August 6, 2008 | David F. Coppedge

Survival of the, Whatever

Two articles recently have cast doubt on whether the classic Darwinian phrase “survival of the fittest” fits what happens in nature.
    Science Daily reported on work by researchers at University of Texas at Austin that suggests evolution’s products may not always be optimal.  The team speculated that mutations which help an animal in the short term may not help in the long term.  Working on this idea with computer-simulated RNA, “Their computer models show that the evolution of optimal organisms often requires a long sequence of interacting mutations, each arising by chance and surviving natural selection.”  Good combinations are hard to evolve, they said; that’s why evolution opts for the easy solutions at the expense of the harder, better ones.
    An article in Discover Magazine considered the cute oddball of the animal world, the giant panda.  The panda’s strange diet and clumsy sex life were subjects for a discussion on whether it makes a better poster animal for intelligent design or for evolution.  Surprisingly, author Lizzie Buchen claimed that the panda is “a favorite animal of creationists, who argue that the panda’s survival proves the existence of God.”  Where did that come from?  An embedded link points to an essay by Laurence Smart, who appears to be somewhat of a lone ranger among creationists judging from his website, which lists his own book and writings.  His article on pandas questioned whether natural selection theory would have produced such a creature.  Perhaps Buchen was also thinking of the intelligent-design textbook Of Pandas and People; but in that book, Davis and Kenyon only used pandas as a case study on difficulties with classification and homology.  They did not claim the panda was intelligently or poorly designed.
    Buchen put forth a “possible evolutionary explanation” based on lack of competition for the panda’s diet and sex life.  Summarizing the explanation of Megan Owen at the San Diego Zoo, she opined,

When pandas split off from the bear lineage about 3 million years ago, tasty and nutritious cuisine like meat, fruit, and nuts may have been difficult to obtain while bamboo was ubiquitous—a wide-open ecological niche.  So there were two choices: Exert some serious effort to get the good stuff, or munch away on a seemingly inexhaustible supply of woody grasses.

This led to their modified chewing muscles, unusual “thumbs” and weird digestive system.  “The biggest argument for the intelligent design crowd is the panda’s mating habits,” she alleged without a reference, though Laurence Smart’s lone article did list reported problems with panda sexuality as evidence against natural selection (not, though, as evidence for intelligent design).  Buchen, however, after explaining how natural selection might have favored the panda’s reproductive apparatus and behavior, concluded that “The panda’s weaknesses in today’s world—from its failure to reproduce in captivity to its yawn-inspiring lifestyle—is a product of its natural history, not a malicious joke of an intelligent designer.

Here we have malicious jokes against creationists and slanders against intelligent design, propped up with the Gribbleflix theory of evolution (12/19/2007).  Somehow Buchen’s ability to tell an evolutionary tale gives her the privilege of misrepresenting her opponents and impugning the character of God.  Evolutionists should disown her for bringing up a very Lamarckian view of evolution.  The purpose-driven panda made a choice: munch away on inexhaustible bamboo instead of work hard for meat – as if pandas are capable of choice, or their offspring would inherit an acquired taste.
    To ridicule ID, Buchen set up a straw man argument.  Intelligent design theory does not teach that all parts are optimal.  Rather, it teaches constrained optimality: good design achieves the best combination of trade-offs between competing requirements.  Buchen herself debunked the myth that the panda is a poor reproducer.  That gets rid of much of its bad rap for dysteleology (bad design).  It appears that the panda’s reputation for bumbling breeding habits could well be a product of zookeeper interference; the panda actually seems to do a fair job of mating in the wild.
    As for evolution opting for the easy solution over the difficult one, as claimed by the U of Texas folk, that’s exactly the point Michael Behe made in The Edge of Evolution for a different conclusion.  He demonstrated that under the most ideal circumstances, in the best-studied cases in the world, natural selection acting on random mutations is extremely limited in its creative ability.  It is certainly not up to the task of creating a panda from a pre-panda ancestor.
    What Buchen doesn’t say is that creationists would probably agree that natural selection has devolved the modern panda from its created-kind ancestor.  And what she and the U of Texas crowd should notice is that any theory of evolution that can explain anything explains nothing (04/23/2001).  Furthermore, now that evolutionists are admitting that their theory does not produce fitness, how should they apologize to the millions of victims of Social Darwinism who suffered and died over the absolute fact, proved by Darwin, that superior individuals have the right by law of “survival of the fittest” to exterminate the weak?  Send the reparations-activists knocking on the door of Down House.

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Categories: Intelligent Design

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