January 2, 2009 | David F. Coppedge

Nature Struts Darwin Gems

Like a showcase of pearl-handled revolvers, an armory of evidences Nature calls “Darwin’s Gems” have been exhibited to warn creationists that Darwin Day will be defended next month with a show of force.  The authors, Henry Gee (former editor of Nature), Rory Howlett and Philip Campbell have made their 15 Evolutionary Gems freely available “and encourage its free dissemination.”  Why?  “Given that the concepts and realities of Darwinian evolution are still challenged, albeit rarely by biologists, a succinct briefing on why evolution by natural selection is an empirically validated principle is useful for people to have to hand.”  This collected ammunition, they feel, demonstrates the “breadth, depth and power of evolutionary thinking.
    Their list includes 5 evidences from paleontology, 6 from ecology, and 4 from genetics and molecular biology (see Commentary for items on the list).  The outline is followed by summary arguments for each “gem” of evidence for Darwinian evolution.

What matters on a pistol is not how pretty the handle looks but what it’s loaded with, and whether it will work without backfiring.  To shoot down the creationist challengers riding into town, this trio of self-appointed sheriffs needs to stop polishing the handles and demonstrate their marksmanship.  Better a slingshot that can hit its mark than a pearl-handled hunk of dead iron.
    The trio, unfortunately, loaded their chambers with blanks.  Nobody cares about microevolution.  That is accepted by even young-earth creationists.  They’ve got to demonstrate that Charlie’s silver bullet, natural selection, can get out of the chamber with sufficient wallop to do more than tickle the creationists and make them laugh.  His takeover of the town rested on the ability of his newfangled ideas to create new genetic information, structure and function.  Charlie’s imagined ancestor of all life had no wings, teeth, legs, or brains.  Can his mechanism of random mutation and natural selection, with no purpose or designing intelligence, get from slimy sea to Henry Gee?  Let’s see.
    The bad sheriffs best beware of backfires, or circular reasoning (i.e., using “evolutionary thinking” to argue for evolution as fact).  They wanted to demonstrate the “breadth, depth and power of evolutionary thinking,” they said.  Well, guess what.  There’s something with even more breadth, depth and power than that: imagination.  Take that up in the saloon, guys; it doesn’t belong in a scientific showdown.  Show us your firepower.

  1. Whale evolution:  See our entries from 12/20/2007 and 05/28/2002 as an antidote to their bluffing and exaggeration about Thewissen’s alleged “great transformation.”  Even they admitted at the end that his study “demonstrates the existence of potential transition forms in the fossil record,” not actual transitional forms, like the 50,000 David Berlinski estimated would be required to turn a cow into a whale.  Then they bluffed that “many other examples could have been highlighted,” and distracted the reader’s attention to futureware: “there is every reason to think that many others await discovery,” they said.  This was a major problem in Darwin’s time.  How many more centuries do we have to wait?
  2. Tetrapod evolution:  They rehashed Tiktaalik as if it is problem-free.  Find a dozen refutations by searching on the word Tiktaalik in the search bar above.  How convinced should we be when they say that it represents “the stage before tetrapods evolved, and shows how the fossil record throws up surprises, albeit ones that are entirely compatible with evolutionary thinking”?  This only makes sense if you already believe in evolution.  If you are wowed by circular reasoning, wave your tetrapods.
  3. Evolution of feathers:  They argue from Archaeopteryx (with a historical plaudit to Thomas Huxley for his speculation about bird evolution), Sinosauropteryx (search on this word for 5 entries), and Epidexipteryx (10/22/2008) that feathers preceded flight.  Again, this only makes sense if you already worship Darwin.  Their closing statement is so bizarre, it wins Stupid Evolution Quote of the Week and a new cartoon by Brett Miller (click on the Tweety Bird).  Watch for the glorification of Darwinian speculation, the big lie about feathered dinosaurs being “discovered,” and the miracle-working power of evolution personified:

    Palaeontologists are now beginning to think that their speculations weren’t nearly wild enough, and that feathers were indeed quite common in dinosaurs.
        The discovery of feathered dinosaurs not only vindicated the idea of transitional forms, but also showed that evolution has a way of coming up with a dazzling variety of solutions when we had no idea that there were even problems.  Flight could have been no more than an additional opportunity that presented itself to creatures already clothed in feathers.

    The leap of faith in that sentence is breathtaking.  There are so many adaptations required for flight, to glibly say that an opportunity presents itself and it happens exceeds the faith of a creationist by orders of magnitude.  Want to try out their explanation?  Stand at the top of a skyscraper.  Put on a Big Bird costume.  An opportunity for flight presents itself….

