Dr. Michael Denton thanks very much for taking the time for this interview. Given your extensive academic achievements and professional success as a medical doctor, geneticist, author of three science books and many research papers in various scientific peer-reviewed journals and scientific publications, Successful Student believes that your wide ranging expertise and deep insight will be of immense value to our readers.
Michael Denton Interview
1. Q: Lets talk about your biographical background. Where were you born and raised? What brings you to currently reside in New Zealand and in Perth, Australia?
A: I was born in Newcastle upon Tyne in the northeast of England. And I was brought up in the northeast near Newcastle. The reason why I ended up in New Zealand and Australia is that after my PhD at King’s College in London I took up a university lectureship in La Trobe University Melbourne. And then I did some post graduate specialist medical training in pathology, first in London at the Post Graduate Medical School and afterwards in Toronto at the Sick Kids Hospital and then in Sydney at the prince of Wales Hospital.
After ten years working in Pathology in Sydney I crossed the Tasman and took up a New Zealand university appointment at Otago University. So since medical school I have worked in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, also in Canada for a bit as well, but certainly I’m in this part of the world—down under—because I originally came out, after my PhD in London, to a university appointment in Melbourne. So again I was born and brought up in the northeast of England, and after high school I went to Bristol University where I studied medicine but the first 18 years of my life were in the northeast, and then the next seven years in Bristol in London, and then after London, Melbourne, Australia.
2. Q: What was your upbringing like with respect to pursuing the big questions that you’ve addressed in your career; was your interest fostered by your parents and/or by your education?
A: Basically, I had a wonderful upbringing. I was brought up in a Christian fundamentalist family, but they had a very liberal outlook. My father, for instance, believed that the Bible was the inspired word of God, but he wasn’t a young-earther though, he was an old earth progressive creationist. But the critical thing about my upbringing was that he only believed the Bible, I think looking back, was because it was scientifically validated, and rationally validated. In other words, basically, in the house I was brought up in, yes okay, there was the inspired word of God, but there was another way to truth too, and that was through science and through rationality.
So, I’m sure that if my father and mother had thought that there was something irrational, or something which was in diametric conflict with scientific knowledge, they would’ve probably rejected the fundamentalist view. They might have remained conservative Christians, but they wouldn’t have been fundamentalists anymore. In other words, basically from the beginning of my intellectual life, science was to the fore—it was very important.
I found in later life that this was also a characteristic of a lot of Jewish families in central Europe where the Jewish community made immense contributions to science. A lot of them, like my ex-prof at King’s in London, who was the son of a rabbi, but he told me that there was also great respect for science and rationality in the family. So that was something I’m very, very grateful for. So from the very beginning, the idea that you have to validate religious beliefs by science and rationality was a very important thing in my earlier bringing up. I went to a great grammar school in northern England.
I have been fascinated by biology and living things from when I first looked down a microscope and saw a paramecium and watched amoebas crawling around in a drop of pond water. So the fascination in biology was there from the beginning as well, and the fascination in science, and the belief that science was a route to truth was encouraged in the family.
3. Q: It seems obvious that you are not afraid of taking on large challenges. You hold an M.D. from Bristol University as well as a Ph.D. in biochemistry from King’s College in London, both of which are ranked as being in the top thirty universities in the world. What was your motivation in getting a medical degree, and then going back to school for a Ph.D. in biochemistry? Is there a correlation between these degrees that motivated you to get both? What drove your extensive academic career?
A: Well I suppose, primarily because of a deep curiosity regarding the nature of things and a love of science. Going to do the PhD was a natural thing for me to do because I’ve always, as mentioned above, had this belief that science is the way to truth, and I love science and I love biology, so going to King’s after the medical degree was quiet the natural things for me to do. Actually I must admit to being embarrassed by the confession that it was my mother who filled-in the medical application forms. I have to say I’m very grateful that she did because I have always hated forms and if she had not done the paper work I might never have left Newcastle.
Basically, the choice to do medicine rather than pure biology, zoology or biochemistry, was because in those times—this was post-war Europe—you had to make a living. To go into a profession was the way to go, and medicine not only marries science and biology, but you also get to make a living. That was definitely why I went into medicine. The reason why I went into pure biological research later was once again my long-term love of science and fascination of the natural world, and deep curiosity about nature and the way things are.
4. Q: You were a senior research fellow biochemist at the University of Otago, in Dunedin, New Zealand, from 1990 – 2005, and you’ve been studying, mapping and identifying genetic eye disorders in India and Pakistan since the 1980’s. Please share with us a little of how your academic training prepared you for these roles, such as, is being a medical doctor helpful in your work as a biochemist? Is being a biochemist helpful in your work as a geneticist?
A: Dunedin is the Gaelic term for Edinburgh. It was Scots who founded the town in the mid 19th C. Edinburgh is “Edwin’s Berg” or Edwin’s mountain in Anglo-Saxon, while “Dun” is the Gaelic name for “mountain”, and “Edin” is a Gaelic form of Edwin, hence Dunedin. So they’re both “Edwin’s Berg”. Dunedin is in the south island of New Zealand, one of the most remote places on earth, and I might say one of the most beautiful too. My major research successes occurred while I was at the University of Otago, and I had a wonderful time there. The collegiate atmosphere was terrific.
