God and the New Evolutionary Biology
by Sy Garte
The paradigm of the neo-Darwinian modern synthesis (NDMS) assumes that all variation in living forms arises from random mutations, and that evolution results from a slow, steady process of accumulation of minute genetic and phenotypic changes.
Recent scientific findings are challenging those views (1,2). Ecological and physiological interactions with an active genome are being proposed as important drivers of evolution (3,4). Gene duplication (which can extend to the whole genome) allows for evolutionary novelty, since the additional, duplicated gene is no longer under selection pressure and can mutate without causing harm (5-7). Many new genes have resulted from highly mutated gene duplicates. Mobile genetic elements, or “jumping genes” called transposons, often mediate gene duplication and other genomic changes (8,9). Retrotransposition probably played a major role in primate evolution (10). Horizontal gene transfer occurs when genetic material is exchanged between organisms. While this mostly happens among bacteria, DNA can also be transferred to eukaryotes such as some parasites, sponges, and tardigrades (microscopic aquatic animals) (11-13).
Epigenetic changes in gene expression appear to be major evolutionary drivers (14,15). Recent data from several lines of enquiry indicate that some critical genes whose alteration can lead to major evolutionary changes are likely involved in the control of the expression of other genes. Many such genes play important roles in development (16,17). The gene regulatory networks that operate at a high level of complex interactions are themselves controlled by a combination of environmental, epigenetic, and gene-based signals (18-21).
It turns out that in certain circumstances bacteria can produce beneficial mutations that are not random but directed to alleviate starvation or other stressors (22-24). The mechanisms by which such events can occur have been elucidated. Large-scale re-engineering of the genome in response to environmental stimuli, or Natural Genetic Engineering, includes many of the mechanisms listed above and leads to rapid and dramatic evolutionary change (25). For example, modern mitochondria were originally prokaryotic cells that were engulfed by eukaryotes.
Niche construction is the general term given to the idea that many animals have as great an influence on their environments (thereby affecting other organisms) as the environment has on them. Beaver dams, coral reefs, and the impact of invertebrates on soil quality are some examples. This phenomenon results in a co-evolution of many different kinds of species that are associated with each other in environmental niches (26-28).
All of these mechanisms for producing phenotypic variation and affecting natural selection are joining the standard model in the expansive and liberating postmodern synthesis called the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (EES) (29-32). The NDMS limits biology to a form of reductionist and materialistic genetic determinism. The new EES paradigm of evolutionary biology (still in the process of development) could lead to new perspectives on the questions of direction and teleology in evolution.
While evolutionary biologists such as Gould argued that evolution is devoid of purpose and direction, there is no evidence that teleology is ruled out or impossible. More recent studies on convergence by Simon Conway Morris and others suggest that we need to rethink the idea that there is no direction in evolution (33-37). These new perspectives can potentially change the way in which Darwinian evolution is viewed by Christians, and remove many of the barriers for acceptance of evolution as God’s process for biological creation.
The theological implications of any form of the EES are complex and broad. There is plenty of evidence that natural selection (including all the newer mechanisms of variation listed above) can lead to the diversity of life we see, without divine intervention. It is worth noting that the principle scientific pioneers and architects of the EES are not theists, and in fact actively deny any application of their views to what they call “creationism”. This is not at all surprising – scientific enterprises with a theological focus are quite rare.
But it isn’t the private philosophical views of biologists that matter so much as the import of the data and theories that they are bringing to light. If there are pointers to God’s role in determining evolutionary destiny, the EES could allow for exploration of these pointers in ways that were not possible using the NDMS model.
The emphasis on the role of environmental conditions in shaping genetic and epigenetic variation in the EES (in addition to the acknowledged role of the environment in selection) provides some ground for theological speculation. It is not much of a stretch for theists to think of environmental conditions as the province of God. From what we know about the complexity of weather, climate, tectonic plate movements, volcanism, asteroid impacts, and atmospheric chemistry, it is reasonable to take the view that what we call “Acts of God” are just that.
However, while it is tempting to rush into the possible theological implications of the EES, these speculations on how God might have directed the evolutionary process are not terribly convincing. There have been other equally plausible and equally unapproachable hypotheses put forward for mechanisms of divine intervention in evolution. The stochastic nature of quantum events at the level of the electrons of atoms involved in nucleotide base pairing has been suggested to provide a target for divine action, as have the effects of highly focused cosmic radiation on mutational events. However, the chances of finding good scientific arguments for any kind of direct divine intervention in biology seem to be slim. It could very well be futile to pursue such mechanistic explanations for God’s putative guidance of the process of life’s evolution.
We already know that God must play an active role in biology as well as in the rest of creation, by faith and Scripture (38-39). Scientific confirmation is not necessary, although it would be valuable in our continuing efforts to find harmony between the two books of God’s revelation to humanity. We should follow the new world of the EES into a much deeper and broader understanding of the mysteries of biological function.
My own current work is on unraveling and understanding the complexity of the gene regulatory networks that control the expression of genes in development and in adult animals. I am finding confirmation of the enormous beauty and intricacy of the living world reflected in this small part of the new theories of biological evolution. It is possible that such approaches, besides being scientifically defensible, may also lead (as has almost every line of research into biology so far) to surprising, and even spiritually informative conclusions about how the Creator works, and why.
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Sy Garte earned his Ph.D. in biochemistry and BS in Chemistry from the City University of New York. He has been a Professor of Public Health and Environmental Health Sciences at New York University, Rutgers University, and the University of Pittsburgh.
In addition to over 200 scientific publications in genetics, molecular epidemiology, cancer research and other areas, Sy is the author of four books, and of articles in Perspectives in Science and Christian Faith (PSCF) and The BioLogos Forum.
Sy recently retired from a senior administrative position at the NIH, and is now President of the Natural Philosophy Institute, where he is working on a John Templeton Foundation grant to study the theory of gene regulatory networks. Dr. Garte is Vice President of the Washington DC Chapter of the ASA, and a member of the John Templeton Foundation Board of Advisors. His blog is www.thebookofworks.com.