Genes, Genesis, and God

Genes, Genesis, and God

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Below are two messages, which continue the thread with Holmes Rolston on “Genes, Genesis, and God.” The first message is from Paul Arveson, a frequent contributor to Meta from Rockville, MD. Arveson agrees with Rolston’s rebuttal to Michael Ruse and curiously calls on the French atheist biologist Jacques Monod, with his concept of “gratuity,” to validate this non-reductionistic approach to certain phenomena, especially ethics and religion in human culture.

The second message is from John Carvalho IV from Washington University in St. Louis, who writes on teleological and teleonomical perspectives on adaptation in evolutionary theory. Carvalho has a MS in Molecular Genetics and is a Ph.D. candidate at Washington Univeristy School of Medicine in St. Louis. His primary research area is in microbial genetics with a secondary interest in the philosophy of science. He is involved in the International Society for the History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Biology, the AAAS, and the New York Academy of Science, as well as the American Catholic Philosophical Association. Carvalho argues that evolutionary theory is underdetermined and that teleological and teleonomical debates are likely to continue indefinitely.

I remind you that Holmes Rolston III will be our guest for several weeks here on Meta to discuss his recent book “Genes, Genesis, and God.” You can listen to a RealAudio archive of Rolston and a distinguished panel discuss his book online at <>. Your questions and comments are welcome, as you are also invited to forward these messages to students and colleagues who may be interested in this evolving discussion on science and religion.

— Billy Grassie

From: “Paul Arveson” <> Subject: Re: Meta 083: Genes, Genesis, and God Discussion

Rolston writes: “Well, at the ruse of being obtuse, I do not find that studies in ants and dung beetles are at all illuminating about humans when they ask whether the big bang was an original creation or an event in a succession of universes, or whether the golden rule is an equivalent of the categorical imperative, or whether God exists.”

I agree with this, and I can suggest a scientific reason why this is so: the nearly forgotten concept of gratuity, which Jacques Monod (of all people) described in “Chance and Necessity”. He defines it thus:

“There is no chemically necessary relationship between the fact that beta-galactosidase hydrolyzes beta-galactosides, and the fact that its biosynthesis is induced by the same compounds. Physiologically useful or “rational:, this relationship is chemically arbitrary — “gratuitous”, one may say.

“This fundamental concept of gratuity — i.e. the independence, chemically speaking, between the function itself, and the nature of the chemical signals controlling it — applies to allosteric enzymes…. The specificity of the interactions, in short, has nothing to do with the structure of the ligands; it is entirely due, instead, to that of the protein in the various states it is able to adopt, a structure in its turn freely, arbitrarily dictated by the structure of a gene.”

“From this it results — and we come to our essential point — that so far as regulation through allosteric interaction is concerned, *everything is possible* …. The way in which allosteric interactions work hence permits a complete freedom in the “choice” of controls….”

Gratuity thus implies that nature separates into “levels” where a lower level forms a substrate (a “level playing field”) for the next level, but does not physically determine it. Rather, it is determined by phenomena at this and even higher levels (e.g. the environment and behaviors of the phenotype).

Hence we encounter the phenomena of dualisms and “levels of reality” that have nothing, physically speaking, to do with the genes. For instance, I suspect that the killers in the Littleton shooting had genes that were not significantly different from those of their schoolmates, despite the dramatic difference in their thoughts and actions.

Reductionism — if it means that the language of molecules must imperialize all other levels of existence (or knowledge of those levels by humans) — therefore is nonsensical. It undermines its own thesis, as for instance the ironic writings of B.F. Skinner illustrate when he tried to reduce everything to behavior: writing his books to convince others becomes merely a spontaneous behavior pattern that gives positive reinforcement in his particular environment).

No one level can “explain” the other levels; or alternatively, one could develop a reductionism based on any one of the levels, which can claim to embrace the rest. Most of these “reductionisms” have already had books written about them. Philosophers call this “category confusion”. The Bible calls it ‘idolatry’, because the only comprehensive “explanation” that can embrace all the levels without exalting any one of them unduly is that of their transcendent (not in any of the levels) Creator.

A non-reductionistic view (but still scientific) grants validity and reality to each and all of the levels of phenomena. It makes the UNIVERSITY (unity-diversity) intellectually valid and possible. On the other hand, reductionism — whether based on light (Fagg) or particles (Weinberg) or molecules (Dawkins) or behavior (Skinner) or dialectical class struggle (Marx/Engels) etc. etc., leads to a Balkanization of knowledge.

Paul Arveson

From: “John J. Carvalho” <> Subject: Adaptation in Evolutionary Theory: Teleological or Teleonomical?

