In “Natural Theology,” Reverend William Paley put forth the most appealing and untrue argument for creationism: All living things, Paley said, are too intricately designed to have come about by blind chance. They must have had a designer, some sort of intelligence to create them. Just as watches have a watchmaker, so too must animals – including us – and plants have an intelligent maker.
To Paley, this meant God (with a capital “G”), and more specifically, the Judeo-Christian-Islamic monotheistic “God.” The Reverend argued that this creative God was responsible for the complexity of living things—things that were far too improbable to come about in one single step. Of course, evolutionary biologists think this argument is as reasonable as it is elegant, and they have good reason to think so. In 1859, Darwin blew this argument out of the water. Cumulative natural selection, Darwin argued, was powerful enough to explain highly improbable things: things like you and me and dinosaurs and carnivorous plants and everything else.
However, many religious people do not understand the concept of the natural origin of life and sneak in God or some other intelligent or supernatural element to explain life. They think that evolution works in one single step, that it’s like wind blowing through a scrap yard and forming a perfect 747 plane from a pile of random parts. But, this isn’t how evolution works at all.
In order to understand how evolution works, and why it explains all the life there is and can be, one must return to the beginning of life before evolution, to a concept scientists call abiogenesis: the forming of living matter from non-living matter.
There are many reasons to believe life began in a chemical soup, or primordial soup. The pre-biotic environment contained many fatty acids which, under a range of acidic conditions, “spontaneously” formed stable vesicles. The vesicles are permeable to small organic molecules, without the need for complex protein machinery. Metabolism and growth in such vesicles are driven purely by thermodynamics. Simply put, monomers diffuse into a fatty acid vesicle.
Monomers then spontaneously polymerize and copy any template. The polymer backbone attracts ions, increases osmotic pressure, and this pressure drives the membrane’s growth at the expense of surrounding vesicles, which contain fewer polymers. These vesicles form tubule structures and are divided by purely mechanical forces in the ocean. Daughter vesicles inherit polymer vesicles from the parent vesicle. The polymer sequences that replicate faster will dominate the population, thus beginning evolution.
It is important to note that living things do not consciously evolve; they are forced to evolve because of mutations in their DNA. If genes had it their way, they would exist naked on this planet instead of inside the bodies they have built through evolution.
Creationists and their comrades in deception, proponents of “intelligent design,” have no explanation for the origin of life or the complexity, diversity and improbability of it. Their only argument is that “God did it,” which is a lazy cop-out that leaves them in a double bind; they then have to explain where God comes from. They basically shoot themselves in the foot because they use something complex to explain something complex, which is not an explanation at all.
Darwinism, on the other hand, is powerful enough to explain life because of its ability to deal, in simple terms, with the improbability and complexity of living things. It uses a simple rule: Random mutation and cumulative natural selection leads to gradual, incremental changes which, over long periods of time, leads to the complexity and diversity seen in living things.
For example, let’s take a population of three mice – one with dark fur, one with gray fur and one with white fur – that have to survive predation by birds. For survival, the mice have only two types of rocks to hide on: dark-colored rocks and white-colored rocks. The mice with dark and white fur are going to camouflage and survive better by blending in. The gray-colored mice, however, are going to be eaten because the mutation that caused the gray color is selected against and thus will not be passed on to future generations.
Biologists now understand, more or less, how natural selection works. Genes make copies of themselves. However, replication isn’t perfect and mistakes happen. Some mistakes are harmful to the organism, some are neutral and some are beneficial. The harmful mutations will be destroyed, while the beneficial mutations will spread into the population and become the new norm. Evolution is a continuous process that works in small ways to produce dramatic outcomes over time. That simple logic is something religions need to accept.
For more information, the Evolutionary Biology Club at UC Irvine meets every Wednesday at 4 p.m. in Natural Sciences II Room 4201.
Nathan Tumazi is a fourth-year international studies major and the president of the Evolutionary Biology Club. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.