At Successful Student, Jake Akins recently interviewed Michael Denton, author of Evolution: A Theory in Crisis and Nature’s Destiny: How the Laws of Biology Reveal Purpose in the Universe —and possibly the first modern post-Darwinian. (Lynn Margulis would have been that if she’d dared, but her name lives for other reasons, including an intelligent account of symbiosis.)
We are told that Denton will publish a new book, following up on the previous two. In the interview, he also discusses his genetic eye research in India and the fitness of nature for life:
8. Q: Your retinal work has contributed to identifying several new disease genes, including a gene used in a successful gene-therapy trial at London’s Moorfields eye hospital. Would you elaborate a bit by explaining the nature of this gene-therapy trial and how it was successful?
A: The gene was identified in a family from the city of Bangalore. We collected the family in the early 90’s, and the gene was identified in the late 90’s. The gene happens to be RPE65 which is mumbo-jumbo of course to a non-geneticist but that’s just the way genes are named. It’s a gene which is involved in regenerating the visual pigment. In the eye, the critical act of seeing, involves the visual pigment which changes slightly when the photon hits it, then it has to be regenerated, and it’s regenerated in the so-called retinal epithelial cells in the back of the eye. So in other words, basically, the gene we found is involved in that act of regeneration of the visual pigment. It’s a gene that causes a severe form of retinal degeneration which causes severe visual disability from birth and rapidly progresses in early childhood leaving most patients with very limited vision by age ten. So it was one of these very severe forms of retinal genetic disease, which cries out for something like gene therapy. And the group in Moorfields happened to select this gene for the first gene therapy trial in the retinal disease area. It turned out to be just about the first successful gene therapy trial in any area of biology, and any area of medicine. What this involves is you put a good copy of the gene into a viral vector and then you actually inject billions of copies of the viral vector containing the good gene in it into the back of the eye, and it automatically incorporates itself into the DNA of the retinal epithelial cells and corrects the defect.
9. Q: In 1985 you wrote Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, which is credited by Phillip Johnson and Michael Behe as being the genesis for their skepticism of Darwinian evolution. Phillip Johnson is considered the father of the Intelligent Design movement, and Michael Behe and yourself are Senior Fellows at the Discovery Institute. In this way it may be said that your book’s influence was instrumental in the founding of Intelligent Design. What are your thoughts concerning the influence you have had in the science of Intelligent Design? Did colleagues or other academic professionals treat you or your work any differently after writing this book? Do you have any thoughts on where science is going in the future?
A: Well, certainly as far as the critique of Darwinism is concerned I think the book was quite influential, and of course critiquing Darwinism is a major thrust of the whole ID movement. Because if you can’t account for adaptive complexity in term of the cumulative selection model of Darwin, then you really have got to turn to some design hypothesis. So although Evolution was basically a critique of Darwinism and not primarily an argument for design I think that in fact it did play some role in founding the Intelligent Design movement. There were other books though. There was a book on the origin of life by Charles Thaxton, Roger Olson, and Walter Bradley which is in fact actually still a very good book in this area. So, there were other books as well. But yes I think Evolution did play a role for sure.
What was the response of my academic colleagues to Evolution: A Theory in Crisis? Well, in medical circles it didn’t matter too much, because medics are not primarily interested in fundamental biology or evolution. Medicine is a pragmatic art. If it works you do it. It’s not so theory-bound, as academic biology. …
Yes I wrote Evolution: a Theory in Crisis mainly to show that Darwinism cannot provide a coherent and convincing explanation for the origin or evolution of life. And I wrote Nature’s Destiny and I’m laboring now with Microcosm to show that the fitness paradigm predicts this failure, because important elements of life’s design are built into nature herself from the beginning. Obviously what arises lawfully from self-organizing processes in nature cannot be generated by or explained in terms of a contingent mechanism like cumulative selection. If nature has a hand in the origin of life and in directing the course of evolution then Darwinism will never provide a convincing explanation. There is bound to be something missing.
Put another way if the universe is uniquely fit for life and its becoming, then that means that there are natural laws, organizational principles, which are going to, for example, draw life from chemistry. And if they do exist and have played a part in the origin and evolution of life then you’ll never explain it in terms of Darwinism. Darwinism is all about little tiny adaptive changes, step by step. Darwinism isn’t saying life is lawful, it’s saying life is lucky. And so if in fact life is lawful, and built into nature, then its actualization is not just a matter of luck.
Guy’ll never get troll insurance in this town.
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A 2009 interview with Denton: