Design in Ecology
by Kenneth B. Cumming, Ph.D.
Perhaps the most frequent disagreements between creationists and evolutionists are what each group thinks about: (1) biological variation, (2) the fossil record, and (3) the role of natural selection as a control system. Therefore, much of the usual creation/evolution battleground lies in the fields of genetics, comparative anatomy, and geology. Yet, skirmishes spill over into other disciplines such as ecology (the study of organisms at home1) where the researchers and writers try to explain how and why living systems (ecosystems) developed.
I will not dwell on origins or the fossil record at this time. What I will deal with are the relatively short-term developmental aspects of the issue as seen in the hierarchical design of living systems especially in organization, cycles, and homeostasis. These biological properties will be used to show that living systems are predictable, directional and conservative. These properties support the creationist perspective and conflict with evolution, which requires randomness, non-directional progression, and liberal opportunity for change.
Among the signs of life, organization is probably the most striking.2 0ther signs such as metabolism, responsiveness, and reproduction take analysis or time to observe. However, structural complexity is quickly recognized; it is a product of large molecule syntheses under the direction of another giant molecule—nucleic acid. Structural and dynamic proteins form the warp and woof of life; nucleic acids provide the plan.
From these macromolecules are built the hierarchies of anatomy. At the micro level, cells have been shown to have intricate membranous ultrastructure. At a higher level organisms have a finely woven fabric of tissues. Even ecosystems have a megastructure of interconnected community practitioners. So, complex organization is one of the most important attributes that makes living systems "alive."
One might challenge this concept as stretching an analogy too far. But other authors conclude that these patterns are real. For example, J.G. Miller3 wrote a treatise on Living Systems in 1978 (McGraw Hill) in which he compiled an enormous amount of data to support his general living systems theory. In a 1981 Center Magazine excerpt of the book Miller states:
According to general systems theory, the universe contains a hierarchy of systems, each more advanced level made up of systems at the next less complex level. The systems at any one level are similar sorts of things. They are, for instance, all subatomic particles, or all cells, or all societies … General living systems theory is concerned with the very special subset of all systems, the living systems. Altogether ... there appear to be nineteen critical subsystem processes which are identical at all levels of living systems.
Thus, there are anatomical descriptions of cells, animals, and communities which pictorially display the members' appearance and location within the organization. For example, comparative anatomy is a well-established science that relies on the consistency of occurrence of structures. In addition there are functional organizations. For example, in ecology we expect to find organisms within niches performing their " role" in the vertical and horizontal stratifications. In fact, absence of ecological equivalents signals problems in the ecosystem. From these recurring patterns, I conclude that living systems are predictable in anatomical and functional organization.
A property of communities familiar to all is rhythmicity, a repeating pattern of events. These are characterized by a beginning, interim of consistent length, and end. It is seen, for example, in the daily vertical migration of small sea life, seasonal breeding of deer, and the annual food-storing behavior of flying squirrels.4 However, there is a hierarchy of cycles that apply to generations of living systems too—that of the cell cycle, life cycle, and succession. I hold that these display directionality (i.e., start to finish on a timetable according to prescribed steps).
Various phases of activity within a cell leading to division are called the cell cycle. One complete cycle constitutes a generation and has a characteristic time of completion: simple cells without nuclei 20-30 minutes, complex cells with nuclei 10-25 hours.5 Nucleated cells divide after a sequence of seven phases: initial growth-G2, chromosomal replication-S, secondary growth-G2 , prophase, metaphase, anaphase, and telophase. Although the cycle can be manipulated experimentally, there is a naturally characteristic cell behavior which is directional.
Existence in multicellular organisms is measured as life cycles—from conception to death. Whereas in protozoa the single cell becomes the offspring through division, in many-celled organisms (metazoa) select cells (usually sex cells) become the progenitors of the next generation. The range of time for a life cycle for metazoa may be in days to hundreds of years. In spite of the variety of organisms, life cycle steps may be simplified in the following sequence:
fertilized egg —> embryo —> youth —> adult —> senility
Any number of developmental accidents can modify the end product. Yet, there is a generally repeatable progression.
A sequence of different communities of organisms in a particular living space (habitat) is frequently called a succession. As an example, Horn6 describes the properties of one New Jersey forest succession. He found that soil moisture and leaf arrangement are basic factors in determining the succession of this mixed forest and that the most stable end-point (climax condition) is a mosaic of residual unique successional stages. He concluded there was a convergence on the same final distribution of trees no matter at which successional stage it begins. Even though succession of forests, ponds, and sand dunes may occupy hundreds of years, there is a describable recurrence of communities that lead to the end of the cycle. Therefore, living systems are consistently directional in their activities.