While I held an academic position there I spent a lot of time collecting families in India and Pakistan, and I was at the same time part of an international research team with colleagues in India, in Chennai, Bangalore and Kerala, in Pakistan in Islamabad, in Bremerhaven, in Dublin and at the NIH. It was a dream project and a scientific success, combining travel throughout south Asia with the excitement of the newly founded genome project.
They were glory days. So very exciting because this was the genome project, one was looking for disease genes—(the focus of the whole of the biological sciences at that stage). And by the way, just for the record: actually, I’ve never really been a proper biochemist. I certainly did a PhD in a biochemistry department at King’s in London, but my PhD topic was really on developmental biology, focused on the development of the red cell, rather than traditional biochemistry. And at the University of Otago my research focus was on medical genetics, involving and collecting families in India.
And so basically I’ve never been a classical biochemist, but I have always worked in biochemistry departments. The reason why I got the position in Otago was that the genome was all the rage, and I’d already done some good work in Sydney on the genetics of the eye, and they offered me a position there which was a great position; no teaching, all research. I could go to India as much as I liked, and so forth. Every door was opened if you were doing genetics in the late 80’s and early 90’s. It was the glory days of the genome project. So as I was saying I’ve really been in developmental biology, cell biology, and medical genetics more than straight biochemistry. I can’t really call myself a biochemist.
5. Q: So you would classify yourself as a geneticist then?
A: Yes. Most of my publications are in medical genetics.
6. Q: Please share with us a little of how your academic training prepared you for these roles, such as, is being a medical doctor helpful in your work as a geneticist? Is being a geneticist helpful in your work as a medical doctor?
A: Yes, having a medical degree always helps you if you’re doing anything in the medical field, and my work in India and Pakistan was interviewing families, examining eyes, and things like that. So in fact my basic medical training was not just helpful it was essential for the genetics work of collecting the families in India and Pakistan.
And of course, basically, working in genetics helps you to give advice about family histories, patterns of disease in a family and things like that. So they’re synergistic really. A medical degree is always useful in almost any area of the biological sciences actually —it gives you some sort of background in so many fields. And so, yes, I would say that I would never have been doing the medical genetic research in India and Pakistan if I did not have a medical degree.
7. Q: Why choose India and Pakistan in particular?
A: Ah, well, that’s very fascinating. The reason is that when you have a recessive disease you have two bad copies of the disease gene and the commonest way of getting this is if your parents are related. A bad gene comes down on one side of the family and it comes down on the other side of the family and bang, both bad copies turn up in the patient.
Because the almost universal tendency in India and Pakistan is for people to marry close relatives then recessive diseases are common. Moreover when you are looking for recessive genes the best families are not just inbred but also with large sibships with several affected. Because large families and inbreeding is common all over south Asia then it’s an ideal place for studying recessive genetic disease.
I’m supposed to be retired but I’m probably going back shortly to Kerala to try and reactivate the collection of families, because there are still a lot of recessive diseases of the eye and particularly the retina that we haven’t found, and the Indian families are still the best resource for finding them.
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.
See, where you have a recessive disease you have two bad copies of the gene, so what you’re doing in this type of gene therapy is you’re putting in a good copy of the disease gene into the cells where it is used.
In 2008 they gave six patients with quite advanced form of the disease (caused by defects in the RPE65 gene) and then they followed them over the next few months, and remarkably the vision in some of them improved in a striking way actually. And there is a video you can find on the web showing what happened. So basically the gene we found in Bangalore, was used in the first successful gene therapy trial that’s ever been done, certainly in the eye disease area.
That was one of the high points of my career. I remember I was sitting in Australia watching the TV news and the second item in the news that night was the report of the successful gene therapy trial in Moorfields. Suddenly they said the magic word RPE65 and I said Wow! that was my gene! So that was one of the highlights of my career. I suppose overall, I have managed to make, with my colleagues, particularly with my Indian colleagues, a significant contribution to the genetics of human retinal disease. Discover magazine listed it in the top 30 scientific advances of 2008.
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. So I was protected from academic disapproval to some extent from the fact that I was working in medical genetics and medicine. But yes I had to ‘face the music’ in academic biology circles. But what I found, on the whole, even after Evolution and even in academic biology circles in Otago University (a collegiate atmosphere that was quite liberal), you were allowed to have any exotic view you wanted really.
And even at Kings while I was preparing Evolution, and arguing against Darwinism, the atmosphere was again quite liberal. I was probably a bit lucky in this respect. At Kings there were Marxists, there were Christians, there were Orthodox Jews; all sorts of people actually. The culture was still to a degree pervaded by the old elitist collegiate atmosphere. If you were a member of the elite your views were tolerated, it was much more ‘gentlemanly conversation’ rather than hectoring debate.
As far as where science is going in the future, I think that it’s going to be increasingly obvious as the scientific revelation rolls on that you cannot account for life in the universe without proposing that there’s some intelligent order behind it. And I think this is going to grow more obvious with each year as biological science advances.
