November 6, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Is “Religious Selection” Evolution?

An annual ritual by a tribe in Mexico has caused some cave fish to adapt.  Science Daily calls this “evolution by religious selection.”  But is it really evolution?  Two evolutionary biologists think so; they said that the tribe not only changed the population dynamics of the fish, but “inadvertently kick-started the evolutionary process of natural selection as well.”
    For centuries, the small tribe in southern Mexico has sprinkled powder from barbasco root, a natural toxin, into the waters of Cueva del Azufre as part of a pagan harvest ritual.  The stunned fish were then scooped up for food till the harvest was complete.  A team “led by Dr. Michael Tobler, an evolutionary ecologist at Oklahoma State University, and Dr. Gil Rosenthal, a biology professor at Texas A&M, has discovered that some of these fish have managed not only to develop a resistance to the plant’s powerful toxin, but also to pass on their tolerant genes to their offspring, enabling them to survive in the face of otherwise certain death for their non-evolved brethren.”  The team collected the Atlantic mollies from different parts of the cave.  They found that those annually exposed to barbasco were more resistant than those farther upstream.  Tobler said, “The cool thing is that this ceremony has gone on a long time and that the fish responded to it evolutionarily.”
    The rest of the article concerned human influence on the environment.  Tobler discounted the “noble savage” idea.  “We tend to have this wonderful Pocahontas idea that before Europeans came in, everything was pristine and in harmony with nature and that all of the changes in our environment have been post-industrialization,” he said in the Texas A&M press release.  “No.  People have been changing the environment forever.”

The evolutionary claims in this article are incoherent.  If the evolutionary biologists want to portray man as an intrusion into the environment, then it’s a story of artificial selection, not natural selection.  Artificial selection is intelligent design – whether or not the designers (people) know exactly what they are doing.  In this case, the tribespeople were selecting for dead fish (ones they could eat) instead of living fish.  They were still imposing their will on organisms for their own purposes.    Besides, people can’t “kick-start the evolutionary process of natural selection.”  Natural selection is not a process; it is an aimless, directionless, purposeless filter. 
    If, on the other hand, the team wants to portray the religious rituals of the tribespeople as natural, then it makes no sense to “want to hopefully find a balance between the cultural practices of these people and the ecosystem,” because the people are already part of the ecosystem.  Whatever nature does is in balance by definition.  They cannot appeal to some higher ideal of balance outside nature, because the evolutionary scientists are part of nature, too.  That also implies that their research is an evolutionary product of natural selection with no independently-verifiable adherence to a supernatural standard of truth or morality.  I.e., science implodes.  It would also mean they need to accept the gospel preaching in a local Baptist church as natural – and also the anti-evolution teachings of Biblical creationists.
    There’s no evolution in this story in the sense Darwin meant.  There’s only natural variation and population dynamics.  Some of the fish probably already had a natural resistance to barbasco anyway, which might have been due to deleterious mutations – a loss of genetic information.  It’s like the old peppered moth myth.  In that case, introducing man-caused soot onto the tree trunks did not cause dark moths to evolve out of light moths (even if that part of the story were true); it just change the proportions of light and dark populations by allowing birds to pick out the contrasting colors (if that part of the story were true).  Same here.  The barbasco is the soot; the tribespeople are the predators.  Fish naturally resistant to the barbasco increased in numbers.  No evolution occurred.
    So despite all the evolution-talk and natural-selection talk in the article, the research has nothing to do with evolution.  It is, instead, a case study on the shallow reasoning of evolutionary biologists.  This entry counts as the 600th in the “Dumb Ideas” category.  It would take a long time to read the other 599 examples reported here over the last 10 years – long enough to evolve resistance to toxic ideas.  Help pass on that resistance to your “non-evolved brethren” (i.e., everyone).

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