Conjuring Up Evolutionary Implications from Current Data
What does observable reality imply about unobservable reality? Some scientists say, a lot. But is unobservable reality really real? Or is it an oxymoron? A couple of recent articles in the science media show scientists observing things in the present, then saying they have “huge implications” for things no scientist ever observed.
In one article, some Yale geologists measured the angle of magnetization in rocks in Australia in the present. That’s the data. The implication they drew was that a supercontinent in the unobserved past called Gondwana underwent a 60-degree rotation 525 million years ago. According to Science Daily, one of the scientists exclaimed, “this could have had huge implications for the Cambrian explosion of animal life at that time.”
A picture of a professor and his post-doc working in a Frankensteinish lab accompanies another article in Science Daily. They are looking at space dust. That’s the data. They are trying to tally up the chemicals in meteorites and dust samples brought back from space missions, and detected in spectra from the Herschel space telescope, and make their tally available to researchers around the world. What is the significance of dust? The article announced the implications: “Because space dust contains the basic ingredients that form planets, the University of Central Florida physicists’ analysis could provide important clues about how the solar system formed and how life emerged.” The postdoc is learning her lessons well. “A complete understanding of the mineralogy of cosmic dust is essential to understanding the formation and mineralogy of planets and, ultimately, to unraveling how life emerged in the universe,” she said.
An evolutionist at the University of Dusseldorf found organisms deep in the Mediterranean that can live without oxygen. That’s the data. It led Bill Martin to propose a radical idea about the origin of life and its subsequent evolution that shows all the other evolutionary biologists are wrong: the origin of complex life did not revolve around oxygen. The tale told as a “hydrogen bombshell” in New Scientist conjures up the union of a bacterium and an archaeal microbe to form mitochondria. It conjures up the Cambrian explosion. It conjures up images of the rise and fall of oxygen, the interactions of that gas with microbes directing the course of evolution. For example,
One is that the initial rise in oxygen did not cleanse the oceans, but converted them into a stinking mess, full of hydrogen sulphide. Far from having few refuges, anaerobes had whole oceans to themselves. What’s more, these conditions lasted for more than a billion years, right through the period when the eukaryotes are thought to have evolved.
Notice that the qualifier “the period when the eukaryotes are thought to have evolved” refers to the period, not the evolution. Evolution was nowhere doubted in the article, though controversies about the “how” of eukaryote evolution surfaced at one point. Author Nick Lane1 admitted that Martin and his colleague “leapt straight in at the deep end” by suggesting that the “ancestor of mitochondria… was a versatile bacterium capable of living in a variety of environments” using hydrogen or oxygen, and that by combining its resources with a bacterium, it made a “primordial pact that gave rise to the eukaryotes.”
In answer to his critics, Martin revealed something about the inability of drawing implications from other people’s data. His critics, who “think the transformation from aerobic mitochondria to hydrogenosomes has little or nothing to do with the origins of eukaryotes,” typically use gene studies to make their point. “Single gene studies are subject to so many artefacts that we can conclude almost nothing about deep evolutionary history from them,” Martin argued. “Line up the same genes from the other end and you derive a totally different tree.”
Rather than learning that lesson from his own data, Martin and Nick Lane feel that if the hydrogen hypothesis is right, “the implications for complex life are striking.” Reaching for the stars, Lane wrote, “The existence of animals that don’t need oxygen means that oxygen is not the be-all and end-all of complex life in the universe.” Furthermore, “There was no magisterial progression from simple to complex life as oxygen levels rose; no inevitability about it,” he ended. “Instead, there was a symbiotic union between a bacterium that could make hydrogen and an archaeal host cell that could exploit that hydrogen: a freak event that changed the world.”
Amazing, is it not, the implications that can be derived from magnetic field lines, dust, and Mediterranean microbes.
1. Incidentally, Nick Lane, who authored the article in New Scientist, whisked by the problem of the origin of ATP Synthase (08/04/2010) by referring to it dismissively as, “the usual ATP-generating machinery driven by oxygen.” In a book review in Science four years ago (see 03/31/2006), David Nicholls was stunned by Lane’s simplistic account of the emergence of ATP synthesis with the words, “all that the cells need to do to generate ATP is to plug an ATPase through the membrane.” Reeling from the shock of that sentence, Nicholls responded, “Any bioenergeticist who has followed the elucidation of the extraordinary structure and mechanism of the mitochondrial ATP synthase over the past decade will pause at the word ‘all,’ because the ATP synthase—with its spinning rotor massaging the surrounding subunits to generate ATP—is without doubt the most amazingly complex molecular structure in the cell.” Nick Lane’s book had the audacious title, Science, Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life. For more examples of Lane’s glittering generalities in action, see 05/31/2010, 10/19/2009 and 06/15/2009.
They should be weeping over the Cambrian explosion and the inability of evolution to account for the “emergence” of complex life and body plans, and they should be blushing over reducing science to “freak accidents,” but instead they are rejoicing in their own freak imaginations.
What are the implications of following their example? If they can do it, so can we. We can take observable reality and make up stories about unobservable realities that exist only in the imagination. Here’s your assignment: assume a stupid thing, observe a fact, and make up a story about what it means about unobservable reality. Here are a couple to get you started.
- Assumption: Everything happens according to the will of Elvis. Data: I got a junk phone call from an airline company. Implication: Elvis wants me to fly to Memphis.
- Assumption: Aliens planted gnomes on Earth to direct the course of evolution. Data: Flies come into the house when the windows are open. Implication: 128.523 million years ago, flies were change agents the gnomes used to pressure mammals to grow long tails as fly swatters.
See? It’s fun. You, too, can be a scientist. Send in your suggestions.