March 20, 2002 | David F. Coppedge

Evolution Rules

51; It would be convenient if all a scientist had to do to prove his theory was declare it to be a law of nature.  Is that what scientists from UC Berkeley and Imperial College have done with evolution?  “First ‘rule’ of evolution suggests that life is destined to become more complex,” announced a press release on EurekAlert and PhysOrg.  What’s going on?
    The statement is based on a paper in PNAS about the fossil record of crustaceans.1  Notice the first sentence of the abstract:

The prospect of finding macroevolutionary trends and rules in the history of life is tremendously appealing, but very few pervasive trends have been found.  Here, we demonstrate a parallel increase in the morphological complexity of most of the deep lineages within a major clade.  We focus on the Crustacea, measuring the morphological differentiation of limbs.  First, we show a clear trend of increasing complexity among 66 free-living, ordinal-level taxa from the Phanerozoic fossil record.  We next demonstrate that this trend is pervasive, occurring in 10 or 11 of 12 matched-pair comparisons (across five morphological diversity indices) between extinct Paleozoic and related Recent taxa.  This clearly differentiates the pattern from the effects of lineage sorting.  Furthermore, newly appearing taxa tend to have had more types of limbs and a higher degree of limb differentiation than the contemporaneous average, whereas those going extinct showed higher-than-average limb redundancy.  Patterns of contemporary species diversity partially reflect the paleontological trend.  These results provide a rare demonstration of a large-scale and probably driven trend occurring across multiple independent lineages and influencing both the form and number of species through deep time and in the present day.

This sounds much more restrained than the press release title.  For one thing, they admitted that few macroevolutionary trends have been found.  Then they studied a very limited aspect of one group: limb differentiation in crustaceans, and among crustaceans, only 66 fossil representatives.  Furthermore, their definition of complexity is limited to limb number and diversification, as measured by half a dozen parameters.  Once segmented limbs have appeared on earth, it is arguably less an evolutionary problem to multiply and specialize them than to originate them from scratch.
    The paper opened, surprisingly, with the authors questioning the status of evolution as a scientific theory:

Most of the natural sciences operate by documenting patterns and trends and thereby formulating general rules.  Evolution, however, is an essentially contingent process, meaning that evolutionary trajectories can rarely be predicted.  Proposed evolutionary trends, such as Cope’s rule for evolutionary size increase within lineages, have generally turned out to be only weakly predictive, either resulting from passive diffusion away from some barrier or applying only at local temporal and taxonomic scales.  Here, we demonstrate a remarkable and pervasive trend for increasing morphological complexity in multiple parallel lineages of the Crustacea [the major arthropod group with the longest and most disparate fossil record throughout the Phanerozoic.]

Their new rule of evolution, therefore, stands alone on a heap of discarded attempts to find an evolutionary law of nature, after a century of trying.  Hopefully this paper will give more than it just took away.
    They attempted to discern trends in limb complexity over time.  Since the dating of the geological column is inextricably tied to evolutionary theory, however, this could be criticized as a circular approach.  Also, the data points on their graphs were widely scattered.  A critic might argue that the straight lines they weaved through the dots are underdetermined by the data, or else influenced by the criteria of diversity they chose to focus on.  Extrapolating a trend from one clade into a rule for all of life seems optimistic, to say the least.
    Even granting all their assumptions (age, criteria of diversity, trend line analysis) it appears the claim of finding a new “rule” for evolution goes far beyond the data – especially in light of the predictive failure of past attempts like Cope’s Rule.  Additionally, neither Cope’s Rule nor their “First Rule of Evolution” describe a mechanism for change.  Both are mere passive descriptions of what evolution does – not why or how it does it.
    Reality, however, did not inhibit the media from spinning this as a great victory for evolution.  This was exacerbated by the fact that the researchers lowered their inhibitions when talking to the press.  For instance, Matthew Wills asserted, “If you start with the simplest possible animal body, then there’s only one direction to evolve in – you have to become more complex.”  He said after a point, animals could evolve back to simplicity, but they usually don’t.  “This is the nearest thing to a pervasive evolutionary rule that’s been found.”
    Reporters took that to mean, “researchers have found evidence which suggests that evolution drives animals to become increasingly more complex.”  Doesn’t this portray “evolution” as some kind of mystical force that pushes animals upward to higher levels of complexity?  Wills explained, “it seems that competition may be the driving force behind the trend.”  Competition alone, however, often leaves one winner by himself and everyone else eliminated from the ring.  From whence does the complexity arise?  They didn’t say.
    It was hard to find a place where the assumption of evolution stopped and the demonstration of evolution began.  “Our study uses information about the inter-relatedness of different animal groups – the ‘Tree of Life’ – to demonstrate that complexity has evolved numerous times independently.”  Isn’t that what evolutionary theory is supposed to prove instead of assume?  Again, “All organisms have a common ancestor, so that every living species is part of a giant family tree of life.”  This was stated not as a discovery from their research, but a starting assumption.  They did not claim to discover an evolutionary trend; they claimed that the evolutionary trend that must exist (because of the assumption of common ancestry) was parallel, not haphazard.  The press was even treated to an analogy: “What’s new about our results is that they show us how this increase in complexity has occurred,” Mills said; “Strikingly, it looks far more like a disciplined march than a milling crowd.”
    Marching bands are purposeful, intelligently-designed organizations, so the analogy breaks down.  Band members practice and follow printed scores for the music.  They follow predetermined diagrams while performing their formations.  They have a driving force: intelligence, emotions, and will power.  The wish to be applauded by the crowd and to generate enthusiasm for their team drives them to watch and think and discipline their actions to form parallel rows and columns.  In scrutinizing the original paper, no such driving force can be found.  If there was any analogous driving force that could have pushed non-rational creatures like barnacles and shrimp to invent new complex structures, the authors did not mention one.  (Note: natural selection is not a force, nor is random mutation.)
    The press release ended with Wills unraveling all the optimistic claims he had just made:

