Evolutionist Challenges Mechanisms of Natural Selection and Mutation

Dr. Lynn Margulis is an evolutionary biologist and professor in the Department of Geosciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She was married to the well-known atheist and astronomer, Carl Sagan. Margulis is best known for her “endosymbiotic theory” that attempts to explain the origin of mitochondria and chloroplasts. These tiny organelles are found inside plant (chloroplasts and mitochondria), animal, and human cells (only mitochondria). Here’s how she explains her theory in a recent Discover magazine article:

At some point an amoeba ate a bacterium but could not digest it.  The bacterium produced oxygen or made vitamins, providing a survival advantage to both itself and the amoeba.  Eventually the bacteria inside the amoeba became the mitochondria.  The green dots you see in the cells of plants [chloroplasts] originated as cyanobacteria.  This has been proved without a doubt. (1)

Both mitochondria and chloroplasts perform complex processes producing energy and converting sunlight into sugars (which are then used by animals and humans to make energy) and have equally complex relationships to the nucleus and other organelles in cells. Her explanation is extremely simplistic and does not convey the numerous steps (and the mechanisms to produce those steps) that would have to occur for the endosymbiosis to become effective and permanent. Her last comment is particularly striking. She believes her ideas have been “proved without a doubt.”

I heard Dr. Margulis speak several years ago at the University of Cincinnati. She showed lots of videos of bacteria swimming around set to pretty elevator music, but there wasn’t much substance to the presentation. Apparently, I was just supposed to take her word for it that over time bacteria became involved in “long-term symbiosis” and this led to the evolution of all living organisms both past and present. (See this article for problems with endosymbiotic theory).

Interestingly, Dr. Margulis’ belief in what she has termed symbiogenesis—meaning evolution occurs by leaps resulting from mergers between different organisms—puts her at odds with many other evolutionists. The vast majority of evolutionists believe that natural selection and mutation over long periods of time gradually lead one kind of animal to evolve into another kind (e.g., dinosaurs to birds). In the same Discover article, Dr. Margulis makes clear her problems with natural selection and mutation, which most creationists would agree with:

Natural selection eliminates and maybe maintains, but it doesn’t create. (1)

I was taught over and over again that the accumulation of random mutations led to evolutionary change—led to new species.  I believed it until I looked for evidence. (1)

What they found [Grants’ research on Darwin’s finches] was lots of back-and-forth variation in the population and then- whoop- a whole new species.  There is no gradualism in the fossil record. (1)

They [Grants’ research on Darwin’s finches] saw lots of variation within a species, changes over time.  But they never found any new species—ever.  They would say that if they waited long enough they’d find a new species. (1)

The critics, including the creationist critics, are right about their criticism [that natural selection is not a mechanism for the evolution of new species].  It’s just that they’ve got nothing to offer but intelligent design or “God did it.”  They have no alternatives that are scientific. (1)

While Margulis states plainly that the creationist view that “God did it” is not scientific, does that mean her view is more scientific? No. Both creation and evolution fall into the realm of historical science. Both depend heavily on starting points or worldview when interpreting the evidence in the present to understand how it came to be through the past. Margulis claims symbiosis did it, and creationists claim God did it—both are assumptions about the unobservable past. An assumption is only as good as the truthfulness of the source it is based on. Which do we choose—God’s unchanging, inerrant Word or man’s changing, fallible ideas?

At the very end of the article she shared this interaction she had with another famous evolutionary biologist, Dr. Richard Lewontin,

Population geneticist Richard Lewontin gave a talk here at UMass Amherst about six years ago, and he mathematized all of it—changes in the population, random mutation, sexual selection, cost and benefit.  At the end of his talk he said, “You know, we’ve tried to test these ideas in the field and the lab, and there are really no measurements that match the quantities I’ve told you about.”  This just appalled me.  So I said, “Richard Lewontin, you are a great lecturer to have the courage to say it’s gotten you nowhere.  But then why do you continue to do this work?” And he looked around and said, “It’s the only thing I know how to do, and if I don’t do it I won’t get my grant money.” So he’s an honest man, and that’s an honest answer. (1)

When I read Dr. Lewontin’s response, it reminded me of an answer one of my students gave in Sunday school class recently. When I asked my students why scientists would choose to believe in and promote something that was false, one little girl said, “Because they can make money doing it.” I shared with her that was definitely part of the reason and Lewontin’s own remarks confirm that. However, whether it is Margulis and her ideas of symbiogenesis or Lewontin and his ideas of natural selection and mutation, both want to deny that God had anything to do with it. Dr. Lewontin summarized that ideology well in this famous quote:

We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is an absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. (2)

What is your “prior commitment”—your “a priori adherence?” It will affect how you view the “evidence” and the conclusions you draw about the past. I pray that for everyone reading this, it is the Word of God.

(1) Dick Teresi, “Lynn Margulis,” Discover, April 2011, pp. 66-71.

(2) Richard Lewontin, “Billions and billions of Demons,” The New York Review, January 9, 1997, p. 31.