October 24, 2007

MIT Biology Class - Reading Between the Lines (1)

I discovered last spring that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has been putting its courses online at no cost in what it calls its Open Courseware program. For each class this includes things like lecture notes, problem sets, reading assignments, and in some cases, the recorded lectures themselves. Having an interest in the sciences, and most recently, the debates over evolution vs. Intelligent Design, I decided it would be worth the time spent to listen through a course to get an overview of the latest-and-greatest teaching in biology.

This class was just what I was after, since it covered a lot of ground in a good bit of depth, from cellular composition, to cellular systems, to genetics and beyond. I also found it very enjoyable listening, and I was especially fond of the sessions taught by Professor Eric Lander, Director of the Broad Institute at MIT, and a principal leader of the Human Genome Project. His sessions were enthusiastic and often included glimpses into the cutting edge of genetics and medical science.

In fact, the class was handled by 4 different lecturers, and it should be noted that they all gave the nod to evolution. There were really no proofs offered for evolution, and nothing much really came up in the course of the lectures that I would consider implicit support for the theory. However, whenever the question of why any given biological system or behavior existed, it was simply asserted that it had evolved that way.

Of course, it might be argued that the "proofs" where absent for the very reason that this was not an "evolutionary biology" class, where proofs were the order of the day; but it should be noted that for those advocates of evolution, who insist that the science of biology cannot be engaged apart from Darwin's assumption, these professors did quite well in their instruction without dependence upon his theory. Perhaps what these people really mean is that one cannot have emotional satisfaction in this science without some explanatory device to fill the void of curiosity that arises upon witnessing the wonders of cellular biology. And since design is not allowed in "proper" science, one must have Darwin to sooth the restless heart.

What was nice is that in this classroom, isolated from the public debate over the theory of evolution, where rhetoric is thick and the data is selectively underscored, these instructors were completely candid and unguarded in what they shared and in their personal reactions. Of course, as one who is convinced of the truth of Intelligent Design, my radar was tuned to pick up evidence for design and difficulties for evolution. Even though these instructors had no intention of suggesting such things, I found that if I only read between the lines I gleaned a wealth of friendly materials.

While listening through the class I took the time to make notes, hoping to blog on them at some future point. I intend to do so now. Anyone interested in biology and/or Intelligent Design (ID) theory may find this stimulating and may wish to follow along. I aim to present this as a series that will consist of my individual lecture notes (perhaps a few per post) followed by my own thoughts. Each "lecture note" will contain some teaching or comment directly gleaned from the class. It will most often be my own paraphrase of the professor's words, but it will represent objective classroom content that is as free of my own "bias" as I can make it. My own personal reflection and application will follow each note.

So, without further adieu, I present the first collection of my observations on a MIT biology class.

Lecture Note:

In the introductory lecture, the professor reminisces about how different the class is from when he first took it himself, and even how different it is from when he first began to teach it. He points out that this is fairly unique to this field, since, for example, introductory mathematics and physics are based upon pretty much the same foundation knowledge that has been in place for decades or centuries. The main difference in biology is due to the fact that the cell has been discovered to be far more complicated than once realized. And more needs to be taken into account, at the very molecular level, in order to have even a basic understanding of what the cell is about.

My thoughts:

Indeed, in Darwin's time the cell was thought to be a mere blob of protoplasm. With that conception, it is far more understandable how one might image such a thing coming to exist by chance in some primordial, warm little pond, or how it might further evolve with minimal coaxing. However, in the intervening years, discovery after discovery has further unveiled the incredible complexity of what it is that must be explained. Any theoretical gains made in providing those explanations are quickly outpaced by the relentless hail of new discoveries. At some point it would seem reasonable to question the original theory of a chance-driven origin of life, especially when many of the alleged explanations are found to hit roadblocks or have counter-examples. If I show you a mound of miscellaneous bits of metal junk, and then tell you I've stirred it for a month and then found a skateboard in it, you may believe that. How about a unicycle? Maybe. But how about a 747?

