May 13, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

Weird Evolution Tricks

Evolution is a strange theory; it goes forwards, backwards, sideways and nowhere, fast or slow, up or down, inside out and outside in.  Here are some examples that contradict the slow, gradual picture of progress that was so popular in Victorian England.

  1. Re-using lost genes:  Scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology are claiming that evolution dug into an old bag of tricks and pulled out something lost 200 years ago.  “Ever since Charles Darwin proposed his theory of evolution in 1859, scientists have wondered whether evolutionary adaptations can be reversed,” the press release from MIT News said.  Examples have been the re-evolution of wings in insects (see 05/28/2003).
        Using a computational model, Jeff Gore at the university decided that evolution can reverse itself, but only if fewer than four mutations were involved.  He studied bacteria that achieved resistance to an antibiotic named cefotaxime.  It took five mutations to confer resistance; there were 120 ways to get all five, but only 18 could actually occur, he found.
        The article did not get back to the question of how insects could re-evolve wings – a reversal that would seem to involve many more than four mutations.  It also repeated the discredited idea that the human appendix is no longer needed.
  2. Going nowhere:  New Scientist announced in a bold headline, “Horsetail fossil tells tale of plant evolution.”  But when the reader looks for said evolution, there is none to be found except a tale indeed.  Alan Channing [Cardiff U] found a fossilized horsetail that must have been preserved in a hot spring environment.  It looks modern: “Though a new species, the fossilised plant is quite similar to some horsetails living today with a single upright evergreen shaft,” the article confessed.  While admitted that horsetails have had a “contested evolutionary history” that Channing’s work now “clears up,” the article went on to say that “The findings suggest horsetails experienced only modest innovations in their long evolutionary history.”
        Innovations?  The article presented no evidence of ancestors of horsetails.  Worse, Channing’s study pushes the origin of modern-looking horsetails back another 14 million years, to 150 million years before the present.  The fossil preserved “not only stems but also leaf sheaths, roots and reproductive structures.”  It’s as if this plant popped into existence 150 million years ago and never dreamt up any new innovations all the way to the present except, if anything, the older ones were bigger and better: “Today’s horsetail plants are living fossils, the only surviving members of the class Equisetopsida, the article ended.  “For more than a 100 million years, Equisetopsida plants dominated the understory of the late Mesozoic period forests, stretching up to 30 metres high.
  3. Evolution in reverse:  PhysOrg tells us that cicada-like insects called treehoppers cast aside their front wings 200 million years ago, only to call them up into service as headgear.  “That’s probably shocking news if you are an entomologist, and challenges some very basic ideas about what makes an insect an insect, the researchers said.”
        Strange things happen in evolution.  “But then, some 50 million years ago, something strange happened to the cicada-like treehoppers: they once again sprouted wing-like structures from the top of the first segment of the thorax.”  But they didn’t flap: “Some of these wildly divergent extrusions resemble thorns, others look like antlers, and still others like aggressive ants or animal droppings, creating one of Nature’s most exotic menageries.”  It wasn’t clear if the capitalized Nature referred to the outdoors or the journal Nature, where the study made the cover story.1 
        What does this mean for evolutionary theory?  “Evolution is usually described as linear, but these modified wings suggested the process had come full circle.”  Turning evolution into a personified inventor, French biologist Benjamin Prud’homme said, “This extra pair of wings was not needed for flight, but nor did it prevent it.  So it became raw material for evolution to play with.”  A co-author said that the study shows “how development abilities can be lost or silenced over millions of years, only to be redeployed to contribute to the evolution of a complex and beautiful appendage.”  The abstract of the Nature paper remarked, “This innovation in the insect body plan is an unprecedented situation in 250 Myr of insect evolution.”  The paper claimed this required no new genetic information: “We submit that morphological innovations can arise from the deployment of existing but silenced developmental potentials, therefore requiring not so much the evolution of new genetic material but instead the expression of these potentials.”
  4. Evolution in hiding:  Biologists who study fungi have found an embarrassing surprise: according to PhysOrg, “a hitherto unknown type of fungi which has fundamentally expanded the scientific understanding of this group of organisms.”  A British team has uncovered a whole new group of fungi which they named cryptomycota – hidden fungi.

    Dr Tom Richards, from the University of Exeter’s Biosciences department and the Natural History Museum London, said: “This study has been very surprising – not least because the original sample came from the nearby pond.  Fungi have been well studied for 150 years and it was thought we had a good understanding of the major evolutionary groups, but these findings have changed that radically.
        “Current understanding of fungal diversity turns out to be only half the story – we’ve discovered this diverse and deep evolutionary branch in fungi that has remained hidden all this time.

    Cryptomycota apparently lack a rigid cell wall.  What does this mean?  The article referred to the fungus as either an “intermediate state” or a “living fossil,” but admitted that it must be successful: “Despite lacking the tough cell wall, they seem still to be very successful in the environment because of their extensive diversity and cosmopolitan distribution.”  The discovery also points out that biologists may be oblivious to large segments of the living world: “Until recent years, researchers investigating microbial diversity have sampled by growing microbes in lab cultures, but now it seems that the vast majority of life forms are never captured using these methods – meaning most of the evolutionary complexity of life remains unsampled.

  5. Evolution by loss:  A lizard in Cambodia has no legs or eyes.  The BBC News has a picture of what looks like an earthworm, but is a “legless lizard” that has also lost its eyes.  Uncommon Descent teased about “Evolution as loss of function.”
  6. Unnatural selection:  What would you call “unnatural selection”?  Would it be synonymous with intelligent design?  Not according to Michael Le Page at New Scientist, who has been writing a series about how humans are harming the environment with their pesticides, hunting, climate change, pollution, diseases, and shuffling of invasive species.  He left begging the question of whether humans were naturally selected to do this.

1.  Prud’homme et al, “Body plan innovation in treehoppers through the evolution of an extra wing-like appendage,” Nature Volume: 473 (05 May 2011), pp. 83�86, doi:10.1038/nature09977.

By making evolution mean anything, they make it mean everything – and therefore nothing.  By creating an illusion of progress, evolutionists have created the perfect conspiracy: a way to snow the public under the banner of science, using the Stuff Happens Law (SHL).  Philosophers may realize that “stuff happens” amounts to a failure of scientific explanation, but by calling it something more sophisticated – evolution – evolutionists can tinker with it in countless ways.  Being inherently flexible, the Stuff Happens Law lends itself to endless corollaries that can be couched in Darwinian jargon.

  • Strange stuff happens (evolutionary reversal)
  • Stuff happens at any speed (evolutionary stasis or radiation)
  • Stuff happens by surprise (evolutionary innovation)
  • Stuff re-happens (circular evolution)
  • Stuff survives happenstance (living fossils)
  • Stuff makes other stuff happen (humans affecting biology by “unnatural selection”)
    As long as creative minds inhabit evolutionary biology labs, the future looks bright for endless twists on Darwin’s tale.  Whether this amounts to science is an entirely different question.
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