What Good Is Natural Selection without Progress?
Three papers recently claim to have seen natural selection. None of them, however, identified a functional advantage that would have tied changes to novel benefits that could improve a species.
- Yeast: “New Type of Genetic Variation Could Strengthen Natural Selection,” trumpeted a headline in Science Daily. It was about a study of two varieties of one species of yeast – one in Japan, one in Portugal. Scientists compared the genomes of the two isoforms of the same species and found one form had a particular functional gene network, the other did not. Remarkably, they said in their paper in Nature,1 “these polymorphisms have been maintained for nearly the entire history of the species, despite more recent gene flow genome-wide…. This striking example of a balanced unlinked gene network polymorphism introduces a remarkable type of intraspecific variation that may be widespread..” The word “Remarkably” is even in the title of their paper: “Remarkably ancient balanced polymorphisms in a multi-locus gene network.”
Remarkable as that may be, the authors did not identify the origin of any new function, organ, or genetic information. The paper said, “The numerous cases of long-term balancing selection, complex genetic interactions, and theoretical considerations all hint that BuGNPs [balanced unlinked gene network polymorphisms] might be important for explaining the evolution of complex traits, but we know of no other definitive examples of balancing selection acting to preserve alternative states of a multi-locus gene network within a single species.”
So not only was this a case of preservation rather than progress, it was all taking place within a single species. No “origin of species” was claimed for this “New Type of Genetic Variation [that] Could Strengthen Natural Selection.” Even more surprising is that neither the paper nor the press release tied the alleged natural selection to actual fitness or survival.2 The press release from Vanderbilt University, nevertheless, was almost breathless in its excitement about The Force: “The unexpected discovery of a new type of genetic variation suggests that natural selection – the force that drives evolution – is both more powerful and more complex than scientists have thought.” As noted before, though, if natural selection is a force, it is only the force of a bumper in a pinball game (07/14/2009, 08/09/2009 commentaries). not the flipper operated by a game player trying to get somewhere.
- Primates: Another study claimed remarkable powers for natural selection in primates. PhysOrg began an article with standard boilerplate about natural selection, followed by questions:
During evolution, living species have adapted to environmental constraints according to the mechanism of natural selection; when a mutation that aids the survival (and reproduction) of an individual appears in the genome, it then spreads throughout the rest of the species until, after several hundreds or even thousands of generations, it is carried by all individuals. But does this selection, which occurs on a specific gene in the genome of a species, also occur on the same gene in neighboring species? On which set of genes has natural selection acted specifically in each species?
A team in France set out to compare genomes of humans, gorillas, chimpanzees and macaques to answer these questions. Surprisingly, they never again addressed the topics of fitness and survival assumed in the boilerplate description of natural selection. They could not have cared less if the mutations they compared had anything to do with fitness, progress, or new genetic information. All they tried to do was find out if the same genes showed the same differences in different species of primates. Here’s the closest they got: “An example that has been confirmed by this study is the well-known case of the lactase gene that can metabolize lactose during adulthood (a clear advantage with the development of agriculture and animal husbandry). The researchers have also identified a group of genes involved in some neurological functions and in the development of muscles and skeleton.”
But the case of lactose tolerance is moot; some have argued that intolerance is the norm, and adult lactose tolerance is due to a loss of function. Humans did not evolve into agriculturalists and ranchers by mutations and natural selection. It presumably took intelligent design for people to plant the first crops and raise cattle. And regarding development of muscles and skeleton, it would be hard to argue that humans are more fit than monkeys and macaques who swing in the trees with ease.
So what gains did natural selection make? The authors did not identify any new function, organ, or information linked to the gene differences. Any linkage to fitness was put in future tense: “Using a larger number of primate genomes, the study now needs to determine the extent of this phenomenon in terms of genes and biological functions,” the article ended. “By including other vertebrate species in the study, it will also be possible to determine whether we share adaptive events with rodents, birds or fish, as some isolated observations appear to suggest.”
