For His Birthday, Darwin Loses His Tree
The “tree of life” is the central icon of Darwinism. Charles Darwin’s only illustration in the Origin of Species was a drawing of organisms descending from a common ancestor in a branching tree pattern. It has been reproduced, expanded, embellished and decorated into a primal symbol of what science believes about biology. Why, then, are The Telegraph and New Scientist cutting it down? “Why Darwin was wrong about the tree of life” is the title of the latter, and the former says, “Charles Darwin’s tree of life is ‘wrong and misleading’, claim scientists.”
These articles are notable not just for their timing (just three weeks before the international celebrations of Darwin’s 200th birthday), but for undermining three claims about evolutionary biology: one, that Darwin is just a small part of an evolutionary theory that has progressed far beyond Darwin’s own beliefs, and two, that evolutionary theory has no weaknesses that deserve to be taught to students. Right now in Texas, evolutionists are seeking to strike down the “strengths and weaknesses” line in the state’s science framework on the basis that evolution is a fact (see Texans for Better Science Education and “All Eyes on Texas” in Evolution News). A third idea undermined by these articles is that only creationists think there are weaknesses with Darwin’s theory.
The scientists complaining about the tree of life are not creationists. We’ve heard from them before: Bapteste and Doolittle wrote two years ago in PNAS that the tree of life is a myth (02/01/2007). In addition, The Telegraph quoted Dr. John Dupre, philosopher of biology at Exeter University, saying “If there is a tree of life it’s a small irregular structure growing out of the web of life.” The article claims that other scientists have axe in hand: “Having uprooted the tree of unicellular life biologists are now taking their axes to the remaining branches.” Bapteste acknowledges it sounds scary at first, but sees the conceptual revolution as a chance for biologists to free their minds.
Doolittle downplayed the revolution a little: “We should relax a bit on this,” he said. “We understand evolution pretty well it’s just it is more complex than Darwin imagined. The tree isn’t the only pattern.” Maybe he is not wanting to play the role of revolutionary. Dupre, however, is wielding his axe with gusto: “It’s part of a revolutionary change in biology. Our standard model of evolution is under enormous pressure.” He envisions an evolutionary model full of mergers and collaborations, not a branching tree. The article then quotes Michael Rose, an evolutionary biologist at UC Irvine, saying, “The tree of life is being politely buried – we all know that.” The public apparently doesn’t know that. He went on with a more dramatic statement: “What’s less accepted is our whole fundamental view of biology needs to change.”
Like bombshells increasing in intensity, the article went on to admit that Darwin’s theory has been “no stranger to controversy.” Pro-Darwin scientists must gag on this last line: “It has played a key role in the much larger debate with creationists who are convinced life on Earth is so complex it could only have come about from intelligent design – in other words, the hand of God.” This after Bapteste said, “The tree of life was useful. It helped us to understand evolution was real. But now we know more about evolution it’s time to move on.” This implies that useful things can be false. One must also ask, “useful to whom” and “to what extent are conclusions drawn from false premises reliable?”
The New Scientist piece is lengthier. The cover shouts, “Darwin Was Wrong: Cutting Down the Tree of Life” displayed against a picture of a tree. This is quite a turnabout for this usually staunchly pro-Darwin magazine, which had just published last month a list of the best evidences for evolution from 2008. To be sure, it does not question the idea of evolution or common ancestry, but it did give Bapteste and Doolittle favorable coverage. Quoting Bapteste that “We have no evidence that the tree of life is a reality,” Graham Lawton (features editor of New Scientist) agreed this is revolutionary stuff: “That bombshell has even persuaded some that our fundamental view of biology needs to change.”
The article discussed the history of this major controversy. It came to a head in 2006, Lawton reported, with the discovery of pervasive horizontal gene transfer (HGT) between organisms – “everything from E. coli to elephants.” Not all scientists agree: “The debate remains polarised today.” Some scientists believe a tree signal can still be discerned in the genes. But the fact that there is a controversy supports the claim of Texans for Better Science Education that there are strengths and weaknesses in evolutionary theory that should not be shielded from students.
