If This Is Evolution, What Is Trivia?
Some science news articles appear confident about evolution, but offer little evidence except trivial change . Sometimes, they even offer evidence that contradicts their expectations. If this is evolution, what is trivia?
- Birds. Birds have strong muscles; therefore, they evolved. This cannot be the reasoning of an article on PhysOrg entitled, “Scientist cites enlarged skeletal muscles as reason birds exist.” Or could it? Stuart Newman, a professor of cell biology and anatomy at New York Medical College, decided to contradict previous evolutionists who thought bird origins had something to do with the desire to fly. Not only that, he ascribed the origin of these magnificent flying creatures to the loss of a gene. The gene, UCP1, allows brown fat to produce heat. Let’s give Dr. Newman a long rope to explain his idea:
Lose a gene, gain a wing. PhysOrg offered no criticism of this radically different evolutionary notion.
Antibiotic resistance. The ability of some bacteria to resist drugs is not only a serious health concern, it is a shrine to Darwin –often called a prime example of evolution in action. Three evolutionists from America and England discussed this topic in PNAS. They had some sharp criticism of doctors who tell their patients to use up the bottle of antibiotics even after they are well, or to hospitals that try to eliminate all germs. The practice of radical pathogen cure “maximizes the evolutionary advantage of any resistant pathogens that are present,” they warned. “It could promote the very evolution it is intended to retard.”
So far, though, we only have resistant pathogens that are already present. How did those arise? On this point, the authors were less straightforward: “Intuition is unreliable even in simple evolutionary contexts; in a social milieu where in-host competition can radically alter the fitness costs and benefits of resistance, expert opinion will be insufficient,” they said. No evidence for new genetic information causing resistance was mentioned, at least in the abstract. Finding that is apparently someone else’s job. “An evidence-based approach to resistance management is required.”
- Yeast colonies: New Scientist printed a dramatic headline, “Lab yeast make evolutionary leap to multicellularity.” This challenge to Darwinian evolution turned out to be a cinch, it went on to claim: “In just a few weeks single-celled yeast have evolved into a multicellular organism, complete with division of labour between cells,” reporter Bob Holmes announced. “This suggests that the evolutionary leap to multicellularity may be a surprisingly small hurdle.”
Trouble is, other evolutionists aren’t buying it. For one thing, William Ratcliff and colleagues at the University of Minnesota “set out to evolve multicellularity” in yeast cells by centrifuging them for 60 days – hardly a natural situation. He kept artificially selecting the ones at the bottom. After 350 generations, he found some of the remaining ones that weren’t seasick had clumped together in colonies he said resembled snowflakes. They stayed connected even after cell division. “The key step in the evolution of multicellularity is a shift in the level of selection from unicells to groups,” Ratcliff claimed. “Once that occurs, you can consider the clumps to be primitive multicellular organisms.”
Holmes tried to be charitable about this claim. “In some ways, the snowflakes do behave as if they are multicellular,” he granted. He even avoided laughing at the thought that suicide showed division of labor: “Snowflake lineages exposed to different evolutionary pressures evolved different levels of cell death.” In the end, though, the skeptics seem to have put forth a strong rejoinder: “Sceptics, however, point out that many yeast strains naturally form colonies, and that their ancestors were multicellular tens or hundreds of millions of years ago. As a result, they may have retained some evolved mechanisms for cell adhesion and programmed cell death, effectively stacking the deck in favour of Ratcliff’s experiment.” Another skeptic chided, “I don’t think if you took something that had never been multicellular you would get it so quickly.” None of them explained how the ancient ancestors evolved multicellurity in the first place.
Ratcliff wants next to try his experiment on an alga. Readers of Holmes’ story might be surprised that nobody ever thought of testing this before. He ended, “Both approaches offer an unprecedented opportunity to bring experimental rigour to the study of one of the most important leaps in our distant evolutionary past.”
- Enzymes: The evolutionary claims in a Science Daily are breathtaking: scientists at Max Planck Institute found out how evolution produced a new enzyme in plants with a new function. A protein that lost 120 amino acids in a presumed genetic mutation “millions of years ago” took on a new function via gene duplication, the production of mustard oil glucosides. A closer inspection shows this to have only produced a foul taste in insect larvae, offering some defense. Yet this, we are told, is typical of how “new phenotypes arise from the variety of genetic information encoded and stored in DNA.” Thanks to Darwinian gradualism, “It is another example of how small changes can lead to the development of new weapons in the evolutionary arms race between plants and herbivores.”
