Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution

Theodosius Dobzhansky (1900-1975)

Transcribed from The American Biology Teacher, March 1973 (35:125-129)

As recently as 1966, sheik Abd el Aziz bin Baz asked the king of Saudi Arabia to suppress a heresy that was spreading in his land. Wrote the sheik:

"The Holy Koran, the Prophet’s teachings, the majority of Islamic scientists, and the actual facts all prove that the sun is running in its orbit . . . and that the earth is fixed and stable, spread out by God for his mankind. . . . Anyone who professed otherwise would utter a charge of falsehood toward God, the Koran, and the Prophet."

The good sheik evidently holds the Copernican theory to be a "mere theory," not a "fact." In this he is technically correct. A theory can be verified by a mass of facts, but it becomes a proven theory, not a fact. The sheik was perhaps unaware that the Space Age had begun before he asked the king to suppress the Copernican heresy. The sphericity of the earth has been seen by astronauts, and even by many earth-bound people on their television screens. Perhaps the sheik could retort that those who venture beyond the confines of God’s earth suffer hallucinations, and that the earth is really flat.

Parts of the Copernican world model, such as the contention that the earth rotates around the sun, and not vice versa, have not been verified by direct observations even to the extent the sphericity of the earth has been. Yet scientists accept the model as an accurate representation of reality. Why? Because it makes sense of a multitude of facts which are otherwise meaningless or extravagant. To nonspecialists most of these facts are unfamiliar. Why then do we accept the "mere theory" that the earth is a sphere revolving around a spherical sun? Are we simply submitting to authority? Not quite: we know that those who took the time to study the evidence found it convincing.

The good sheik is probably ignorant of the evidence. Even more likely, he is so hopelessly biased that no amount of evidence would impress him. Anyway, it would be sheer waste of time to attempt to convince him. The Koran and the Bible do not contradict Copernicus, nor does Copernicus contradict them. It is ludicrous to mistake the Bible and the Koran for primers of natural science. They treat of matters even more important: the meaning of man and his relations to God. They are written in poetic symbols that were understandable to people of the age when they were written, as well as to peoples of all other ages. The king of Arabia did not comply with the sheik’s demand. He knew that some people fear enlightenment, because enlightenment threatens their vested interests. Education is not to be used to promote obscurantism.

The earth is not the geometric center of the universe, although it may be its spiritual center. It is a mere speck of dust in the cosmic spaces. Contrary to Bishop Ussher’s calculations, the world did not appear in approximately its present state in 4004 BC. The estimates of the age of the universe given by modern cosmologists are still only rough approximations, which are revised (usually upward) as the methods of estimation are refined. Some cosmologists take the universe to be about 10 billion years old; others suppose that it may have existed, and will continue to exist, eternally. The origin of life on earth is dated tentatively between 3 and 5 billion years ago; manlike beings appeared relatively quite recently, between 2 and 4 million years ago. The estimates of the age of the earth, of the duration of the geologic and paleontologic eras, and of the antiquity of man’s ancestors are now based mainly on radiometric evidence the proportions of isotopes of certain chemical elements in rocks suitable for such studies.

Shiek bin Baz and his like refuse to accept the radiometric evidence, because it is a "mere theory." What is the alternative? One can suppose that the Creator saw fit to play deceitful tricks on geologists and biologists. He carefully arranged to have various rocks provided with isotope ratios just right to mislead us into thinking that certain rocks are 2 billion years old, others 2 million, which in fact they are only some 6,000 years old. This kind of pseudo-explanation is not very new. One of the early antievolutionists, P. H. Gosse, published a book entitled Omphalos ("the Navel"). The gist of this amazing book is that Adam, though he had no mother, was created with a navel, and that fossils were placed by the Creator where we find them now – a deliberate act on His part, to give the appearance of great antiquity and geologic upheaveals. It is easy to see the fatal flaw in all such notions. They are blasphemies, accusing God of absurd deceitfulness. This is as revolting as it is uncalled for.

Diversity of Living Beings

The diversity and the unity of life are equally striking and meaningful aspects of the living world. Between 1.5 and 2 million species of animals and plants have been described and studied; the number yet to be described is probably as great. The diversity of sizes, structures, and ways of life is staggering but fascinating. Here are just a few examples.

