Plasticity and Evolution

As I have shared previously, after many years of arguing with evolutionists I became a theistic evolutionist a while back.  As surprising as this may seem, the reasons were primarily theological.  In my view, God’s primary purpose in our lives on this planet is requiring faith to choose to believe in Him.  If that is true, then a “hidden hand” creation mechanism serves the dual purpose of providing a “fig leaf” to cover the shame of those who choose to reject Him while at the same time requiring faith of those who choose to believe in Him.  This and the fact that theistic evolution allowed me to believe that God did not directly create nasty viruses and the vectors responsible for their spread were the primary reasons for this shift in my position.

While the theological reasons were the primary reasons for the shift, I would never have come to believe in an evolutionary mechanism of creation (as opposed to special creation of various kinds over geological time) if the evidence had not seemed to point in that direction.  While I have always believed that strictly naturalistic evolution was obviously inadequate to create the astonishing diversity of the biosphere around us, (the numbers simply do not crunch) the arguments from the variation in the fossil record and “Junk DNA” seemed to require the operation of naturalistic mechanisms in the creation of life.  Because this evidence seemed enormously powerful and the theological arguments were persuasive, I changed my mind and became a theistic evolutionist.  I read an article today that made me think that I may have been deceived.

The article outlines a study where two groups of walking fish were raised in different environments and studied for behavioural and morphological differences.  The results of the study indicated that there was an enormous amount of developmental “plasticity” triggered by the difference in environment.  The study could undermine the most powerful evidences for evolution that I have seen.  How?

One of the most powerful evidences for the naturalistic mechanisms of evolution has always seemed to me to be the fact that some kinds of frogs have a much larger genome than human beings.  (This is the classical argument for the existence of Junk DNA and one of the strongest evidences for evolution pointed to by atheists.)  Since frogs do not seem to be much more morphologically complex than humans, this is evidence of unused DNA that is a byproduct of a wasteful evolutionary process that has operated over long periods of time.

While this argument has always seemed extremely powerful to me, I also thought it might be possible that creatures that experienced a wide variety of ecological conditions over geological time (such as amphibians) could have seemingly unused genetic pathways that are triggered by environmental stresses.  Such pathways might allow a species to survive periods of climactic or environmental change that would otherwise cause them to become extinct.  “Junk DNA”, in other words, could be a database of genetic information used by various species to adapt to radical changes in the environment.  While the existence of mechanisms that use “Junk DNA” to guarantee long term species survival remains entirely speculative, the dramatic changes demonstrated in this new study are suggestive of the possibility.  This brings up some very interesting questions.

What are the limits of variation that can be manifested by a species experiencing environmental stresses?  Can “junk” genetic pathways which are unexpressed given a certain set of environmental factors be expressed when the environmental factors change?  Could these “junk” genes unlock existing but unused capacities that confer morphological and behavioural benefits to a species experiencing environmental stress?  The answer to these questions could radically undermine the most powerful evidence for naturalistic evolution of which I am aware.

About Robert V

Former atheist currently living in Toronto.
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