Lecture Note:

The professor notes that none of the diagrams of the cell that the class is to see are accurate depictions of the true complexity of any given part of the cell. For instance, the cell wall is often shown as a membrane, perhaps with some embedded objects. In reality, it is a complex structure — with even a skeletal framework in Eukaryotes — packed with portals, pumps, and sensors.

My thoughts:

It should be understood that every structure in the cell is usually made up of numerous interrelated molecules that are precisely fitted for shape and electro-chemical properties. And behind the structures and molecular "machines" found throughout the cell, there is a host of supporting systems required to assemble, transport, power, and service them. The cell is a tightly packed container of super-molecules, which has rightly been compared to a city in its complexity and activity. The small step-wise gains that Darwin proposed would be unable to build most of the integrated systems found in the cell, much less the complex, dependent interactions between them. And since evolution does not "plan" for the future, it cannot accumulate the necessary parts in hopes of one day putting them all together to make an irreducibly complex structure (i.e., one that needs every one of its parts else it does nothing at all).

Some have proposed that simpler, similar systems could have been co-opted in the making of a more complex one, like the bacterial flagellum. But that is like saying that a skateboard could become a bicycle, which could become a motorcycle, which could become a car. While there is a certain functional progression here, there is also a whole lot of reengineering, not just small additions, that need to be done to get from one stage to the next. And remember, every intermediate stage must be operational and of some advantage to the cell, else it would not have come to survive and dominate over its peers. There are no evolutionary rental cars to be had while the motorcycle is in the shop being overhauled and reworked into a car; it must be effective and available for transportation throughout the process.

Lecture Note:

One passing reference to evolution was in a professor's review of the various features of the cell. The functionality was presented as "problems that the cell had to solve" and "solutions that it came up with." This would include things like interacting with the environment, acquiring energy sources, regulating the production of proteins, etc.

My thoughts:

This kind of language of intentionality is extremely common in the world of biology. For the most part, it is unconsciously done, and I'm sure that if I called this professor on it he would backpedal and look for some naturalistic way to express his point.

You see, according to evolutionary theory, the cell is just a sack of diverse chemicals. It does not intend anything and does not spend a moment looking for solutions to problems or improvements to itself. It thrives or perishes, reproduces or doesn't. If it had an insurmountable functional problem, it would simply cease to function. It would not lay around for days and years — certainly not generations — tinkering until it had found its solution. At every turn, at every stage of evolution, it and its peers must be viable creatures or go extinct.

If a problem arose to which the cell must adapt or die — like an environmental change in chemistry or temperature — it would not begin to spawn mutations in the hopes that one member of the colony would come up with the magic solution. No, the "solution" must already be resident in the community, or be miraculously produced in its last dying reproductive efforts. Evolution based on environmental pressure (to which appeal is often made) implies dramatic gains either in short time spans, or dramatic new features simply lying around in the cell for no purpose whatsoever until and in case chance comes to call.

Evolution evokes the idea of fortuitous mutations occurring at just the right time, or to satisfy just the right kind of need. But in reality, even when and if a cell might miraculously get a "good" mutation, it is still no guarantee that it is good in such a way as to satisfy the particular needs of a particular organism. For instance, if a cell were to suddenly acquire the ability to break down cellulose for food (like the bacteria in the stomach of a termite), that would be a good thing if cellulose were present in the environment. But if it were not, then this new ability would be no advantage at all. Indeed, it would be a hindrance, since the manufacture of the necessary enzymes would consume valuable resources that could be better used to help the organism flourish in its real environment. Our new multi-talented little cell would find itself out-competed by its less gifted peers, and would thus drown in the gene pool before it ever met up with a future piece of cellulose.

The order of the day for evolution is to adapt fast or die. There are no Boy Scouts, prepared for anything, in the Darwinian world. Having a backpack and pockets filled with goodies and tools may make you valuable to your fellow scouts, but on the rugged, shortsighted trails of Natural Selection it will only leave you in the dust of those carrying just what is needed to get over the next rise.

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At 10/24/2007 1:26 PM, Blogger SLW said...

I am sure this will prove to be a fascinating series. What a unique idea for a blog!