Already biological systems are, as currently understood, complex almost beyond conception—think of the millions of neuronal path finding cells navigating through the ever changing biochemical matrix of the developing brain and laying down the circuitry of the nervous system, or the zoo of regulatory micro RNAs regulating gene expression, or the complex, ever-changing 3D topologies of the genome during development.
Or consider the fine-tuning of nature to have living things here in the universe and thriving on a planet like the earth. In this area the criteria are becoming more and more stringent as knowledge advances necessitating an ever-greater degree of fine-tuning of nature’s laws toward the end of life. I also see this ongoing revelation as one of the great purposes of science in human history.
So if you ask me where science is going in the future I think it’s essentially going to be drawn towards some form of intelligent design to account for the world we see around us. And I think that’s perhaps the destiny of science, and this was perhaps its destiny from its inception. It’s perhaps a somewhat extreme or radical view of the scientific adventure but I think that’s what it’s about.
10. Q: At what point in your career did you start to see serious problems with Darwinian evolution? Was it your work in biochemistry and genetics that led you to start questioning Darwinian evolution? In short, what motivated you to write this book?
A: I would say that, first of all, ever since I was at school, I found things like the feather, and insect morphogenesis very difficult to explain in terms of tiny cumulative adaptive steps, in terms of what I would call ‘Galapagos Island’ phenomena. So that even at school, I suspected that macroevolution, though I had nothing like the knowledge I have today, couldn’t be a simple extrapolation from microevolution.
The microevolution manifest on the Galapagos Islands, which Darwin claimed was the “beginning of all my views”, can be accounted for by cumulative selection. You can account for the evolution of the ‘finches and their beaks’ in terms of Darwinism and the work particularly of the Grants; and the research that’s gone on in the Galapagos over the last of several decades (beautifully described in Weiner’s Beak of the Finch) does show that at a micro-level Darwinism is going to work.
I was already aware of that at high school. But things like the feather, insect morphogenesis, the origin of life, I found very hard to accept that you could explain them in terms of the Darwinian – Galapagos model. So my mind was preset in an anti-Darwinian framework when I first went to university, and this mindset persisted later when I went to King’s to do my PhD.
At King’s the subject of my PhD thesis was the development of the red cell and it seemed to me there were aspects of red cell development which posed a severe challenge to the Darwinian framework. The red cell performs one of the most important physiological functions on earth: the carriage of oxygen to the tissues. And in mammals the nucleus is lost in the final stages of red cell development, which is a unique phenomenon.
The problem that the process of enucleation poses for Darwinism is twofold: first of all, the final exclusion of the nucleus is a dramatically saltational event and quite enigmatic in terms of any sort of gradualistic explanation in terms of a succession of little adaptive Darwinian steps. Stated bluntly; how does the cell test the adaptive state of ‘not having a nucleus’ gradually? I mean there is no intermediate stable state between having a nucleus and not having a nucleus.
This is perhaps an even greater challenge to Darwinian gradualism than the evolution of the bacterial flagellum because no cell has ever been known to have a nucleus sitting stably on the fence half way in/half way out!! So how did this come about by natural selection, which is a gradual process involving the accumulation of small adaptive steps?
The complexity of the process—which is probably a type of asymmetric cell division—whereby the cell extrudes the nucleus is quite staggering involving a whole lot of complex mechanisms inside of the cell. These force the nucleus, first to the periphery of the cell and then eventually force it out of the cell altogether.
It struck me as a process which was completely inexplicable in terms of Darwinian evolution—a slam-dunk if you want. And there’s another catch: the ultimate catch perhaps? is an enucleate red cell adaptive? Because birds, which have a higher metabolic rate than mammals, keep their nucleus. So how come that organisms, which have a bigger demand for oxygen than mammals, they get to keep their nucleus while we get rid of ours?
And this raises of course an absolutely horrendous problem that in the case of one of the most crucial physiological processes on earth there are critical features that we can’t say definitively are adaptive.
Moreover there are lots of different sizes of red cells among mammals, although they’re mostly about the size of human red cells, but some deer for example have very, very small red cells, much smaller than human red cells. So the whole picture is very, very enigmatic. Every single day I was in the lab at King’s I was thinking about this, and had to face the obvious conclusion that the extrusion of the red cell nucleus could not be explained in terms of the Darwinian framework.
And if there was a problem in giving an account of the shape of a red cell, in terms of adaptation, you might as well give up the Darwinian paradigm; you might as well ‘go home. ‘ If this isn’t adaptive, I thought, well what the hell is? It’s performing the most critical physiological function on the planet, and you’re grappling around trying to give an adaptive explanation for its enucleate state.
And the fact that birds get by very, very well (you can certainly argue that birds are every bit as successful as mammals) so, what’s going on? What gives? And it was contemplating this very curious ‘adaptation’? which was one factor that led me to see that many Darwinian explanations were “just so stories” as Stephen Jay Gould put it.