“Meanwhile, those who would chop down the tree of life continue to make progress,” Lawton continued. Would he end with a victory for the traditional Darwinian consensus? Not by page 2 of 4: “Surprisingly, HGT also turns out to be the rule rather than the exception in the third great domain of life, the eukaryotes.” He investigated the tree-scrambling theory of endosymbiosis – the engulfing of one organism by another, a kind of Hegelian dialectic in biology. By page 3, Lawton was offering rebuttals and counter-rebuttals. At the end of the page it appeared to be a standoff with Darwin still the winner by the slightest of half-time leads:
Nobody is arguing – yet – that the tree concept has outlived its usefulness in animals and plants. While vertical descent is no longer the only game in town, it is still the best way of explaining how multicellular organisms are related to one another – a tree of 51 per cent, maybe. In that respect, Darwin’s vision has triumphed: he knew nothing of micro-organisms and built his theory on the plants and animals he could see around him.
Even so, it is clear that the Darwinian tree is no longer an adequate description of how evolution in general works. “If you don’t have a tree of life, what does it mean for evolutionary biology?” asks Bapteste.
It means evolution is still true but the tree metaphor has problems – that’s all, Lawton intimated. Relax; “Both he [Bapteste] and Doolittle are at pains to stress that downgrading the tree of life doesn’t mean that the theory of evolution is wrong – just that evolution is not as tidy as we would like to believe. Some evolutionary relationships are tree-like; many others are not.”
But that was just the lull before the next battering ram. Page 4 ends on the side of the revolution. He quotes Dupre and Rose arguing that our fundamental view of biology needs to change. If this is a bad time to demote Darwin, so be it: “Biology is vastly more complex than we thought, he [Rose] says, and facing up to this complexity will be as scary as the conceptual upheavals physicists had to take on board in the early 20th century. If he is right, the tree concept could become biology’s equivalent of Newtonian mechanics: revolutionary and hugely successful in its time, but ultimately too simplistic to deal with the messy real world.”
Two sidebars illustrate empirical problems with the tree. Hybridization and “natural chimeras” found in living examples show that genetic information can cross lineages. This scrambles any attempt to find a common ancestry. The last word goes to a Graham Syvanen, whose experiments showed that sea squirts appear to have unrelated branches of ancestral genes. “We’ve just annihilated the tree of life,” he exclaimed. “It’s not a tree any more, it’s a different topology entirely. What would Darwin have made of that?”
Insult to Injury: In an unrelated piece in Newsweek, Sharon Begley attempted a “renaissance of heresy” – supplying evidence that Lamarckism might be right after all. What would Darwin have made of that? “Alas, poor Darwin,” her article began. The birthday party is not going well. Whether or not Lamarckism is justifiable to explain the evidence she presented, “the last word on inheritance and evolution has not been written,” she concluded.
Talk about a gift in time. Texans for Better Science Education should mass-produce reprints of these articles and give them to everyone on the school board, everyone in the audience, and put posters with quotes on the wall. No weakness in Darwin’s theory? No debate over evolution? No controversy? Just a bunch of disguised creationists with religious motivations trying to throw rotten tomatoes at our beloved statue of Darwin?
Don’t underestimate the significance of this revolution. Without a tree of life, Darwin’s central doctrine is undermined. The tree of life metaphor represented Darwin’s attempt to unify all of biology into an explanatory framework. If we don’t know who is related to whom, and what came from what, all hope of unifying biology in a law-driven, naturalistic framework is called into doubt. Doolittle and Bapteste talk about a web of life, but that’s creationism. A web has no root. The information is all there; it is just shared. Where did the information come from? Darwin said it all had a common origin in a warm little pond, took root, and branched progressively outward into a glorious tree. If that metaphor is being replaced by a web, where is the designing spider?
There are other problems. They pulled a coup but provided no new administration. They cut down the tree but still want to use the lumber. Sorry; it’s too rotten for anything but firewood. There is no Einstein on the horizon to rescue biology from its empirical catastrophe. The comparison to physics in the early 20th century is apt, but analogies are always imperfect. It is doubtful Darwin could retain the honor of a Newton if his core belief has been falsified. No fig Newtons on this tree. Notice also that neither Darwin nor the revolutionary brigade of evolutionary biologists has a clue where complexity comes from (re-read the 10/29/2004 entry). Phillip Johnson hammered the Darwinists for years for failing to provide evidence that natural selection had the creative power to build eyes, wings, and complex organs. An explanation for that is just as lacking in the words of these revolutionaries. Where are they going to get the genetic information to build eyes and wings? From horizontal gene transfer? From hybridization? From symbiosis? Come on; you cannot get blood out of a turnip. Information can only be shared and modified if it is already present. Intelligent causation still stands as the best explanation for the origin of specified complexity in nature.
