Answering Chopra

20 August 2006 at 12:24 am 5 comments

Deepak Chopra, a leading alternative medicine doctor, has posted a few arguments against evolution on The Huffington Post. Chopra is attempting to save intelligent design from being “hijacked by religious drama,” hoping he can pull the debate between evolution and ID from the realm of politics.

Chopra’s questions all seem like reruns of other arguments against evolution, but that is precisely why I’d like to post them, along with simple answers. I look at the questions as being asked by someone who does not understand evolution, or has it misconstrued, and, if that’s the case, the person asking should receive good answers.

1. How does nature take creative leaps? In the fossil record there are repeated gaps that no “missing link” can fill. The most glaring is the leap by which inorganic molecules turned into DNA.

There are a few theories as to how DNA–or, more importantly, organic molecules–were formed. Since Earth is around 4.5 billion years old, versus the the universe’s 13-14 billion years, I’d bet that any chemical reaction creating organic molecules happened before Earth existed. Even if the evolution of organic molecules happened on our planet, fossilization (in its many forms) preserves the remains of animals and plants, specifically their body structures or footprints. (A good walkthrough of the different processes of fossilization can be read here.) I think it would be rather difficult (read: impossible) to fossilize the “creative leap” between molecules.

2. If mutations are random, why does the fossil record demonstrate so many positive mutations — those that lead to new species — and so few negative ones? Random chance should produce useless mutations thousands of times more often than positive ones.

Because Chopra is correct about the magnitude of useless mutations, he should be able to answer his own question. The negative and/or useless mutations will not be selected by natural selection (they do not aide in the passing-on of genes), which means only individuals will have these mutations. There are no set calculations of the rate of fossilization, but it is almost certain that one single individual (with a useless mutation) that lives twenty years will have less of a chance to be fossilized than one of the individuals in a population (with a positive mutation) that has been extant for four hundred years.

Each row represents a different mutation. The animals that do not make it past two individuals had useless or negative mutations. The animals that continue across the graph had a positive mutation. The orange animals are fossilized, while the black are not.
[Sorry, the image has been lost in the shuffle..]
It is much more likely to find fossils of a species that existed over a long period of time (thanks to a positive mutation) than an individual that lived only a single lifetime (no thanks to a negative mutation).

3. How does evolution know where to stop? The pressure to evolve is constant; therefore it is hard to understand why evolution isn’t a constant. Yet sharks and turtles and insects have been around for hundreds of millions of years without apparent evolution except to diversify among their kind.

Evolution hasn’t stopped and will not stop unless environmental circumstances cease to change. The issue many people have with evolution is that it is difficult to grasp the amount of time required to evolve new species. Also, gradual steps make it hard to discern between one species and a transitional individual. Chopra goes on to say that sharks, turtles, and insects are not evolving, only diversifying “among their kind.” First, “kind” is not a term used in biology, but is rather popular in the ID crowd. Second, species of sharks, turtles, and insects are evolving (what Chopra calls “to diversify”), and this can and may develop new species over a period of time.

The hawthorn fly may be on its way to a new species.

4. Evolutionary biology is stuck with regard to simultaneous mutations. One kind of primordial skin cell, for example, mutated into scales, fur, and feathers. These are hugely different adaptations, and each is tremendously complex. How could one kind of cell take three different routes purely at random?

A common misconception stated by someone that truly does not understand the theory of evolution is that it is a random process. The closest evolution gets to being random is the element of chance; the chance of a genetic mutation giving an individual more or better opportunities to pass on its genes. Through natural selection, mutations that enhance the reproductive success of their possessors will be passed on to future generations, while negative mutations will not (because an individual with a negative mutation, for example, may not live to mate).

Thus, a single cell could, through natural selection and a very long period of time, perfect environmental conditions, and several steps (many of them not selected because they are negative), evolve into scales, furs, and feathers.

5. If design doesn’t imply intelligence, why are we so intelligent? The human body is composed of cells that evolved from one-celled blue-green algae, yet that algae is still around.

An evolved trait for one species is not necessarily beneficial to another species. This key point explains why blue-green algae is still extant, as well as humans. Intelligence, under current circumstances, is not beneficial to blue-green algae, but it was to the protohumans 160,000 or some years ago. It is also important to point out that a trait can only evolve from making slight mutations to existing features. Blue-green algae, as opposed to protohumans, does not have the required features that billions of years of evolution had developed in our closest ancestors.

6. Why do forms replicate themselves without apparent need? The helix or spiral shape found in the shell of the chambered nautilus, the center of sunflowers, spiral galaxies, and DNA itself seems to be such a replication.

Spiral or circular shapes are more easily added on to than other shapes. Basically, the shapes found in certain organisms (or items in nature) are that way because they are efficient patterns for growth. It is hard to imagine a trapezoid nautilus or a square Earth–though some people did.

7. What happens when simple molecules come into contact with life? Oxygen is a simple molecule in the atmosphere, but once it enters our lungs, it becomes part of the cellular machinery, and far from wandering about randomly, it precisely joins itself with other simple molecules, and together they perform cellular tasks, such as protein-building, whose precision is millions of times greater than anything else seen in nature. If the oxygen doesn’t change physically–and it doesn’t–what invisible change causes it to acquire intelligence the instant it contacts life?

When a simple molecule comes in contact with “life,” it reacts, either by binding with other simple molecules which make up “life” or rebounding off them. Oxygen, like all other molecules, moves through space according to the laws of physics. It also follows these physics while in our bloodstream, heart, and lungs. For Chopra to believe that oxygen becomes intelligent when it enters the human body, I have to wonder if he deserves his M.D.