Incidentally, it’s probably worth writing a paper about the enucleation of the red cell because I’ve never seen the problem it poses discussed anywhere in detail. I didn’t say anything about it in Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, which is a strange anomaly because in fact it was one of the things that pushed me towards writing Evolution: A Theory in Crisis in the first place.
But the other thing that I became aware of at Kings, something that everyone working in fundamental biological research can hardly fail to see, was namely that things are getting more and more complicated every decade as our understanding increases. The endless complexification of biological systems with advancing knowledge was the subject of a recent article in Nature. At the moment we know, for instance, that the DNA comprising the genome adopts all sorts of complex shapes and forms and topologies during development.
We know also that there are lots of micro RNAs involved in regulating gene expression and things like this, and every decade we find out new layers of complexity in the cell. Cells can’t be infinitely complex of course, but they’re very, very complex, and the complexity of regulation within them is wondrously holistic; one process influences lots of other processes and all these (other things) in turn influence everything else in the cell, so it’s an astonishingly holistic system. Cells are far, far more holistic than any artifact actualized or theoretically conceived of! And of course there is the infinity of the developing brain where millions of path-finding neurons ‘feel’ there way through an ever-changing cellular and chemical matrix.
So while at Kings I became aware that adaptation may not be so ubiquitous as Darwinists imply; that adaptation may not be the prime organizing principle of biology after all. On top of that I became aware of the growing complexity of biological systems, and I think the two things together—the feeling that there might be a lot of order in biology which could not be accounted for by cumulative selection (like the enucleation of the red cell) and the feeling that the complexity of living systems was simply a bridge too far to be plausibly explained by any evolutionary theory (based like Darwinism on undirected causal forces)—were the two main factors which led me to start working on Evolution: A Theory in Crisis.
Certainly the red cell story poses an obvious challenge to Darwinian explanations. It really should be put out into a paper because it’s a fascinating problem.
11. Q: This is the first I’ve heard of this problem.
A: That the enucleation of the mammalian red cell cannot be clearly shown to be adaptive is only the beginning. That birds keep theirs might even be taken, given their higher demands for oxygen, to imply that the mammalian red cell is maladaptive. And the challenge of giving adaptive explanations in terms of cumulative selection does not stop with the enucleation of the cell.
What about the size of the red cell? Why not smaller red cells as do occur in some species? Might they not allow even smaller more efficient capillaries? What is adaptive about the diameter of 7 microns? The diameter in most mammals including primates? And so forth. A host of similar questions arise! Certainly the red cell poses a challenge to Darwinian orthodoxy.
There are many other instances where it is very difficult to say just what’s adaptive and what isn’t. If you look at nature, look out of the window, there are thousand of leaves and plants in the garden, all of different shapes. Or if you look at radiolarian shells there’s thousands of different forms and shapes, right?
There seems to be a huge number of patterns permeating the whole of nature including the deep homologies such as the vertebrate pentadactyl limb, or insect limbs and basic body plans which don’t seem in any obvious way adaptive.
The problem of a vast amount of apparently non-adaptive form in the living world is huge. It’s an existential threat to Darwinism, right? Because Darwinism doesn’t even begin to explain that sort of order, order that is not serving any obvious specific adaptive function.
But why wasn’t Darwin aware of this? Why is there nothing in The Origin about this universe of apparently non-adaptive pattern? Why don’t current Darwinists see the challenge of the chaotic diversity of leaf forms?
One reason is that Darwin (and to a significant degree subsequent defenders of the Darwinian paradigm) was immersed in a culture and writing to an audience schooled in English Natural Theology. For the English natural theologians from John Ray through Paley, every single part of every organism had to be adaptive because God made it. He had fashioned perfectly all aspects of every living thing for functional ends. A non-adaptive feature, a part of an organism that served no function was looked on as an imperfection. Consequently Ray worried about male nipples.
In fact John Ray, who wrote one of the first great works in natural theology, or intelligent design, in the English language—The Wisdom of God Manifest in the Works of the Creation (1691)—mentions a case in the Netherlands where a man (whose wife had died) managed to lactate children with his nipples. And why did he have to go to this extreme? Because he had to show that every single feature of a living thing was adaptive, purposeful and functional. Biological organisms could not be otherwise, being the works of God. Darwin was writing within that culture; a culture that saw adaptation as the primary organizing principle of life.
On the continent there were a lot of biologists termed structuralists or formalists, who, like Goethe, Goeffroy, and others, rejected the pan adaptational position of English speaking biology (See S. J. Gould’s The Structure of Evolutionary Biology for discussion of the structuralist tradition). In England the leading 19th C formalist was the great comparative anatomist Richard Owen. Darwin and Owen could never understand each other as both adhered to very different, indeed to a great extent contradictory, biological worldviews. And that’s why Owen was such a problem for the Darwinists; he was really a continental formalist, a Trojan Horse in the midst of an Anglo-Saxon biology wedded as it was to the adaptational paradigm.
Darwin knew Paley Evidences by heart and viewed the world through the same adaptational spectacles. If Darwin had seen the world through formalist spectacles and saw that there is indeed a vast amount of non-adaptive pattern and form permeating the entire living world he might never have written The Origin of Species. But Darwin was true to his Anglo-Saxon heritage and did see adaptation to be the primary organizing principle of life and did write The Origin, and the rest as they say is history!
