The “Biology of the Baroque” documentary explores the amazing patterns, order, and beauty in biology that go beyond what can be explained by Darwinian evolution. In the video, geneticist Michael Denton, author of “Evolution: Still a Theory in Crisis” (2016), explains that there are patterns “in the natural world for which you can’t imagine what function it served. And that’s a fantastically serious challenge to Darwinism.”
Denton began wondering about the standard Darwinian explanation of nature while studying the red blood cell to complete his Ph.D. at King’s College in London. He came across many features in biology that did not seem to possess any particular survival benefit. Denton started to realize just how much order in biology was actually non-adaptive. He began to see life more as a piece of baroque artwork than as a purely functional machine.
Transcript from the Biology of the Baroque video (embedded below):
“Ornate mathematical patterns, lavish design, exquisite detail. Nature surpasses even the most talented artists in her extravagant beauty, richness, and deep order. Her forms are marked by an overabundance that cannot be reduced to mere utility. But can such order and beauty be explained by Darwinian evolution? And if it can’t, what does that mean for our understanding of nature?
Opulent architecture. Intricate fugues and symphonies. Dramatic art. The Baroque era spanning the 17th century and half of the 18th century was so characterized by florid excess that the word came to be synonymous with extravagance. Pure functionality faded to the background and layers of gratuitous beauty and stunningly detailed design defined music, art, and architecture. The great architects of the period didn’t just build with their sights focused on function. The designers of Versailles or St Paul’s Cathedral were aiming to create something beautiful, something sublime.
“The opposite approach is to create structures that are purely functional with no emphasis on beauty or taste. The German Bauhaus movement and its modernist architecture is one example. Industrial design is another. So is life under “Darwinian” evolution.”
Darwinism is at its core a profoundly functional mechanism. Natural selection ruthlessly eliminates from the gene pool any organism whose structures aren’t useful for survival and reproduction. If a new structure is to be passed on to offspring, according to strict Darwinian theory, it must serve some new adaptive function. That is, it must be useful for survival. In the Darwinian view, beauty is at best an unintended side product, a mere whim of sexual selection. Nothing need be decorative. Everything has a specific use or it is discarded.”
Under Darwinism nature is strictly utilitarian. For more than a century, biology has been understood in these terms. But what if this way of looking at life has blinded us to the true nature of biology? What if there are other factors at play?
Geneticist Michael Denton began to wonder about the standard Darwinian explanation of nature while studying the red blood cell for his Ph.D. at King’s College in London. As he came across features in biology that did not seem to possess any particular survival benefit, Denton began to realize just how much order in biology was actually non-adaptive. He started seeing life more as a piece of baroque artwork than as a purely functional machine.
[Denton explains] “Non-adaptive order is seen in something like a maple leaf or leaf forms where you have extraordinary complex and beautiful patterns for which you can’t imagine what function that pattern, specific function that pattern serves. So that’s what non-adaptive order is. It’s a pattern in the natural world for which you can’t imagine what function it served. And that’s a fantastically serious challenge to Darwinism.”
Imagine stepping outside on a sunny summer’s day. All around you are different kinds of trees each displaying beautiful order in their differently shaped leaves. But for Darwinian evolution to explain the shape of these leaves, or any structure in a living organism, there ought to be some reason why that specific shape caused one to live and another to die in a given environment. Yet there appears to be no functional reason why there are so many different leaf shapes. Much like Baroque architecture, these shapes seem extra, perhaps even decorative. They’re not needed to survive. They are simply beautiful.
[Denton states] “It’s okay if it’s just a maple leaf. You can perhaps pass over the maple leaf. But if non-adaptive order, like the maple leaf, permeates the biological world, and if a lot of the taxa-defining novelties seem to be non-adaptive, you now have a nightmarish scenario. When the fundamental assumption of Darwinism is that all the novelties in nature are adaptive, suddenly [it] looks very insecure.”
Example of non-adaptive order fill the world of botany and plant life.
[Denton explains] “You can look at the beautiful concentric pattern underlying angiosperm flowers, that’s all flowers belong[ing] to the group called angiosperms. The basic plan of the flower is concentric circles . You have an outer circle of sepals, then you have an inner circle of petals, then you have stamens and you have the carpel in the middle. All flowers are built on this beautiful concentric plan. But what organism was that concentric plan adaptive in? What function did that pattern of gene expression originally serve? It’s exceedingly difficult to give an adaptive framework to explain that particular pattern. And if you can’t show that it’s adaptive, then you can’t give, you can’t give a Darwinian explanation for it.”
The abstract patterns underlying organic structures may be easier to recognize in plant life but examples abound in the animal world as well. Many structures that seem primarily functional have at their base underlying plans that are not particular to certain environments. Oftentimes these take the form of numeric patterns or constraints. Many of the characteristics that divide the different taxa from each other, the characteristics that are used to define the branches on the tree of life, seem to be abstract, and non-adaptive.”