February 25, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Making Evolution Simple

Getting the vast diversity of highly complex creatures seems an impossible task for evolutionary theory, but some recent stories claim it’s not so hard. 

  1. Beak of the finch:  Darwin’s finches keep pecking their way into the media.  A new study claims that the wide diversity of beak shapes that have evolved can be explained by a few simple mathematical rules.  Scientists at Harvard performed a “numerical feat,” reported PhysOrg, “on perhaps the most famous icon of evolution: the beaks of Darwin’s finches.”  They grouped the 14 beak shapes into three groups that vary mainly by length and depth.  They claimed broad application of their findings: “Broadly, the work suggests that a few, simple mathematical rules may be responsible for complicated biological adaptations.”  That being said, there are caveats: “It is not possible, however, to explain the full diversity of beak shapes of all Darwin’s finches with only changes in beak length and depth.”  But another biologist was “astonished” by the simple relationships and concluded that “The mechanism that allows organisms to adapt so readily to new environments may be a relatively ‘easy’ process.”
  2. Not so complex:  If you thought biology was mystifying in its complexity, you just need the take-home headline from Emory University: “Biology may not be so complex after all.”  A confident-looking young biophysicist by the name of Ilya Nemenman accompanies the opening sentence: “Centuries ago, scientists began reducing the physics of the universe into a few, key laws described by a handful of parameters.  Such simple descriptions have remained elusive for complex biological systems – until now.”  The build-up is breathtaking: what could Ilya possibly have found?  Here it is: he “identified parameters for several biochemical networks that distill the entire behavior of these systems into simple equivalent dynamics.”  In his words, in bold print, he said, “It appears that the details of the complexity of these biological systems don’t matter, as long as some aggregate property, which we’ve calculated, remains the same.”
        This is too easy, the astute reader must be thinking.  How does this explain eyes, wings and brains?  It goes on: Nemenman next compares his principles to the ideal gas law, that explains “All of the crazy interactions of these molecules hitting each other” with a simple relationship between pressure, volume and temperature.  Why would nature make the networks of chemical reactions complex when they could be simple?  He announced, “The whole behavior of the system boils down to just one parameter.”  What were all the previous biologists thinking by making everything so hard.  Yet, one might ask, how fruitful is this explanation for understanding the origin and function of biological systems?  It sounds like measuring the hum of a bumblebee is being substituted for understanding its structure, organs, senses and aerodynamics.  An organism is surely more complex than gas molecules bouncing around at random (see glittering generalities).  To be sure, the article did not discuss the origin and evolution of complexity.  But the boldness of the headline, claiming that “biology may not be so complex after all,” seems crafted to play into the hands of evolutionists who would be eager to downplay all that complexity that intelligent design theorists keep talking about.  And the article did assume evolution, asking, “is the unnecessary complexity a ‘fossil record’ of the evolutionary heritage?”
  3. Driving force:  Scientists have not just proposed a driving force for evolution.  Now, announced PhysOrg, they’ve “revealed” it.  The news is that “ evolution is driven most powerfully by interactions between species, rather than adaptation to the environment.”  That surprising finding may catch some readers off guard who thought the environment was a major player in evolution.  Even more surprisingly, this announcement invokes the “Red Queen” hypothesis of continuous variation.  That flies directly in the face of the announcement two weeks ago (02/11/2010, bullet 3), that claimed the Red Queen idea only helps on rare occasions, if any.  But now, Science Daily tells us that the Red Queen is not only “correct,” but is the “driving force” behind evolution.  Nothing was stated in either article about the origin of new genetic information, structure, function, or complexity.  Presumably, a “driving force” is all you need to bring these about.

So, now, with biology being so simple, and evolutionary theory having a powerful driving force, and finch beaks evolving according to just two parameters, what was that complexity that creationists were making such a big deal about?  Maybe some of them would point to a different story on Science Daily about bird beaks.  This article made no claims about evolution or simplicity.  It reported that German scientists have found a magnetometer in the beaks of many birds.
    Pigeons and other migratory birds have iron particles in short nerve branches in the upper beak.  This serves “not only as a magnetic compass, which shows the direction of the magnetic field lines,” but also as “a magnetometer to measure the vector of the Earth magnetic field (intensity and inclination)” – values used by the birds for their incredible feats of navigation.  The scientists were astonished to find this structure in a wide variety of birds, including warblers, robins and chickens – birds which have varied habitats, lifestyles and navigation needs.  The scientists used high-resolution X-rays to study the dendritic structures.  “Most probably each of these more than 500 dendrites encodes only one direction of the magnetic field,” the article said.  “These manifold data are processed to the brain of the bird and here – recomposed – serve as a basis for a magnetic map, which facilitates the spatial orientation.”  It seems doubtful such a structure could be reduced to two parameters controlled by a Red Queen, except for someone imagining biology in Alice in Wonderland.

What is more simple: the actual biology, or the storytelling of the evolutionists?  The latter is not just simple; it’s simplistic.  It takes a simpleton to believe it.  Evolutionists are comedians.  They help us recall Groucho Marx’s line, “Who are you gonna believe?  Me, or your own eyes?”

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