- Fish: Science Daily was almost giddy as it announced today, “Stickleback Genomes Shining Bright Light on Evolution.” It’s not just shedding the usual flashlight on evolution; they’ve upped the ante. Now a discovery is shedding a “bright light on evolution.” The eyes of scientists are wide open and filled with light. They said, “Twenty billion pieces of DNA in 100 small fish have opened the eyes of biologists studying evolution. After combining new technologies, researchers now know many of the genomic regions that allowed an ocean-dwelling fish to adapt to fresh water in several independently evolved populations.” But again, this study showed no new genetic information or fitness – just fluctuating amounts of body armor and minor changes to the shapes of existing structures, coloration and behavior in stickleback fish. These are changes any young-earth creationist would yawn at. Salmon and other species are already known to prosper in both salt and fresh waters.
“Can we find genomic regions that were altered due to natural selection?” one scientist asked. Where would they look? Well, they certainly did not look for an increase in fitness, whatever that means, or a new organ or function. In fact, fitness and survival were not even mentioned in the article, and natural selection was only mentioned one time – as a question, seen in the quote above. The article suggested that genes “may be evolving”; one scientist pined, “We hope to learn something about these fish while they are still evolving, literally, from an ocean population to a freshwater one.” The team did not show that anything new has emerged by natural selection. They only showed adaptation of existing genes, structures and functions to a change in environment. Stickleback fish apparently come preprogrammed with the ability to thrive in a variety of habitats. If this is a bright light on evolution, it didn’t reveal much.
It is clear that to evolve a bacterium into a human would require enormous gains in functional information encoded in genetic information. Neither of these articles contained observational evidence that the mutations or variations that were alleged to have been preserved by natural selection created any gains in fitness, function, or information.
1. Hittinger et al, “Remarkably ancient balanced polymorphisms in a multi-locus gene network,” Nature 464, 54-58 (4 March 2010) | doi:10.1038/nature08791.
2. The paper spoke of fitness only in a theoretical sense: “Therefore, keeping co-adapted interacting alleles or gene complexes together is probably crucial to optimal fitness,” or, “it is conceivable that functional GAL80 (and perhaps other functional GAL genes) could also confer slight conditional fitness costs by other unknown means in the Japanese population.” The authors only speculated on why the two populations differed. Persistence of the polymorphisms alone was taken as evidence of natural selection – even for the isoform that was non-functional. The non-functional polymorphism did not seem to the researchers to be a temporary condition on the way to being selected out. “Instead,” they said, “the striking localized peaks of extreme sequence divergence between populations are best explained by strong balancing selection on the GAL genes, which suggests that non-functional alleles are fitter in some genetic backgrounds and/or environmental conditions.” When fitness is linked to survival, however, it becomes a tautology: survivors are the fittest, and the fittest are the survivors.
You have just witnessed how the Darwinists pretend to be scientists by acting busy, talking jargon and making promises. Busy work, talk, and promises are cheap. To demonstrate the prowess of natural selection, they would need to demonstrate actual progress – a new complex organ, a new wing or eye or ability that never existed before, arising without any intervention, solely by the power of natural selection. Instead, they busy themselves with comparing little genetic changes between organisms that are already fit. They use divination techniques to tell the peasants what differences, like the folds in a liver or the motions of the pendulum, indicate that the Spirit of Charlie has been at work. It’s pure poppycock. Even a poppy and a cock are more fit than these scientists. They ought to get on a fitness treadmill and do something useful with their energy (but watch out for the slippage on the treadmill: 03/17/2003).
Natural selection, the phrase that made Darwin famous, is a glittering generality wrapped in a personification pretending not to be a tautology, “survival of the fittest.” That phrase launched a thousand ships in the 20th century and led to unspeakable horrors by ruthless dictators who thought it was their scientific duty to eliminate the unfit. But who is fit? Fitness is a meaningless term that means anything that survives, whether it has good genes or not (see “Fitness for Dummies,” 10/29/2002). That’s why Hitler had to conclude Germans were not the fittest since they lost the war, despite all that propaganda, the health campaigns and the Holocaust he perpetrated in the name of fitness. That this shaky foundation for the Battle Hymn of the Repulsive persists into 2010 is enough to make one really, really angry.
Now the fit will be survivors and survivors will be fit,
And survivors will survive to prove the fitness of the fit,
Oh, this natural selection, it’s so simple, isn’t it?
’Tis ruthless marching on.