Hopping Fish and Other Darwin Mysteries

Posted on December 12, 2011 in Awards, Biology, Cell Biology, Darwin and Evolution, Dumb Ideas, Fossils, Humanity, Intelligent Design, Issues, Marine Biology, Media, Microbiology, Mind and Brain, Origins, Philosophy of Science, Terrestrial Zoology

The chieftans of evolutionary theory insist that their doctrines have come a long way since Darwin.  Discoveries in molecular biology, population genetics, biogeography, paleontology have left the Victorian concepts of evolution outdated and antiquated, they would say.  Yet a look at the evolutionary literature shows otherwise.  Simplistic just-so stories, Darwinian phrases like “survival of the fittest” and “missing link,” iconic fossils, and antiquated principles continue to be the rule, as the following articles illustrate.

Just-so hopping lungfish and leaping media:  The media are in a frenzy again at the observation that certain lungfish move their fins under the water in an alternating pattern suggestive of walking, suggesting that this provides clues to the mythical Darwinian day when fish moved onto the land.  Science Daily, for instance, titled its report in epic Apollo lingo, “A Small Step for Lungfish, a Big Step for the Evolution of Walking.”  Not to be outdone, Live Science wrote with the power of suggestion, “‘Hopping’ Fish Suggests Walking Originated Underwater.”  It’s not just reporters saying this.  Neil Shubin, leading evolutionist of Tiktaalik fame, said, “This shows us – pardon the pun – the steps that are involved in the origin of walking.”  No one seems to be asking why, after hundreds of millions of years in the evolutionary timeline, they haven’t evolved feet.  One motive might be for Shubin to regain priority with his inner fish.  Still smarting from a Jan. 2010 find of trackways in Poland (Live Science), he put out the bait, and Live Science took it, that the Polish fossils were made by fish, not tetrapods.  Science Daily’s coverage also supported this motive: “The discovery suggests that many of the developments necessary for the transition from water to land could have occurred long before early tetrapods, such as Tiktaalik, took their first steps on shore.”  For video of the “walking” lungfish, see Live Science.

So simple it’s silly:  One of the appeals of Darwinian theory is its apparent ability to solve mysteries in nature.  Who doesn’t like a good mystery story?  In “Biologists solve an evolution mystery,” PhysOrg promised its readers CSI about why guppies have not evolved for half a million years.  “Guppies in the wild have evolved over at least half-a-million years – long enough for the males’ coloration to have changed dramatically,” the press release begins. “Yet a characteristic orange patch on male guppies has remained remarkably stable, though it could have become redder or more yellow. Why has it stayed the same hue of orange over such a long period of time?”  Drum roll, please.  The short answer is: “Because that’s the color female guppies prefer.”  Elementary, my dear flotsam.  (Don’t ask why female tastes didn’t evolve in all that time.)  It takes a UCLA professor to explain this: “Sometimes populations have to evolve just to stay the same,” said Greg Grether.  Maybe this is just a rare exception that proves the rule.  Nope; Grether “noted that there are many examples in which there is less variation among populations of a species than life scientists would expect.”  With copious appeals to jargon, Grether and his academic professionals assure us that evolution can produce both drastic variation and stasis, all using the same theory.

Missing links:  That hoary Darwin-brand chestnut “missing link” appeared in an article on Science Daily, claiming that “Evolution Reveals Missing Link Between DNA and Protein Shape.”  Don’t look for missing links in the body of the article; it appears someone just decorated the headline with the roasted chestnut to attract attention.  The confident-sounding article claims that evolutionary theory informed a team at Harvard Medical School on how to predict protein folds from the DNA sequence.  “The international team tested a bold premise: That evolution can provide a roadmap to how the protein folds.”  A closer look at what they did, though, shows evolutionary theory to be the packaging rather than the roadmap.  They examined “accumulated evolutionary information in the form of the sequences of thousands of proteins, grouped in protein families that are likely to have similar shapes,” the article said, but the meat of the story concerned using their intelligent design to create an algorithm that was partially successful at predicting “remarkably accurate shapes from sequence information alone for a test set of 15 diverse proteins, with no protein size limit in sight, with unprecedented accuracy.”  Any confirmation for evolutionary theory will have to wait: “Synergy between computational prediction and experimental determination of structures is likely to yield increasingly valuable insight into the large universe of protein shapes that crucially determine their function and evolutionary dynamics,” one of the researchers said.  If it’s likely to yield insight into evolutionary dynamics, the insight hasn’t yet arrived, in other words.

Survival of the fittest:  What could be more a mark of human intelligence than language?  Yet PhysOrg headlined, “Survival of the fittest: Linguistic evolution in practice.”  The reader who dives into the article will struggle to find anything Darwinian in there, except by analogy, as explained in the caption: “A new study of how compound word formation is influenced by subtle forms of linguistic pressure demonstrates that words which ‘sound better’ to the speakers of a language have a higher chance of being created, suggesting that, like biological organisms, words are subject to selection pressures that play a role in deciding which words become part of a language over time.”  Surely humans who decide what they like are not using an unguided, purposeless process of nature.  This would be like Darwin’s fallacy of comparing artificial selection (a form of intelligent design) to natural selection.

