August 13, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Inserting Evolution into Data

Evolution takes credit for a lot of things other scientists might think say nothing about evolution.  Are the statements in these articles about evolution warranted by the observations?

  1. Do the RNA:  Scientists at Yale University found an RNA complex that helps proteins to infect cells.  That’s interesting as far as it goes, but Science Daily embellished the observation with a story about the distant past: “Yale University researchers have discovered an ancient but functioning genetic remnant from a time before DNA existed,” it said.  Ron Breaker of Yale elaborated the reasoning behind the claim:

    This is the sort of RNA structure would have been needed for life exist [sic] before the evolution of double-stranded DNA, with its instruction book for proteins that carry out almost all of life’s functions today.  If proteins are necessary to carry out life’s functions, scientists need to explain how life arise [sic] without DNA’s recipe.  The answer to the chicken or egg question is RNA machines such as the one identified in the new study, Breaker said.
        A lot of sophisticated RNA gadgetry has gone extinct but this study shows that RNA has more of the power needed to carry out complex biochemistry,” Breaker said.  “It makes the spontaneous emergence of life on earth much more palatable.”

    Incidentally, even though the observation showed this RNA helping a bacterium infect a cell, the RNA probably had a more beneficial function: “They were though [sic] to be molecular parasites, but it is clear they are being harnessed by cells to do some good for the organism.”  The article did not attempt to explain how machinery evolves.

  2. Moses oar:  One of the most complete skeletons of the mosasaur Platecarpus, an extinct marine reptile that was a dynamite swimmer as well as a fierce predator, was announced by Science Daily.  The article said that earlier beliefs about it swimming like an eel have had to be revised, as analysis shows it probably swam more like a shark.  That’s interesting as far as it goes, but it has evolutionary implications, as Luis B. Chiappe of the Los Angeles National History Museum explained:

    The findings underscore how these adaptations for fully aquatic existence evolved rapidly and convergently in several groups of Mesozoic marine reptiles, as well as in extant whales.  “This fossil shows evolution in action, how a successful design was developed time after time by different groups of organisms adapting to life in similar environments,” said Chiappe.  “It highlights once again the potential for new discoveries to challenge well-established interpretations about dinosaurs and other animals that lived with them.”
        “From this beautifully preserved specimen it seems that advanced, shark like swimming began in mosasaurs millions of years earlier than we previously thought,” said Dr. Kevin Padian, a paleontologist at the University of California, Berkeley, not involved in the paper.

    The article praised the curators and workers on the fossil, and remarked that new discoveries can challenge well-established interpretations about dinosaurs and other animals, but was strangely silent about how evolution produced complex adaptations time and time again in different groups of animals.  Incidentally, the fossil was exceptionally well preserved: “It retains traces of a partial body outline, putative skin color markings, external scales, a downturned tail, branching bronchial tubes, and stomach contents (fish).”  Most sea creatures decay in the ocean.  The article did not explain how this specimen was preserved so delicately.

  3. Reasoning about irrationality:  People say and do dumb things.  That’s interesting as far as it goes, but Sharon Begley at Newsweek used her powers of reason to argue “why evolution may favor irrationality.”  Putting herself in the mindset of a hunter-gatherer in prehistoric times, Begley explained, “Forms of reasoning that are good for solving logic puzzles but bad for winning arguments lost out, over the course of evolution, to those that help us be persuasive but cause us to struggle with abstract syllogisms.”  She said this very persuasively, if not logically; for if evolution favored irrationality, how would she know the difference?

The habit of drawing evolution into explanations for observations has a long history.  Darwin took credit for bat sonar, symbiosis, insect size, and even lack of evolution as an evolutionary strategy in the 08/24/2007 entry, for space dust and magnetic fields and Mediterranean microbes in the 08/11/2010 entry, and for all kinds of other things – as 1430 chain links on “Darwin and Evolution” over 10 years reveal.

When you read evolutionary science articles with your Baloney Detector on, it all becomes very clear.  It’s like seeing with those new scanners at airports.  Evolutionary storytelling is an ideology searching for evidential threads to cover Emperor Charlie.

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