Modelling the claims of neo-Darwinism

Those Christians who reject the scientific claims of neo-Darwinism are often accused of being unhealthily motivated by a fundamentalist commitment to Christian faith in the face of the evidence and of not understanding the science sufficiently. In other words it is cast as science versus faith, a claim and distinction creation scientists do not accept.

Ard Louis discusses some of these themes on the Biologos forum from an evolutionary perspective and offers his thoughts on why so many evangelical Christians remain sceptical of Darwinism (1). I want to offer my thoughts here, as I believe that many are sceptical of the Darwinian assertions because they have very strong scientific reasons for taking such a position. In this article some of the reasons why it is so hard to model the claims of the neo- Darwinian position will be described. There is in fact a strong divergence between observation and theory and scientists should therefore be sceptical of such claims. It is not that we don't understand the science, but that we understand it and then reject it.

Modelling neo-Darwinism

As an example of the difficulty in modelling the neo-Darwinian claims I am going to start by assuming that the difference between the DNA of apes and humans is 1 percent, even though there are good reasons to believe that the real figure is significantly greater than this (see below). I am also going to allow that only 10 percent of DNA codes for proteins with the rest considered non-coding even though again there is strong evidence that so called ‘junk DNA' has vitally important functions within the cell.

The human genetic code (genome) contains 3 billion base-pair nucleotides and I will deal with the problem at this level. If there is considered to be 1 percent difference between apes and human beings at this level, and that this difference affects only the 10 percent of the genome that is considered functional, then there would be a difference of 3 million nucleotides between apes and people. In other words, what is required within this simple model to turn an ape into a human person is the occurrence of 3 million beneficial point mutations.

Now we need to consider the timeframe in which to find the 3 million beneficial point mutations. I am going to assume for the sake of this model that the necessary time frame is 6 million years as often stated by neo-Darwinists. If we allow an average individual generation period of only 10 years (roughly averaged between ape and man) then in 6 million years we would have 600,000 generations. So we would have 600,000 generations to find 3 million beneficial point mutations, or 5 per generation.

But even with these very conciliatory assumptions to the neo-Darwinian position the problem remains impossible to bridge because observations today do not match what the theory requires. What we can say from observational experience in the present time is that whole populations of a single species, such as human beings, are absolutely not fixing 5 beneficial point mutations per generation. In fact beneficial mutations are very rare even in individuals. So even with these optimistic assumptions the theoretical gap is not closed, but diverges. But not only do we have to find the 5 beneficial mutations per generation, we also have to fix these mutations in the population as a whole without overwhelming populations with harmful mutations, or secondly, without causing the extinction of small isolated populations. So even before we go further we are faced with a severe discrepancy between theory and observation. 

Haldane's Paradox and other problems

There are though further problems with fixing beneficial mutations in a population as a whole. For the sake of simplicity I will consider that this generally falls under the umbrella of Haldane's Dilemma or Paradox. It is firstly evident that very large populations are going to find more beneficial mutations than very small populations, but that paradoxically beneficial mutations, if they arise, are going to spread through very small populations much faster than large ones. In other words, the occasional beneficial mutations might appear in large populations but not be able to spread through it, while beneficial mutations are much less likely to even arise in small populations. There is also the problem of weeding out the harmful mutations. Small inbreeding populations are far more likely to compound harmful mutations than beneficial ones through inbreeding and therefore such species often exist on the verge of extinction. An example of this is the Tasmanian devil where harmful facial tumours threaten the survival of the species because of the compounding of harmful mutations. So large populations may theoretically fix beneficial mutations extremely slowly, but are not evidently evolving today by this process, while small inbreeding populations where progressive evolution might be thought to occur are often instead threatened by extinction due to the compounding of harmful mutations. The same thing is seen in human breeding programmes, with for example the King Charles Spaniel suffering the severe cranial disease syringomyelia.

So for evolution to occur by the neo-Darwinian claims we would need at the same time, paradoxically, the benefit of very large populations, and very small populations without the harmful, observed, side effects. Haldane recognised that there is a cost involved that larger vertebrates cannot hope to meet. For every offspring that arises with a beneficial mutation 30 members of the population without the mutation must die without passing on their genes. Haldane thought the cost might be paid off at 0.1 per generation so it would take 300 generations to fix one beneficial mutation in a population. Given our model's 600,000 generations, in 6 million years we could only fix 2000 beneficial mutations (Haldane thought the generation period was 20 years with 1000 substitutions in that time (2), (3)). This is considerably less than the optimistic 3 million mutations necessary, as stated above, by several orders of magnitude.

Geneticist John Sanford goes further and suggests there are 150 million nucleotide differences between ape and man, not 3 million, with 20 million differences at the level of amino acids (4). Sanford raises a number of other issues. Firstly, he responds to the claim that more than one beneficial mutation may be spreading through a population at the same time. He points out that beneficial mutations are just as likely to disappear before they are fixed and that beneficial mutations will suffer ‘interference' with closely sited ones. Furthermore, the problem is that the selective advantage given by a beneficial mutation is so hopelessly small to the point where it is in fact invisible at the level of the phenotype (organism as a whole). Sanford uses as an example the possibility of a princess feeling a pea through eleven mattresses.      


What is found then when we try and model the neo-Darwinian claims is they are not found to be workable in the real world because of divergent requirements. Evidence like that presented here is often overlooked, but instead those who are sceptical of neo-Darwinism are accused of excessive religious motivation to the point where science is rejected without consideration of the evidence. People who accuse Intelligent Design scientists like Stephen Meyer of allowing their faith to bias their approach to the evidence rarely if ever bring the same charge against committed atheists like Eugenie Scott (5). As a creationist I acknowledge my faith commitment, but do not believe it influences my interpretation of the evidence in an unhealthy manner. Instead there is a commitment to truth and logic in science and faith and I do not believe they should be held in conflict. Furthermore, I do not see why I should give up my faith commitment when the empirical evidence for neo-Darwinism is so weak. Secondly, Darwin sceptics are accused of not even understanding the science. As creation scientists who have studied Darwinism with care we reject these claims. Instead the truth is that when faced with rational attempts at modelling the theoretical claims of neo-Darwinism in the light of direct observations there is found to be, paradoxically, divergence. There is a distinct lack of convergence between the Darwinian narrative, and the mathematical modelling and observation of actual biological systems.

Article by Andrew Sibley 

Sources and recommended further reading

(1) Ard Louis, Addressing Christian Concerns About the Implications of BioLogos' Science, Part 1, Biologos Blog, 11 January 2011

(2). Walter ReMine's The Biotic Message, St Paul, Minnesota: St Paul's Science, pp. 208-236.

(3). Haldane JBS (1957) ‘The Cost of Natural Selection,' J. Genetics 55:511-24.

(4). Sanford, J (2005) Genetic Entropy and the Mystery of the Genome, New York: Elim Publ, especially pp.159-160,

(5) Meyer, Stephen (2009) Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design HarperOne

This message was added on Thursday 13th January 2011



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