There is a maddeningly vague press release floating around, and I think everybody has sent me a link to it now. It contains a claim by some chemists that they have discovered a new organizing principle in evolution.
A team of Princeton University scientists has discovered that chains of proteins found in most living organisms act like adaptive machines, possessing the ability to control their own evolution.
The research, which appears to offer evidence of a hidden mechanism guiding the way biological organisms respond to the forces of natural selection, provides a new perspective on evolution, the scientists said.
The researchers — Raj Chakrabarti, Herschel Rabitz, Stacey Springs and George McLendon — made the discovery while carrying out experiments on proteins constituting the electron transport chain (ETC), a biochemical network essential for metabolism. A mathematical analysis of the experiments showed that the proteins themselves acted to correct any imbalance imposed on them through artificial mutations and restored the chain to working order.
If true, this would be an extremely remarkable claim. An amazing claim. Something that would make all biologists sit up and take notice. Unfortunately, the puff piece writer and the scientists involved seem incapable of actually explaining what they found, which makes me extremely suspicious. This is just empty noise:
The research, published in a recent edition of Physical Review Letters, provides corroborating data, Rabitz said, for Wallace’s idea. “What we have found is that certain kinds of biological structures exist that are able to steer the process of evolution toward improved fitness,” said Rabitz, the Charles Phelps Smyth ’16 Professor of Chemistry. “The data just jumps off the page and implies we all have this wonderful piece of machinery inside that’s responding optimally to evolutionary pressure.”
How? What is the mechanism? What kind of data suggests this peculiar notion? I’m unimpressed, so far, and unfortunately, Physical Review Letters hasn’t yet put the paper online. I’ll also point out that the history of statistical claims for exceptional mechanisms that extend evolution is littered with “never mind” moments — some clever dick comes along and points out the ways in which the result is an epiphenomenon, a product of the same old rules all along.
The other problem that often occurs is that one of the investigators opens his mouth and reveals that he is completely out of his depth, and that the team has absolutely no conception of how evolution actually works. This time, there is no exception.
“The discovery answers an age-old question that has puzzled biologists since the time of Darwin: How can organisms be so exquisitely complex, if evolution is completely random, operating like a ‘blind watchmaker’?” said Chakrabarti, an associate research scholar in the Department of Chemistry at Princeton. “Our new theory extends Darwin’s model, demonstrating how organisms can subtly direct aspects of their own evolution to create order out of randomness.”
Dear gob. Is this an indictment of Princeton, of chemists, or is Chakrabarti just a weird, isolated crank? That first sentence is not even wrong. Darwin answered the question of how complexity can arise, so no, we haven’t been puzzled by that general question; evolution is not completely random, so that part is a complete non sequitur; randomness easily generates lots of complexity, so even if we accept his premise, it invalidates his question; and how does he reconcile his assertion of “completely random” with his use of the simple metaphor of the “blind watchmaker”, which implies non-randomness? That’s a sentence that contradicts itself multiple times in paradoxical ways.
Anyway, I’ll be looking for the paper. My bet would be that it says nothing like the claims made for it by the press release, or that it will be an embarrassing error of interpretation by the authors.