April 7, 2009 | David F. Coppedge

Evolutionary Explanations: Substance, Seasoning, or Storytelling?

A scientific theory should explain why certain phenomena in nature are the way they are.  This layman’s view, though simplistic, expects that a theory should also predict new phenomena before they are observed.  In many science reports on evolution, however, one finds evolutionary theory tacked on as an explanation after the fact, when the theory had virtually nothing to do with the research or the conclusions (for examples a year ago, see 04/04/2008).  Also, because of the underdetermination of theories by data, presenting only an evolutionary explanation neglects the proper consideration of other possible explanations adequate to explain the phenomena under observation.  Finally, the few research projects that are motivated by evolutionary theory, and claim success of the theory, often leave sizable loopholes for critics.

  1. Dog lab:  The dog has been man’s best friend for years, but is it because of evolution?  MSNBC News surprised readers with the title “Dogs (not chimps) most like humans.”  Lest one conclude that we evolved from dogs, or they from us, the article launched into a discussion of dog-human co-evolution.  “Now, perhaps for the first time, students of animal behavior, psychology, neuroscience, anthropology, philosophy and veterinary medicine will unite to provide deeper insights into the evolution of dogs and the evolution of humans,” said Marc Hauser of Harvard.  If you thought you were training your dog with intelligent design, maybe Darwin was at work on both of you.
  2. Spliceosome marvels:  The spliceosome, one of the most sophisticated molecular machines of all, was unveiled in unprecedented detail recently by scientists at Brandeis University and Cambridge.  This machine clips RNA transcripts and reassembles them before they get translated into proteins.  It’s an exquisite process that must be performed thousands of times without error, lest serious disorders develop.  Science Daily reported on the detailed look at this machine, then quoted a researcher who said this about it: “In human cells one gene can be made into a variety of proteins, so if the process just goes slightly wrong, the genetic alteration can lead to incredible disaster; yet on the other hand, this incredible complexity has led to our amazing evolutionary progress,” said Pomeranz Krummel [Brandeis U].  “….The fundamental difference between us and the earthworm is that our cells have evolved to utilize this process of RNA splicing to generate a whole other dimension to the transmission of genetic information.”
  3. Insect flight:  Last month, Science Daily told about a researcher at U of Arkansas who searched for the evolution of insect flight.  He and his coworkers dropped wingless bristletails, thought to be ancestors of winged insects, from treetops and watched them control their descent with their tails.  “The existence of aerial control ability in a wingless insect and its habitat in trees is consistent with the hypothesis of a terrestrial origin for winged flight in insects,” he said – but he did not connect the tail structure with the wings and muscles of flying insects.  Nor did he consider the possibility that bristletails are secondarily flightless.
  4. Sponge ancestor not:  You can breathe a sigh of relief.  The sponge is not your ancestor.  Science Daily said that an international team has put sponges on a separate evolutionary branch all their own: “scientists report that all sponges descended from a unique sponge ancestor, who in turn was not the ancestor of all other animals.”  To tell this story, they had to stretch credibility: “Since the comb jellies already have nerve and muscle cells, this would suggest that these features developed several times independently in animal history, or that they were lost in sponges and placozoans.”  The article says that molecular and morphological studies contradict each other’s evolutionary inferences and the work remains “controversial.”
  5. Game theory:  Explaining the evolution of cooperation by game theory is still a hot topic.  PhysOrg claimed that “Cooperative behavior meshes with evolutionary theory” based on work by two MIT students.  To make this work, it seems the evolutionists need to ascribe free will to the members of a population – even to yeast cells:

    The same rules apply to the cheating and cooperating yeast: Like the driver who grudgingly gets out and shovels so that both she and her fellow motorist – snug inside his car – may continue on their journeys, the yeast who cooperate do so because there is a slight benefit for themselves.  However, when most of the yeast are cooperating, it becomes advantageous for some individuals to cheat, and vice versa, which allows co-existence between cheaters and cooperators to arise.

What would you rather have: scientists concerned about curing cancer and building green technology, or lazy guys dropping bugs out of treetops so that they can tell stories about how technology invented itself?  Re-read the principles in the 04/04/2008 commentary.  The Darwinian storytellers have still not repented.

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