Writer Mark Buchanan gives New Scientist readers a glimpse into what may one day be called the “Woese–Goldenfeld theory of evolution.” That may be a stretch, but for Woese and Goldenfeld—a microbiologist and physicist, respectively, at the University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign—Darwinian evolution only explains a fraction of life’s history. Instead, they believe the “horizontal” role of horizontal gene transfer between individual cells (including single-celled organisms) is far more important than the “vertical” role of Darwinian evolution, in which organisms receive genes only from parents.
"The process of evolution just isn’t what most evolutionary biologists think it is.”
The scientists point out that because microorganisms (which engage in horizontal gene transfer) are thought to have been the exclusive form of life on earth for hundreds of millions of years, the main form of evolution for most of life’s history would have been horizontal. They argue that horizontal evolution explains the acquisition of a universal genetic code for life as well as a rapid increase in life’s complexity early on. Only after many life-forms became too complex for horizontal gene transfer did “vertical” Darwinian evolution take over.
The idea may sound far-fetched, but to at least some other biologists, it isn’t. “Their arguments make sense and their conclusion is very important. The process of evolution just isn’t what most evolutionary biologists think it is,” said York University biologist Jan Sapp. If widely accepted, the “horizontal evolution” argument could one day be a new front in the creation–evolution controversy.
While horizontal gene transfer is a fascinating biological mechanism that creationists have studied, the idea of horizontal evolution goes too far, mainly because it also cannot explain the origin of new genetic information—i.e., the object of horizontal gene transfer that would have enabled evolutionary “progress.” Furthermore, horizontal gene transfer cannot explain the origin of life or of life-forms complex enough to engage in reproduction or horizontal gene transfer, nor does it remove the many challenges Darwinian evolution would have faced after “taking over.”
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