Where The REAL Action Is In Evolutionary Biology
AUTHOR: Allen MacNeill
SOURCE: Original essay
COMMENTARY: That's up to you...
Throughout the controversy over "intelligent design," it has occurred to me several times that the underlying problem in the ID vs evolution debate has centered around what could be called the "adaptationist program." As Lewontin and Gould pointed out in their "spandrels" paper, much of evolutionary biology from Darwin on has been shot through with a kind of "adaptationist ideology", in which the only things of interest are adaptations resulting from selection. Will Provine has pointed out that this focus, in a sense, simply replaces the God of the Bible with a "god" of natural selection.
What the last three decades of evolutionary biology at the molecular level have showed us is that the vast majority of evolutionary change is non-adaptational. Jukes, Kimura, Ohta, and others have conclusively shown that most of what happens at the genome level (and much of what happens at the proteome level) is non-adaptive. This new paradigm for evolution – the neutral theory – has been entirely ignored by "intelligent design theorists" and for good reason. Since it clearly isn't adaptive, then for a "designer" to have intervened to produce and/or guide it would argue that the "designer" is a kind of metaphysical dadaist who delights in pointlessness. Hence the insistence on the part of many IDers that there is no such thing as "junk DNA", nor even non-adaptive DNA (such as pseudogenes, transposon-derived regions, cDNA from retroviruses, etc.)
The relevence of this to the current discussion is this: by teaching students that evolution is all about adaptation, we miss some of the most interesting developments in recent theory and research. These developments decisively argue against the ID position and bring evolutionary biology much closer to the "modern" paradigm of quantum mechanical physics, in which "pointlessness" and randomicity underlies all of macroscopic reality. To paraphrase J.B.S. Haldane, the genome is not only queerer than we imagine, it is queerer than we can imagine.