Victory through falsification:  Let’s jump to the last sentence of an article on PhysOrg for a clue to why evolutionists may feel uncomfortable with it: “This should cause a rethink of how the symbiosis between mitochondria and eukaryotic cells originally developedone of the most controversial topics in biology.”  That’s right; biologists from down unda are wielding the dork side of the farce to destroy an evolutionary icon, the engulfing of a prokaryote by a bacterium to evolve the first eukaryotic cell.  Is that an unkind epithet?  Here’s what they said: “The University of Sydney research investigated the bacterium Midichloria mitochondrii – named after helpful Star Wars microbes, called Midi-chlorians, that live inside cells and grant the mystical power known as The Force.”  OK, that’s poetic license, but the upset is real: “Our results challenge the paradigm – shown in every biology textbook – that mitochondria were passive bacteria gobbled up by a primordial cell,” one team member said.  Whether their new paradigm amounts to an improvement can be gauged by the number of times they used words like perhaps, could have, might have, and probably.  Then that last sentence comes, leaving its own doubts.  “Causing a rethink” does not guarantee “arriving at a satisfactory answer.”

Howdy, pardner:  What do you know, an extinct meat-eating Komodo-dragon-like animal hung around past its evolutionary cue.  PhysOrg tells us that “varanopids had a longer co-existence with animals that eventually evolved into mammals than previously believed,” the article claims.  “They suggest that the dental and skeletal design of varanopids, reminiscent of the Komodo dragon of today, may have contributed to their long survival and their success.”  They even hung around through the infamous Permian Extinction Event (“a poorly understood extinction event in the history of life on land”) that supposedly took down 90% of living species.  It was sleek, well-built, successful, and durable, only to drop off the scene 35 million years after the evolutionary ancestors of mammals appeared, then re-appear as a look-alike on the island of Java in time to hunt humans for dinner.  Evolution works in strange ways.

Order from chaos:  Anyone thinking evolutionists have their phylogenetic diagrams all wrapped up should read the opening of an article about the mollusk fossil record in Current Biology.1  “While the seven classes within the phylum Mollusca are clearly defined morphologically and molecularly, relationships between them have long been contentious,” the summary begins.  “Two recent phylogenomic studies take an important step forward with intriguing implications for their evolution.”  Nothing like finally taking a step forward after 150 years of confusion.  So what was found?  After several paragraphs about the problems, and presentation of competing phylogenetic trees without consensus, the wizards gave some Bayesian hand-waving over software, they got most of the groups to line up according to evolutionary expectations, except for the troublesome Scaphopoda, that remains a “known unknown” in their otherwise positivistic paper.  The success they claim, though, lies not in answers, but questions:

Probably the most important achievement of these studies is the firm establishment of the Aculifera and Conchifera groupings; this finding is particularly exciting as it shows that some of the most vexing questions of molluscan evolution remain wide open. We find shelled molluscs on one side of the tree and molluscs with serially repeated sclerites and spicules on the other; so, which represent the ancestral condition? Are the spicules and sclerites of the Aculifera and the shells of the Conchifera in fact homologous? And can these features be recognised from more distantly related lophotrochozoan relatives or in fossil ancestors? …. We may be bidding farewell to the ‘hypothetical ancestral mollusc’; but the fight over molluscan evolution may even now just be warming up. At least we have a clearer idea of what the battlefield now looks like.

If this is an important “step” at all, it appears to be a step before the step; a step where the fingers do the walking, laying out a battlefield map before sending in the troops.

Stop the presses!  The ghost of Lamarck was seen at Columbia University Medical School!  Long thought dead, Lamarck with his theory of inheritance of acquired characteristics has been a has-been ever since Darwin proved him wrong, right?  According to this article, “researchers have found the first direct evidence that an acquired trait can be inherited without any DNA involvement,” in the form of small RNAs that can reversibly pass on an acquired benefit to offspring.  “The findings suggest that Lamarck, whose theory of evolution was eclipsed by Darwin’s, may not have been entirely wrong.”  By logical implication, that would make Darwin not entirely right, too, although historians well know that Darwin started his own slip-slide toward Lamarckism in later editions of The Origin.  Obligatory homage to Lamarck in the form of a giraffe picture accompanies the article.  Paul Kammerer, a researcher persecuted in the 1920s for his paradigm-threatening work on the midwife toad, might be miffed at the claim that Columbia found “the first direct evidence” for Lamarckian inheritance, though his claims remain highly suspect and controversial.

1. Maximilian J. Telfordsend and Graham E. Budd, “Invertebrate Evolution: Bringing Order to the Molluscan Chaos,” Current Biology Volume 21, Issue 23, R964-R966, 6 December 2011.

Learning the schemes of the Darwinian storytellers is a requirement for one’s intellectual security, to avoid being swept up in the euphoria of an alleged all-encompassing theory that explains everything.  And yes, it does.  It can accommodate contradictions, opposite outcomes, and falsification.  It’s invincible.  So is the “Stuff Happens Law” (9/22/09, 9/15/2008).  But how informative is that?  Even if true, it’s not very useful.  Full of jargon, icons, trappings, slogans and promissory notes, Darwinism is the Stuff-Happens Theory that pretends to explain everything, therefore explains nothing (except job security for storytellers).

Exercise:  Interpret the empirical data in the stories above without using evolutionary theory.

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