Investigating Evolution in Rome

by Dr. Maciej Giertych

November 2008 saw two contrasting meetings in Rome on Evolution. One was run by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences that was in favor of the theory and the other a critique of the theory by scientists at Sapienza University. Learn about both of these meetings from the one person who managed to attend them both.

At the end of October and the beginning of November, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences met in Rome to discuss the theory of evolution. The official topic under discussion was “Scientific insights into the evolution of the universe and of life.” This was in connection with the Darwinian Year, on the occasion of the 200 anniversary of his birthday and the 150th anniversary of the publication of the book On the Origin of Species. When I heard about this session I searched out addresses of all the members of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (among them about one-third are Nobel prize laureates) and sent them my booklet “Teaching on evolution in European schools” together with a cover letter in which I explained who I am and I expressed the hope that the enclosed booklet would prove useful to them in connection with the session they were about to participate in.

A few of the academicians sent me a non-committal thank you letter; however the Chancellor of the Academy, Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo wrote a cordial, longer letter. I responded asking him whether any part of the proceedings would be open to the public and if not whether it would be possible to obtain an invitation to some part of it. Following that I received a phone call from my brother Fr. Wojciech Giertych, Theologian of the Papal Household, with the information that Bishop Sánchez Sorondo had called him and told him that I would not receive a reply to my letter, but that I could come and sit in on the session as an observer, but without the right to speak. And thus I became a participant in the October 31-November 4 session of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. Unfortunately I was unable to participate in the official discussions.  However, I used all the intervals for conversations with the participants and I made my booklet available in English to all who were interested. English was the primary language throughout the conference. About 40 copies were picked up.

My observations from this extraordinary experience are quite disturbing. All the academicians are scientists of the highest level and the papers presented were truly of top quality. However, unfortunately many of the academicians are atheists. The remainder are supporters of the theory of evolution but allow for the possibility of God’s influence on its course. The applause after the presentations of atheists was much more enthusiastic than after the speeches of believers. In all the discussions after the papers the main confrontation was between atheists and theists on whether God is necessary or redundant in explaining evolutionary processes. Among the speakers and polemists there was not a single critic of the theory of evolution.

The media were not very happy that in his speech to the Academy Pope Benedict XVI did not express support for the theory of evolution. Instead they stressed the kind welcome shown by the Pope to Prof. Stephen W. Hawking and the latter’s paper. Hawking is an invalid in a wheelchair who communicates through a speech synthesizer. In his paper he analysed the development of human thoughts about the origins of the universe. To pose questions about origins Hawking considers as absurd as asking about the edge of the earth on the assumption that the earth is flat or about the southerly direction of the South Pole which does not exist-in  spite of the fact that as a point on the globe the South Pole is no different from any other. Hawking has concluded that by combining the general theory of relativity with quantum theory it is possible to answer the questions “Why are we here?” or “Where did we come from?” within the limits of the natural sciences. He rejects the notion that such questions are beyond the realm of natural sciences. Hawking’s agnostic conclusion became the main media message of the whole conference.

Prof. Christian de Duve claimed that we are the most successful species on this globe, but at a high price. This price is the exhaustion of natural resources, reduction of biodiversity, deforestation, climate change, energy crisis, environment pollution, overpopulation, conflicts and wars. The ability of our planet to sustain us all is coming to an end. A reduction of the world population is needed. Religious leaders and in particular the Pope should get involved in the promotion of limiting reproduction. This speaker got the most enthusiastic applause and this from the vast majority of the conference participants.

Prof. Maxine F. Singer spoke about attempts at discrediting the theory of evolution with the help of the “intelligent design” idea currently fashionable in the USA. She regretted that only 40% of Americans believe in the theory evolution. In spite of the fact that the American Academy of Sciences calls for the discernment between science and creationism, in individual states education is decided by the local authorities occasionally permitting criticism of evolution (for example in Louisiana where governor Robert Jindal so decided). Also dangerous to evolution are the now popular film “Expelled” and the book “Darwin’s Black Box” by Michael Behe. According to Singer, evolution is a proven fact about which no scientific objections have been made; and the only objections to the theory are raised by religious fundamentalists.

Prof. Pierre Léna spoke about the teaching of evolution. He appealed for evolution to be treated as a scientific fact. He defined natural science as practical materialism and expressed his belief that such a vision should be passed on to children.

Prof. Govind Swarup spoke about the search for extraterrestrial life. There are three approaches. Search for water, search for planets and moons with conditions similar to earth and eavesdrop for signals from the cosmos. There are also attempts at retracing the pathways along which life developed on earth by means of synthetic biology. Since the tools we have are increasingly precise he expects that shortly we shall have substantial achievements in these studies.

Prof. Albert Eschenmoser presented in a very interesting way the research on synthetic biology, on the synthesis of various organic compounds and on their interactions. He judges that success is still a long way away, but progressing along different routes scientists will finally achieve life. He defines life as a “chemical system which in a given environment is self-sustaining and capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution.”

