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Biological Chemistry

Debating Science And Religion

June 29, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 26

In his editorial follow-up to Bryan Balazs’ ACS Comment, Editor-in-Chief Rudy Baum states, “There is no debate in science about evolution” (C&EN, April 6, page 3). I would argue that’s not completely true, or at least based on what we currently know, it shouldn’t be (although there are two research projects that could clear things up).

I don’t think there’s any debate (or there really shouldn’t be, I agree there) about the underlying theory of evolution: Species A undergoes a mutation, Species B arises, they compete, Species B outperforms Species A, Species B survives, Species A goes extinct, and repeat. It’s that mutation step that we still need to evaluate. It’s a well-established fact that mutations have two sources: random changes and changes induced by environmental factors (mutagens are just one example). It’s the “odds” of the random mutations that haven’t completely been evaluated.

While research has been conducted on simulating evolution, I do not believe that a simulation has been run that charts the evolution of the human genome from elemental hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur, etc. This may be beyond the computing power of the planet, but I would be curious to know the probability that a human being could evolve over a few billion years. One in 10? One in 1 million? One in 1 billion? If the probability of random mutation leading to humanity is astronomically small, then perhaps other explanations for the necessary mutations would be necessary. Of course, if humanity is a sure thing, then that would certainly strengthen the argument that no “outside force” was involved in the necessary mutations.

The second project, which relates to raising the shroud of complexity, would be to make a living organism from inert elemental carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, sulfur, etc. Not just the amino acids, which have already been made, but a living, self-sustaining organism. We still can’t make life from something that is inert, and a valid hypothesis as to why is lacking. Life only comes from life, but where and how did it all begin? Answering this question will help to resolve the debate. And if it can’t be answered, then as scientists, we know what to do when we encounter a question that can’t be answered.

So, overall, while the general process and timescale of evolution are agreed upon in the scientific community, to say that our mechanistic and statistical understanding of the process from the micro- to the macroscale are complete isn’t quite true. There are still questions to be answered and research to be conducted. So let’s keep at it!

Karl J. Ottmar
Charlottesville, Va.

Balazs claims that evolution is constructed on scientifically testable hypotheses and that evolution is an example of how science constructs models of how the world works (C&EN, March 23, page 48). Also, he says that we should not use the nonscientific explanations of intelligent design. However, I say that there has been no scientific observation of the origin of life in our universe, and therefore there is no possible scientific hypothesis to explain it.

I think that a possible way to explain the origin of life and its compatibility with evolution is stated by Francis S. Collins in his book “The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.” Collins, who was head of the Human Genome Project, says that he has found “a consistent and profoundly satisfying harmony between these world-views,” in the study of genomes and that he is a “theistic evolutionist.” He agrees with Darwin that, once life began, the process of evolution and natural selection also began. He believes that God created the universe, setting the physical parameters exactly right to form the planets, stars, and life itself.

Science can explain what happened after that, but not the origin of life. I think that too many scientists and theologians are far apart in their thinking about life and evolution, but they can find a common ground in “theistic evolution.”

Clifton F. Bennett
Zillah, Wash.


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