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The Three Cardinal Problems of Biology


French biologist Jean Rostand, in his 1956 book Can Man be Modified? wrote:

Have not the biologists the right to a little conceit, when they add up what they have achieved in the space of a mere half century? Would they not be justified in believing that to them all things will become possible, simply by going on deepening the trenches already dug and continuing along the lines of researches already marked out?

But this is where we must remind ourselves that our successes, amazing as they are, leave the formidable riddles of life itself almost intact. The three cardinal problems of biology—the problem of how a living creature grows, the problem of how species evolve, the problem of how life originated—have been scarcely touched by the scientists. We have no more than a very vague idea of the way in which a complex organism can be contained in a germ; we have hardly any idea of the way in which the organic metamorphoses that must have gone to produce the human species from some original virus may have been accomplished in the course of ages, and we have not the slightest idea of the way in which the first lives were born.

Rostand, “one of the leading European biologists,” according to the cover of his book A Biologist’s View, wrote there that “however obscure the causes of evolution appear to me to be, I do not doubt for a moment that they are entirely natural.”

Sixty three years later, are the three “cardinal problems” of biology still almost untouched?

The origin of life. We still are not close (see here and here) to designing any self-replicating machine, that is still pure science fiction. When you add more technology to such a machine, to get closer to the goal of reproduction, you only move the goalposts, as you now have a more complicated machine to reproduce. So if we with all our advanced technology haven’t a clue as to how to construct a self-replicating machine, how could we believe we are close to understanding how such a machine could arise by pure chance?

The evolution of life. Imagine that we were able to construct self-replicating machines, let’s say a fleet of cars that contained completely automated car-building factories inside, with the ability to construct new cars—and not just normal new cars, but new cars containing automated car-building factories inside them. If we left these cars alone and let them reproduce themselves for many generations, is there any chance we would eventually see major advances arise through natural selection of the resulting duplication errors? Of course not, the whole process would grind to a halt after a few generations without intelligent humans there to fix the mechanical problems that would inevitably arise, long before we saw duplication errors that held any promise for advances. We can’t even design non self-replicating machines that can function indefinitely without maintenance.  

The problem of irreducible complexity is usually cited as the main argument against the Darwinist explanation for evolution, but what if we avoid this problem by leaving the task of selection to intelligent humans, who have the foresight to recognize the future potential of small, useless, mutations to accumulate into useful new features? Even with this artificial selection, the harmful reproduction errors would obviously still so overwhelm the rare beneficial errors that we would still see our herd of cars devolve quickly into piles of scrap metal.

We are so used to seeing all living things reproduce without significant degradation that we take this inexplicable ability for granted; but if we saw man-made machines like cars reproducing, we would expect and observe devolution, not evolution, and that might help us to see how unnatural the ability of living species to preserve their complex structures generation after generation really is. It is thanks to this unnatural ability that in living species, natural selection may seem superficially plausible to many, and artificial selection may actually produce minor advances. But even in living species natural selection of random duplication errors is still like every other known natural process, and still produces only devolution, according to Michael Behe’s new book Darwin Devolves. (Some of the above discussion comes from Section 5.3 of my revised and now downloadable Discovery Institute Press book In the Beginning and Other Essays on Intelligent Design.)

So we don’t even understand how species pass their current complex structures on, generation after generation—much less how they evolve more complex structures.

Growth. This might seem to be the problem on which most progress has been made since 1956. We can’t observe the origin or evolution of life in the laboratory, but we can actually watch living things grow, and we know that at least part of the information required to make that happen is stored in the genome. But seeing something happen is not the same as understanding how it happens. See this Evolution News article which reports on an article by Oxford University’s Jonathan Bard, which refers to the “opaque relationship between the genotype and its resulting phenotype.” This is another way of saying, “we have no more than a very vague idea of the way in which a complex organism can be contained in a germ.” Or, stated another way, so little is understood about how development is controlled by genetics, that geneticists still can’t really answer Giuseppe Sermonti’s question, Why is a Fly not a Horse?

But to fully appreciate how far we still are from solving all three of the cardinal problems of biology, you need to watch Yale mathematician Alexander Tsiaras’ wonderful video Conception to Birth—Visualized, which explores the mysterious, miraculous process of conception, development and birth. “How do these instruction sets not make mistakes as they build what is us?” asks Tsiaras.  How indeed?