Proteins and Evolution

In my previous essay about proteins-as-design-material, I noted:

This all raises some interesting questions. For example, without proteins, and their manufacturing process, what becomes of the blind watchmaker? Without proteins, and the latent functions contained within, might not the blind watchmaker exist as the impotent, crippled, blind watchmaker with no one to notice its existence? If so, how much credit does the blind watchmaker really deserve?

The vast and immense Tree of Life is a protein-dependent output. Point to some evidence of evolution and I’ll point to the proteins that underlie it. Without proteins, would there be a Tree of Life 3.5 billion years after the RNA world took root? How do we know? If we believe so, would the Tree be as immense and vast as it is today? A life form composed of nucleic acids, carbohydrates, and lipids would suffice for the purposes of the blind watchmaker (natural selection). But could the blind watchmaker turn this material into something that is analogous to an Ash tree filled with squirrels, beetles, and birds?

Look at it this way. What do we need for the blind watchmaker to exist? A finite, changing world, something that replicates, and imperfect replication. The first and the third are givens due to the fabric of Nature. The second is more iffy. In living cells, proteins play the key role in replicating things (they replicate the DNA, they divide the cell, and coordinate both). But if we entertain the notion of an RNA world, the proteins are not needed for replication (then again, proteins are not needed for chemical reactions to take place). But what the proteins do is amplify and enhance this replication property, and thus enhance the blind watchmaker’s abilities. What’s more, the same molecule that enhances replication also opens up a whole vast world of phenotypes not available to the blind watchmaker earlier. You can almost think of proteins are a form of tech material designed to exploit and prop up the blind watchmaker. And maybe even give the blind watchmaker a little guidance.


To what degree is the design of a designer constrained by his/her building material? For example, imagine that we enlisted the service of the worlds most creative and brilliant engineers and tasked them to design a space craft that will carry men to Mars and back. Now, let’s add one constraint – the only material available to the designers is concrete. Would these brilliant designers be able to meet the design objective?

Or consider the computer. Today’s computers are more sophisticated than computers from the 1950s, allowing people to design programs that allow you and me to communicate with great ease and little cost. Why is it that programmers seem to be able to do more with computers today than they could in the 1950s? Is it because today’s designers are smarter than yesterday? Have new laws of nature been discovered? Or does it have something to do with today’s computers being built with silicon wafers instead of vacuum tubes?

While I myself am not an engineer, I do know that without the right building materials, I cannot design a tree house. I do not that without the right seeds, I cannot design a garden. Designers are limited and constrained by the building material (and tools) that are available to them.

Since natural selection can act as a designer-mimic, it too would share this feature and be subject to similar limitations.


Let me now summarize some of the observations I have made with my recent focus on proteins and their role in the success of evolution. Consider the following:

1. The entire Tree of a Life is a protein-dependent output. Evidence for evolutionary processes is evidence for a protein-dependent phenomenon. This calls into question any attempt to extrapolate evidence of this protein-dependent phenomenon to protein-less evolution.

2. Proteins are amazingly diverse building material, capable of performing an immense array of functions. We know of no other building material that is as versatile.

3. The immense versatility of proteins is coupled to a single manufacturing process known as translation. When you couple this with point #2, this speaks of an astounding elegance.

4. There is very no evidence to support the notion that protein-less evolution would be as successful as protein-dependent evolution.

5. Since designers are limited by their building material; evolution (as designer-mimic) is likewise limited by its building material. This consideration reinforces the importance of taking a closer look at evolution’s dependence on protein activity.

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2 Responses to Proteins and Evolution

  1. TFBW says:

    ENV has recently posted an interesting related article on RNA world.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Well, without transport proteins embedded within the plasma membrane, water, along with a host of other molecules, couldn’t even get into the cell. So without proteins, there is no life as we know it, period.

    I get the point though. Sorry.

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