It always perks up my ears when evolutionists talk out of both sides of their mouths at once, by mentioning design or engineering, or anthropomorphize natural selection as if their was some unseen purposeful hand guiding evolution. It happens all the time in nature documentaries. I guess it happens in the most exclusive college classrooms in the country too.

At 10/24/2007 9:19 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Of course, we all know that "Mother Nature" did it. Or maybe Gaia. Or maybe the as yet undiscovered "self-organizing principle." Anything but a personal and Holy deity.

Just wait till you hear the remarks that Eric Lander makes when describing the construction and operation of the nerve cells! Priceless.

At 10/26/2007 7:45 PM, Blogger Jim Jordan said...

A great and informative read, Paul.
Thanks for sharing the secret about the free courses.

At 10/27/2007 11:22 AM, Anonymous Kam said...

I am looking forward to reading this series. I absolutely love biology...in fact, it was my major until I ended up at Bible college. After my baby gets over her flu, I'll look into those classes myself. Thanks for the information!
-Another "lurker"

At 10/27/2007 8:21 PM, Blogger Paul said...

And here I thought I'd be boring my readers! I'll definitely need to press on now.

Kam, my tracker shows you coming in from a town where one of my 1st cousins live. You wouldn't happen to know a Pruett there, would you?

At 10/27/2007 9:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Boring? I check your site almost daily waiting for more. I most certainly will enjoy this series.


At 10/27/2007 9:50 PM, Blogger ephphatha said...

Thanks for introducing me to the free MIT lectures. I've found other stuff out there, too, since then. This is all exciting since I just got an ipod about a month ago.

At 10/27/2007 11:19 PM, Blogger Paul said...

BTW gang, there's another biology course I see that MIT has audio lectures for.

iPods are great! I finally got one this summer and it's turned out to be the ideal tool for my listening needs. I have a long commute, so I get a huge amount of listening in per week. Sam, if you need tips on good materials to download, just let me know. I'm sure by now you've got a good start, though.

At 10/28/2007 12:57 PM, Anonymous Kam said...

If that said Pruett went to CIU then there is a possibility that I could potentially have met him or her. I don't know many people here that didn't attend that college besides those at my church and my neighbors.

At 10/28/2007 8:32 PM, Blogger Paul said...


I think he attended USC, and he claims to go to Shandon Baptist Church. I haven't met him in person since he's become a Christian.

At 10/28/2007 8:39 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Any of you science geeks actually interested in listening through the biology course should note that the early lectures lay down some chemistry groundwork, which is hard to follow (and maybe less interesting) in audio only. But not to worry, it soon gets past this and goes on to materials that are not as dependent upon the visuals, though sometimes you'll wish you could just get a quick peek at what they're workin' on that chalkboard.

At 11/03/2007 8:38 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Sorry about the delay gang. I've been arranging for a big vacation in March and have been a bit distracted, to say the least.

At 1/20/2014 6:01 AM, Blogger Aly V said...

There is no need for an overt mention of evolution. It is a given. In the scientific community, evolution has been well-substantiated by years of evidence.

At 1/21/2014 8:15 AM, Blogger Paul said...

I realize that it was not an Evolutionary Biology class, but my point was that there are those who would insist that evolution must be believed and must purvade biology, since nothing makes sense except in the light of it. However, the instructors managed to do just fine explaining the intricacies of biology without referencing evolution in any meaningful way. Indeed, they could have been Creationists and it would not have affected the content of the instruction.

I have seldom heard more than passing nods to evolution when reviewing biological systems, in any context. Theorists seem to specialize in finding similarities and appealing to common descent, but neglect the more difficult and concrete evidential path of explaining specifically how that descent plays out (or how it is even statistically probable that it work out). In my view, the years of "well-substantiated" evidence that you speak of looks more like just-so stories and circumstantial evidence, while the objections to the theory look like great chasms that chance must cross. It's like saying that Mr. X is guilty of a murder because he had a motive and his gun was used, but then discovering that at the time Mr. X was in the hospital in another state having an operation.


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