Prof. Marshall W. Nirenberg spoke on the most recent research on the genetic code, on its variants in various organisms, on differences between nuclear and mitochondrial inheritance and related matters. With the age of the organism the system of transferring genetic information erodes. He noted that it is easier to construct a new organism than to repair an old one and that is where the alternation of birth and death comes from.

Prof. Rafael Vicuña spoke on the evolution of bacteria, both selective and random. He gave an example of a mutation prone bacterium which was unable to digest arabinose. When it was cultured on arabinose alone two mutations were obtained, one permitting arabinose digestion and the other immobilising the gene blocking digestion of this sugar. Thanks to these mutations this bacterium was able to survive in an environment where only arabinose was available as substrate. He was able to cite several other such examples. A hostile environment forces adaptation to it by specific mutations. He considered such results as showing a need to return to some new form of Lamarck’s theory about the inheritance of acquired traits. He also mentioned the horizontal transfer of genes in bacteria, or natural genetic engineering.

More about the horizontal transfer was in the lecture of Prof. Werner Aber. Plasmids appear to be the vectors of genes between organisms. Viruses also can be vectors. Thus genes are being transferred between organisms asexually. [Scientists do the same thing when they make genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.] The classification of bacteria should be based on data about the genome. The criterion of sexual compatibility is useless in bacteria.

Prof. Takashi Gojobori presented comparisons of the DNA determining functioning of nerve cells in various organisms. The further away the organisms are systematically the more they differ in the DNA studied. This he considered as evidence for evolution. As I see it, he presented data confirming systematics (Linnéus) and not phylogeny (Darwin).

Prof. Ingo Potrykus spoke about the consequences of breeding. From one species we have cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower etc. We combine races, to obtain greater variability. In agriculture we do not use natural plants. Now we employ genetic engineering, the horizontal transfer of genes. He described breeding as “directed evolution.” He concluded that breeders can use all of the available information already produced in the process of evolution.

Prof. Yves Coppens (not a member of the Academy) gave an overview of the current thinking about the postulated ancestors of humans. According to Prof. Coppens, all pre-humans walked upright, were bipedal, lived in tropical Africa and had brains which progressively increased in size and complexity. The “homo event,” the last step towards humanity, came with the introduction of culture (technical, aesthetic and moral).

Prof. Luigi L. Cavalli-Sforza gave a lecture entitled “Human evolution as a historical process and the forces that drive it.” He spoke about studies on isolated human populations (from Corsica, the Basque country, the Orkney Islands etc.) These populations differ substantially from each other as judged by blood groups and DNA. Thanks to isolation and inbreeding human races form. He warned however that calls for the maintenance of pure races is an absurdity, because such isolated races are genetically poorer. For him the formation of races is a driving force of evolution.

This contribution as well as many others indicated that processes leading to race formation are being treated as steps in evolution. However, races are genetically poorer than the populations from which they arose. Evolution requires an increase in genetic information and not the loss of it. It requires new functions and organs. None of the papers presented showed any process supporting the evolutionary postulate, yet all of them treated evolution as an unquestioned paradigm.

From the theistic side the most interesting paper was presented by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn (not a member of the academy). He summarised the statements on evolution made so far by Benedict XVI (and Cardinal Ratzinger). In the discussion that followed Schönborn forcefully defended the view of the Pope and his own that God is not to be called in only to fill gaps in the evolutionary process. He supervises the totality of the development of the World. To a direct question, whether he believes in evolution Schönborn answered that for the theory to be proven still much is lacking.

More about these gaps in evolution was presented in the paper of Prof. Antonio Zichichi. He spoke of three Big Bangs, 1) the cosmic one, 2) on transfer from inanimate to living and 3) and on transfer from animal to human. He demanded that the role of the Creator be recognized at least in these three big bangs. A one time event is unsuitable for repetition and therefore does not lend itself to scientific analysis. In history single events can have colossal consequences (the shots in Sarajevo, the birth of Napoleon, and other such events.) Without them history would be different. In natural sciences if there were no Galileo or Newton someone else would have made their discoveries. We still wait for scientific explanations of the formation of life or of man. DNA is needed but it is not enough to define man. Zichichi concluded by saying that the greatest mutation ever was the Resurrection of Christ.

Cardinal Georges Cottier gave a very philosophical paper about the impossibility of proving the beginning through metaphysics. If there was a beginning there must have been an Initiator. He pointed out that the first words of the Gospel by St. John and of the book of Genesis (In principio …) have to be understood differently. The “Principle” of St. John is obligatory always, and therefore is more fundamental than the “beginning” of Genesis, implying a continuation, which is precisely what was discussed at the conference on evolution.

After the paper of Prof. Jürgena Mittelstrass, who warned against interfering with the genetics of man, there developed a long discussion about the sense of such interferences, judged from the point of view medicine, eugenics and evolutionary prospects.

Closest to criticising the theory of evolution was Prof. Stanley L. Jaki. However he criticised more the Darwinian methodology than the theory of evolution itself. He pointed out common examples of circular reasoning. He mentioned “survival of the fittest” where the fittest are defined as those who survive. He pointed out the lack of balance between what is being postulated and what has been proven. He judged, however, that only the mechanisms postulated by Darwin can explain the multitude of species. He appealed for Darwinism to be taught with its virtues, but also with its shortcomings. Jaki came only for his own paper and disappeared soon after the discussion that followed it.