The brutal fact is that there is indeed a vast amount of apparently non-adaptive form in nature that does not serve any specific adaptive purpose, and this does pose an existential threat to Darwinism. You simply can’t explain non-adaptive complexity by cumulative selection; it’s a contradiction! And yes the red cells are part of this big problem.
As I say Darwin was writing to his English speaking audience, most of whom, when he was writing, were Paleyites, believing that everything was adaptive. Owen, as an anti-pan-adaptationalist was always under pressure from adherents of the English intellectual establishment, who would accuse him of saying that nature “did some things in vain, things that didn’t serve a purpose.”
The structuralist anti-adaptational paradigm does pose a huge threat to Darwinism. The reason that Darwin thought that cumulative selection could function as the engine of evolution was because he never saw the universe of non-adaptive order in the living world. A massive case of “having eyes but not seeing!” He was in a sense ironically the last natural theologian. He’s in that same camp with Ray and Paley. I don’t think he would argue that male nipples had some function; I don’t think he would go that far! But he was intellectually imprisoned in an adaptational framework, which his followers and supporters in the Anglo-Saxon world have adhered to ever since 1859.
12. Q: Please explain how Lawrence Henderson influenced you. Were there any particular books that he authored that influenced your writing? If so, in what way, and to what extent did they influence or inspire your thoughts?
A: First of all, I’ll tell you a personal story. I used to visit Paris to attend human genetics meetings in the late 1980’s, and I came across a guy called Marco Schützenberger who was a French anti-Darwinist, and one of the world’s leading mathematicians. I often used to stay in his flat in Paris close to the Bois de Boulogne. On one of my visits, he said out of the blue “Mike, you must read Henderson’s Fitness”. Next day he photocopied the entire book. I don’t know whether it was from his personal copy or he got someone to bring him the photocopies, I’ve forgotten exactly the details.
But I know one thing, I flew off the next day from Charles De Gaulle airport on my way back to Sydney, and as soon as we were airborne I started reading this book. And I can tell you I didn’t stop reading it until I’d got to the very last page, and I got there long before I got to Sydney, which is a twenty four hour flight. Basically, I was absolutely blown away. Because, for instance, as mentioned above, I’d always had (since school days, and all the way through med school and King’s) the feeling that you can’t explain everything in terms of Darwinism, and of course when I met Marco in Paris I had already written Evolution, and was sure that much of the design of life must have another explanation. But since med school I had always been uneasy about special creation when it came to the origin of life or the origin of basic types.
What Henderson did for me was life changing. It opened my eyes to the existence of a huge amount of biocentric design in nature and I found this deeply significant, fantastically appealing and intriguing. I was hooked on fitness because it immediately struck me; and I remember sitting on the plane experiencing a real epiphany.
Here finally is the explanation of why Darwinism fails. There are indeed other factors in biology way beyond natural selection, which must have shaped evolution. And I thought how come I’d got into my 40’s, and I hadn’t heard of Henderson or the “unique fitness of nature for life”. I hadn’t heard of that argument. All I was aware of in this field (I’d expressed in Evolution: A Theory in Crisis) and that was that Darwinism was not a very convincing framework to account for the origin and evolution of life on earth.
So in Henderson I discovered an entirely new framework for thinking about the living world, a framework where everything seemed to be arranged for life, and it struck me all those years ago on the plane, that there must be more fitness in nature than that we already know of, and that’s what must have supplied the additional elements of causation beyond selection during evolution.
It’s so incredible what’s already been revealed. And Henderson was writing before Hoyle discovered the nuclear resonances, which allow for the synthesis of carbon in the stars and before we found out that the universe is flooded with carbon compounds (some of them amino acids), before we found out about that the atmospheric gases let through just the light you need for photosynthesis. Henderson didn’t know of these additional elements of fitness but of course I knew of them while sitting on the plane. And my knowledge of them not only reinforced in my mind Henderson’s basic argument but greatly enhanced the whole fitness paradigm.
So by the time the plane winged over the Australian outback and commenced its descent into Sydney I was already convinced that as nature is so supremely fit for life’s being, as Henderson clearly showed, she must also surely be fit for the becoming of life. It’s got to be like that. Biological and cosmic evolution must be one vast unitary biocentric process! Nature is generatively fit to make the 100 atoms of the periodic table. She is generatively fit to flood interstellar space with organic compounds. And generatively fit to fill the cosmos with exoplanets. [The latest evidence suggests that 1 in 100 stars in our galaxy has a rocky planet in the habitable zone like the earth. And incredibly perhaps 1 in five rocky planets may have a moon not too dissimilar to our own!
I thought, wow! this has got to be the answer. Life and mankind (mankind as Logos) are built into nature herself, essential and integral parts of nature; of a greater whole. And that’s really what the medieval scholars thought. It’s so beautiful. All facets of reality bound together in a biocentric whole in which mind, intelligence, rationality, man; everything, all phenomena, are bound together in holistic indivisible unity.
