150 years after The Origin of Species, it’s clear that Darwin succeeded in one thing: granting biologists free rein to speculate about how everything under the sun evolved. Anything not understood, or seemingly contrary to the law of natural selection, or to previous speculations, can be shuttled off to future research.
- Noble amoebas: You may have thought that survival of the fittest rewarded the strong and selfish. At least that’s now many governments and individuals understood it (see 11/12/2009). Now, Science Daily is telling us that natural selection rewards the noble – in amoebas. This surprising conclusion was sloughed off by researcher Joan Strassman (Rice U): “In some ways it’s no surprise that resistance to cheaters has evolved.”
- Female choice: Sexual selection is supposed to be driven by female choice. That’s the simple answer provided in many a news article or textbook, showing peahens and other birds sizing up the strutting males. Readers of an article in PhysOrg may be surprised to read, therefore, “Remarkably, there is no consensus among biologists over the key question why females choose among males.” (This answer also begs the question of whether “choice” lies within the capabilities of birds under the law of natural selection.) Readers may be further surprised to learn that one conclusion of researchers at Upsalla University is that “Female choice benefits mothers more than offspring.”
- Evolution of the rat race: Charles Q. Choi in his 10-part series on human evolution for Live Science wrote about “Our Crazy Family Tree” in part 7. He admitted that the fossil record appeared to take man in “bizarre directions” but quoted Ian Tattersall confidently asserting that “These fossils tell us that human evolution was a long process of experimentation, not the outcome of a long process of fine-tuning leading just to us.” Choi leaned primarily on the opinions of John Hawks (U of Wisconsin) who said, “The fact that we stuck around when others didn’t could be because of how we heavily leaned on technology in ways that earlier hominids didn’t,” he said, neglecting to address the origin of technology. He continued, nevertheless, saying, “Maybe that’s what it took to survive this rat race.” The survival of other primates (and rats) without technology would seem puzzling if it was essential in the case of humans.
- Shrinking evolution: Is it really evolution in the Darwinian sense when fitness goes down? Charles Q. Choi in his 9th episode on human evolution proposed the conundrum that “Humans Still Evolving as Our Brains Shrink.” In Live Science John Hawks told him that even though “When it comes to recent evolutionary changes, we currently maybe have the least specific details with regard the brain,” nevertheless it appears that our brains are 10% smaller than those of our ancestors. Maybe it’s like the shrinking microchip in computers. Hawks thought otherwise; “As to why is it shrinking, perhaps in big societies, as opposed to hunter-gatherer lifestyles, we can rely on other people for more things, can specialize our behavior to a greater extent, and maybe not need our brains as much.” Perhaps he should speak for himself. Maybe humans will grow two heads, Choi speculated in his last entry in the series on Live Science. This led to a discussion of taboos and science fiction. He quoted Peter Ward looking into his crystal ball and speculating, “We’re opening up new ways of evolving involved with machines.” Almost sounds like intelligent design.
- Justice for monkeys: Frans de Waal on New Scientist claims that “Monkeys share our sense of injustice.” By that, he surely does not mean that the same Just God imparted some moral sense to others of his creatures than humans, but rather that our sense of justice comes from the bottom up, through rudimentary indications of a sense of morality that somehow emerged by evolution. Citing studies on capuchin monkeys, bonobos and dogs (which, incidentally, did not express their judicial philosophy in writing), de Waal said, “All of this shows that our hostility to conspicuous consumption and excess at the top is only natural,” (whatever natural means). “It is part of a long evolutionary history in which cooperation and equity go hand in hand, even though it is undeniable that we have also a hierarchical streak.”
- The origin of organism: A prerequisite to understanding the origin of species is to understand what an organism is. David Quellar and Joan Strassman (Rice U) are arguing that we need to change the meaning of organism. “Some of the traits scientists use to describe an organism, such as individuality or even membership in the same species, may not be necessary to achieve organismality,” PhysOrg said, summarizing their views. “What is necessary, they argue, is a commonality of interests and minimal conflict that when combined, makes this the premier level of adaptation.” They came up with a scheme for determining which entities constitute “organismality” based on the degree of cooperation and conflict. They claimed that humans are individual organisms, but if their definition of organism centers around “shared purpose,” it would seem to open the door to proposing that a totalitarian society is an organism acted on by natural selection.
- Composite explanation for sex: The “evolutionary cost of males,” a problem that perplexed Darwin, was addressed in a press release posted by Science Daily. Researchers at the University of Oregon, some of whom are male, were able to reassure themselves that the benefits of males outweigh their costs. “Many scientists have argued that outcrossing [e.g., sex] has evolved to avoid the genetic consequences of inbreeding, while others have emphasized the role that outcrossing plays in generating the genetic variation necessary for evolutionary change,” explained Patrick Phillips. So which is it? “Our work shows that both of these factors are important,” he said, while admitting earlier, “biologists going all the way back to Charles Darwin have been puzzled why sexual reproduction via outcrossing exists at all.”
If a problem has puzzled leading biologists for 150 years, though, it is unlikely that one opinion in 2009 will change things. A composite explanation also leads to philosophical problems. If a scientist says, Your insanity is due to your mother’s anxiety, or to your horoscope, or to your genes, you might wish to identify the proximate cause, or claim the explanation is not helpful in producing understanding.