The concept of Adaptation is a fiercely debated topic in evolutionary biology. Perhaps, the greatest reason for this is that theists view adaptation as revealing teleology, or purpose, in evolutionary mechanisms while atheists see adaptation as an unreliable concept and argue that not all evolutionary novelties reveal such a feature. Atheists give the term “teleonomy” to designate processes that appear purposeful but are actually easily explained by underlying deterministic mechanisms that lack any goal-oriented direction. Is there some force in the universe, such as God, promoting adaptation or is adaptation a mere byproduct of a teleonomical world? Such is the question that is presently plaguing the evolutionary community. In order to answer this question, we must first define adaptation and then analyze some of the arguments both for and against its teleological nature.

Neo-Darwinists understand adaptation as both a “process” and a “feature.” As a “process,” adaptation is a genetic change within a population, allowed for by natural selection, whereby a character of the population has become improved with respect to specific function, or a population itself has become better suited to a particular environment. An adaptive “feature,” by contrast, is a phenotypic trait that becomes prevalent in a population when it gives organisms a selective advantage because it provides improvement in a particular function. In either of these cases, however, theist scholars have argued that adaptation is ultimately teleological since it is acting as a final goal of evolution. These theist scholars are in much agreement with some of the tenets of those scientists of the Adaptationist Program. The Adaptationist Program is a phrase designating that body of scholarly research that acknowledges all biological phenotypes as adaptive, and that the differences amongst species lies in their adaptations to different selective factors in their respective ecological niches. In addition, they propose that adaptation is an “emergent” property in biological organisms that can many times allow organisms to modify underlying, molecular components. The most obvious case of this form of emergence is in human beings, who possess the power to alter molecular mechanisms of their physiology that reductionists explain are responsible for macroscopic phenotypes. Apart from human beings, the Adaptationist Program provides cases where these concepts can be observed in other animal species. One striking example is “kin selection” in many species of birds, a form of altruism in which one member of a population will put itself at risk to “warn” the rest of the population. Warning calls from some types of birds secures the kin of the animal sounding the warning, but places this very animal in harms way by alerting predators as to its whereabouts. How can this form of altruism arise if it cannot be easily explained by mere deterministic mechanisms of the organism? Theist scholars argue that such evidence from the Adaptationist Program is a clear indication for design in the universe working at the level of biological history.

Against these views, atheist scholars and those biologists opposed to the Adaptationist Program argue that not all traits are adaptive or are a result of evolutionary change based on intervention of adaptation. They contend, for example, that those of the Adaptationist Program frequently misinterpret characters as adaptive evolutionary traits when in fact they may simply be the result of physical laws. Flying fish, for example, cannot always remain in the air. Such a characterization of this specie of fish is not an adaptation that has arisen in response to the fact that these organisms cannot breath while airborne, but rather is the result of gravity pulling the fish back down to the safety of the water. Biological research reveals that “flying fish” is a misnomer since these animals can jump out of their aquatic environment and glide through the air for only a short period of time and their descension has nothing to do with complex biology but rather simple physics.

Another argument against the Adaptationist Program and the teleological worldview is that not all traits give organisms advantages in all environments. Sickle cell anemia is a case in point. In this disease, there is a mutation in a gene that ultimately leads to changes in the hemoglobin molecule and concurrent warping of red blood cell shape. A homozygote individual with both copies of his/her genes mutated will have the disease. However, in cases where an individual is a heterozygote-that is, possesses one normal copy of the gene and one mutated copy-he or she will be a carrier for the disease gene and able to pass this gene on to offspring, but will not show the disease. Nevertheless, such carriers in certain regions of the world have been shown to be resistant to malaria, a disease ultimately characterized by destruction of red blood cells. Consequently, a disease trait that is adaptive in one geographical, ecological and genetic context is either neutral for adaptation or even detrimental to the organism or population.

In light of some of these arguments, it appears biologists must be extremely careful in what they consider as adaptations. Nevertheless, few biologists would argue that natural selection permits only the arisal of detrimental features or that all biological traits are based on physical processes devoid of any historical and biological influence. In fact, most journals reveal phylogenetic relationships showing a progression of species as opposed to a degression. As a result, the Adaptationist Program, and the teleological arguments that accompany it, cannot be easily dismissed though they may need to be more refined.

The brief arguments presented here are by no means a complete review of the ongoing controversy in the debate over adaptation. Nevertheless, they clearly demonstrate some of the shortcomings of the arguments of both those who see adaptation as teleological and those who rebuke such a position. Consequently, the debate is far from over. Perhaps, one of the problems with resolving this debate is the fact that the “unit” of selection in present day evolutionary theory is not clearly defined. What is evolution working on? Is it the DNA? The individual organism? The population of species? Or, is it a sum of all three? If evolutionary selection is capable of working at multiple levels, then at which level are selective pressures most influential? And, how do we formulate a strong theory that includes a multitude of biological components as the units of selection instead of just one? Certainly, without a resolution of these most fundamental questions, the debate over the possible teleological nature of adaptation will persist as a perennial question not only for religious scholars, but for all biologists as well.

John Carvalho <>

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