And yes, this would explain why Darwinism fails. Darwinism fails in the origin of life area precisely because there are other generative factors involved, not just natural selection. Darwinism fails to account for the basic types, because there are self-organizing or other processes in nature which are giving us the deep homologies such as the pentadactyl limb, body plans and so forth and which are giving us the vast universe of other non-adaptive patterns in biology. This, I thought, has to be true. Erwin Schrodinger said, “Beauty is truth”, and this is too beautiful, too obvious not to be true.
So Henderson had a massive effect on me and I’m infinitely grateful to Marco Schützenberger for that day in Paris when he handed me that precious photocopy.
Henderson did of course have a huge effect on early twentieth century biology. Two of the most prominent intellectuals in the biological sciences in the first half of the 20th C were Joseph Needham and J. B. S. Haldane. Both of them were blown away by Henderson’s Fitness. And Haldane even goes as far as admitting that it provides convincing evidence for design in nature. This is the great J. B. S. Haldane, right? One of the makers of the mid-century neo-Darwinian synthesis. Joseph Needham was the leading developmental biologist in England at Oxford until he was 40 years of age when he went to China and wrote the definitive book on the history of Chinese technology; an incredible, wide-ranging intellectual, and he was also blown away by Henderson, and found his arguments impeccable, irrefutable, and provided the basis for a new teleology.
I think that Henderson’s Fitness should be compulsory reading in every American school. The book stands as one of the great classics in western thought. And certainly my views on fitness came from Henderson, 100 percent. Of course, I think the argument Henderson presented in 1913 is a pale shadow of what we can present now in 2014. Nonetheless, like all great ideas, it has stood the test of time, and it’s been profoundly predictive. From the Fitness one might have predicted the resonances in the stars; the generation of the periodic table, the proton conductance of water and all those other elements of fitness which have been found since Henderson. I’m still in awe with what Needham called “that golden book”; just as impressed as all those years ago on the plane to Sydney.
13. Q: Instead of holding to a Darwinian evolutionary account of life, you hold to a designed account of life, which you argue is built-in to nature in your 1998 book Nature’s Destiny: How the Laws of Biology Reveal Purpose in the Universe. Was this book written to provide a positive account of life (such as design), whereas Evolution: A Theory in Crisis was a negative critique on the Darwinian evolutionary account of life? Are the two books related in any way?
A: Absolutely spot on, that’s 100 percent correct. 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.
There are going to be factors in nature which are responsible for the origin of life, factors in nature, organizational principles, new laws of nature which we’ve got to discover, which will eventually explain how life came about. It didn’t come about by cumulative selection. And yes, Nature’s Destiny was an attempt to provide an alternative causal framework to account fort he origin and evolution of life.
14. Q: Nature’s Destiny explains that the particulars of nature, such as the force of gravity, the speed of expansion of the universe, etc., are so specifically dialed-in and specially tuned to allow for life, that these many qualities of nature must be a result of mindful design that had life in mind. But further than that you also detail that nature isn’t fine-tuned for just any kind of life, but life specifically like human life. Would you expound on this for our readers?
A: Well certainly I think that is one of the points I try to make in Nature’s Destiny, and I’m certainly making it now in Microcosm, that there are certain elements of the fine-tuning which are clearly for advanced being like ourselves.
We are warm-blooded, terrestrial aerobes; we use oxidation to get energy, we’re warm-blooded and we breathe air. We get our oxygen from the air. First of all, a warm-blooded organism needs to maintain a constant temperature. To do that we are massively assisted by the high specific heat of water, which buffers our body against rapid changes in temperature. In getting rid of excess heat, we utilize the evaporative cooling of water. That’s why dog’s pant, we sweat, etc. Warm-blooded organisms have to get rid of excess heat, and the evaporative cooling of water is the only way you’ve really got to get rid of heat when the temperature reaches close to body temperature. When it’s hot you can’t radiate off body heat to the environment.
These critical thermal properties are obviously of great utility to air breathing, warm-blooded organisms like our self. But what relevance do they have to an extremophile living in the deep ocean, or a cold-blooded fish living in the sea? It’s obvious that these are elements of fitness in nature which seem to be of great and specific utility to beings like us, and very little utility to a lot of other organisms.
Of course it is the case that they are playing a role in maintaining the constancy of global climate, the physical and chemical constancy of the hydrosphere and so forth. No doubt the evaporative cooling of water plays a big role in climatic amelioration; it transfers heat from the tropics to the higher latitudes and this is of utility for all life on earth. But definitely water’s thermal properties seem particularly fit for advanced organisms of biology close to our own.
And even the freezing of water from the top down rather than the bottom up, which conserves large bodies of fresh water on the earth, is again relevant to large organisms. Bacterial cells can withstand quite well periodically freezing. And for unicellular organisms living in the hot sub surface rocks its pretty well irrelevant. In other words the top down freezing and the consequent preservation of liquid water is of much more utility for a large organism, but of far less relevance for microbial life.