The foot-and-mouth disease virus is a sphere 8-12 mm in diameter. The blue whale reaches 30 m in length and 135 t in weight. The simplest viruses are parasites in cells of other organisms, reduced to barest essentials minute amounts of DNA or RNA, which subvert the biochemical machinery of the host cells to replicate their genetic information, rather than that of the host.

It is a matter of opinion, or of definition, whether viruses are considered living organisms or peculiar chemical substances. The fact that such differences of opinion can exist is in itself highly significant. It means that the borderline between living and inanimate matter is obliterated. At the opposite end of the simplicity complexity spectrum you have vertebrate animals, including man. The human brain has some 12 billion neurons; the synapses between the neurons are perhaps a thousand times numerous.

Some organisms live in a great variety of environments. Man is at the top of the scale in this respect. He is not only a truly cosmopolitan species but, owing to his technologic achievements, can survive for at least a limited time on the surface of the moon and in cosmic spaces. By contrast, some organisms are amazingly specialized. Perhaps the narrowest ecologic niche of all is that of a species of the fungus family Laboulbeniaceae, which grows exclusively on the rear portion of the elytra of the beetle Aphenops cronei, which is found only in some limestone caves in southern France. Larvae of the fly Psilopa petrolei develop in seepages of crude oil in California oilfields; as far as is known they occur nowhere else. This is the only insect able to live and feed in oil, and its adult can walk on the surface of the oil only as long as no body part other than the tarsi are in contact with the oil. Larvae of the fly Drosophila carciniphila develop only in the nephric grooves beneath the flaps of the third maxilliped of the land crab Geocarcinus ruricola, which is restricted to certain islands in the Caribbean.

Is there an explanation, to make intelligible to reason this colossal diversity of living beings? Whence came these extraordinary, seemingly whimsical and superfluous creatures, like the fungus Laboulbenia, the beetle Aphenops cronei, the flies Psilopa petrolei and Drosophila carciniphila, and many, many more apparent biologic curiosities? The only explanation that makes sense is that the organic diversity has evolved in response to the diversity of environment on the planet earth. No single species, however perfect and however versatile, could exploit all the opportunities for living. Every one of the millions of species has its own way of living and of getting sustenance from the environment. There are doubtless many other possible ways of living as yet unexploited by any existing species; but one thing is clear: with less organic diversity, some opportunities for living would remain unexploited. The evolutionary process tends to fill up the available ecologic niches. It does not do so consciously or deliberately; the relations between evolution and environment are more subtle and more interesting than that. The environment does not impose evolutionary changes on its inhabitants, as postulated by the now abandoned neo-Lamarckian theories. The best way to envisage the situation is as follows: the environment presents challenges to living species, to which the later may respond by adaptive genetic changes.

An unoccupied ecologic niche, an unexploited opportunity for living, is a challenge. So is an environmental change, such as the Ice Age climate giving place to a warmer climate. Natural selection may cause a living species to respond to the challenge by adaptive genetic changes. These changes may enable the species to occupy the formerly empty ecologic niche as a new opportunity for living, or to resist the environmental change if it is unfavorable. But the response may or may not be successful. This depends on many factors, the chief of which is the genetic composition of the responding species at the time the response is called for. Lack of successful response may cause the species to become extinct. The evidence of fossils shows clearly that the eventual end of most evolutionary lines is extinction. Organisms now living are successful descendants of only a minority of the species that lived in the past and of smaller and smaller minorities the farther back you look. Nevertheless, the number of living species has not dwindled; indeed, it has probably grown with time. All this is understandable in the light of evolution theory; but what a senseless operation it would have been, on God’s part, to fabricate a multitude of species ex nihilo and then let most of them die out!

There is, of course, nothing conscious or intentional in the action of natural selection. A biologic species does not say to itself, "Let me try tomorrow (or a million years from now) to grow in a different soil, or use a different food, or subsist on a different body part of a different crab." Only a human being could make such conscious decisions. This is why the species Homo sapiens is the apex of evolution. Natural selection is at one and the same time a blind and creative process. Only a creative and blind process could produce, on the one hand, the tremendous biologic success that is the human species and, on the other, forms of adaptedness as narrow and as constraining as those of the overspecialized fungus, beetle, and flies mentioned above.

