September 2, 2004


The Origin of Biological Information and the Higher Taxonomic Categories (Stephen C. Meyer, August 28, 2004, Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington)

In a recent volume of the Vienna Series in a Theoretical Biology (2003), Gerd B. Muller and Stuart Newman argue that what they call the “origination of organismal form” remains an unsolved problem. In making this claim, Muller and Newman (2003:3-10) distinguish two distinct issues, namely, (1) the causes of form generation in the individual organism during embryological development and (2) the causes responsible for the production of novel organismal forms in the first place during the history of life. To distinguish the latter case (phylogeny) from the former (ontogeny), Muller and Newman use the term “origination” to designate the causal processes by which biological form first arose during the evolution of life. They insist that “the molecular mechanisms that bring about biological form in modern day embryos should not be confused” with the causes responsible for the origin (or “origination”) of novel biological forms during the history of life (p.3). They further argue that we know more about the causes of ontogenesis, due to advances in molecular biology, molecular genetics and developmental biology, than we do about the causes of phylogenesis--the ultimate origination of new biological forms during the remote past.

In making this claim, Muller and Newman are careful to affirm that evolutionary biology has succeeded in explaining how preexisting forms diversify under the twin influences of natural selection and variation of genetic traits. Sophisticated mathematically-based models of population genetics have proven adequate for mapping and understanding quantitative variability and populational changes in organisms. Yet Muller and Newman insist that population genetics, and thus evolutionary biology, has not identified a specifically causal explanation for the origin of true morphological novelty during the history of life. Central to their concern is what they see as the inadequacy of the variation of genetic traits as a source of new form and structure. They note, following Darwin himself, that the sources of new form and structure must precede the action of natural selection (2003:3)--that selection must act on what already exists. Yet, in their view, the “genocentricity” and “incrementalism” of the neo-Darwinian mechanism has meant that an adequate source of new form and structure has yet to be identified by theoretical biologists. Instead, Muller and Newman see the need to identify epigenetic sources of morphological innovation during the evolution of life. In the meantime, however, they insist neo-Darwinism lacks any “theory of the generative” (p. 7).

As it happens, Muller and Newman are not alone in this judgment. In the last decade or so a host of scientific essays and books have questioned the efficacy of selection and mutation as a mechanism for generating morphological novelty, as even a brief literature survey will establish. Thomson (1992:107) expressed doubt that large-scale morphological changes could accumulate via minor phenotypic changes at the population genetic level. Miklos (1993:29) argued that neo-Darwinism fails to provide a mechanism that can produce large-scale innovations in form and complexity. Gilbert et al. (1996) attempted to develop a new theory of evolutionary mechanisms to supplement classical neo-Darwinism, which, they argued, could not adequately explain macroevolution. As they put it in a memorable summary of the situation: “starting in the 1970s, many biologists began questioning its (neo-Darwinism's) adequacy in explaining evolution. Genetics might be adequate for explaining microevolution, but microevolutionary changes in gene frequency were not seen as able to turn a reptile into a mammal or to convert a fish into an amphibian. Microevolution looks at adaptations that concern the survival of the fittest, not the arrival of the fittest. As Goodwin (1995) points out, 'the origin of species--Darwin's problem--remains unsolved'“ (p. 361). Though Gilbert et al. (1996) attempted to solve the problem of the origin of form by proposing a greater role for developmental genetics within an otherwise neo-Darwinian framework,1 numerous recent authors have continued to raise questions about the adequacy of that framework itself or about the problem of the origination of form generally (Webster & Goodwin 1996; Shubin & Marshall 2000; Erwin 2000; Conway Morris 2000, 2003b; Carroll 2000; Wagner 2001; Becker & Lonnig 2001; Stadler et al. 2001; Lonnig & Saedler 2002; Wagner & Stadler 2003; Valentine 2004:189-194).

What lies behind this skepticism? Is it warranted? Is a new and specifically causal theory needed to explain the origination of biological form?

