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Home / Education / News /  The evolution-religion controversy will never go away: Douglas Futuyma

Douglas Futuyma, distinguished professor at Stony Brook University, New York, is among the world’s leading evolutionary biologists. The author of several books refuting intelligent design—the proposition that the complexity of life emerged from divine intervention—spoke in an interview during a visit to New Delhi on 12 April about evolution and the future of disease. Edited excerpts:

How do you refute the arguments of intelligent design and defend the idea that complex life as it now exists came out of a single organism that reproduced and proliferated through natural selection and other methods of evolution?

There is a perception that evolution denies God. If you want to convince people that evolution is real and it accounts for everything we see, the strategy to take is not Dawkins’s strategy. (A reference to Richard Dawkins, a strident atheist and one of the most vocal defenders of evolution). The controversy will never go away and I don’t know what to do about it. There are countless people who have religious beliefs and accept evolution. One of my own former students is a very good evolutionary biologist and is quite a devout Catholic.

Are you a believer?

I’m not going to answer that. If I did then that would tend to colour the issue in a particular way and affect people’s reactions to whatever I have to say. The point is that as an empirical fact, people are able to reconcile evolution and religion. Usually, the way this is done, is the way the Roman Catholic Church does and that is to say there is a God and he created the rules and gave energy and he left it to develop on its own. These are the rules that science then tries to discover. I really don’t know if any religious person really believes that every biochemical reaction which is happening in my body is being controlled by God. Why should conflicts between religion and God exist only in biology? Why should astronomy or physics and chemistry not be in equal conflict with God as much as biology. The argument is that organisms are too complex to be explained as having evolved by natural processes. However, the genesis of that argument almost always relies on religious motivation. You would, for instance, rarely find an atheist who’d say that evolution is too complex to be explained by natural processes, and therefore reject it.

But then, would you be able to satisfactorily explain using ideas of evolution—how life or the first organism arose out of inanimate chemicals?

In principle yes, but that’s a question for chemistry. There is no biology unless and until you have life and I’m no expert in chemistry. However, those who do work in that area believe that there must have been an origin of life through some natural processes. In the beginning you couldn’t have had natural selection because for that you have to inherit something.

So you can imagine that there were molecules that were stable enough and make copies of themselves and there would be variation among them because no complex molecule can make perfect copies of themselves. There are experiments that show that natural selection can come about in a purely chemical system, but it’s a chemical system made up of pieces taken from living organisms. But of course you can ask how does that come about and for that you need to go back (to the chemists).

At the other end, when we refer to humans, can natural selection explain how something like the human brain, associated with consciousness and the mind, can come about? Or are these questions outside the realm of biology?

Well, it must be one of the most difficult questions that has to be explained but any phenomenon obviously deserves to be explained. There are things that don’t exist in the DNA, which are nevertheless the products of biological processes like cell membrane structure. I think the ability to reflect on ourselves, which I guess is part of what you call consciousness or intelligence, will result out of processes that natural selection seems to favour. The argument here is that in social species (such as ants, wasps, primates that cooperate with one another) there are more and more opportunities for intelligence to be exercised.

Given that evolution never stops, what does it mean for diseases and our responses to them?

One of the most far-reaching consequences of evolutionary biology is our understanding of how organisms evolve defence mechanisms to protect themselves.

So, whether it is studying drug resistance or controlling the emergence of more resilient pests, the best way is to use a combination of techniques. So if you just use pesticides that’s bad strategy because the sheer variety of genes means that some of them may survive and reproduce to develop offspring for which we have no drugs. So you would have to use a combination such as rotation of crops, different kinds of pesticide and fungicide etc.

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