The origin of biological complexity is a major concern for believers in unguided, random processes of nature. Some recent news articles, though, make it sound easy – no problem at all. But do their theories and experiments reflect the real world?
Multicellularity: “Scientists replicate key evolutionary step in life on earth,” trumpets a headline on PhysOrg based on a press release from the National Science Foundation. One doesn’t have to read far to get the matter-of-fact assertion: “More than 500 million years ago, single-celled organisms on Earth’s surface began forming multi-cellular clusters that ultimately became plants and animals.” Film at 11:00. No good novel is without a conflict, though: “Just how that happened is a question that has eluded evolutionary biologists.”
Why, it’s no problem at all, announced some scientists from University of Minnesota, with NSF money in hand. Sam Scheiner of the NSF’s Division of Experimental Biology called the study “the first to experimentally observe that transition, providing a look at an event that took place hundreds of millions of years ago.” They got yeast cells to evolve into clusters so quickly it’s a wonder nobody ever thought of the experiment before. “Then came the big surprise: it wasn’t that difficult,” the article said. The clusters fragmented into sub-clusters and even exhibited division of labor, with some cells committing suicide to allow others to thrive.
How did the team leap over this evolutionary hurdle? It’s elementary, as long as you centrifuge the cells for a hundred generations till they get so dizzy, they cling to one another for dear life. How that happens in nature was not explained, but “The results have earned praise from evolutionary biologists around the world.” The Scientist called it “provocative.” Why would that be? My goodness; think of the possibilities for more NSF money to centrifuge jellyfish and giraffes to see what evolves. “The first step toward multi-cellular complexity seems to be less of an evolutionary hurdle than theory would suggest,“ said George Gilchrist of the NSF, grant money in hand ready to pass around. “This will stimulate a lot of important research questions.” Indeed, “There aren’t many scientists doing experimental evolution,” the NSF said, as if that is a bad thing. Left wondering if “experimental evolution” is some kind of oxymoron, the taxpayer might be worrying that the press release will draw more research beggars to the dessicating public trough.
One little problem is that if the transition to multicellularity is so easy, why didn’t it happen more often in the last two billion years? Let them ask it: “Travisano and Ratcliff wonder why it didn’t evolve more often since it’s not that difficult to recreate in a lab. Considering that trillions of one-celled organisms lived on Earth for millions of years, it seems like it should have, Ratcliff says.” And it’s not clear what this has to do with nature, wrote The Scientist, with “just one experiment under admittedly contrived conditions.” Contrived; doesn’t that word conjure up Paley’s watch and other “contrivances of nature” he argued were evidence of design? An article by Ed Yong in Nature News about this (Jan 16) revealed another tidbit; evolutionists believe yeast evolved from a multicellular ancestor. If so, the experiment demonstrates, at best, a return to a more complex past.
Complex phenotypes: A paper in PNAS (January 4, 2012, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1119859109, open access) offers new insight into “understanding the development of complex phenotypic characters.” Using whiz-bang phylogenetic analysis and developmental theory, they devoted 5,000 words and 21 references to explain the evolution of – what? – color patterns on snail shells (See PhysOrg summary). Since even creationists believe these kinds of horizontal variations can occur over time, it’s not clear what the seven scientists from UC Berkeley and University of Pittsburgh intended to prove about evolution. “We infer the evolutionary history of these parameters and use these results to infer the pigmentation patterns of ancestral species,” they boasted, even though inferring what ancestral marine snail shells looked like is untestable without having the ancestors to look at. If anybody is impressed with the power of Darwinian evolution by this paper, call in.
Blessed subtractions: A recently-announced explanation for the origin of complexity sounds for all the world like the joke about the salesman who lost money on every sale, but thought he could make it up in volume. Joe Thornton [U of Chicago] and his team believe complexity emerges due to “selective losses of function rather than the sudden appearance of new capabilities.” Does this imply that enough loss of function can build a giraffe from an amoeba? His subject was molecular machines in the cell, but he didn’t suggest any limits to the concept.
To sell his idea on PhysOrg, Thornton awed readers with the sci-fi phrase, “molecular time travel.” By this he meant they could conjure up visions of original molecular machines before and after increases in complexity. If that didn’t sell, he had a backup plan: assert that his notion could embarrass the creationists who have long pointed to the origin of complexity as a “favorite target” to discredit evolution. According to Thornton, evolution by subtraction refutes the “irreducible complexity” argument of intelligent design:
Thornton proposes that the accumulation of simple, degenerative changes over long periods of times [sic] could have created many of the complex molecular machines present in organisms today. Such a mechanism argues against the intelligent design concept of “irreducible complexity,” the claim that molecular machines are too complicated to have formed stepwise through evolution.
“I expect that when more studies like this are done, a similar dynamic will be observed for the evolution of many molecular complexes,” Thornton said.
“These really aren’t like precision-engineered machines at all,” he added. “They’re groups of molecules that happen to stick to each other, cobbled together during evolution by tinkering, degradation, and good luck, and preserved because they helped our ancestors to survive.”
Dr. Michael Behe, author of Darwin’s Black Box where the concept of “irreducible complexity” was introduced, was very charitable in his rebuttal on Evolution News & Views. Yes; it is indeed possible that a blind man carrying a legless man can safely cross the street.
Keep laughing, lovers of scientific integrity, until the charlatans are shamed out of the labs. Laughter is the best medicine. The best medicine kills germs. The germs are foolish ideas that infect scientific practice, reducing the vitality of the search for truth, replacing it with the mucus of consensus and the pus of paradigm. Grab a can of laughter Lysol and let us spray: LOL!