November 23, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Struggling to Make Evolutionary Sense

Evolutionists love to quote Dobzhansky, who said, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”  But when they go about explaining biological observations, the sense and light seem hard to come by.

  1. Biodiversity:  The subject of the emergence of diverse forms of living things seems tailor made for a Darwinian explanation.  Why, then, 150 years after the Origin of Species, did Science Daily write a piece called, “The Puzzle of Biological Diversity”?  The opening paragraph seems to contradict long-held ideas: “Biologists have long thought that interactions between plants and pollinating insects hasten evolutionary changes and promote biological diversity,” it said.  “However, new findings show that some interactions between plants and pollinators are less likely to increase diversity than previously thought, and in some instances, reduce it.
        The findings come from studies of specialized moths that pollinate the Joshua tree.  Researchers found, contrary to expectations, “no evidence that local populations of moths adapt to local populations of Joshua trees.”  One of the researchers boasted that the findings fit his theory, but it’s hard to confirm a theory that can explain opposite outcomes: “But different interactions can have very different effects — some increase diversity, some don’t increase diversity at all, and some can even reduce diversity.”  If this represents a law of evolution, it resembles the Stuff Happens Law.
  2. Arms race:  The metaphor of an “evolutionary arms race” is popular among evolutionists.  According to this projection theme, one organism attacks another, causing it to evolve defenses, making the attacker evolve attacks, leading to more defensive evolution, and on and on.  Science Daily claims this theme has been verified in the case of a new model system, a mustard plant and a fly.  The article begins by claiming that this system “promises to answer many long-standing questions surrounding the evolutionary arms race between plant-eating insects and their host plants” – raising two questions immediately: (1) why haven’t long-standing questions about this been answered after 150 years of Darwinian theory, and (2) when will the promised answers arrive?
        Noah Whiteman at the University of Arizona bypassed the usual model plant Arabidopsis thaliana for one that he could watch in real time as an insect attacked it.  Genetically tractable systems are “holy grails of any serious science that aim to unravel biological mechanisms down to the level of genes and proteins and signaling molecules.”  This statement suggests that few such systems exist for studying the evolutionary arms race phenomenon.  Whiteman did some good old fashioned field work, observing plants that were attacked by the flies, and then bringing them into his lab.  The observations seemed to indicate that the plants were responding by producing chemicals that mess up the flies’ digestive tract, but he admitted, “It’s very complicated, we don’t really know what’s going on at a molecular level.”
        Controlled experiments with knockout genes seem to support ideas that genes respond to attacks and defenses.  The picture is quite complex, though: “As often in ground-breaking research, the initial discovery stirred up a myriad of questions,” including, but not limited to:

    “…How is the leaf miner responding to the presence or absence of these toxic molecules?  Does it care?  Clearly, it does.  There is a cost for detoxifying, but what is it?
        Ecological questions are waiting to be answered as well.
        “We know that the leaf mining habit has evolved probably 25 times in insects,” Whiteman said, “mostly in beetles, butterflies, moths, some wasps and saw flies.  It’s not present in the other insect orders, but why?  How has selection shaped the ability of these insects to colonize an organism with a potent defense response?

    Clearly, for Whiteman to make sense of this in the light of evolution, he has a lot of work to do.  Incidentally, readers might ask how Arabidopsis thaliana became a model organism for study.  There’s no scientific procedure.  “There seems to be this idea that there is this big convention where people decide what becomes a model organism, when in fact it’s just individuals who decide what can be collected and what will work,” Whiteman remarked.  One wonders if generalizations from a model plant can really be applied to giant eucalyptus trees, the Venus flytrap, cacti and orchids.

