Evolution 2.0
July 12, 2021

Perry Marshall’s Evolution 2.0 is a devastating critique of Evolution 1.0, the neo-Darwinian theory Marshall summarizes in the equation, “Random mutation + natural selection + time = Evolution.” His critique focuses primarily on the “random mutation” factor. Scientists have experimented on fruit flies for decades. By causing mutations through radiation, they’ve come up with some interesting variations, such as fruit flies with legs where antennae should be and radiation-resistant fruit flies. But they haven’t done what they set out to do. Most mutations are damaging to the fruit flies, and none has produced a major improvement, much less new species.

It gets worse for randomness. Thinking through evolution as a problem of information, Marshall, an audio and computer engineer, concludes that “random copying errors could not possibly be the driving force of evolutionary change” (47). DNA is a code (50-58). It’s not merely “code-like,” but literally meets standard definitions of “code.” And it works like other codes. When you send an email, the message travels over a wire, which is the outermost “physical layer” of the coding/decoding system. If you burned the same email onto a CD, it would be the same message with a different physical carrier. The biological equivalent is the DNA molecule, the outermost physical layer of the biological coding system. Just as you can’t transform a CD of Sinatra into a CD of U2 by accumulating scratches (48), you can’t transform one species into another by accumulating mutations in DNA.

Marshall draws an analogy with audio information. In audio engineering, “noise is anything that interferes with the signal, like stray magnetic fields.” Noise is the result of random changes, and invariably corrupts the signal. Likewise, DNA “battles noise, because all communications channels battle noise.” Signals and noise are “polar opposites.” Thus, it’s impossible for a signal to emerge from noise, and therefore impossible for information to arise from random mutations (65-7).

To rescue evolution, Marshall searches for non-random mechanisms of change, changes that occur in the code itself, not the molecular bearer of code. The core of information isn’t the physical carrier but “the conceptual inner layer.” If evolution happens, it must happen there. Here’s where the book gets really interesting, as Marshall discusses a number of well-known biological processes that rarely figure at all in discussions of evolution. All of these processes take place “above” the level of DNA, and all imply that cells are “smart,” capable of communication and deliberate adaptation.

In her work on maize genetics, for instance, Barbara McClintock (see Theopolitan #74) discovered “transposition,” the capacity of plant cells “to recognize that [genetic] data has been corrupted. Then they repair it with newly activated genome elements, and in the process of repairing the data, the plants can develop new features” (84-85). Transposition isn’t confined to plants. In a matter of hours, protozoans can edit their DNA in response to “heat shock, pollution, hazardous chemicals, the absence of food, the presence of food they’re unable to digest” (89). In short, “cells are capable of doing their own genetic engineering – a natural version of what scientists do in experiments in labs” (89).

Then there’s “horizontal gene transfer,” a process by which one cell borrows needed genetic code from another organism. Threatened by antibiotics, bacteria become receptive to nearby organisms that possess genetic code for a “pump” that can remove toxins: “The bacterium finds the portion of the DNA that codes for a pump, inserts the new code into its own DNA, and starts multiplying. . . . Its offspring sport a pump too” (94-5). Because of horizontal transfer, “an organism’s genes don’t necessarily even come from its parents. They can come from . . . perhaps anywhere!” (98).

Epigenesis is another well-established process by which genetic adjustments –positive or negative – are inherited by later generations. Children of parents who have lived through famines, for instance, experience metabolic diseases, even if they have plenty of food themselves. In general, “genes in animals and plants switch on and off on a daily basis” in response to external stimuli (114-5).

Note: Marshall’s 2.0 version of evolution not only rejects randomness, but also marginalizes natural selection. Organisms edit their own DNA to switch on new genetic features before natural selection comes into play at all (130). Natural selection is real, Marshall thinks, but it’s an uninteresting tautology: “Saying ‘Mammals evolved by natural selection’ is like saying ‘The Seahawks made it to the Super Bowl by winning the playoffs’” (145). Note too that Marshall’s theory rehabilitates the long-ridiculed Lamarckian idea of the inheritance of acquired characteristics (118-9). Note three that Marshall also rehabilitates quasi-Aristotelian notions of natural teleology (222-4, 259-60) and puts in a good word for anthropomorphism (109n).

Marshall’s revised equation is: “Adaptive variation + natural selection + time = Evolution 2.0” (173).

A Christian, Marshall uses his 2.0 theory to construct a theistic argument from information, which he’s backed up by offering $100,000 and patent rights to anyone who discovers a code that originates naturally, in the absence of an intelligent coder. Yet his theory is still an evolutionary theory that rejects six-day creationism (Appendix 2). As with Evolution 1.0, the mechanisms he identifies are still a long way from explaining the origin of distinct species. He thinks the invertebrate sea squirt might have evolved into the vertebrate hagfish, but admits, as he must, “no one was there to observe” (137-40). When he suggests that giraffes might have evolved their necks through adaptive mutations (87), it sounds like another Darwinian just-so story. Besides, he pushes God out to the edges of explanation: God is the ultimate source of information, but after creating He appears to settle into comfortable Deistic retirement.

Unconvincing as Marshall’s book is, it provides a very readable introduction to some of the most intriguing biological discoveries of the past century.

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