For professionals who should be concerned with evidence, many evolutionists are given to rampant speculation. The tipoff is usually a phrase like “may have,” “could have,” or “conceivably.”
Ritual storytelling: Nature (23 Jan 2013) suggested the possibility that civilization evolved from rituals related to combat. “Praying, fighting, dancing, chanting — human rituals could illuminate the growth of community and the origins of civilization.” But then again, they might not. Is author Dan Jones confusing cause with effect? Does the intelligent choice in the minds of the instigators of rituals count for anything, or is Jones really implying that a genetic mutation caused someone to get on their knees and pray?
My dog’s spot: The leading science sites jumped on a new suggestion that domestic dogs evolved from wolves dining on scrap heaps left by humans (BBC News, Live Science, PhysOrg). Proto-Fidos with the ability to digest starches became poodles. And that, children, is why Muffy begs at the table. It’s not clear what this tale adds to the corpus of scientific knowledge, since even ardent creationists would point out that some domestic dogs are capable of interbreeding with wolves. Yet “evolution” was woven throughout the story, as in Erik Axelsson’s remark to the BBC, “So, we think our findings fit well with this theory that the dog evolved on the waste dump.”
Fishy tales: Speaking of puppies, the pupfish is centerpiece in a story celebrated on PhysOrg as “one of the most comprehensive snapshots of natural selection in the wild” that “demonstrated a key prediction in evolutionary biology.” So what does the alleged “snapshot of pupfish evolution in action” reveal, specifically? Nothing Darwinian, that’s for sure. Chris Marin of UC Davis hybridized fish with artificial selection and made them compete. That’s how he could allege they are “evolving at an explosively faster rate” than natural populations. Even so, he only found “stabilizing selection” – small artificially-bred groups getting stranded on fitness peaks, even though he boasted that “We can see a surprisingly complex snapshot of natural selection driving the evolution of new specialized species.”
The just-so story that followed was like watered-down gravy on this already small potato: “An early burst of variation when fish entered a new environment with little competition could have allowed the shell-eaters and scale-eaters to evolve on San Salvador.” Astute creationists would surely point out that they’re still pupfish, with less variation than domestic dogs that comprise one species. They even might underline this admission in the article: “But while the concept [of an adaptive landscape, ‘a common and powerful idea that influences thinking about evolution’] is straightforward, it is much harder to map out such a landscape in the wild.”
Tiny bubbles in the OOL: New Scientist teased its readers to pay for the whole article with these whoppers, in fairy-tale style:
IT BEGAN when something fell apart. Somewhere on Earth, over 3.5 billion years ago, a bubble of fat may have spontaneously broken into smaller ones, giving rise to one of life’s most fundamental properties — the ability to make copies of itself.
That’s according to Jack Szostak of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Boston, who has demonstrated this simple division in the lab. Versions of it are found in many bacteria today, lending some credence to the theory. The simplified cell division also doesn’t require any genes or the complex machinery modern cells use to divide, which suggests it could have been under way before living organisms appeared.
We can’t be sure that’s what happened, says Jeff Errington of Newcastle University in the UK. “But it’s a very plausible explanation. It actually works.”
Beware when your children see bubbles reproducing in the bathtub. Something slimy might crawl out.
The hand is quicker than the fin: What, exactly, is a “pre-hand”? It’s something like a “post-fin,” according to another evidence-free New Scientist tale, “Zebrafish made to grow pre-hands instead of fins.” Well, if they were “made to grow” something, that’s intelligent design, but we don’t wish to digress from the story (revealed by its first word in caps):
PERHAPS the little fish embryo shown here is dancing a jig because it has just discovered that it has legs instead of fins. Fossils show that limbs evolved from fins, but a new study shows how it may have happened, live in the lab.
But then,“PERHAPS” it does nothing of the sort. What would one expect the tortured fish to do when injected with genes from mice that didn’t even appear for hundreds of millions of years in the grand evolutionary scenario? “Of course, we haven’t been able to grow hands,” the lead magician said, bypassing the little problem that without muscles and brain to operate them, they would have been bad fins long before natural selection could stumble upon good hands. Nevertheless, the magician kept his dazzle going with sublime visions of the Darwinian land of possibilities: “He speculates that hundreds of millions of years ago, the ancestors of tetrapods began expressing more hoxd13 for some reason and that this could have allowed them to evolve autopods.”
Winner fakes all: There were winners and losers in another artificial-selection experiment reported on PhysOrg that advertised Darwin’s notorious phrase that launched a thousand ships, “survival of the fittest,” right in the headline. Apparently, some confident Darwinian at Macquarie University decided to add some Darwinian universal acid to a fish tank to see which sea urchins didn’t die (where’s PETA?) He justified this cruel act on the grounds that human-caused global warming is acidifying the oceans anyway. He just wanted to see the effects under controlled conditions; that’s science, right? (Don’t try this at home in the goldfish bowl.) “Our results suggest that some individuals will exhibit enhanced fertilisation in acidified oceans, supporting the concept of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ of climate change at an individual level,” Peter Schlegel said, not clarifying the Lamarckian look of this experiment. One thing everyone can agree on; dead sea urchins don’t do very well at fertilization.
It’s no stretch: The phrase “it’s no stretch” means someone suspects it is. Sure enough, a PhysOrg entry extrapolated from foraminifera shells on the seafloor (see background of foram evolution at Evolution News & Views) to human-caused global warming. For support, he brought in the Red Queen and the Court Jester from Alice in Wonderland as witnesses. He then “suggests the possibility” that man-made effects can create a tipping point in the climate; from there “It’s no stretch” to worry about “a system thrown out of whack,” the Court Jester chuckled. Readers can decide whose system is whacked.
Lest readers think that only overly-enthusiastic reporters commit such tale-telling, quoting actual scientists out of context or when they are drunk after the conference sessions, serious journals also have their storytelling addicts. Two examples from Current Biology serve to illustrate.
Survival of the dumbest: One Current Biology paper described an artificial-selection experiment where the scientists genetically-modified guppies for larger brains, hoping to re-create some figment of Lucy-to-Charlie (or fish-to-Gish) evolution. Alas, the bigger-brained guppies in the tank didn’t reproduce as well as the control group. In “Artificial Selection on Relative Brain Size in the Guppy Reveals Costs and Benefits of Evolving a Larger Brain,” the Swedes had to admit a failure: “Evolution of larger brains leads to smaller guts and lower offspring number.” To rescue Darwin in this case, they used the power of suggestion to prime readers with visions of possible evolutionary reasons for survival of the dumbest: “This decrease in fertility may therefore be a result of either an evolutionary increase in relative brain size or, alternatively, the change toward a slower life history that allowed these orders to evolve their unusually large brains.”
That stinking feeling: In a short dispatch in Current Biology, a scientist and an editor worried about why any self-respecting mouse would develop a use for TMA (trimethylamine ), a chemical in urine that has a disgusting smell like rotten fish. Plants don’t care about the smell, but how could a mouse or rat use the stink for signaling? It’s only found in male urine in one mouse lineage, but both the males and females have an attraction to it—discounting the suggestion that it acts as a pheromone. The reader is given a choice of evolutionary stories: “either TMA is a very kinky sex pheromone that attracts both sexes alike or it serves an altogether different function… Alternatively, the change in TMA preference might be innate and thus involve a change at some stage of olfactory processing.” As for how the phenomenon arose, they ended, “We can only speculate at this point.”
No, they can do more than speculate. They can demonstrate or shut up. If they want to speculate, and limit their speculations to Darwinian, materialistic processes, let them join Alice in Wonderland in the English Lit building, where it’s permissible to imagine six impossible things before breakfast.