Antievolutionists fail to understand how natural selection operates. They fancy that all existing species were generated by supernatural fiat a few thousand years ago, pretty much as we find them today. But what is the sense of having as many as 2 or 3 million species living on earth? If natural selection is the main factor that brings evolution about, any number of species is understandable: natural selection does not work according to a foreordained plan, and species are produced not because they are needed for some purpose but simply because there is an environmental opportunity and genetic wherewithal to make them possible. Was the Creator in a jocular mood when he made Psilopa petrolei for California oil fields and species of Drosophila to live exclusively on some body-parts of certain land crabs on only certain islands in the Caribbean? The organic diversity becomes, however, reasonable and understandable if the Creator has created the living world not by caprice but by evolution propelled by natural selection. It is wrong to hold creation and evolution as mutually exclusive alternatives. I am a creationist and an evolutionist. Evolution is God’s, or Nature’s method of creation. Creation is not an event that happened in 4004 BC; it is a process that began some 10 billion years ago and is still under way.

Unity of Life

The unity of life is no less remarkable than its diversity. Most forms of life are similar in many respects. The universal biologic similarities are particularly striking in the biochemical dimension. From viruses to man, heredity is coded in just two, chemically related substances: DNA and RNA. The genetic code is as simple as it is universal. There are only four genetic "letters" in DNA: adenine, guanine, thymine, and cytosine. Uracil replaces thymine in RNA. The entire evolutionary development of the living world has taken place not by invention of new "letters" in the genetic "alphabet" but by elaboration of ever-new combinations of these letters.

Not only is the DNA-RNA genetic code universal, but so is the method of translation of the sequences of the "letters" in DNA-RNA into sequences of amino acids in proteins. The same 20 amino acids compose countless different proteins in all, or at least in most, organisms. Different amino acids are coded by one to six nucleotide triplets in DNA and RNA. And the biochemical universals extend beyond the genetic code and its translation into proteins: striking uniformities prevail in the cellular metabolism of the most dirverse living beings. Adenosine triphosphate, biotin, riboflavin, hemes, pyridoxin, vitamins K and B12, and folic acid implement metabolic processes everywhere.

What do these biochemical or biologic universals mean? They suggest that life arose from inanimate matter only once and that all organisms, no matter now diverse, in other respects, conserve the basic features of the primordial life. (It is also possible that there were several, or even many, origins of life; if so, the progeny of only one of them has survived and inherited the earth.) But what if there was no evolution and every one of the millions of species were created by separate fiat? However offensive the notion may be to religious feeling and to reason, the antievolutionists must again accuse the Creator of cheating. They must insist that He deliberately arranged things exactly as if his method of creation was evolution, intentionally to mislead sincere seekers of truth.

The remarkable advances of molecular biology in recent years have made it possible to understand how it is that diverse organisms are constructed from such monotonously similar materials: proteins composed of only 20 kinds of amino acids and coded only by DNA and RNA, each with only four kinds of nucleotides. The method is astonishingly simple. All English words, sentences, chapters, and books are made up of sequences of 26 letters of the alphabet. (They can be represented also by only three signs of the Morse code: dot, dash, and gap.) The meaning of a word or a sentence is defined not so much by what letters it contains as by the sequences of these letters. It is the same with heredity: it is coded by the sequences of the genetic "letters" the nucleotides in the DNA. They are translated into the sequences of amino acids in the proteins.

Molecular studies have made possible an approach to exact measurements of degrees of biochemical similarities and differences among organisms. Some kinds of enzymes and other proteins are quasiuniversal, or at any rate widespread, in the living world. They are functionally similar in different living beings, in that they catalyze similar chemical reactions. But when such proteins are isolated and their structures determined chemically, they are often found to contain more or less different sequences of amino acids in different organisms. For example, the so-called alpha chains of hemoglobin have identical sequences of amino acids in man and the chimpanzee, but they differ in a single amino acid (out of 141) in the gorilla. Alpha chains of human hemoglobin differ from cattle hemoglobin in 17 amino acid substitutions, 18 from horse, 20 from donkey, 25 from rabbit, and 71 from fish (carp).

