March 25, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

Evolution Goes Against Darwin

Evolutionists are coming up with new ideas far afield from Charles Darwin’s original ideas of spontaneous variation and natural selection.  The new ideas even differ from neo-Darwinism, and some of them are making other evolutionists angry.

  1. Mating of the quickest:  A new phrase, “mating between the quickest,” is supplanting survival of the fittest according to three Australian biologists who want to “expand” Darwin’s theory to account for observations of the invasive cane toad.  PhysOrg reported that their new notion of evolution does not depend on survival or reproduction.  It’s called ”spatial sorting” and it “relies on genes for speed accumulating at the increasingly fast-moving frontline.”
        The researchers from the University of Sydney hasten to explain that their ideas of evolution go beyond Darwinism.  Professor Rick Shine explained that mating between the quickest “challenges the long-held view that natural selection is the only driving force for evolution.”  He said that “For over 150 years, biologists have believed that evolutionary change is caused by only two factors: survival and reproduction,” but spatial sorting does not.  The article ended,

    Unlike natural selection – a process first described by Charles Darwin, stating that traits which help an organism survive and reproduce will build up over time – spatial sorting does not require an animal’s survival or reproduction to be increased by it being quicker.  The new process can only work within the limits set by natural selection, but may be an important cause of evolutionary change in species that are expanding their ranges into new territory.

  2. Survival of the slowest:  The “longest-running evolutionary experiment in the world” has been going on at Michigan State.  Since 1988, 50,000 generations of bacteria have been monitored for evolutionary change by Richard Lenski’s team, reported PhysOrg.  One of the subsets of the experiment uncovered a surprise: “bacteria that evolve slowly are more likely to survive in the long term than those evolving more quickly.”  This might be called the hare-and-tortoise theory of evolution:

    In the study, the researchers investigated four genetically distinct clones of Escherichia coli clones, and sampled them periodically to look for the presence of five specific beneficial mutations.
        They discovered that after 500 generations all lineages had acquired beneficial mutations but two had significantly more than the others, which should suggest they were more likely to survive in the long-term than the other line of bacteria.  What they found instead was that after 1,500 generations the other two lineages had gone on to dominate.

    This seems to say that accumulating beneficial mutations does not help either fitness or survival – contrary to neo-Darwinian theory.  Tim Cooper compared the fast-evolving clones to the fabled hare: “the hare would win a 100 meter race, but the tortoise might win a marathon.”  In long-term evolution, though, organisms have to survive for the long haul.
        Another PhysOrg entry on this story emphasized the change from classical Darwinism: “Some outcomes of the evolutionary race buck conventional wisdom,” the headline announced; “In some cases, less fit organisms may out-survive their in-shape counterparts, according to a study reported in the March 18 issue of Science.1  One of the team members commented on how this long-term evolutionary experiment continues to “yield surprises,” framing the unexpected result as an insight into the “richness and complexity of evolution.”
        It should be noted that all the ending bacteria were still members of the same species, E. coli.  And beneficial mutations are in the eye of the human beholder.  “They discovered that one of the genes in which beneficial mutations were found at the 500 generation mark was topA, a gene involved in winding DNA into a twisted band, which makes it easier for genes to be turned on and off.”  Sometimes what appears beneficial in one context can have bad consequences in other parts.

  3. War of the fitness definitions:  The concept of “inclusive fitness” or “kin selection” was defended in a war of words in this week’s Nature,2 with no less than five letters to the editor arguing against a paper by Martin Nowak, Corina Tarnita and Edward O. Wilson last August3 that claimed the concept should be abandoned.  In showing the limitations of inclusive fitness, they tried to keep the old Darwin story in the lead: “We argue that standard natural selection theory in the context of precise models of population structure represents a simpler and superior approach, allows the evaluation of multiple competing hypotheses, and provides an exact framework for interpreting empirical observations.”
        The defenders would have none of this.  “Clearly kin selection is a strong, vibrant theory that is the basis for understanding how social behaviour has evolved,” some said; others attacked the experiments or reasoning in the Nowak et al paper.  Kin selectionists are the real Darwin defenders, a letter by Ferriere and Monod claimed:4 

    By opposing ‘standard selection theory’ and ‘inclusive fitness theory’, we believe that Nowak et al. give the incorrect (and potentially dangerous) impression that evolutionary thinking has branched out into conflicting and apparently incompatible directions,”  In fact, there is only one paradigm: natural selection driven by interactions, interactions of all kinds and at all levels.  Inclusive fitness has been a powerful force in the development of this paradigm and is likely to have a continued role in the evolutionary theory of behaviour interactions.