Prof. Francis S. Collins (not a member of the Academy), until recently head of the human genome project, had a very theistic presentation. We try to explain “how?” but we cannot explain “why?” God is beyond time and nothing is for him accidental or complicated. All people have 99.6% of their genome identical. The further away an organism is systematically from another organism, the fewer common genes they possess. Thus, he concluded that DNA studies confirm Darwin.

There were several papers by astronomers about the evolution of the cosmos. I do not know much about these things so I shall not summarize these papers. I shall only point out that all of them accepted the paradigm of the Big Bang with respect to the expansion of the cosmos and its evolution.

I sat in silence. At intervals I tried to discuss privately with the participants of the session. The conference lacked even a single paper that would be critical of the theory of evolution from the scientific point of view. Those present, primarily retirees, had never heard of scientific research that contradicted the theory of evolution. Because of the makeup of the group of speakers selected for the conference, the Church also did not hear about this research.

I understand that the Church wants to know what the world of science is proposing, also what the atheists propose. However by setting up a conference in such a way as this recent forum, the Church will never be informed about the full picture. It will hear only the voices of its critics (known on a daily basis from a multitude of sources). These critics did not receive a critique against which they would have to defend themselves with scientific arguments. They received only an assurance that God has something to do with the development of the world, a position which they can easily reject as an expression of the religious fundamentalism that they despise.

A similar conference is being prepared for March 2009, under the patronage of the Pontifical Council for Culture.  It will be held at the Pontifical Gregorian University from 3rd to 7th March 2008 and will be entitled “Biological evolution: facts and theories.” Among the speakers there will be well-known promoters of the theory of evolution such as Francisco Ayala, Gianfranco Biondi, Robin Dunbar, Douglas J. Futuyma, Stuart Kauffman, Giorgio Manzi, Lynn Margulis, Simon Conway Morris, Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson. There will also be several participants from the recent conference of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. Of course there will also be theologians and even one critic of the theory of evolution, a Seventh Day Adventist. It appears that the usefulness of this conference will be similar to that of the recent conference at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. The evolution supporters will not be confronted by scientific critics of the theory.

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In parallel with the conference of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on the topic of evolution there was a one day (Nov. 3rd) symposium at the Sapienza University in Rome entitled “A Scientific Critique of Evolution.” I was one of the speakers at this session. The aim of the conference was to present scientific results that contradict the Darwinian theory of evolution.

Guy Berthault from the French Ecole Polytechnique presented his results in the field of sedimentology (the branch of natural science that studies the formation of geological strata). He works in great hydraulic laboratories where behind a window pane he observes material transported by water being arranged into layers before its sedimentation occurs. Sediments do not fall from the sky. First there is erosion, then transport and then sedimentation. Layers form during transport. Berthault questions the conventional dating of geological strata. Based on his empirical research, he argues that they form simultaneously and that their size is determined by the amount and motion of water that carries the sediments. These are empirical results, reproducible and controllable. They discredit all the dating of sedimentary rocks used today in geology and palaeontology.

Dr Jean Pontcharra, an atomic physicist, presented the most recent objections to the isotopic methods of dating rocks. Very often absurd results are being obtained which have to be discarded (e.g. when dating rocks of know age, from recent volcanic eruptions). Originally many assumptions were made concerning the zero isotopic age of the magma, the absence of exudations and imbibitions of elements, the immutability of the rates of isotopic decomposition and other factors. Today many of these assumptions are being questioned and as a result the utility of these methods for the dating of igneous rocks is questionable. (Sedimentary rocks are not being dated isotopically).

Dr Josef Holzschuh, a geophysicist from Australia spoke about the consequences of the II Law of Thermodynamics for the theory of evolution. This law demands that all energy processes run towards equilibrium, towards exhaustion, towards chaos. “Up hill” natural processes, towards greater order, towards higher energy states, towards increasing organisation are impossible.

Prof. Pierre Rabischong, from the Medical College in Montpellier, spoke about the perfection of functioning life systems. Each organ represents the best possible solution for the performance of a given function, in all species. There are no trial stages. No mutation gives new species and this has been proven in many experiments with bacteria and fruit flies. Variability comes from the recombination of existing variability and a mutation only increases the number of defects in the population. Embryonic growth and the activation of functions in an organism represent the realisation in a rigorous manner of a program written down in the genes.

My paper concerned the mechanism of race formation, a mechanism based on the reduction of genetic variation, and thus a process in the opposite direction to the postulated evolution. Treating race formation as a small step in evolution is an error that is continually being repeated in school textbooks. I have also shown that the formation of organisms resistant to manmade chemicals (herbicides, fungicides, pesticides etc), even when this happens through mutations, is nothing more than a defence mechanism protecting functions necessary for life processes. This is not the creation of new functions.

Unfortunately the media did not care to notice this session very much. A Catholic News Service story, an article in the Italian paper Adige, and my interview with Vatican Radio, in which I discussed both of the sessions in which I participated, appear to have been the only media coverage of this important event.