Meanwhile, the tree goes on among those who don’t know a revolution has occurred. Origins Blog, Science Magazine’s running tribute to Darwin, reported how Cambridge University projected Darwinian images on the facade of the building. Amid church bells and lights, did anyone catch the irony of their caption: ‘Above, a graying Darwin ponders the tree of life….” He looked very sad.
It’s amusing to read the comments to the New Scientist article. One reader worried that the article would invite creationists to lampoon evolution said, “You know that wall of Science articles (mostly NS) at the Creationist Museum NewScientist published an article about? This cover [with “Darwin Was Wrong” over a tree] will probably be the A1 sized, gilt and framed centerpiece before the week is out.” And your point is? Why not? Gnashing of teeth does not change the facts. We think it would look especially nice to the right of an A1-size poster of National Geographic’s Nov 2004 cover, “Was Darwin Wrong?”
Update 01/23/2009: The vote on the Texas proposal to retain the “strengths and weaknesses” provision in the state science standards was a tie (7-7) yesterday. This means it was defeated. This vote therefore falls within a trend of many votes and court decisions about academic freedom on the teaching of origins that were defeated by the narrowest of margins, like 4-3 in the Louisiana balanced-treatment case, or by one lone judge (as with Judge Jones in Dover, Pennsylvania). Reporters ran to their offices declaring this a “big victory” for evolution and a defeat for “creationists” (actually, a motley group of Darwin doubters and supporters of academic freedom). Robert Roy Britt in Live Science, for instance, announced that “A decision Thursday by the Texas State Board of Education is a big defeat for proponents of creationism and others who would like to see evolution presented in school as a weak theory that has viable competing alternatives.” He continued, “The tie means the measure was defeated, so evolution can continue to be taught as the very strong scientific theory that it is.” He crowed that “evolution is about as solid a theory as there is. The idea that all creatures have evolved, and that humans are descended from other primates, is supported by evidence from various fields.” Advocates of the “strengths and weakness” language, he said, “are people with religious and political agendas” (implying no such motivations or agendas on the other side, a common way the pro-evolutionists spin the issue as science vs. religion, though very involved politically themselves).
It would seem that scientific evidence of weaknesses in evolution, even from secular sources as presented by Bapteste and Doolittle, will henceforth be disallowed in Texas schools after two decades of the successful “strengths and weaknesses” policy. However, after most of the reporters left the room, the board continued to discuss policies related to the teaching of evolution. Two other votes by the school board, passed by large margins, affirmed that students should learn to analyze and evaluate scientific evidence for evolution (see Evolution News #1, #2, and #3). Dr. John West of the Discovery Institute called this “one step back, two steps forward” for those wanting to keep the controversies over evolution open to scrutiny. “The new evolution standards are a huge advance over the previous language, and are a great victory for parents, teachers, and students who want good science education in the state of Texas,” he said, chiding the reporters who rushed to judgment.
Look how close these votes can get: seven to seven! If you don’t get involved, and speak out, the liars in the Darwin Party, with the power of the media and their political action committees, will continue to spin this issue their way and push their agenda. Read the commentary from 12/16/2008 again to realize again just how lopsided the reporting is, and how intolerant the Darwinists are. It is literally shocking. It is past time for righteous indignation. Take that indignation to the point of driving the lying rascals out of the castle they usurped from the citizens (02/01/2007 commentary). The Darwiniacs worship their idol but don’t listen to him. He said, “A fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question”—Charles Darwin. Who are the real followers of that intuitively-obvious, scientifically-sound principle? You would think the scientific institutions would immortalize those words in stone and embed them in their P&P Manuals, but no! It takes morally upright citizens to hold their feet to the fire of what should be their own core values. Incredible.
Exercise: Which logical fallacy is committed in the following statement: “You oppose the scientific institutions on this issue. You are obviously anti-science.”