  3. Protection racket:  Science Daily continued the arms-race theme with birds.  “Like gangsters running a protection racket, drongos in the Kalahari Desert act as lookouts for other birds in order to steal a cut of their food catch,” the article began.  “The behaviour … may represent a rare example of two species evolving from a parasitic to a mutualistic relationship.”  It’s hard to call this an example of evolution, though, because even if their interactions changed, their biology – their genotype and phenotype – remained the same.  And this was called a rare example of such evolution, if it is an example at all (“may represent”).
  4. Rewrite the textbooks again:  Some plants, such as cacti and grasses, use an alternative form of photosynthesis called C4.  Evolutionists thought they knew why.  But now, according to PhysOrg, “A new analysis of fossilized grass-pollen grains deposited on ancient European lake and sea bottoms 16-35 million years ago reveals that C4 grasses evolved earlier than previously thought.  This new evidence casts doubt on the widely-held belief that the rise [e.g., evolution] of this incredibly productive group of plants was driven by a large drop in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations during the Oligocene epoch.”
        In other words, if the earlier explanation made sense in the light of evolution, it no longer does.  “The idea that C4 grasses originated prior to global decreases in carbon dioxide levels requires us to reevaluate the way we think about the evolution of C4 photosynthesis,” Dr. David Nelson [U of Maryland] said.  “This new information should encourage the examination of alternate evolutionary selection pressures, such as warm temperatures or dry climates.”
  5. Size matters not:  Giving a notion a fancy name sometimes accomplishes little.  “Encephalization” is a term evolutionists invented to describe what they expected to find: increasing brain size relative to body size over time.  Suzanne Schultz and Robin Dunbar at University of Oxford decided to test if encephalization even happens.  Writing in PNAS,1 they noted that “allometric relationships between brain size and body size have been used as a proxy for evolutionary change, despite the validity of this approach being widely questioned.”  For the first time, they tried “quantitatively investigate temporal trends in brain size evolution across a divergent group of mammals” by studying 511 different living and fossil animal skeletons.
        Contrary to expectations, they found no encephalization patterns: “Encephalization trends vary across mammalian taxa, with some showing strong evidence for macroevolutionary increase in brain size and others not,” they wrote.  ; “These findings challenge the conventional assumption that encephalization is a general trend across mammalian taxa.”  Whatever pattern they found seemed related to sociality, not fitness, but even that association was weak: “This suggests that the pressure for increased encephalization is associated with some aspect of bonded sociality,” they said, but “There are still unresolved questions regarding the cognitive demands of bonded sociality and what aspects of a taxon’s ecology that made bonded sociality evolutionarily so advantageous” – that is, assuming that the weak correlation is real and indicates a cause or effect.
        But even if brain sizes did increase over time, it’s not established that evolution has made progress.  After all, Schultz and Dunbar noted, “A common analogy is drawn with computer technology; over time, size does not directly relate to functional efficacy, even though within comparable technologies it is more likely for a size/function relationship to hold (e.g., when comparing hard drive or RAM size, or dual vs. single Pentium processor speed).  Additionally, an evaluation of variability in total or relative brain size within taxa cannot address general patterns of variation in patterns of brain evolution across groups.”  In short, it’s not clear that any of the data make sense in the light of evolution.
        PhysOrg’s writeup, however, completely ignored the problems they admitted, and made it look like evolution triumphed in explaining the data.  “Over millions of years dogs have developed bigger brains than cats because highly social species of mammals need more brain power than solitary animals, according to a study by Oxford University,” it said in bold print.  That is not what the original paper communicated.
  6. Snails is snails:  A new PhD is proud of his New Zealand snail collection.  PhysOrg gave Simon Hills, a Maori native, the limelight for extracting the “secrets of evolution” from fossil and genetic data of New Zealand snails.
        But nowhere in the short article was there any information about evolution that people really care about: evidence of snails emerging from non-snails, or evolving into something else – after all, even the most hard-core creationists accept “changes over time” within kinds.  Moreover, Hills’ snails are all from a single genus.
        Surprisingly, Hills “illustrated that the origins of the modern species are around 13 million years younger then [sic] the oldest known fossil specimens,” yet the snails were still snails after more than twice the time the human brain is claimed to have emerged from chimpanzee-level apes, or a tetrapod mammal is thought to have evolved into a blue whale.
        How could a young PhD candidate confuse snail collecting with scientific explanation?  His answer revealed more emotion than philosophical rigor: “The trick with a PhD is to be excited about your topic,” he said.  “My academic record wasn’t that flash.  Then I took a paper on evolutionary biology and that was it.
  7. Leaf multitasking:  Did you know that the veins in a leaf do much more than transport fluid?  In an article on Science Daily, a doctoral student at the University of Arizona compared them to the major organ systems in your body: “It’s like the skeleton because it holds the whole leaf up and lets it capture sunlight and not get blown over in a windstorm.  It’s like the circulatory system because it’s distributing water from the roots up to all the cells within the leaf, and it’s also bringing resources from the leaf back to the rest of the plant after photosynthesis has happened.  It’s also like a nervous system because there are chemical signals that are transmitted to the leaves from other parts of the plant through the liquid in the veins,” he said.
        For a student in the department of evolutionary biology, Blonder had surprisingly little to say about evolution (i.e., nothing).  Instead, he was studying how leaves achieve the optimum tradeoffs in trying to fulfill these functions simultaneously in different environments.  Leaf veins, for instance, provide multiple paths to each cell, and can repair alternate pathways in case of damage.  “If the city was designed well, you can still take another road to get to where you want to be,” he said, apparently oblivious to the implications for his own work.
  8. Flying snakes:  The news media have been having fun with flying snakes without discussing their evolution (e.g., Science Daily)  Like Buzz Lightyear, some snakes can fall with style, and National Geographic has the video to show it.  Did evolution shed light on this phenomenon?  “This is amazingly interesting and curious, and it’s not at all clear how it works or how it could have evolved,” a physicist from Virginia Tech said.  “I’m just trying to answer these basic questions.”  The Dobzhansky flashlight must be out of order.