    On his blog, kin selection defender Jerry Coyne really ramped up the rhetoric:

    The only reason this paper was published is because it has two big-name authors, Nowak and Wilson, hailing from Mother Harvard.  That, and the fact that such a contrarian paper, flying in the face of accepted evolutionary theory, was bound to cause controversy.  Well, Nature got its controversy but lost its intellectual integrity, becoming something of a scientific National Enquirer.  Oh, and boo to the Templeton Foundation, who funded the whole Nowak et al. mess and highlighted the paper on their website.
        The lesson: if you’re a famous biologist you can get away with publishing dreck.  So much for our objective search for truth—a search that’s not supposed to depend on authors’ fame and authority.

    Nowak, Tarnita and Wilson remained adamant in their response.  “Inclusive fitness theory is neither useful nor necessary to explain the evolution of eusociality or other phenomena,” they said.5  “It is time for the field of social evolution to move beyond the limitations of inclusive fitness theory.”  Denyse O’Leary at Uncommon Descent had some fun with this fight; Jonathan M. also took the opportunity on Uncommon Descent to examine the weaknesses of peer review.  Science Daily, notably, took the side of the kin selectionists against the Harvard evolutionists.

  4. Survival of the weakest:  (Warning: joke.)  Do only the weak survive?  According to Science Daily, when talking about abalone shells, researchers at Carnegie Mellon “discovered that an ideal amount of weak bonds actually make for an overall stronger material that can withstand more stress.”
        As you can see, this is not a story about evolutionary theory, but about the quest to mimic biology in creating flexible materials.  Still, the headline illustrates the pervasiveness of evolutionary lingo.  It was actually a story about intelligent design: “In short, a little bit of weakness gives a material better mechanical properties.  Nature knows this trick.”
  5. Survival of the unfit: New 03/27/2011:  Research by Britons reported on PhysOrg casts doubt on “survival of the fittest.”  The article said, “Conventional wisdom has it that for any given niche there should be a best species, the fittest, that will eventually dominate to exclude all others.”
        That’s conventional Darwinism, but they found unexpected diversity after watching multiple generations of bacteria.  If food is plentiful, and mutations affect both fit and unfit equally, the unfit don’t get squeezed out by the fit.  They concluded there must be “a new principle [of evolution], one in which both the fit and the unfit coexist indefinitely.”  Apparently they measured fitness in terms of the ability to use food well.  If that is the criterion, then maybe the obese are fit in evolutionary terms.

Meanwhile, some scientists are raising doubts about the ability of evolutionary theory to explain biological data.  In a new paper in Science,6 Wake, Wake and Specht faced the problem of convergent evolution (homoplasy), saying, “Understanding the diversification of phenotypes through time—“descent with modification”—has been the focus of evolutionary biology for 150 years.  If, contrary to expectations, similarity evolves in unrelated taxa, researchers are guided to uncover the genetic and developmental mechanisms responsible,” they said, hinting that standard evolutionary theory is faced with serious anomalies to its explanatory framework.
    The authors acknowledged, “Phenotypes and taxa are expected to diverge as evolution proceeds.”  However, this is often not the case.  It is not enough, they argued, to notice a pattern of similarity and say it evolved by homoplasy (the “diametric opposite of homology”.  Scientists need to explain more: What are the processes?  What are the mechanisms?  These need to be the targets of research.  Although the authors accept and defend the concept of convergent evolution, their acknowledgement that the facts contradict expectations opens doors to non-Darwinian explanations.  Casey Luskin at the Discovery Institute examined the implications of this paper.

1.  Woods…Cooper…Lenski et al, “Second-Order Selection for Evolvability in a Large Escherichia coli Population,” Science, 18 March 2011: Vol. 331 no. 6023 pp. 1433-1436, DOI: 10.1126/science.1198914.
2.  Nature, 25 March 2011.
3.  Nowak, Tarnita and Wilson, “The evolution of eusociality,” Nature 466 (26 August 2010), pp. 1057�1062, doi:10.1038/nature09205.
4.  Brief communication arising: Regis Ferriere and Richard E. Monod, “Inclusive fitness in evolution,” Nature 471 (24 March 2011), pp. E6�E8, doi:10.1038/nature09834.
5.  Brief communication arising: Martin A. Nowak, Corina E. Tarnita, and Edward O. Wilson, “Nowak et al. reply,” Nature 471 (24 March 2011), pp. E9�E10, doi:10.1038/nature09836.
6.  David Wake, Marvalee Wake and Chelsea Specht, “Homoplasy: From Detecting Pattern to Determining Process and Mechanism of Evolution,” Science, 25 February 2011: Vol. 331 no. 6020 pp. 1032-1035, DOI: 10.1126/science.1188545.

Despite Jerry Coyne’s posturing, evolution is not an objective search for truth.  It is a way of looking at the world with a foregone conclusion (no God, no Creator, nature makes itself), and then making up stories to fit that belief.  This becomes clear when upstarts show up from time to time trying to make up new sub-plots for the fiction and promptly get slapped down by the mandarins.  It’s fun when the mandarins (Coyne and Wilson) slap each other.

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