Snakes on a Brain, and Other Evolutionary Stories

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Posted on November 2, 2013 in Darwin and Evolution, Dinosaurs, Media, Mind and Brain, Philosophy of Science

When evolution is seen as a storytelling game rather than a serious attempt at scientific explanation, it suddenly makes sense.

The goal in evolutionary theory is to fit any observation into a predetermined narrative – one of universal common ancestry by blind, unguided processes.  Since no human ever sees functioning, complex, specified information coming into being that way, evolutionary theory is guaranteed to generate implausible stories.  The stories only seem plausible when evolution is first assumed, and all other possible explanations are excluded.  If this seems backward to science’s ideal of letting the evidence speak for itself, it has one redeeming virtue: it’s funny.

Kissing may be evolution’s matchmaker:  Sex sells; it sells evolution.  Look at the picture on Live Science’s article.  Mesmerized, the reader allows Stephanie Pappas to turn a fairy tale into support for Darwin:

You’ve got to kiss a lot of frogs to find your prince, as the saying goes. New research suggests the cliché is true on an evolutionary level.

Kissing might have evolved as a way to assess the quality of potential mates, according to two new studies.…

The details of the studies are less important than the marks of storytelling: profuse use of “if,” “might,” and “may have” escape clauses that substitute for scientific evidence.  Since “Kissing exists in virtually every culture on Earth,” there is no control group against which to assess the fitness of kissers vs. non-kissers.  Even if there were, singling out that one behavior against all the other factors involved in successful mating would be near impossible.  Is the first kiss the crucial one?  Is a peck on the cheek as naturally selective as an alfalfa kiss?  Who could ever scientifically test that, without interfering in the data collection process?

The Oxford researcher wants to go beyond the evolution of kissing into the “murkier depths” of sex, Pappas says.  “I’m interested in doing more research on what love is in humans.  What is it that makes us so intimately attracted to one specific person?”  Must be a fun job.

Evolution of Catwoman:  Feminists, get on the case of Tia Ghose.  In Live Science, she claimed “Women evolved to be catty” – meaning, “rumor spreading, shunning and backstabbing” according to the “mean girls” stereotype, claiming that “the behavior is rooted in humans’ evolutionary past.”  How sexist!  Demand equal time for men evolving to be like wolves.

Ignorance is bliss:  Readers can evaluate the evolutionary value of ignorance in an article on Science Daily.   In a nutshell, it gives more evidence against Hamilton’s kin selection theory.  If “ignorance is bliss” is a law of evolution, it would explain a lot about current political debates.

A sauropod walks into a bar: ‘Why the long neck?’  That headline on Science Daily introduced an evolutionary tale of convergent and divergent evolution.  “While convergently evolving many features seen in large terrestrial mammals, such as upright, columnar limbs and barrel-shaped trunks, sauropods evolved some unique features, such as the extremely long necks and diminutive heads they are famous for.”  Trouble is, the joker asked the riddle but never gave the punch line.  The evolutionists haven’t figured one out yet.  Maybe that’s the joke:

The unique gigantism of sauropod dinosaurs has long been recognized as an important problem in the evolution of vertebrates, raising questions as to why no other land-based lineage has ever reached this size, how these dinosaurs functioned as living animals, and how they were able to maintain stable populations over distinct geological periods.

Snakes on the Brain:  Almost all the science media repeated a plot line introduced on PNAS, typified by this question on Science Daily: “Was the evolution of high-quality vision in our ancestors driven by the threat of snakes?”  The international authors of this plot took monkeys and showed them images of snakes, angry monkey faces, monkey hands, and geometric shapes, measuring the response time of particular neurons in their brains.  Naturally, the response was quicker to snakes.  They concluded:

Our findings are unique in providing neuroscientific evidence in support of the Snake Detection Theory, which posits that the threat of snakes strongly influenced the evolution of the primate brain. This finding may have great impact on our understanding of the evolution of primates.

It “may” have impact, but where is an unbiased judge, if everyone is an evolutionist?  A look at the paper shows poor scientific controls.

  • The scientists did not compare the monkey results with response times of unrelated animals, like birds, mice, or squirrels.  (Why?  Because those animals are not in the evolutionary lineage of primates.)
  • The test monkeys were shown pictures of a variety of snakes, but no tigers, spiders, or hunters with guns.
  • The monkeys were not shown live snakes along with pictures.

The authors, further, did not connect the dots, to find whether a specific mutation for greater visual acuity and response time was connected to survival of snake encounters.  Worst of all, the authors merely assumed an evolutionary cause for highly complex effects (visual acuity and quick response), instead of considering whether the design of those traits is beyond the reach of blind, unguided processes. 

The media, though, lapped up the story uncritically.  PhysOrg called it “new evidence to support the notion that primates evolved keen vision skills so they could survive the threats snakes pose in the jungle.”  Science Magazine rewarded this as one of the biggest news stories of the week, saying the paper supports the “controversial hypothesis” that “primates as we know them would never have evolved without snakes.”  National Geographic said “it might be those slithery serpents that helped us evolve to see as well as we do.” In storybook land, anything “might be”.   Science Daily quoted the lead author saying, “I don’t see another way to explain the sensitivity of these neurons to snakes except through an evolutionary path.”  Naturally; she invented the “notion” in 2006, following it up in 2009 with a book ironically entitled,  The Fruit, the Tree, and the Serpent.

Is a legless lizard a snake?  Speaking of snakes, “legless lizards” provide an interesting case study in the philosophy of classification.  Lizards are not snakes, but there are lizards that look like snakes.  Mike Wall explains for Live Science how to tell them apart:

For example, snakes tend to have relatively longer bodies and shorter tails than their limbless reptilian cousins. Further, serpents don’t have eyelids or external ears, while most lizards do. And many “legless” lizards actually have tiny vestigial limbs, while snakes generally sport no external appendages at all.

Trouble is, there are exceptions to all these rules.  Pythons and boas are snakes, but have “rudimentary hind limbs.”  Dr. Wall mentions a legless lizard that looks like a snake (no eyelids) and eats like a snake.  Why shouldn’t it be classified as a snake?  What does the word “snake” mean if shared traits don’t apply?  Enter the evolutionary story:

The answer, of course, lies in ancestry. Legless lizards are not snakes. Rather, functional limblessness has evolved independently perhaps a dozen times in the squamate reptiles — lizards, snakes and amphisbaenids, or worm lizards — suggesting that the body plan offers many advantages.

If that were a law of evolution, we should see legless badgers, legless prairie dogs, and legless ants.

Which part of the Darwin Comedy Show did you like?  The sauropod walking into the bar?  Ignorance is bliss?  Catwoman?  Snakes on a brain?  This is what they love to do: spin yarns and tell jokes.  It’s so much fun.  It’s kind of like being stoned.

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