When scientists can point to a law of nature that allows predictions, they can claim to stand on firm scientific ground.  Biologists envy the neat, mathematical laws of physics that permit no exceptions.  Laws in biology have been few and controversial.  Last week in Science,2 Roberta Millstein, a philosopher at UC Davis, reviewed a book that proudly announced a new, universal biological law of evolution: Biology’s First Law: The Tendency for Diversity and Complexity to Increase in Evolutionary Systems, by Daniel W. McShea and Robert N. Brandon (University of Chicago Press, 2010).  Millstein, fully conversant with the conceptual problems with scientific laws, aware of the debate over whether biological laws even exist, seemed amused by the bold claim of these two non-philosophical biologists to have found one.
    And some law: McShea and Brandon concocted a “zero-force evolution law” (ZFEL) that seems indistinguishable from random stuff happening.  They explained it by an analogy (paraphrased by Millstein):

Imagine a yard containing a number of trees, and imagine that the wind blows from each point of the compass with equal probability.  Come autumn, the result will be an increase in the dispersal of the leaves over time.  This, they suggest, is a zero-force state because there are no directional forces acting on the leaves.  Yet there is a change over time (unlike the phenomenon described by the law of inertia in physics)—the leaves that were originally clustered about the trees become more dispersed.  And if an evolutionary system is similarly in a zero-force state, it too will experience an increase in divergence over time.

Do McShea and Brandon really believe that this kind of notion is going to explain the origin of bird flight and dolphin sonar and cellular motors? (see CMI article on ATP synthase to see what evolution is up against).
    Millstein seemed almost patronizing in her attempt not to call this silly.  She took apart their terms and concepts and showed that the authors confused forces, causes, and empiricism.  “What happens, then, if (in spite of its name) the ZFEL isn’t really a zero-force law at all?  The authors’ generalization loses some of its rhetorical punch, perhaps, but punch isn’t everything,” she ended, with a grin discernible in the subtext.  If the ZFEL holds in many cases, then it’s just like seeing a forest in the trees.  If it holds for few cases, then “in each case we will have to consider whether we need to invoke special explanations for observed increases in diversity over time.”  But if one has to invoke special explanations in each case, all hopes for having discovered a scientific law are gone.
    There might be a baby somewhere in all this bath water (or, to maintain the Dobzhansky metaphor, some sense in the light of evolution): “A generalization does not have be a zero-force law, or a law at all, in order to be important, useful, and informative.”  After all, sometimes “Stuff happens” is a useful answer to a question.

1.  Suzanne Schultz and Robin Dunbar, “Encephalization is not a universal macroevolutionary phenomenon in mammals but is associated with sociality,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, published online before print November 22, 2010, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1005246107.
2.  Robert L. Millstein, “Evolution: A Law by Any Other Name Would Smell as Sweet,” Science, 19 November 2010: Vol. 330 no. 6007 pp. 1048-1049, DOI: 10.1126/science.1197366.

For you Darwin-loving anti-creationist skeptics dropping by, will you not study this entry?  Where is the evidence that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”?  Where is the light?  Where is the sense?  These 8 entries are typical of the standard fare that passes through the science news on a daily basis.  Are you proud of this stuff?  Is this what you call science?  Is this what you call Enlightenment?
    For the rest of us who have not left off common sense, this is the theory that its promoters say is so well established, so obvious, so enlightening, that to believe anything else makes one insane or wicked.  It is the theory that must be forced on all our students.  No student shall be allowed to read a warning label, or hear a short statement at the beginning of the semester for 30 seconds that perhaps there are some problems with Charlie’s big tale and there are alternatives one can read about if desired.  Try that and the wrath of the Darwin Establishment brings down fire and brimstone on you.  Incredible.
    If so many powerful people didn’t believe this stuff, it would be called a cult.  Now it has become a culture.  And like a diseased culture in a body, some strong antibiotics are needed to restore science to health.

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