Cytochrome C is an enzyme that plays an important role in the metabolism of aerobic cells. It is found in the most diverse organisms, from man to molds. E. Margoliash, W. M. Fitch, and others have compared the amino acid sequences in cytochrome C in different branches of the living world. Most significant similarities as well as differences have been brought to light. The cytochrome C of different orders of mammals and birds differ in 2 to 17 amino acids, classes of vertebrates in 7 to 38, and vertebrates and insects in 23 to 41; and animals differ from yeasts and molds in 56 to 72 amino acids. Fitch and Margoliash prefer to express their findings in what are called "minimal mutational distances." It has been mentioned above that different amino acids are coded by different triplets of nucleotides in DNA of the genes; this code is now known. Most mutations involve substitutions of single nucleotides somewhere in the DNA chain coding for a given protein. Therefore, one can calculate the minimum numbers of single mutations needed to change the cytochrome C of one organism into that of another. Minimal mutational distances between human cytochrome C and the cytochrome C of other living beings are as follows:

Monkey

1

Chicken

18

Dog

13

Penguin

18

Horse

17

Turtle

19

Donkey

16

Rattlesnake

20

Pig

13

Fish (tuna)

31

Rabbit

12

Fly

33

Kangaroo

12

Moth

36

Duck

17

Mold

63

Pigeon

16

Yeast

56

It is important to note that amino acid sequences in a given kind of protein vary within a species as well as from species to species. It is evident that the differences among proteins at the level of species, genus, family, order, class, and phylum are compounded of elements that vary also among individuals within a species. Individual and group differences are only quantitatively, not qualitatively, different. Evidence supporting the above propositions is ample and is growing rapidly. Much work has been done in recent years on individual variations in amino acid sequences of hemoglobin of human blood. More that 100 variants have been detected. Most of them involve substitutions of single amino acids – substitutions that have arisen by genetic mutations in the persons in whom they are discovered or in their ancestors. As expected, some of these mutations are deleterious to their carriers, but others apparently are neutral or even favorable in certain environments. Some mutant hemoglobins have been found only in one person or in one family; others are discovered repeatedly among inhabitants of different parts of the world. I submit that all these remarkable findings make sense in the light of evolution: they are nonsense otherwise.

Comparative Anatomy and Embryology

The biochemical universals are the most impressive and the most recently discovered, but certainly they are not the only vestiges of creation by means of evolution. Comparative anatomy and embryology proclaim the evolutionary origins of the present inhabitants of the world. In 1555 Pierre Belon established the presence of homologous bones in the superficially very different skeletons of man and bird. Later anatomists traced the homologies in the skeletons, as well as in other organs, of all vertebrates. Homologies are also traceable in the external skeletons of arthropods as seemingly unlike as a lobster, a fly, and a butterfly. Examples of homologies can be multiplied indefinitely.

Embryos of apparently quite diverse animals often exhibit striking similarities. A century ago these similarities led some biologists (notably the German zoologist Ernst Haeckel) to be carried by their enthusiasm as far as to interpret the embryonic similarities as meaning that the embryo repeats in its development the evolutionary history of its species: it was said to pass through stages in which it resembles its remote ancestors. In other words, early-day biologists supposed that by studying embryonic development one can, as it were, read off the stages through which the evolutionary development had passed. This so-called biogenetic law is no longer credited in its original form. And yet embryonic similarities are undeniable impressive and significant.

Probably everybody knows the sedentary barnacles which seem to have no similarity to free-swimming crustaceans, such as the copepods. How remarkable that barnacles pass through a free-swimming larval stage, the nauplius! At that stage of its development a barnacle and a Cyclops look unmistakably similar. They are evidently relatives. The presence of gill slits in human embryos and in embryos of other terrestrial vertebrates is another famous example. Of course, at no stage of its development is a human embryo a fish, nor does it ever have functioning gills. But why should it have unmistakable gill slits unless its remote ancestors did respire with the aid of gills? It is the Creator again playing practical jokes?

Adaptive radiation: Hawaii’s Flies

There are about 2,000 species of drosophilid flies in the world as a whole. About a quarter of them occur in Hawaii, although the total area of the archipelago is only about that of the state of New Jersey. All but 17 of the species in Hawaii are endemic (found nowhere else). Furthermore, a great majority of the Hawaiian endemics do not occur throughout the archipelago: they are restricted to single islands or even to a part of an island. What is the explanation of this extraordinary proliferation of drosophilid species in so small a territory? Recent work of H. L. Carson, H. T. Spieth, D. E. Hardy, and others makes the situation understandable.

