Creating evolution

We are so used to the astonishing applications of genetics these days that a milestone has passed almost unnoticed. Researchers at the University of Manchester have managed to turn one species of yeast into another simply by moving genetic material around. They have shown the origin of species.

Perhaps the lack of fanfare is as it should be, typical of the progress of science. After all, it’s just one more step along a long path. But this event is noteworthy—it is the ultimate sign that creationism has no value as a practical, scientific theory.

More than 140 years ago, Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, in which he outlined a theory of evolution by natural selection which has become the cornerstone of modern biology—and much else besides. His ideas were instantly attacked, particularly by the church.

But the book never actually dealt with the origin of species at all. And while it proposed natural selection as the driving force of evolution, Darwin had only a vague (and erroneous) notion of why individuals within species varied for this purpose. The beginnings of the answers to these questions were to be found a decade later in the genetic experiments of the Austrian monk, Gregor Mendel. The significance of Mendel’s work was only recognised at the very start of the 20th century, which makes the discipline of genetics just over 100 years old.

There was a major advance 50 years ago when James Watson and Francis Crick published the structure of DNA, the molecule that stores and reproduces genetic information. That milestone will be celebrated at the 19th International Genetics Congress in Melbourne, which will be attended by no less than eight Nobel Prize winners (including Watson) from the field of genetics.

Over the past 50 years, genetics has become a powerful force to be used for good or ill. We now know so much about how heredity works that we have plotted the genetic plans for our own species and several others, and we can manipulate genetic material to the point of creating and destroying species or turning one species into another.

Science is all about making sense of the world around us, so that we can predict and shape the pattern of events. In this context, genetics has been very successful. It works, and in a very pragmatic way. We can transform life forms using the knowledge genetics puts at our disposal. And what we know of

genetics makes evolution inevitable, regardless of how life was initially created.

While creationism is now irrelevant in a practical sense, it remains an important force politically, socially and theologically. There are still people in the world who insist on teaching creationism as science (which it is not), even though they live in societies that benefit from biotechnology informed by modern genetics. On the other hand, plenty of those who understand and accept evolution also have no problem in believing in a creative God who motivates the Universe. Archimedes is one such.           

Tim Thwaites is a freelance science writer.

The 19th International Genetics Congress will be held at the Melbourne Convention Centre from 6 to 11 July.



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