Culture War Dispatches

from a Progressive People's Republic

Friday, December 07, 2007

Evolution of the zebra fish

I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about evolutionary biology, but after sending a letter to the WSJ yesterday on intelligent design, I opened my morning Globe to find a front page story about a biologist who was fired for his “creationist” beliefs.

The story mentions his “Christian belief that the Bible presents a true account of human creation,” but it’s not clear if this is the reporter’s interpretation of what all creationists believe or his own view, i.e., that he’s a knuckle-dragging Bible literalist who thinks the Earth is 6,000 years old. Given that the man has a master’s degree in biology and a Ph.D. in philosophy (from St. John's University), it seems hard to imagine, but anything is possible.

However, the following paragraph gave me pause:

"[Nathaniel Abraham] was hired by Hahn's marine biology lab in March 2004 because of his expertise working with zebra fish and in toxicology and developmental biology, according to court documents. He did not tell anyone his creationist views before being hired. Hahn's lab, according to its website, studies how aquatic animals respond to chemical contaminants by examining '. . . mechanisms from a comparative/evolutionary perspective.'"

One would hope that given Dr. Abraham’s education and profession, he does not deny that animals are capable of adapting to their environment, i.e., that evolution through a process of genetic mutation exists. Dr Abraham might differ with Darwin however, on two of Darwin’s larger hypotheses: 1) that new species are created through a series of genetic mutations; and 2) that these mutations are entirely random. Intelligent design theory proposes that although genetic mutation creates micro-evolution within species, there is no proof that it creates new species. I assume that Woods Hole is not expecting the zebra fish Dr. Abraham is studying to evolve into elephant seals.

On the second point, one can accept that some mutations are random, and one can study these mutations using scientific methods—see Michael Behe’s recent book The Edge of Evolution, which examines the limits of random mutation in the malaria virus—without accepting that all mutation is random. If a scientist believes that the awesome complexity of life requires an intelligent designer, i.e., God, it need not affect his research on the response of a zebra fish to chemical contaminants.