- Color me blue: Why do animals, especially males, have so many different colors? The question was addressed in an article on Science Daily. Sure enough, Darwin had the answer: sexual selection. But two UCLA scientists preferred to “emphasize another evolutionary factor.” They believe that “The cost of attacking the wrong type of male and of being attacked by the wrong type of male favors the rich diversity of coloration and of birdsong and chemical cues, such as odors, to identify rivals.” While this may explain the exaggeration of existing traits, can it explain the origin of the proteins, cells, tissues and organs that produce the traits? Isn’t it odd, too, that after all these years, “The idea never really reached the level of attention in evolutionary biology that it deserved.” Their theory is another composite explanation: “this finding can be explained either by selection against mating with the wrong species or selection against fighting with the wrong species,” they said.
- Speed limit: According to PhysOrg, researchers at University of Pennsylvania are trying to model limits to the pace of evolution. “A major conclusion of the work is that for some organisms, possibly including humans, continued evolution will not translate into ever-increasing fitness,” the article began. “Moreover, a population may accrue mutations at a constant rate — a pattern long considered the hallmark of ‘neutral’ or non-Darwinian evolution — even when the mutations experience Darwinian selection.” Remarkably, “In some of these [fitness] landscapes, the fitness eventually levels out and the organism ceases to adapt, even though mutations may continue to accrue.” How fitness could be assessed objectively in this un-Darwinian confusion was not stated in the short article (see “Fitness for Dummies,” 10/29/2002).
- Platypus order: PhysOrg reported on studies at the University of Adelaide about the duck-billed platypus. Because the platypus has 10 sex chromosomes compared to our two, they are trying to get “valuable clues about the evolution of Y chromosomes in all mammals, including humans.” What they found, however, doesn’t sound like Darwin’s undirected path of evolution: “We discovered that a remarkably organised mechanism must exist in platypus, where sex chromosomes from one end pair first and then they go down the sex chromosome chain, just like a zipper. There is nothing random about it.”
- Romantic religion: “We are proposing a new way to look at religion – as a strategy to advance evolutionary goals,” announced Yexin Jessica Li at Arizona State University in Tempe (see “Evolutionizing of Religion Continues,” 11/09/2009). Her new idea is that religion begins in romance. “Rivals on the dating scene could make one feel closer to God, according to new research that suggests one’s religiousness may be more closely related to mating strategies than previously known.” She did not address the large number of singles who are strongly devout, nor the mixed couples of religious and non-religious that seem to mate just fine. And if someone’s strongly-held theological beliefs, often supported by reason and evidence, can be modeled as reproductive strategies by unseen evolutionary forces, how do the strongly held beliefs of evolutionary biologists escape being characterized the same way?
- Darwin’s dark matter: Where is the secret to Darwin’s mystery of mysteries? It’s in the dark matter of the genome, said Science Daily. What’s Darwin’s mystery of mysteries, you ask? The origin of species. That’s right: “Speciation is one of the most fascinating, unsolved problems in biology,” said a researcher at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. We know that most hybrids produce sterile offspring. It would seem unlikely, therefore, that hybridization could lead to a new species. The team looked into the dark matter of the genome and found an “evolutionary arms race” in the behavior of chromatin and a gene that binds it. Maybe that is where speciation begins. On the other hand, “Altered expression and localization has profoundly deleterious consequences for the process of sperm formation, a process that remains a mystery and is under active study” in the lab. Stay tuned. The article did not link the genetic process to adaptation in the phenotype.
Speaking of phenotypes, David Houle of Florida State University complained in PNAS1 that evolutionary biologists have been neglecting phenomics – the study of morphology – for fascination with genomics – the study of genes. The phenotype is where natural selection acts. We need mapping between the two. Why? “the causation of key phenomena such as natural selection and disease takes place in a continuous phenotype space whose relationship to the genotype space is only dimly grasped,” he said. Trouble is, this involves massive amounts of data collection. It would be like counting the hairs on our heads, he said, providing a rare reference to the Bible in a scientific paper: “The title of this article includes a quotation from Luke 12:7, where God is ascribed the power to evaluate the tiniest details of existence, not only to number the hairs of our heads, but to understand their meaning. Can we hope to do as well?”
In his paper, which was more a challenge to fellow biologists than an announcement of a scientific finding, he gave some suggestions for narrowing the mountain of data to focus on the relevant factors. He used a mathematical analysis to show how trends in evolution might be predicted once genomes and “phenomes” are mapped to each other. But he admitted, “the need [of such mapping] in evolutionary biology is particularly acute, because no predictive science of evolutionary dynamics can emerge without such understanding.” Indeed, “The study of natural selection is even more primitive than our knowledge of phenotypes,” he said. It sounds like the challenge of understanding the origin of species by evolution is still primitive 150 years after Darwin. At least now we can celebrate the sophistication of our ignorance.
1. David Houle, “Numbering the hairs on our heads: The shared challenge and promise of phenomics,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, published online October 26, 2009, doi: 10.1073/pnas.0906195106.
The Darwinians, who took over biology in the 19th century, are still busily engaged in mythmaking, comforting the feebleminded who accept their explanations as wisdom, denouncing the heretics who call their bluff. They wear S on their chests: Science, the equivalent of Superman in intellectual circles. They are phonies. Bring out the kryptonite of critical analysis. It scares them to death, even though they never had special powers to begin with.