8. How can whole systems appear all at once? The leap from reptile to bird is proven by the fossil record. Yet this apparent step in evolution has many simultaneous parts. … If you look at how a bird is constructed, with hollow bones, toes elongated into wing bones, feet adapted to clutching branches instead of running, etc., none of the mutations by themselves give an advantage to survival, but taken altogether, they are a brilliant creative leap.

This question seems eerily similar to William Paley’s argument for design, the watch analogy. It is ignorant to believe that nature must take “creative leaps” to produce species or their features. Zoologist Dan Erik-Nilsson provides a beautiful refutation to the idea that evolution could not have gradually developed the eye. Erik-Nilsson describes how even “5% of an eye” is more beneficial (and therefor likely to be passed on to future generations) than no eye.

It is also interesting to see how simultaneous evolution of particular muscles and bones in reptiles evolved into the middle ear bones of mammals.

9. Darwin’s iron law was that evolution is linked to survival, but it was long ago pointed out that “survival of the fittest” is a tautology. Some mutations survive, and therefore we call them fittest. Yet there is no obvious reason why the dodo, kiwi, and other flightless birds are more fit; they just survived for a while.

Survival isn’t the essence of evolution or natural selection–the passage of genes to the next generation is the key. Darwin didn’t even use the phrase “survival of the fittest,” Herbert Spencer (a liberal political theorist) coined it.

The dodos, kiwis, and other organisms survived because they were “fit” for the environment of the time. Extinction took them out not because they were weak, but because they were only “fit” for the environment for a period of time. Much like many other organisms–maybe even humans.

10. Competition itself is suspect, for we see just as many examples in Nature of cooperation.

A theory called inclusive fitness explains this question rather thoroughly. An organism’s ultimate goal is to keep their genes present within a population, and to do this there must be offspring for generations and generations.

An individual may perform altruistic actions in order to protect the population as a whole. A bee will kill itself (minus one organism, saving five hundred) instead of having a predator destroy the entire hive (minus five hundred organisms).

11. How did symbiotic cooperation develop? Certain flowers, for example, require exactly one kind of insect to pollinate them. A flower might have a very deep calyx, or throat, for example than only an insect with a tremendously long tongue can reach.

Much like question #8, evolution doesn’t have to create “perfect” or “specialized” systems all at once.

Let’s play the hypothetical game.

Say a certain flower has its pollen in a very accessible position, allowing many types of insects to land on the pollen and carry it to other flowers. The downside, the pollen is easily blown away by wind–much of the pollen isn’t reaching other flowers (to produce offspring). Through genetic mutation, a new flower evolves where the pollen is slightly further down the throat. Only a select type of insect can now reach the pollen and deposit it on another flower. But even though less insects may be able to reach the pollen, the wind will not blow it away. In this situation, in the environment, at this time, this new flower is more successful at producing offspring than the first. The latter spreads its pollen more efficiently and subsequently “takes over” the first flower’s real estate.

Another mutation takes the pollen back even further into the throat of the flower, and now most of the insects that could reach it before can’t anymore. But, a mutation in an insect giving it a longer proboscis allows it to reach the pollen. The new mutation of the insect is selectively more “fit” than insects without the long nose (it can reach nourishment where the others can’t) and more long-nosed insects will be produced than short-nosed. This shift in proboscis sizes will also increase the amount of deep-throated flowers, as more long-nosed insects spread the pollen of the new flower.

This may be considered coevolution, but, honestly, I am not sure.

12. Finally, why are life forms beautiful? Beauty is everywhere in Nature, yet it serves no obvious purpose. Once a bird of paradise has evolved its incredibly gorgeous plumage, we can say that it is useful to attract mates. But doesn’t it also attract predators, for we simultaneously say that camouflaged creatures like the chameleon survive by not being conspicuous.

I would have liked to end with a bang, but I don’t really think I can with this question. Beauty is subjective. Humans see beauty, much like humans see patterns. Some humans see one thing as beautiful, others see something else.

But beauty aside, I think Chopra’s question is about sexual selection, and how it works when pitted against survival. Sexual selection is a form of natural selection that selects traits that increase the likelihood of mating (whereas natural selection increases the likelihood of passing on genes). Peacocks use their flashy tail feathers to attract mates, rams have larger horns, etc. These traits allow the males (in these species) to compete with each other to “win” a mate.

It may seem strange that the peacock’s feathers could help its success, instead of attracting many predators. But, think of it this way: a male that has many offspring in a short lifetime is more successful than one that has few offspring in a long lifetime. More offspring means more genes have been passed into the next generation, and, like question #10, an organism’s ultimate goal is to keep genes in the population.

I’ve had an interesting time answering these questions, and hope I did so thoroughly. It required me to do more reading and brush up on certain topics, and I’ve come across a few fascinating facets of the theory of evolution I hadn’t read before.

The Talk.Origins Archive was very helpful for me in my search to answer these questions. And if any of my (non-existent) readers have any questions, please leave me a comment, or check the Talk.Origins site.

I am not an evolutionary biologist, nor do I have a doctorate in Chemistry, nor am I even majoring in the sciences–but I believe that I have done enough reading and learning to adequately answer Chopra’s concerns.

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Entry filed under: Science.

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Ian  |  21 August 2006 at 1:12 am

    have you accepted our lord and saviour jesus christ into your heart?

    Reply
  • 2. Zach  |  21 August 2006 at 4:37 pm

    No, but he was in my digestive tract at one point in time when I ate his flesh and drank his blood in church.

    Reply
  • 3. hollowware  |  28 May 2008 at 4:22 pm

    hollowware says : I absolutely agree with this !

    Reply
  • 4. Hackneyed  |  18 June 2008 at 1:05 pm

    Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation 🙂 Anyway … nice blog to visit.

    cheers, Hackneyed
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    Reply
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