  4. Teeth:  Microevolution; irrelevant.  This gem is only a short, sweet anecdote about a lady scientist inspired by Darwin.  It ends with a plaudit for evo-devo.
  5. Vertebrate skeleton:  This is a bizarre concoction of recapitulation theory, speculation, circular reasoning and imposing Darwin on the data in the absence of evidence.  They pretend this helps doctors understand “several developmental disorders in humans,” as if evolution had anything to do with it.  Creationists believe that we have skeletal similarities to our fellow vertebrates; so what?  Circular argument; irrelevant.
  6. Speciation:  More stickleback fish propaganda (search on stickleback in the search bar above).  Microevolution; irrelevant.
  7. Lizards:  Microevolution; irrelevant.
  8. Co-evolution:  A so-called evolutionary arms race between water fleas and parasites that infect them.  Both species remain what they were; no new organs or new genetic information.  Microevolution; irrelevant.
  9. Bird dispersal:  This is about gene flow in one species of bird.  Microevolution; irrelevant.
  10. Guppies:  An argument for “frequency-dependent survival” in genetic polymorphisms of one species of guppy.  Microevolution; irrelevant.
  11. Evolutionary history matters:  This entry assumes evolution to prove evolution.  Circular reasoning; irrelevant.  The authors talk about “evolution’s breathtaking solution” to a feeding problem in moray eels.  No transitional forms mentioned, nor any mechanism for producing this “innovation” – just the assumption that Darwin did it somehow.  They opened, “Evolution is often thought to be about finding optimal solutions to the problems that life throws up.  But natural selection can only work with the materials at hand – materials that are themselves the results of many millions of years of evolutionary history.”  Is restating their belief with sufficient chutzpah supposed to convince a doubter?
  12. Galapagos Finches:  Good grief.  For them to keep tossing up this discredited story and thinking that an admitted case of microevolution that oscillates beak size with climate by a few millimeters is going to convince the rest of us that humans have bacteria ancestors, it’s no showdown at all.  “The study shows how biologists are going beyond the mere documentation of evolutionary change to identify the underlying molecular mechanisms,” they said.  Well, fine.  The history of alchemy motivated many new techniques that later helped chemists.
  13. Microevolution meets macroevolution:  All right, folks, here it is: the rubber meets the road.  This must be a good one.  Ready?  “We can infer from the fossil record that larger species-to-species changes, or macroevolution, also occur,” they said, ignoring the Cambrian explosion, “but they are naturally harder to observe in action.”  Enter Sean Carroll (the one at Howard Hughes Medical Institute) demonstrating spots on the wings of one species of fruit fly.  Whoa, that’s rich.  It gets worse.  The story revolves around considering some genes and transcription factors evolutionarily “ancient” and “ancestral.”  They just can’t quit their drunken-sailor walk of circular reasoning.  “This shows that a gene involved in one process can be co-opted for another, in principle driving macroevolutionary change.” 
  14. Toxin resistance:  A mutation breaks the gate that would otherwise allow a toxin to enter, in two different kinds of animals.  So evolution breaks things.  And your point is?
  15. Variation vs stability:  Let’s see if they saved their best for last.  Nope; foul.  They have just inserted teleology back into evolution, committing the very infraction Darwin declared a mortal sin. 

    Species can remain mostly unchanged for millions of years, long enough for us to pick up their traces in the fossil record.  But they change, too, and often very suddenly.  This has led some to wonder whether species – usually those developing along specific tracks – store the potential for sudden change under the hood, unleashing a flood of otherwise hidden variation at times of environmental stress – variation on which selection can act.

    They call this phenomenon of stored variation “evolutionary capacitance.”  Giving something a name is not an argument.  Need we remind the gunslinger trio that capacitors are built by intelligent engineers?  This argument does not rule out a Creator planning in some adaptability and robustness to his intelligently-designed creations – organisms that must survive a dynamic environment.  The creationists demand their gems back.
        Notice the reliance of this argument on punctuated equilibria, Stephen Jay Gould’s pet theory on why the evidence for evolution is missing.  You would think they would not entertain such anti-gradualist heresies for Darwin Day (read what one Darwinist thinks about Gould in the 12/19/2008 entry, bullet 2).  You would think also that this trio would not be handing their ammunition to the creationists to use against them.

Creationists really don’t mind the arsenal.  They will let the Darwinists shoot a thousand pearl-handled hunks of dead iron loaded with blanks all they want.  They’re still comin’ to save the town from the crooked sheriffs holding the citizens hostage.
Exercise:  Is “evolutionary thinking” an oxymoron?  Defend your answer.

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