Or consider the generation and utilization of oxygen. We use oxygen, but many organisms don’t use oxygen; for a lot of organisms it’s a poison. So how do we get our oxygen? When we look at the conditions in the universe for photosynthesis, we find a magical collusion between of all sorts of different elements of fitness. First of all the atmospheric gases let through visual light which has got the right energy for biochemistry, for photosynthesis. And what are the gases in the atmosphere that let through the light? Well, carbon dioxide, water vapor, oxygen, and nitrogen. And what are the basic reactants which are involved in photosynthesis? Well, oxygen, water, and CO2. The same compounds that let through the light are also the main ‘players’ in photosynthesis.
And then you might wonder what about the harmful radiations? UV, Gamma rays, microwaves? Well to begin with the sun only puts out most of its electromagnetic radian energy in the visual region (light) and near infrared (heat) and puts out very little in the dangerous regions (UV’s, gamma rays, X-rays etc.).
And wonder on wonder, the atmospheric gases absorb all these harmful radiations. And so on and on and on, one anthropocentric biofriendly coincidence after another. And what provides the necessary warmth for photosynthesis, indeed for all life on earth. What keeps the average temperature of the earth above freezing? Well water vapor and carbon dioxide. If it wasn’t for water vapor and CO2 in the atmosphere the temperature of the earth would be -33 centigrade.
Now when you consider all these factors necessary for the generation of oxygen via photosynthesis knowing that not all organisms use oxygen implying that all these coincidences are irrelevant to the vast majority of all species (most of the biomass on the planet may well be anaerobic unicellular life occupying the hot deep biosphere in the sub surface rocks) never use oxygen, its clear that the special fitness of nature for oxygen utilization is for us.
15. Q: Would you please explain for us how your new book, Microcosm, elaborates and expands further than Nature’s Destiny on the subject of nature’s fitness for life? For instance, what does applying nature’s fitness to the “generative arena” mean? How does applying the argument in this direction provide support for the pre-Darwinian essentialist conception of the types of animals as a finite set of natural forms? Do higher-level, emergent, generative laws specify these forms, reminiscent of Aristotle’s forms? Is this conception different than Plato’s forms?
A: Yes, well, back to the epiphany on the plane to Sydney: if the environmental fitness is as extraordinary as Henderson described it, and this certainly seems to be the case, then it seems inescapable that the fitness will extend into the generative arena as well. As I’ve already noted, the periodic table of elements is generated in the stars. So many aspects of the environmental fitness for life are in any case the result of what might be termed generative fitness in the prebiotic /inorganic domain. Nature’s environmental fitness is the inevitable result of cosmic evolution.
So I am obliged to see the origin and evolution of life as also ‘built into nature’. (We have already talked about this earlier). And if the laws of nature are fine tuned for life’s origin and for the origin of the major types then the failure of the current Darwinian framework to account plausibly for these phenomena can be taken as very strong circumstantial evidence that such generative fitness exists and has played a vital role in the actualization of life on earth.
I don’t think there is any escape: there must be further elements of generative fitness pertaining specifically to the biological arena. And this line of thinking leads of course back to the ‘essentialist’ doctrine; implying that living things are at least to some extent; in some aspects of their design, natural forms. According to the essentialist doctrine, the universe is made up of a finite but very large number of fixed forms or types. And of course in biology its application led to the doctrine of the fixity of species. I don’t like that term species in this context; I think the fixity of type would be a better term as it’s the fixity of form at a high taxonomic level that most biological essentialists were referring to in the 19th C.
Extending fitness to account for the generation of organic forms does definitely lead to essentialism and implies there will be a definitive, finite set of bio patterns or forms in nature. And these patterns would be determined by natural law, natural processes, natural organizational processes (whatever they are) and organic forms would resemble other natural forms like crystals and atoms which are also determined by the laws of nature and essentially changeless features of the world order.
And just as you can’t change one crystal into another, it’s the same notion in biology one type can’t be converted into another—that’s the defining feature of essentialism. And if nature is generatively fit to actualize the forms of life on earth then these basic forms will be just like crystals – essential changeless natural forms.
In sum: I certainly lean very strongly towards essentialism, and I think essentialism arises inevitably out of the fitness paradigm when you extend the fitness paradigm into the generative arena. Extending fitness in this direction leads to the classic essentialist doctrines, of Aristotle and 19th century biology. Pre-Darwinian biology largely adhered to an essentialist framework, conceiving the types to be fixed crystal-like forms.
16. Q: So what determines the form, is it the laws of nature?
A: Yes. In terms of the fitness paradigm it would be the laws of nature. Aristotle saw organic forms as very fundamental. I was at a meeting recently in France, where I met Jonathan Lear who’s one of the world’s authorities on Aristotle and discussed with him the nature of Aristotle’s forms. According to Jonathan Lear, these were absolutely fundamental entities, but they were unlike Plato’s forms, which were sort of rather bloodless and existed in an ethereal eternal realm away from the messy material world.
Aristotle’s forms were active entities, active creative entities in nature itself. And I think a modern version of this notion would be that organic forms are actively determined by natural law. If Aristotle was around today I think he’d probably agree with such a modernized conception of his notion of forms. In sum again extending generative fitness into the evolutionary field implies that organic forms are ultimately determined by the laws of nature.