The Hawaiian Islands are of volcanic origin; they were never parts of any continent. Their ages are between 5.6 and 0.7 million years. Before man came there inhabitants were descendants of immigrants that had been transported across the ocean by air currents and other accidental means. A single drosophilid species, which arrived in Hawaii first, before there were numerous competitors, faced the challenge of an abundance of many unoccupied ecologic niches. Its descendants responded to this challenge by evolutionary adaptive radiation, the products of which are the remarkable Hawaiian drosophilids of today. To forestall a possible misunderstanding, let it be made clear that the Hawaiian endemics are by no means so similar to each other that they could be mistaken for variants of the same species; if anything, they are more diversified than are drosophilids elsewhere. The largest and the smallest drosophilid species are both Hawaiian. They exhibit an astonishing variety of behavior patterns. Some of them have become adapted to ways of life quite extraordinary for a drosophilid fly, such as being parasites in egg cocoons of spiders.

Oceanic islands other than Hawaii, scattered over the wide Pacific Ocean, are not conspicuously rich in endemic species of drosophilids. The most probable explanation of this fact is that these other islands were colonized by drosophilid after most ecologic niches had already been filled by earlier arrivals. This surely is a hypothesis, but it is a reasonable one. Antievolutionists might perhaps suggest an alternative hypothesis: in a fit of absentmindedness, the Creator went on manufacturing more and more drosophilid species for Hawaii, until there was an extravagant surfeit of them in this archipelago. I leave it up to you to decide which hypothesis makes sense.

Strength and Acceptance of the Theory

Seen in the light of evolution, biology is, perhaps, intellectually the most satisfying and inspiring science. Without that light it becomes a pile of sundry facts some of them interesting or curious but making no meaningful picture as a whole.

This is not to imply that we know everything that can and should be known about biology and about evolution. Any competent biologist is aware of a multitude of problems yet unresolved and of questions yet unanswered. After all, biologic research shows no sign of approaching completion; quite the opposite is true. Disagreements and clashes of opinion are rife among biologists, as they should be in a living and growing science. Antievolutionists mistake, or pretend to mistake, these disagreements as indications of dubiousness of the entire doctrine of evolution. Their favorite sport is stringing together quotations, carefully and sometimes expertly taken out of context, to show that nothing is really established or agreed upon among evolutionists. Some of my colleagues and myself have been amused and amazed to read ourselves quoted in a way showing that we are really antievolutionists under the skin.

Let me try to make crystal clear what is established beyond reasonable doubt, and what needs further study, about evolution. Evolution as a process that has always gone on in the history of the earth can be doubted only by those who are ignorant of the evidence or are resistant to evidence, owing to emotional blocks or to plain bigotry. By contrast, the mechanisms that bring evolution about certainly need study and clarification. There are no alternatives to evolution as history that can withstand critical examination. Yet we are constantly learning new and important facts about evolutionary mechanisms.

It is remarkable that more than a century ago Darwin was able to discern so much about evolution without having available to him the key facts discovered since. The development of genetics after 1900 especially of molecular genetics, in the last two decades has provided information essential to the understanding of evolutionary mechanisms. But much is in doubt and much remains to be learned. This is heartening and inspiring for any scientist worth his salt. Imagine that everything is completely known and that science has nothing more to discover: what a nightmare!

Does the evolutionary doctrine clash with religious faith? It does not. It is a blunder to mistake the Holy Scriptures for elementary textbooks of astronomy, geology, biology, and anthropology. Only if symbols are construed to mean what they are not intended to mean can there arise imaginary, insoluble conflicts. As pointed out above, the blunder leads to blasphemy: the Creator is accused of systematic deceitfulness.

One of the great thinkers of our age, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, wrote the following: "Is evolution a theory, a system, or a hypothesis? It is much more it is a general postulate to which all theories, all hypotheses, all systems much henceforward bow and which they must satisfy in order to be thinkable and true. Evolution is a light which illuminates all facts, a trajectory which all lines of though must follow this is what evolution is." Of course, some scientists, as well as some philosophers and theologians, disagree with some parts of Teilhard’s teachings; the acceptance of his worldview falls short of universal. But there is no doubt at all that Teilhard was a truly and deeply religious man and that Christianity was the cornerstone of his worldview. Moreover, in his worldview science and faith were not segregated in watertight compartments, as they are with so many people. They were harmoniously fitting parts of his worldview. Teilhard was a creationist, but one who understood that the Creation is realized in this world by means of evolution.


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