Our results apply to a group of animals with bodies made of repeated units.  We must not forget that bacteria – very simple organisms – are among the most successful living things.  Therefore, the trend towards complexity is compelling but does not describe the history of all life.

Yet if the most numerous, successful, widespread and longest-surviving inhabitants of the biosphere did not obey the “first rule of evolution,” is there a rule at all?  Can there be a rule without a ruler – or subjects?

1.  Adamowicz, Purvis, and Wills, “Increasing morphological complexity in multiple parallel lineages of the Crustacea,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, published online on March 17, 2008, 10.1073/pnas.0709378105

Do you understand how evolutionary dogma perpetuates itself?  Here is the formula: assume evolution, assume the evolutionary timeline, juggle a few data points to look like a scientist, then announce that evolution is a law of nature.  This whole charade is humbug.
    Look at this cheap magic trick buried in the paper: “Unfortunately, the fossil record is rarely complete enough to identify ancestors with any confidence.  However, our phylogenetically independent comparisons of early fossils with their closest extant relatives are useful proxies.”  Hold your horses!  Useful to whom?  Are you telling us you can only get to the evolutionary conclusions you want by assuming evolution (phylogenetic comparisons) in the absence of fossil evidence?  Try that trick in a courtroom.  “Your honor, we don’t have any blood or fingerprints or weapons, but since we know the defendant is guilty, we have put together a timeline based on that knowledge showing how he committed the crime.”  Where is the defense attorney screaming “Objection!”  Why is the judge silent?  You know why – he is in on the scam.
    Here’s another glaring flaw the scientists (we shudder to use the term) waltzed right by, hoping nobody would notice: they started after the Cambrian.  Do you remember that a modern-looking crustacean was found fully-formed in Cambrian strata last fall? (10/04/2007; see also 07/20/2001)  Suppose we took a pair of living dogs from different breeds, bred several generations, and cataloged a variety of dog descendants possessing different patterns, hair styles, leg lengths, and dispositions.  Then suppose we triumphantly announced we had discovered a new law of nature – The First Rule of Dog Evolution – “Dogs evolve from simple to complex.”  The little boy in the audience with the quizzical look is the hero again: “Where did the first dogs come from?”
    How convenient for all the jointed appendages, complex eyes and organs, segments, Hox genes and molecular machinery to be already present before they began their analysis.  If they got a slap for every time they assumed evolution instead of proving it, it would be a “useful proxy” for the blushing they should have been doing.  Maybe it would generate some tears, too, for sins like this: “Perhaps greater intraindividual limb diversity could contribute to the further ‘evolvability’ or ‘versatility’ of a lineage, allowing new and different functions to arise more readily and promoting niche diversification.”  What?  This is circularity wrapped in circumlocution.  They just said, in plain English, “Maybe evolution evolves into more evolvability.”  Good grief.  After a few more paragraphs of hand-waving, these three “scientists” vanished in a smokescreen of maybes, vaporware and futureware.  Halt in the name of the law!  This is supposed to be a science paper, not a magic show.
    The charlatans pulled a complete snow job on the reporters.  In their original paper (which nobody reads) they included all the disclaimers, caveats, limitations, and obligatory scientific restraint, hidden in incomprehensible and irrelevant jargon and decorated with a few distracting equations and conjured-up visuals, tables and graphs that (for whatever they are worth) do nothing to establish their main claim.  Afterwards, they ran to the gullible press with its gutless reporters (all of them incapable of asking a logical question) and spouted their vainglorious glittering generalities, extrapolating their highly restricted data domain to the whole history of biological life – except when they deflated the whole circus tent at the end.  They got away with it.  Bold print, up front (which everybody reads): “First ‘rule’ of evolution suggests that life is destined to become more complex.  Scientists have revealed what may well be the first pervasive ‘rule’ of evolution.  In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences researchers have found evidence which suggests that evolution drives animals to become increasingly more complex.
    They don’t have to get away with it.  We just exposed them – right here.
    Today is the first day of spring.  The time is long overdue to melt the snow jobs in this land where it is always winter and never Christmas.  Do your part to bring in a rebirth and flowering of responsible science.

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