17. Q: In Microcosm you make the connection between modern scientific findings that nature is fine-tuned for human life in particular, and the medieval worldview that also regarded human life as the central figure in nature. You show that both end in the same idea, that nature seems to be designed for man. Can you expound on this connection? How is man microcosm to the world macrocosm, as the medievals saw it, and how are we rediscovering this classical conception through science today?
A: I think the connection is deep, and pretty compelling. I think the medieval scholars had a wonderfully holistic view of the fabric of reality. They were wrong in many ways; there were many problems with the medieval worldview. I mean obviously the earth as the center of the universe was wrong, Aristotle’s physics was wrong.
But their idea that man somehow reflected in the depths of his nature the essence of the whole universe is not only a beautiful idea but one I believe is increasingly compatible with the fitness paradigm and the emerging 21st century scientific view of the cosmos and the place of life within it. The idea was abandoned at the beginning of the scientific revolution, because their belief in a deep or necessary connection was unsupported by the new knowledge. The vascular system in the human body and the circular motion of the planets seemed to belong to different domains of reality. The ground of being was sundered. Biology was a thing apart. So how could man be the ‘essence’ of the universe as the medieval scholars maintained?
It’s only since the 19th century with the development of organic chemistry (and of course a lot of that chemical knowledge was summarized by Henderson) and then after Henderson in the 20th century with the discoveries of modern cosmology that mankind is returning ‘home again. ‘ Suddenly, it’s no longer ridiculous to reiterate or defend the medieval view that man reflects in the depth of his being all of nature. It’s a claim which is increasingly consistent with the worldview that’s now emerging.
You asked earlier, where is science going? And of course I think that this is the direction it’s heading in. I love some of the phrases which were used by the medieval scholars – that man reflects in his being the depths of nature — and I love the boldness and grandeur of their world view; that man as microcosm and macrocosm are really part of one great unity, inseparable and indivisible. And that’s a notion which also occurs in the Greek conception of the Logos; the underlying rationality which connects all things (another beautiful concept).
I have to say that when you look at the modern secular framework which can’t explain the mind, can’t explain the origin of life, can’t give any explanation for all the coincidences that underlie our existence like the atmospheric window which allows photosynthesis and so forth and so on and on; its certainly a pale shadow of the holistic medieval endeavor to unite all reality in a vast meaningful framework, which made sense of all reality. Where every facet of the world reflected every other facet and comprised altogether a single meaningful whole.
And what’s exciting about the current era is that the scientific evidence is beginning to show that those medieval scholars not only had a magnificent holistic worldview, a thing of beauty and profound teleology, but that some of its key features such as the integral place of life and man in the cosmic order are now supported by a vast and growing body of evidence. I’m very impressed with the medieval worldview. In a sense it’s proved deeply predictive in that science has finally, centuries later, validated its core beliefs.
18. Q: What authors and what books do you enjoy reading? Finally, do you have any broad advice for our readers concerning education, and managing a successful career as a scientist and author?
A: First of all, as far as the books are concerned, I tend to read mostly science texts, and some popular science. I don’t really have a particular author that I’m enamored with. I read very widely, but I must confess I’m not a person that reads novels. Everyone says it’s a big failing. I should read novels, I know, but I don’t read many, and I haven’t read a single novel for many years.
As far as advice is concerned, yes I do have some. I do think that a career in science is immensely rewarding. Science is the greatest adventure that humanity has ever undertaken, and I think that nearly every field of science, every part of nature, is absolutely fascinating. And anybody that studies any area of science, any area of nature in depth, finds the study profoundly rewarding. There’s much more to discover especially in biology. Biology is full of mysteries. How does the architecture of cells get generated? How does sentience arise in the brain? What is the overall organization of the genome? The questions are endless. We are really only at the beginning of the journey into the mystery of life. Nature never disappoints. The more you study, the deeper you probe, the more and more satisfying the endeavor becomes. Some fields might seem very mundane, some might seem very obscure or esoteric but whatever aspect of the natural world, whatever field of science you go in to, ultimately, it’s massively rewarding. I couldn’t recommend a career in science more highly.
But even outside of science scholarship is its own reward. Whatever topic you immerse yourself, its always rewarding. And that’s the wonderful thing about serious academic study. That if you’re prepared to put the effort in, in any area of thought, I would say particularly in scientific areas (my prejudice perhaps), you get a huge payback. It’s always rewarding, and deeply satisfying. So find the thing that inspires you, and go for it.
The Discovery Institute has released a documentary which explores Michael Denton’s thoughts on the fitness of nature for life, especially human life, titled Privileged Species:
Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, which made a significant impact critiquing Darwinian evolution, Nature’s Destiny: How the Laws of Biology Reveal Purpose in the Universe, and most recently Microcosm, both of which extoll the astounding fitness of nature for biological life and human life in particular.
Lawrence Henderson was a Harvard trained M.D. who studied chemistry at the University of Strasbourg and became a professor of chemistry at Harvard University, and wrote various books on the fitness of nature for life: The Fitness of the Environment. Macmillan, New York, 1913, The Order of Nature. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, London, 1917, and others.