The simplicity of Darwinism

A.H. Jaffor Ullah


Historically speaking, Mukto-Mona forum for secularists and rationalists is very young.  It was formed hardly six years ago by a bunch of grad students, members from academia and professional field who were imbued with liberal ideals; they saw the unchecked growth of ideas emanating from parochialism and age-old blind belief system in the Internet.  Therefore, to promote the nectar of rationalism, humanism, secularism, etc., among members of cyber communities these intrepid liberals formed this forum to get away from the evil spell of irrationalities spawned by deep-seated bind belief system.


Many seemingly educated people from South Asia, who are professionals, academics, etc., lead a modern life in the west taking advantage of all the products made from scientific discoveries in the field of physics (automobiles, aircraft, electricity, cellphone, microwave oven, etc.), chemistry (hygienic products, toiletries, household products) and biology (antibiotics, fermentation products).  However, when it comes to the philosophical question of how and when this physical world was formed, how life was started in the planet, and what happens to the life form including us when we die, the same otherwise intelligent people resort to the answer given by various blind belief system, which are full of mumbo-jumbo based on folklore and unscientific.


Charles Darwin was a naturalist in the nineteenth century when life science was at its infancy.  The molecular natures of genes were not even discovered, genetics as a field of study was not established; thus, biologists were busy classifying organisms.  Under this backdrop, Darwin started his studies on speciation.  The taxonomists of his time were grouping plants, animals, and to some extent microbes down to species.  Therefore, the hot topic of scientific discussion centered on how species are formed.


Darwin with a keen mind took a voyage to South America and was astounded by the range of variability he saw among life forms.  Particularly, he was fascinated by the size and shape of beaks among a group of small birds by the name finch.  From this cursory study came out the seminal work what the biologists call the theory of speciation.  Darwin explained how the beak of finches modifies ever so slowly against the changing environment of the world each species live.  These adaptive changes are passed onto the next generation.  If these changes do not take place, then an entire species of finch may find their environment where do they live to be hostile; consequently, the species may become extinct.  These simple ideas formed the basis of his theory of evolution.


When Darwin was explaining the intricacies of his “simple” theory he did not have any molecular tools to explain how changes of traits are passed onto the next generation.  About half a century after his passing away scientist in England discovered in early 1950s the three dimensional structure of the molecule that hold the key to preservation of information that allowed finch to adapt to a new environment.  Yes, I am writing about genes.


Darwin’s theory about the origin of species started a tumult amongst academics and researchers that cannot be squished by any force emanating from organized religion.  Biologists in the post Darwin days formulated the laws of inheritance, discovered the chemical basis of gene, and now changing the composition of a gene right in the laboratory.


Lucky for me, in the middle of 1980s I became involved in finding the gene for an enzyme by the name phytase.  We found the gene in fungi because this class of microbes degrades one particular class of phosphorylated sugar, phytic acid for survival.  The animal kingdom does not make this enzyme because they could obtain phosphorus from alternative source.  After I publish my initial findings on phytase’s chemical sequence in 1988 a Dutch company over-expressed the gene to produce the enzyme for swine and poultry industries.  A group of animal scientists took the gene and inserted it into the chromosome of a pig.  Now that pig is producing the enzyme in their saliva.  This is an example of experimental evolution.  When my colleagues were tinkering with the expression of a single gene, animal scientists in Scotland were involved in cloning not a single or 100 genes but the entire animal.  They stunned the entire world with the news of the birth of Dolly the sheep in July 1996. 


All these remarkable progress in biology really stemmed from Darwin’s scientific discovery of the origin of species.  In pure and simple term, the two species of any closely related organism varies because of their genetic material or genes.  Darwin had no idea what these genes are made of.  But hardly 30-40 years after his death scientists knew that the genetic materials are contained in chromosome, which were later found to be nothing more than nucleo-protein and composed of nucleic acid and some histone-like basic proteins.  Scientists in 1960s had speculated that while nucleic acid holds the blueprint of the sequence of proteins, the gene product, the basic proteins are involved in gene expression.  This is the crux of the problem now – how genes are expressed?  Think for a moment this enigma – in mother’s womb the same 24 pairs of chromosome divide and re-divide zillions of times and in the process the genes for all vital organs are expressed to produce eyes, lungs, heart, kidney, liver, etc., in a timely fashion.  Our skin cells also contain the same 24 pairs of chromosomes but 99.99% of the genes are not allowed to express; therefore all we end up is the formation of epithelial cells.  How is it possible?  If a group of cells become defiant and keep on producing the same cells over and over, what we end is a tumor (or cancer), which could have serious health consequence.  Biologists have made remarkable discoveries about the genes that control cell division.  Therefore, it is expected that cancer therapeutics will eventually come and help is on the way to cure this deadly malady.


In mid nineteenth century Charles Darwin made a series of observation about the origin of species and his findings have enlightened the minds of future biologists.  His explanation of how the force of natural selection leads to adaptive change in organism to compete, survive, and reproduce.  This is force that ultimately creates different species over time.  This is what is Darwinism. 


The modern molecular biology is the offshoot of Darwinism.  Right now thousands of biologists are deciphering the genetic code of various organisms.  A field of biology by the name bioinformatics is spawned by their discoveries.  Darwin’s simple discovery had touched every facets of biology.  Its devastating blow on organized religion had not escaped our inquisitive mind.  Do you care to know that about 96% of the academics that call them life scientists do not believe anymore the eschatology (a belief or a doctrine concerning the ultimate or final things, such as death, the destiny of humanity)?  To me, this is the ultimate triumph of Darwinism.  It broke the servitude of religion amongst many intelligent minds.   


 Dr. A.H. Jaffor Ullah, a researcher and columnist, writes from New Orleans, USA