November 12, 2008 | David F. Coppedge

Lizard Hair and Other Fables

In some science reports, it’s hard to tell where the data stops and the speculation begins.  In any case, evolutionary theory usually arrives in time to take credit for whatever happened in the unobservable past (cf. 08/24/2007).

  1. Bad hair joke:  Live Science wants you to blame your bad hair days on lizards.  Why?  Because according to Jeanna Brynner, the origin of bad hair was “discovered” in our evolution from reptiles: “hair has its origins in stuff that used to make just claws.”  A frustrated female having a bad hair day adorns the article.
        A scientist at the Medical University of Vienna claims that he found genes for keratin in reptiles and birds.  Hair is also made of keratin.  “Our results suggest these components, the hair keratins, had an original role in the claws,” said Leopold Eckhart.  “We think this common ancestor of reptiles and mammals formed claws, and these claws were made of these keratins, which only later in mammals acquired an additional role in forming hair.”  Why human claws (fingernails) are not forming hair was not explained, or why a protein with multiple functions demonstrates evolution.  National Geographic News joined the act by saying, “Lizards, Birds Have Hair Genes.”  Its reporter, James Owen, confused cause and effect by claiming that hair was “one of the main evolutionary innovations that led to the rise of mammals.”  The first mammals already had hair, and no lizard with hair has been discovered except in imagination: “The very first whiskery hairs may even have sprouted on reptiles, Eckhart said, ‘However, I don’t think it very likely,’ he added,” maybe because the thought of a whiskered lizard next to a portrait of Charles Darwin might be too much.  In a more restrained moment, he said, “Actually, it may be more appropriate to call these proteins claw keratins, which later acquired an additional role in hair.”  Indeed, the abstract in PNAS suggested that “the evolution of mammalian hair involved the co-option of pre-existing structural proteins.”  Whether or not reptiles ever had “bad claw days,” the headline writers got their catch-lines anyway.
  2. Nonleaping lizards:  Speaking of reptiles, Science Daily spoke of “blisteringly fast” evolution in legless lizards.  Small skink lizards have rudimentary legs but mostly slither around in habitats where legs don’t help.  “It is believed that skinks are loosing [sic] their limbs because they spend most of their lives swimming through sand or soil,” said Adam Skinner of the University of Adelaide; “limbs are not only unnecessary for this, but may actually be a hindrance.”  Evolution was brought in for explanations: Skinner told the reporters that “evolution of a snake-like body form has occurred not only repeatedly but also very rapidly and without any evidence of reversals.”  He estimated complete limb loss in just 3.6 million years.  These “extensive changes in body shape over geologically brief periods” struck Science Daily as “blisteringly fast” even though it is not clear if loss of a functional part should be considered evolution in the Darwinian sense of innovations arising from a common ancestor.
  3. Dance of the veils:  Scientists in Flanders have been busy “raising the veil on evolution” by showing that a lab plant could be converted from an annual to a perennial.  Science Daily shared a press release from the Flanders Institute for Biotechnology where they deactivated two genes in Arabidopsis, a favorite lab annual, and got it to grow like a perennial, complete with secondary growth and wood formation.  These “late bloomers” show that only two genes separate annual growth habits from those of perennials, which the article said have “more evolved life strategies for surviving in poor conditions.”  Evolution got more credit at the end of the article: “Researchers have been fascinated for a long time by the evolution of herbaceous to woody structures,” it concluded.  “….This has probably been going on throughout the evolution of plants.  Furthermore it is not inconceivable this happened independently on multiple occasions.”
  4. Tentacles of evolution:  Scientists think they have found the common ancestor of all octopus species.  A simple-looking thing with eight tentacles adorns a BBC News report that starts, “Many of the world’s deep-sea octopuses evolved from a common ancestor that still exists in the icy waters of the Southern Ocean.”  This shows that the founders of the English language do not feel it necessary to latinize the plural into “octopi.”
        Why did octopuses evolve?  The tale is told: “Researchers suggest that the creatures evolved after being driven to other ocean basins 30 million years ago by nutrient-rich and salty currents.”  But can salt water really produce the specialized organs and behaviors of the octopus from a pre-octopus, whatever it was?  Don D’or of the Census of Marine Life project apparently thinks so.  He came up with an idea that the fresh-water contact with salt water created a “thermohaline expressway” that brought oxygen into the depths and allowed octopuses to evolve.  Jan Strugnell of the British Antarctic Survey looked at the deep-sea octopus and living species and “has been able to trace the timeline for their distribution back 30 million years to a common ancestor.”  More findings from the Census of Marine Life project were reported by Science Daily.

In none of these stories did the researchers explain how evolution produced the changes.  In each case, the data were submitted to an explanatory device, called evolution, to produce a speculation on how the currently-observed phenomena came to be.  This can be seen by the frequent reference to the power of suggestion: “Researchers suggest”… “Our results suggest”… followed by an evolution story.  No one ever seems to “suggest” that another interpretation might account for the same data just as well, if not better, than a time-and-chance explanation.  Often, the time-and-chance aspect of evolution is hidden in suggestions that the animals chose their own course of evolutionary progress: mammals co-opted reptilian keratin to make hair; octopuses evolved after being driven to distant ocean basins.
    Whether excusable rhetorical devices or not, such notions run contrary to the core principles of Darwinian evolution.  Darwin’s thesis did away with teleology.  He wrote On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection, not The Purpose-Driven Life.

There’s a message in the alternating entries about Darwinian storytelling and real discovery science.  Can you see it?  Read the next two entries.  If you find it, you will see it throughout eight years of reporting evolutionary antics in Creation-Evolution Headlines.  Not that it started eight years ago: it started in 1849 – and even before – whenever seekers of knowledge, tricked by Vain-Confidence, decided to take the shortcut through By-path Meadow.  So begins the woeful tale of Pilgrim’s Regress.

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