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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.