Horn also noted in the forest he studied that although multilayered (leaf distribution) trees are able to grow faster than monolayered trees in the open environment of early succession, the shaded understory limits the growth of the multilayered offspring. This geometric arrangement of leaves is just one feedback mechanism in living systems that fit under the general term homeostasis (staying the same). It is a term generally applied to regulation of the internal environment by metabolic adjustments under the pressure of variable external stimuli. However, homeostasis operates in all living systems. In cells, enzymes with more than one active site (allosteric) are part of a feedback (cybernetic) system to regulate intermediary metabolism. Usually negative feedback is the governor for efficient and economical use of cell resources. For example, synthesis of the three amino acids lysine, threonine and methionine is judiciously managed by allosteric control of the alternate enzymes (isozymes) of aspartokinase.7
Temperature regulation in man is a commonly quoted example of an organismic homeostatic mechanism. Skin thermoreceptors tell the brain what the skin temperature is. Internal temperature is monitored in the brain (hypothalamus), spinal cord, abdominal organs, etc. Voluntary response from the cerebrum coupled with involuntary integration of sympathetic nerves and thyroid hormone lead to an orchestration of heat manipulators in the adrenal medulla, sweat glands, skin arterioles and, skeletal muscles.8 The end of it all is a routine 98.6°F ± 2° (37C ± l°).
With so much metabolic traffic and energy balance, a set of management systems is essential for the survival of organisms. Homeostasis enables these organisms to operate within their range of tolerance. Such stabilizing mechanisms lead to conservatism in cells, organisms and communities.
Hardin,9 Wilder-Smith10 and Parker11 all refer to a famous book Natural Theology, that was published by William Paley in 1802 in which Paley stated that all nature speaks of the Designer behind it. The existence of a watch proved a watchmaker; the existence of the design (highly coded structure) in nature and matter proved the existence of a designer behind them. By 1870, however, Darwinian theory had swept way Natural Theology and substituted as Wilder-Smith puts it, "Design might be designed, as it were, but design might also just as easily arise from randomness." So thorough was the sweeping that Hendersonl2 in 1913 wrote:
"At length we have reached the conclusion which I was concerned to establish. Science has finally put the old teleology to death. Its disembodied spirit, freed such a ghost science has nothing to fear. The man of science is not even from vitalism and all material ties, immortal, alone lives on, and from obliged to have an opinion concerning its reality, for it dwells in another world where he as scientist can never enter."
But alas, as cybernetics would have it, Hardin in his 1968 book 39 Steps to Biology suggests again that nature challenges evolutionary theory and we should think about it. Hardin asks, "Was Paley right?" WilderSmith picked up the argument referring to the findings of the computer specialists at the 1966 symposium entitled Mathematical Challenges to the Neo-Darwinian Interpretation of Evolution in which Professor Eden of MIT stated, "It is our contention that if random is given a serious and crucial interpretation from a probabilistic point of view, the randomness postulate is highly implausible."
Are these only a few isolated examples of the reevaluation of evolution or is the inquiry growing? Frances Hitchingl3 wrote in the April 1982 edition of Life magazine "Was Darwin Wrong?" It is only one of many investigative articles, reviews, and books on the subject which has reached national concern.
In this article I have tried to indicate that some ecological topics are enmeshed in the Creation/Evolution dialog. I have presented the thought that the relatively short-term basic developmental properties of organization, cycles, and homeostasis, at all levels, show predictableness, direction, and conservativeness. These appear to be at variance with expected properties of evolution such as randomness, variable direction and liberal opportunity for change.
1. Odum, Eugene, Fundamentals of Ecology, (PA: W.B. Saunders Co., 1971), 574 pp.
2. Curtis, Helena and Sue Barnes, Invitation to Biology, (NY: Worth Pub., Inc., 1981), 6% pp.
3. Miller, James and Jessie Miller, "Systems Science: An Emerging Interdisciplinary Field," The Center Magazine, V. xiv, No. 5, Sep.-Oct. 1981, pp. 44-55.
4. Smith, Robert, Ecology and Field Biology, (NY: Harper & Row Pub. Inc., 1974), 850 pp.
5. Sheeler, Phillip and Donald Bianchi, Cell Biology: Structure, Biochemistry, and Function, (NY: John Wiley & Sons, 1980), 578 pp.
6. Horn, Henry, "Forest Succession," Scientific American, V. 232, 1975, pp. 90-98.
7. Sheeler, Phillip and Donald Bianchi, op. cit.
8. Vander, Arthur, James Sherman, and Dorothy Luciano, Human Physiology, (NY: McGraw-Hill Bk. Co., 1980), 724 pp.
9. Hardin, Garrett, 39 Steps to Biology. A Scientific American book, San Francisco, 1968.
10. Wilder-Smith, Arthur, The Creation of Life: A Cybemetic Approach to Evolution, (IL: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1974), 269 pp.
11. Parker, Gary, Creation: The Facts of Life, (San Diego: CLP Publishers, 1980), 163 pp.
12. Henderson, Laurerice, The Fitness of the Environment, (MA: Peter Smith, 1970), 317 pp.
13. Hitching, Francis, 'Was Darwin Wrong?" Life, Apr. 1982, pp. 48-52.
*Dr. Cumming is chairman of the Biology Department in the ICR Graduate School. He has the Ph.D. from Harvard University in the field of ecology.
Cite this article: Kenneth B. Cumming, Ph.D. 1984. Design in Ecology. Acts & Facts. 13 (5).