In 2007, the famous and highly respected evolutionary biologist, Eugene Koonin, published a paper in the peer-reviewed journal Biology Direct. The paper is titled “The Biological Big Bang model for the major transitions in evolution.” In the abstract, he summarizes the problem he aims to address as follows:
Major transitions in biological evolution show the same pattern of sudden emergence of diverse forms at a new level of complexity. The relationships between major groups within an emergent new class of biological entities are hard to decipher and do not seem to fit the tree pattern that, following Darwin’s original proposal, remains the dominant description of biological evolution.
In other words, he is stating the observed fact that there are frequent discontinuous jumps in complexity, with the emergence of entirely new classes of biological entities (including organisms and biochemical molecules).
His model evokes the cosmological concepts of rapid inflation and Big Bang singularity. In the biological case, the inflation is the result of “extremely rapid evolution,” and the biological “Big Bang” emergence of novel complexity “is envisaged as being qualitatively different from tree-pattern cladogenesis.” In other words, not at all Darwinian gradualism.
Koonin is an atheist who despises creationism and Intelligent Design (ID), and he is a fiercely independent and brilliant thinker. One might wonder how the tone and content of this paper was received by reviewers, except that we don’t need to wonder at all. Biology Direct is an open access journal that also uses open review, still fairly rare among scientific journals. The names of the reviewers are published, as are their comments and the author’s replies. I found this fascinating to read.
In one comment, the reviewer (William Martin) writes:
“In each major class of biological objects, the principal types emerge “ready-made”, and intermediate grades cannot be identified.” Ouch, that will be up on ID websites faster than one can bat an eye.
Here I do not really understand the concern… there is little I can do because this is an important sentence that accurately and clearly portrays a crucial and, to the very best of my understanding, real feature of evolutionary transitions… if our goal as evolutionary biologists is to avoid providing any grist for the ID mill, we should simply claim that Darwin, “in principle”, solved all the problems of the origin of biological complexity in his eye story, and only minor details remain to be filled in… However, I believe that this is totally counter-productive and such a notion is outright false… I think we (students of evolution) should openly admit that emergence of new levels of complexity is a complex problem and should try to work out solutions some of which could be distinctly non-orthodox…
(Note: most of what I omitted in that quote are protestations against ID.)
Complaints by some academic scientists about language in scientific papers and presentations that sounds too much like ID or creationism are not uncommon these days. I fully agree with Koonin that such rigid adherence to the dogma of neo-Darwinism is counterproductive in the search for truth. It might, in fact, simply be true that some of the ideas of ID are more consonant with the reality of biological evolution than is generally acknowledged.
In fact, the prediction that ID folks might jump on this and similar ideas has come to pass to some extent. Randy Isaac recently drew my attention to a meeting in Austria where evolutionary biologists presented ideas contesting the standard model of Darwinian gradualism, and even discussed the forbidden word – teleology. Several members of the ID-based Discovery Institute also presented their work at this meeting.
An article about this meeting written by Discovery Institute’s newsletter “Evolution News” claims that some of the speakers from academia expressed fears of possible harassment or worse from their academic departments because of the kind of concern expressed in the reviewer’s quote above. It is certainly the case that hints of Intelligent Design sympathy are not well received in academic biology.
Eugene Koonin has no need to worry about reactions to his thoughts. His position (at the Library of Medicine in the NIH) and his reputation as a brilliant scientist are secure. Like Stephen Jay Gould and the more modern proponents of the extended evolutionary synthesis, Koonin is not afraid (thank God) to move the entire field of evolutionary biology forward with bold new ideas.
Science cannot be stopped by political, religious, or social viewpoints. At least not for long. It is my own belief that just as the original Big Bang theory put astrophysics and Christian cosmology in closer concordance, we will eventually see a similar trend in biology. God willing.