example, a genetically-modified bacterium that has been stripped of its ability to express cell-division machinery. It would be invisible to natural selection, but for as long as it exists in its environment and every other cellular process is occurring normally (metabolism, cell movement, gene expression, etc.), biologists would classify it as alive. In a larger population of bacteria who are able to reproduce normally (and hence have a fitness of 1, compared to our modified bacterium’s fitness of 0), it would still be classified as alive, even though natural selection is not going to treat it favourably.
We’re starting to see that Barham’s points don’t reflect the true views of evolutionary biologists and that he’s going to be arguing against a straw-man. But let’s continue anyway.
Therefore, evolution—and hence replication—are conceptually more fundamental than physiology (or “metabolism”).
As I think I’ve demonstrated, biologists don’t believe this is the case. Note that you can’t have reproduction – and evolution – without metabolism, so in some sense it’s meaningless to try and separate the two in most organisms. Most attempted definitions of life try to incorporate both, in fact.
Therefore, DNA is more important than the other main chemical components of the cell: proteins bound to water and/or lipid membranes.
Untrue. As every biology student knows, DNA doesn’t just replicate or express proteins and non-coding RNA itself. Many biologists have hypothesised about a minimal set of characteristics a cell would require in order to exist (in modern conditions), and all of them include more than simply a genome.
Therefore, genes are fundamental and the most important question to be asked about any functional trait is its evolutionary origin; everything else is just biochemical detail.
It depends what Barham means by “important question”. Certainly, if you want to know how a trait arose, its evolutionary origin is necessary knowledge, but for almost all possible traits, their biochemical characteristics (or “details”, as Barham would say) are intricately tied to their evolutionary origin, especially for those that are adaptive.
Take a hypothetical enzyme, E, that breaks down one molecule of A into one molecule of B. B can be used as a source of energy by the rest of metabolic enzymes in the cell, therefore when E is expressed, A can be considered a food source for the cell. In environments with limited non-A food, but an abundance of A, having the gene that encodes E (gE) and expressing it is an advantage, so we would say that gE is an adaptive trait. Now, if we want to know anything about the origin of gE, its ability to catalyse the conversion of A into B is certainly a necessary consideration, as are any other biochemical properties gE or E has – such as potential interactions with other proteins in the cytoplasm, expression profiles, optimal temperature for enzyme activity, cell localisation of E, etc. Biochemistry (and genetics, cell biology, molecular biology, etc.) informs our understanding of evolution.
As such, to state that evolutionary biologists are not interested in how the traits they are studying actually work is a gross mischaracterisation, one that can be countered by looking absolutely anywhere in the evolution literature. The work I do as a volunteer in the Robin Lab at Bio21 involves insecticide resistance alleles and their evolutionary origins, from ecological, genetic and biochemical perspectives, so I know firsthand how the disciplines are tied together.
In this way, the seemingly teleological and normative features of living things can be “reduced” to the effects of the genes, and so satisfactorily explained by the theory of random genetic mutation and natural selection.
Not every trait of an organism is a product of its genes: that’s why a core concept in genetics is “Phenotype = Genotype + Environment”. However, every process by which an organism could be considered to be making a “decision” (this is what Barham refers to as “teleology”, although the extent to which he believes all organisms are sentient and intelligent is murky) at some point passes through the genotype: be it gene regulatory networks, effects of gene expression, etc. This doesn’t mean the behaviour of organisms can be fully mapped to the activity of their genome, transcriptome, proteome, etc., as the environment can still play a part in affecting phenotype, but genotypic considerations are vital.
Barham seems to want to dispute the above statements by inserting an extra factor into the phenotype equation: Phenotype = Genotype + Environment + Intelligence/Teleology/Agency. By having that extra factor there, he is able to call into question the explanatory power of “Darwinism”, as it can only change the genotype of an organism, but not a mystical quality inherent to living things, irreducible to natural causes. But he offers no evidence for the existence of this factor, apart from appeals to the inability of “Darwinism” to evolve advanced behaviour modification and the powerful non-heritable adaptability of some organisms. While it’s true that for most of his examples no model for their evolution has been produced (in most cases due, in part, to their recent discovery), this is a far cry away from demonstrating that they could not have evolved.
