Which Evolution Should Be Taught?
Two articles in Scientific American’s cover feature on evolution in preparation for Darwin Day (12/15/2008, 12/16/2008) quoted a favorite line by Dobzhansky, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” Assuming a teacher or textbook writer wants to illustrate how true this proverb is, which evolutionary proposal should be presented? Recent articles illustrate that there is still a wide variety of opinions on what evolution means and how evolution works – and whether Darwin contributed anything that has stood the test of time.
- Wallace’s Revenge: Alfred Russell Wallace always got the short end of the stick compared to Charles Darwin, but a story in The Scientist claims he got something right Darwin didn’t. What would that be?
…Wallace’s views have, for the most part, been deemed synonymous with Darwin’s. And attribution to the founding theories of evolution has, on the whole, gone to Darwin. A small phrase in Wallace’s original essay, however, was his alone: He suggested that certain organisms, or systems that make up organisms, have evolved a way to direct the course of their own evolution, rather than be purely subject to natural selection. As a result, this mechanism could affect whether traits ever get expressed, and therefore subjected to the forces of natural selection. Now, a century-and-a-half later, a group of Princeton University researchers say they’re the first to provide evidence to support Wallace’s claim.
But if organisms can direct their own evolution rather than be subject to natural selection, that tends to undermine the universality of natural selection as a scientific law. It almost looks designed to prevent evolution. “Now the next question becomes: How did nature actually do this?” they asked.
Notice how long it took to find this: a century and a half. It seems any scientist predicting something that far in advance should earn more fame points. Will this lead to a new movement to promote Wallacian evolution?
Note: Natural selection is not a force; it is a filter.
Update 12/20/2008: The Wall Street Journal published an article by Tom Wright about the fight between the Darwinites and the Wallace-ites over priority and glory for the theory of natural selection.
- Punctuated equilibria: Stephen Jay Gould is dead but not forgotten. His contrarian views to the slow-and-gradual establishment consensus got air time again in Nature this week in a book review.1 The book being reviewed need not concern us; the opinion of Steve Jones, the reviewer, does. His review bounces between praise and criticism of the man and his ideas. Was Gould’s writing a pompous banter of obscure rhetoric or really onto something? Jones did not find too much of lasting worth, but revealed some things about today’s consensus on Darwinism. It seems the consensus has satisfied itself that Gould’s criticisms of slow-and-gradual Darwinism can be laid to rest with him.
Debating Gould’s centerpiece of evolutionary theory, punctuated equilibria (which was motivated by the large and systematic gaps in the fossil record), Jones said: “Many biologists, by contrast, insist that what look like palaeontological leaps can be explained by simple Darwinism.” And how is that? Have the gaps been filled with new evidence? No; rather, “To them, an instant in geology may represent almost an infinity in biology, leaving plenty of time for evolution by natural selection to do its normal job.” This seems to excuse the lack of evidence with an appeal to imagination.
Jones is a colorful writer. Perhaps he can be excused for this overt personification: “The fact that nature must build on what it has, and not on what it wants, is still at the centre of evolutionary thinking.” Darwin might have taken a double-take at that blatant teleological language.
Jones left the impression that punctuated equilibria theory is passè, but he did praise Gould as a true genius and hero in one sense: “Gould was central to today’s awakening of public interest in the past. He was also an invaluable ally in the fight against creationism, and spared no effort in opposing the endless attempts to insinuate stupidity into US schools.”
- Tree Evolution: If trees evolved, can Darwin’s Tree of Life evolve, too? Apparently so; a startling commentary in PNAS2 spoke of “Evolving Views on the Tree of Life.” They didn’t say whether the views are evolving by intelligent design, but John M. Archibald (Dalhousie University, Canada) had some pretty alarming things to say about early evolution – particularly, the origin of eukaryotes (complex unicellular life all the way up to humans) from prokaryotes (bacteria).
Next to life itself, the origin of complex cells is one of the most fundamental, and intractable, problems in evolutionary biology. Progress in this area relies heavily on an understanding of the relationships between present-day organisms, yet despite tremendous advances over the last half-century scientists remain firmly divided on how to best classify cellular life.
That statement seems breathtaking. Teachers repeat the Dobzhansky quote like a mantra, but here, Archibald has spilled the beans about evolution: at a fundamental level, nobody gets it. He has just said that the origin of life and the origin of complex life (eukaryotes) are No. 1 and No. 2 on the list of fundamental, intractable problems in biology. Does this make sense in light of Dobzhansky? It seems Mr. Darwin can’t make it to first base – or even get off home plate. Archibald is not done yet:
The conceptual and practical challenges associated with establishing a genealogy-based classification scheme for microbes have been fiercely debated for decades… and the literature is rich in philosophy and rhetoric.
It seems a truism that science tries to leave rhetoric behind and get to the facts. Yet the debates, he said, have been fierce for decades. He went on to speak of the smashed hopes for finding evolution in the genes:
The genomics revolution of the 1990s brought tremendous optimism to the field of microbial systematics: if enough genomes from diverse organisms could be sequenced and compared, definitive answers to questions about evolutionary relationships within and between eubacteria, archaebacteria, and eukaryotes would surely emerge. More specifically, it should be possible to discern how eukaryotes evolved from prokaryotes (if indeed that is what happened), and perhaps even who among modern-day prokaryotic lineages is our closest ancestor. Unfortunately, with the sequences of hundreds of eubacterial, archaebacterial, and eukaryotic genomes has come the realization that the number of universally distributed genes suitable for global phylogenetic analysis is frustratingly small. Lateral (or horizontal) gene transfer has shown itself to be a pervasive force in the evolution of both prokaryotic and eukaryotic genomes, and even if a “core” set of genes can be identified (and there is much debate on this issue), how confident are we that the phylogenetic signal in these genes reflects the vertical history of cells?