The evolutionists did not find it strange that the insect larvae didn’t evolve a counterattack in all those millions of years, considering that Monarch butterflies munch on poisonous milkweed, clown fish swim amidst poisonous sea anemones, and sea slugs are able to imbibe nematocysts (poison darts from jellyfish) and mount them, unexploded, on their backs. After all, the article gave the other side plenty of time: “In the course of evolution this probably happened during the origin of the mustard family.”
Long live E. coli: The longest-running experiment on evolution has little to show for it. Live Science highlighted Richard Lenski’s work keeping 52,000 generations of E. coli growing in test tubes. Conditions should have been ideal for watching evolutionary progress. What kinds of evolutionary novelty turned up? Was “survival of the fittest” confirmed? No; survival of the unfit, as measured by growth rate, was the rule: “They allowed all of the thawed bacteria to reproduce for 883 generations to see again who would win — the result was usually the same. The tortoise, less fit in the short term, still beat the hare.”
The biggest claim was that some of the germs evolved the ability to digest citrate, “a talent that its ancestor did not have.” Biochemist Dr. Michael Behe examined this claim years ago and determined that the bacteria already had the ability to digest citrate, but lacked a way to get it into the cell. That kind of change fits within the “Edge of Evolution” Behe described in his book of that name – a combination of mutations that would permit a trait to be expressed, especially under heavy selection pressure (see Evolution News). Another claim was that some of the bugs evolved resistance to drying out. The bottom line, though, is that after thousands of generations, they were still the same species, E. coli, and would probably revert to the wild type without the human selection pressure imposed on them.
- Cliff-dwelling humans: Beverly Strassman [University of Michigan] went looking for evolution among some fellow human beings in the Dogon of Mali, who live in cliffs. She approached her subjects as examples of other “animals that breed cooperatively,” and expected to find support for kin selection as the origin of altruism. Alas, she found that her fellow apes refused to get into simple Darwinian pigeonholes. In her PNAS paper “Cooperation and competition in a cliff-dwelling people,” she found they seemed just as prone to human foibles as the rest of us:
So much for evolution of altruism from field data. “The idea of cooperative breeding taken from animal studies is a poor fit to the complexity and diversity of kin interactions in humans,” she concluded.
- Nice humans: Ditto for Joan Silk and Bailey House from UCLA, who went looking for “Evolutionary foundations of human prosocial sentiments.” Treating their fellow human beings as evolved apes, they were surprised at what seems obvious to anyone who has been to the zoo: humans care for one another like no other primates. Writing in PNAS, they said:
That's why people will send money to feed starving children halfway around the world, or will rush to the aid of a stranger. This was awkward for evolutionists to explain: “This suggests that there may be fundamental differences in the social preferences that motivate altruism across the primate order, and there is currently considerable interest in how we came to be such unusual apes.” To explain this, they had to kick the Darwin can down the road: “Differences in performance across species and differences in performance across tasks are not yet fully understood and raise new questions for further study,” they concluded. How long, incidentally, have evolutionists been kicking this can?
Sometimes the evidence shows no evolution at all. Two papers in Current Biology found that the active pores (stomata) in plant leaves have been pretty much the same as far back in the fossil record as when they first appeared. Chater et al. wrote a paper titled, “Regulatory Mechanism Controlling Stomatal Behavior Conserved across 400 Million Years of Land Plant Evolution.”1 They said, “Our analyses indicate that core regulatory components involved in guard cell ABA signaling of flowering plants are operational in mosses and likely originated in the last common ancestor of these lineages more than 400 million years ago, prior to the evolution of ferns.” In a similar vein, Ruszala et al. published, “Land Plants Acquired Active Stomatal Control Early in Their Evolutionary History.”2 They upped the ante, saying, “we suggest that the critical evolutionary development is represented by the innovation of stomata themselves and that physiologically active stomatal control originated at least as far back as the emergence of the lycophytes (circa 420 million years ago).”
1. Chater et al., “Regulatory Mechanism Controlling Stomatal Behavior Conserved across 400 Million Years of Land Plant Evolution,” Current Biology, Volume 21, Issue 12, 21 June 2011, Pages 1025-1029, doi:10.1016/j.cub.2011.04.032.
2. Ruszala et al., “Land Plants Acquired Active Stomatal Control Early in Their Evolutionary History,” Current Biology, Volume 21, Issue 12, 21 June 2011, Pages 1030-1035, doi:10.1016/j.cub.2011.04.044.