So, Barham has rejected his straw-man version of “Darwinism” and replaced it with his own set of ideas:
The Bioessentialist View of Life
- There is a fundamental difference in kind between living and nonliving systems; the main task of biology is to understand the distinctive nature of living matter.
- The most fundamental fact about a living thing is its ability, by doing work selectively, to maintain itself in existence as the kind of physical system that it is.
- Therefore, metabolism is conceptually more fundamental than evolution or replication; in fact, replication—and perhaps to some extent even evolution itself—are under metabolic control.
- Therefore, the active agents of the cell—proteins bound to water and/or lipid membranes—are more important than genes, which are just passive templates that the cell makes use of as needed to maintain itself in existence.
- Therefore, metabolism is fundamental and the most important thing to ask about any functional trait is not its evolutionary origin, but rather what contribution it makes to metabolism—that is, to maintaining the system of which it is a part in existence.
- Since the teleological and normative features of life cannot be reduced to the genes or adequately explained by the theory of natural selection, we must seek to explain them directly—as an irreducible (or “emergent”) property of the living state of matter itself.
As each claim is essentially the opposite of its respective “Darwinian” claim, I don’t need to go into any detail critiquing them. However, there is a curious overarching claim at work here, that Barham touches on later: emergence is incompatible with reductionism.
The reason this is curious is that emergence seems to be a necessary consequence of reductionism: the concept of reductionism would seem to lose all meaning if the emergent characteristics of physical objects didn’t actually exist. To help me explain what I mean, imagine a car. Cars are – I hope you agree – made up solely of physical bits. Each bit of the car interacts with other bits in ways described by the laws of physics, and as such, we can look at the entire car as simply a collection of bits. However, the car has emergent properties: the most obvious one being its ability to move around by burning fuel. This movement is a consequence of the interaction of all or most of its bits, and it ceases to exist when the bits are no present or not in the right place. Movement is a property of the car as a whole, but that does not mean it cannot be explained by the individual actions of each bits of the car, working together. The only real difference between a reduced element (eg. a bit of the car) and an emergent characteristic (eg. the movement of the car) is that emergent characteristics require the simultaneous consideration of multiple reduced elements, while reduced elements stand on their own, independent from others. However, if emergence wasn’t a real thing, then the car wouldn’t be a car, it would simply be a collection of bits: the “reduced” view of the object would be the only view, and there would be no higher levels of consideration from which to view them. This is clearly not the case, as is obvious to all sentient creatures – we see collections of bits as emergent objects all the time. But our higher-level view doesn’t stop these objects from being solely comprised of bits.
As such, there’s nothing really all that mystical or supernatural about emergence within reductionist systems. There’s no part of the car that cannot be explained by the interaction of its bits, and therefore the emergent and reductionist views are complementary. There’s no conflict there. The same reasoning can be applied to living systems too: the emergent, behavioural properties of cells and organisms are a result of the interaction of multiple genes (as well as the environment), just as the properties of the car are a result of the interaction of multiple bits (as well as the environment). A cell cannot live in deep space, just as a car cannot drive in deep space.
So what’s the bottom line here? A “bioessentialist” view that posits a controlling intelligence in each organism isn’t necessary, at least given the argumentation presented by James Barham. Emergence is a consequence of reductionism, and reductionism is just how the physical universe works. Since there’s no conflict between modern evolutionary biology and reductionism, there’s no a priori conflict between the emergent properties of organisms and their naturalistic evolutionary origins.
Another curious note to end on: why is the intelligent design movement associating themselves with Barham? His bioessentialist views don’t follow logically from ID – it’s never been a tenet of ID that organisms themselves are necessarily intelligent, just that organisms (or their designs) are the product of some intelligence – and he doesn’t seem to be a likely sympathiser with the under-the-radar creationism of the main ID organisations. The only reason I can think of is that he appears, at first glance, to be a sophisticated critic of “Darwinism” – and the enemy of an enemy is a friend.
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