Science Awards Young Darwinist
A young PhD has been awarded grand prize in an essay contest by Science Magazine for studying a complex system and deciding it evolved one way or another.1 Richard Benton won the Eppendorf Grand Prize for Essays on Science and Society, beating out two others who studied neurons but failed to give pre-eminence to evolutionary theory.2 The winner is a member of a group who “studies the genetic, neural, and evolutionary basis of chemosensation in the fruit fly, Drosophila.”
In his prize-winning essay, entitled “Evolution and Revolution in Odor Detection,”3 Benton maintained a running theme of evolution from the title onward. “Molecular neuroscientists have a tendency to seek evolutionarily conserved mechanisms underlying the construction and function of animal brains,” he began. He critiqued that approach briefly only to point out another insight into evolution it might miss: “a focus on commonalities overlooks the fact that different animal nervous systems have evolved to operate in distinct ecological contexts.”
Benton studies the fruit fly nose because “Animal olfactory systems display enormous evolutionary capacity, as species acquire and discard olfactory receptor genes, neurons, and behaviors in an everchanging landscape of external chemical stimuli.” Evolution is all-encompassing in his vision. “These modifications often reflect the fact that most relevant odors for a species are themselves derived from evolving organisms such as plant food sources, animal predators, and potential mates.” Heraclitus, who said you can never step in the same river twice, must be listening from the grave with interest.
With the theme of evolution thoroughly ensconced in the first paragraph, Benton went on to describe his own research seeking out the “codes” in olfactory signalling, particularly in the fruit fly. He noted three common features between insect and mammalian noses: single-function neurons, axons that converge into a glomerulus, and “that odors are recognized by specific combinations of ORs [olfactory receptors] to create a spatial ‘code’ of glomerular activation.” The word code did not connote to Benton any sense of intelligent design or functional purpose. On the contrary, he began his research “Justified by this apparent conservation in olfactory system organization across 500 million years of evolution….”
But then, lo and behold, he found a stench in the evolutionary conservation story. He expected to find the same seven G protein-coupled receptors in fruit flies that are found in vertebrates. “However, upon bioinformatic reexamination of insect OR sequences, we noted that these receptors exhibited no significant similarity to vertebrate ORs or other GPCRs and, unexpectedly, were predicted to have an inverted membrane topology.” This “provocative” result (that a model organism used “receptors that were unique to insects” had to be explained in an evolutionary way. He punned that they “decided to fly in the face of this insect-specificity by designing a bioinformatics screen to identify additional factors acting in peripheral odor detection.” What they found was a different transmembrane protein that seems to perform a similar function to the one in mammals, and also for pathogen recognition in the immune response. “Molecular homologies have also been noted in pheromone and immune detection in mammals; a future challenge is to understand the evolutionary basis of such connections.” So whether traits are homologous or analogous, evolution wins.
Benton’s team also found a new family of olfactory receptors – “a previously unappreciated ‘second nose’ in insects.” The receptors in this new family “are present across animals, plants, and prokaryotes, which hints that these receptors may represent an ancient mechanism for sensing both intercellular and external chemical cues.” In his final paragraph of this grand prize essay, Benton noted that olfactory systems have a “common design” and “logic” across diverse animal phyla. Whether the toolkit for a nose was present in the common ancestor, or whether these similar mechanisms arose by convergent evolution, the only explanation had to be an evolutionary one:
Our studies of the biology of Drosophila odor detection have revealed molecular surprises that invite reconsideration of the basis of the striking similarities in olfactory system organization and function across species. Was there a primitive olfactory system in the common ancestor of insects and vertebrates, in which subsequent drastic divergence of the odor-detecting receptors was uncoupled from the maintenance of neuroanatomical and physiological logic? Or, does the common design of olfactory systems across different phyla reflect convergent evolution, indicative of the essential properties of a sensory system responsible for detecting innumerable chemical stimuli? Distinguishing these possibilities is not trivial, but either would yield insight into the mechanisms by which at least this part of the nervous system arose and evolved.
By inserting the phrase “yield insight” Benton fulfilled the unwritten rule that an evolutionary paper must end with a promise that future evolution-based research will “shed light on evolution.”
1. Eppendorf Winner: 2009 Grand Prize Winner, Science, 16 October 2009: Vol. 326. no. 5951, p. 383, DOI: 10.1126/science.326_383.
2. The other two finalist essays are published at Science Features. One of them mentioned evolution only once. It was concerned with how dendrites and axons grow during development. Quoting Buckminster Fuller, the author was impressed by the “elegant and exquisitely exact mathematical coordinate system [nature uses to] formulate and mass-produce all the botanical and zoological phenomena.” The other entry did not mention evolution at all. Instead, it began by appreciating “just how complicated this circuitry must be” to allow simple movements like walking down the street.
3. Richard Benton, “Evolution and Revolution in Odor Detection,” Science, 16 October 2009: Vol. 326. no. 5951, pp. 382-383, DOI: 10.1126/science.1181998.
It appears that the priests of the Temple of Charlie need male cult prostitutes as well as female ones (cf. 12/11/2006). Is it any wonder scientists can look design in the face, and sniff it in the snout, and still come up with Darwinian miracle stories that such-and-such a code or engineering system “arose”? Look at the clear evidence of divination training in his article. He looks into the genes and the molecules for visions of common ancestors. If the common ancestor interpretation looks weak, he conjures up the vision of convergent evolution. Because both homologous and analogous designs have been swallowed by the Darwin Blob Corporation, design explanations can’t get out. It’s impossible to falsify their beliefs because no matter what you show them, they perform a hostile takeover of the data and dedicate it to their idol. All the property around the Temple has been bought out by the monopoly – even the competition and the media. The populace is promised that the Temple Industries, Inc. will “yield insight” and provide understanding about how everything “arose and evolved.” Each year a new crop of inductees learns the Temple secrets and code words and gets job security for life. It’s a racket and a cult. Don’t drink the kool-aid.