This review will address these questions. It will do so by analyzing the problem of the origination of organismal form (and the corresponding emergence of higher taxa) from a particular theoretical standpoint. Specifically, it will treat the problem of the origination of the higher taxonomic groups as a manifestation of a deeper problem, namely, the problem of the origin of the information (whether genetic or epigenetic) that, as it will be argued, is necessary to generate morphological novelty.

We're pretty dubious about Intelligent Design, but the rubbishing of neo-Darwinism is amusing. Our kids' kids will likely have textbooks that deal with Darwin in just one paragraph, one in which he's grouped with Bishop Ussher.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 2, 2004 5:34 PM

How about someone writing "The origin of orders" or "Origin of Families"? (As in "Kingdom, Phylum, class, order family, genus, and species").

Evolution sounded more convincing when it could explain why cougars and lions could look alike coming from a common ancestor, being separate species. I suspect, as we learn more of the genome, that maybe you can't get there from here.

Posted by: Ptah at September 2, 2004 10:04 PM

I think it will be more like Newton--correct, but incomplete.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at September 3, 2004 7:45 AM

Jeff --

I don't think so.

While the Einstein 'myth' (that which explains the 'meaning' of the math) is very different from the Newton 'myth', the math is (in the Special Theory) trivially different.

While the implications of that difference in the math are quite great, the STR is a very minor modification of Newton's math.

The General Theory of Relativity on the other hand is much more complex and still much less soundly based (than the STR).

On the other hand, Darwin's Origin of Species is mostly hand waving. The only supporting evidence has turned out to be fraudulent.

Darwinism quiets the unsettled stomach of dedicated atheists and anti-religionists but it does not actually do a better job than the creation theory.

For me, neither works very well but then I don't agonize over the fact that my personal world view has some holes in it.

Posted by: Uncle Bill at September 3, 2004 10:40 AM

"We're pretty dubious about Intelligent Design"

You are??

Posted by: Robert Duquette at September 3, 2004 1:54 PM

Since no one in the darwinian community proposes that life went 'from fish into amphibian,' it's a non-issue.

Think of it as an MRI. No slice tells you much, does it?

But we still rely on MRI's to tell us what's wrong with us, don't we?

Posted by: Harry Eagar at September 3, 2004 2:17 PM

MRI's tell you how you went from fish to amphibian?

Posted by: oj at September 3, 2004 2:23 PM

Little bits of information, each uninformative in itself, add up to an answer.

That's why we don't quit school after first grade, Orrin.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at September 3, 2004 7:12 PM

An answer.

Posted by: oj at September 3, 2004 7:45 PM

OJ, I'm still waiting for an explanation of your shocking claim that you are dubious about Intelligent Design. Did you experience an epiphany recently, or possibly a hockey-puck to the cranium?

For our grandchildren's textbooks to treat Darwinism as some intellectual dead end will require a new and better theory of the origin and evolution of species in the next 30 years. Which nascent theory, visible on the horizon now, do you expect to garner the mantle of primacy?

Harry is right regarding the fallacy of 'fish to amphibian'. A better way to describe it is that life went from 'proto fishy-amphibian' to fish and amphibian, with many intermediate stages along the way.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at September 4, 2004 12:38 AM

I.D. is an official scientific movement at this point, offering explanations that are just as dubious as Darwinism or Creationism.

I'm a Skeptic.

Posted by: oj at September 4, 2004 1:01 AM

There are no 'official' scientific movements. Science is whatever research program has interested scientists at the moment.

There is no ID research being conducted. Therefore, whatever it may be, it ain't science

Posted by: Harry Eagar at September 4, 2004 3:18 PM



Posted by: oj at September 4, 2004 5:37 PM

True, though. As scientists like to say, science is what scientists do.

Like 'evolution,' there is no platonic 'science' that exists outside of human activity.

And also like evolution, there is a winnowing effect. Many are called, few chosen

Posted by: Harry Eagar at September 5, 2004 6:28 PM