Calling these “vexing questions,” he painted a very pessimistic picture that anything in evolution makes sense in the light of biology. The best he could do was point to a promising paper by a colleague that resurrected a discredited view: the “eocyte tree” hypothesis. The colleague ran some phylogenetic trees using various methods that seemed to converge on an origin of eukaryotes from eubacteria instead of archebacteria.
This proposal, however, is like the proverbial string that breaks in the middle when you get both ends to meet. “What are we to make of this conclusion? The gulf between prokaryotes and eukaryotes is obviously enormous,” he commented, languishing in problems with the proposal. In the end, he had to resort to the skeleton key in the evolutionists’ closet: imagination. “At first glance this might seem problematic but it is not so difficult to imagine given that the ‘operational’ genes of eukaryotes are primarily eubacterial in origin, not archaebacterial.” Operational – isn’t that a design word? Then he mentioned “informational genes” – sure to perk up the ears of the ID crowd.
Hope was in the proposal, but despair was in the air. Listen to his tragic words: “The extent to which a small fraction of the genomes of living organisms can be used to trace the history of cellular lineages dating back >1 billion years will no doubt continue to be debated for years to come.” He spoke of the sensitivity of phylogenetic analyses to “misspecification and compositional heterogeneity,” jargon for mistaking patterns for actual evolutionary history. His concluding paragraph spoke of “tough phylogenetic problems” and the feeble hope the new proposal gives to “those struggling to understand the earliest events in the diversification of cellular lineages.”
Observers of creation-evolution politics might well ask if this commentary could motivate a disclaimer for those simplistic drawings of the origin of life and Darwin’s Tree of Life in the school textbooks.
- Emergency emergentism: The most radical evolutionary view practically stiffs Darwin. Susan Mazur was interviewed once again on the New Zealand Scoop about the so-called Altenberg 16, a group of scientists who feel an overhaul of evolutionary theory is due (09/10/2008). None of these leading biologists are creationists in any way, shape, or form. Their view of the origin of species is that complex systems “emerge” by some kind of self-organizational principle in nature. However plausible that may seem or not, they are adamant that the pro-Darwin, pro-natural-selection majority is out of touch with reality and clinging to power, not evidence. Mazur said, “natural selection is viewed by more sophisticated scientists as political not a scientific concept. At the time [of Darwin] it kind of fit in with the expanding colonialism of Victorian England.” The paradigm shifters believe that evolution can be conceived without natural selection. That would eliminate Darwin’s ideas as unfit and virtually extinct.
If nothing in biology makes sense without evolution, consider this: not one of Science magazine’s ten top entries for “Breakthrough of the Year” 3 concerned evolution, depended on evolution, mentioned Darwin, or mentioned evolution. The Number One Breakthrough of the Year4 went to reprogramming cells to behave like stem cells (induced pluripotent stem cells) – a technique many believe renders embryonic stem cell research obsolete (see 12/17/2008). Nothing in this year’s top scientific discoveries, therefore, needed the light of evolution to make sense.
1. Steve Jones, “A wonderful life by leaps and bounds,” Nature 456, 873-874 (18 December 2008) | doi:10.1038/456873a; Published online 17 December 2008.
2. John M. Archibald, “The Eocyte Hypothesis and the Origin of Eukaryotic Cells,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, PNAS December 23, 2008, vol. 105 no. 51, pp. 20049-20050; doi: 10.1073/pnas.0811118106.
3. “Breakthrough of the Year: The Runners-Up,” Science, 19 December 2008: Vol. 322. no. 5909, p. 1768, DOI: 10.1126/science.322.5909.1768.
4. “Breakthrough of the Year: Reprogramming Cells,” Science, 19 December 2008: Vol. 322. no. 5909, pp. 1766-1767, DOI: 10.1126/science.322.5909.1766.
It’s time to revise the Dobzhansky mantra in light of the facts of science.
- Nothing in biology makes sense in the dark of evolution.
- Nothing in evolution makes sense in the light of biology.
- Nothing in evolution makes sense.
- Nothing in emergence makes sense.
- Nothing in punctuation makes sense in the light of equilibria.
- Nothing in eukaryote ancestry makes sense in the light of prokaryotes.
- Nothing in evolution sheds light on vexing questions.
- Nothing in phylogeny makes sense in the light of genomics.
- Nothing in “informational genes” makes sense except in the light of intelligence.
- Scientific breakthroughs make cents (and dollars) without evolution.
- Nothing in evolution makes sense except in the light of Victorian colonialism.
- Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of design.
- Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of the evidence. (Jonathan Wells)
- Nothing makes sense except in the light.
Feel free to send in your own version. Evolution doesn’t shed light. It needs light shed on it, because its proponents do their dirty work in the darkness.
Let’s continue with a riddle. First the answer: Steve Jones. Question: What do you get when a bratty kid grows up and gains academic power?
Categorizing every Darwin doubter in the world in the “stupidity” pigeonhole is cheap, easy, and sleazy. Come on, Steve, off your pedestal and let’s turn the light on the evidence. How about some rational discussion about the 3rd and 4th entries above? Remember, nothing makes sense in the darkness of propaganda.
- Reader submissions:
- Almost everything in biology is nonsense in the light of evolution.
- Nearly everything in biology makes sense apart from evolution.
- Nothing in evolution research makes sense except in the light of government funding.
- Let there be light (Official motto of the University of California – Copyright UC Regents)
- Creative juices do not make any sense unless one is making light of evolution.