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December 30, 2004

Nature's Nanotechnology

The Evolutionary Implausibilities Of Molecular Machines

British biochemist David Swift was initially quite happy with the orthodox neo-Darwinian theory of the origins and development of life. But increasingly, he became aware that its claims were incompatible with what he was learning about biology at the molecular level. While earlier evolutionary theorists were able to postulate yet-to-be-discovered underlying mechanisms as potential answers to the theory's problems, which they were aware of, this is no longer true now that the integrated systems of molecular machinery that support all living processes can be described with precision. The outcome was his book Evolution Under the Microscope: A Scientific Critique of the Theory of Evolution. As Swift himself points out, it was biological fact, not any philosophical or religious position, that motivated his work.

Nobody questions the capacity of species to adapt and change within limits, which long experiences with animal and plant breeding affirms. But extrapolating such processes beyond the evidence to account for new forms and body plans -- which is the essence of what Darwinism proposes -- amounts to pure speculation, not scientific fact. Just about all of the evidence cited in support is more readily explained by the shuffling, segregation, and selection of existing genes from genetically rich ancestral stocks than by the appearance of new genes. Selection can only select from what is already there to be selected from. And as Swift amply shows, the intricacies and interdependence of the molecular machinery involved in virtually every facet of living things, in which every one of scores or sometimes hundreds of component parts has to be just right for the whole to be capable of doing anything at all, makes notions of improvement from simple precursors by random mutations simply untenable. The term "self-replicating molecule," to take an example, is really a misnomer. The entire cell with its incredibly sophisticated factory of communications, data-handling, materials processing, production, feedback, and error-correction, is required to achieve self-replication. The DNA molecule just stores the information to direct the process. On its own, DNA is no more capable of duplicating itself than a document original without a Xerox machine.

This does not apply just to complex systems of cooperating units such as that governing cell duplication. Explaining the origin of every biological macromolecule poses comparable problems. To quote Swift himself (p.139): "It is no longer tenable to hide behind millions or even billions of years -- trying to argue that even the improbable becomes probable given time . . . The conclusion is plain and simple: the universe is not big enough or old enough, not by a factor of trillions of trillions of . . . , for the complexities of life to have arisen by random associations of simple organic molecules or of random mutations to proteins or nucleic acids."

Evolution Under The Microscope by David W. Swift, Leighton Academic Press, Stirling University, Scotland, UK, 2002

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