Weird Evolution Tales
Evolutionary theory leads to some fantastic tales. Since evolution is often presumed to be a fact that explains everything in biology, and is itself not subject to testing or doubt, everything in biology must be viewed through an evolutionary lens. This hard-core stance on evolution often leads to assertions and explanations that appear contrived, if not preposterous, to Darwin doubters. Here are some recent examples of weird evolution stories that made it past the logic inspectors simply because evolution is unquestioned.
1. The incredible shrinking brain:
On the BBC News, readers were told, “Old age…has evolved to help meet the demands of raising smarter babies.” As if to pre-empt puzzled looks and questions by some readers, the article added, “And it is not such a stretch, Dr [Chet] Sherwood [George Washington U] suggests, to conclude that grandparents’ extended lives are in an evolutionary sense there to relieve mothers from being solely responsible for raising their big-brained, energetically costly infants.” The Scientist also bought this idea uncritically.
2. The early brain gets the IQ:
Live Science told its readers, “It took at least 3.5 billion years for intelligent life to evolve on Earth, and the only reason we’re able to contemplate the likelihood of life today is that its evolution happened to get started early.”
3. The arctic brain gets the eye size:
Judith Burns at the BBC News told readers, “Dark winters ‘led to bigger human brains and eyeballs’.” A team publishing in the Royal Society Biology Letters “found a positive relationship between absolute latitude and both eye socket size and cranial capacity.” But don’t think that means Eskimos make better philosophers: “The Oxford University team said bigger brains did not make people smarter.” It just means the bigger eyes need more visual neurons; “It’s just they need bigger eyes and brains to be able to see well where they live.”
Wasn’t cranial capacity, though, the sine qua non of human evolution? “The work indicates that humans are subject to the same evolutionary trends that give relatively large eyes to birds that sing first during the dawn chorus, or species such as owls that forage at night.”
Astonishing as it may seem, these adaptations occurred rapidly in the tens of thousands of years since humans first migrated into the arctic; Robin Dunbar commented, “they seem to have adapted their visual systems surprisingly rapidly to the cloudy skies, dull weather and long winters we experience at these latitudes.” New Scientist and the BBC News gave this theory a wink and an approving smile. But did the big-eyed people evolve a resistance to snow blindness?
4. From hydrogen to charity:
You only give to charities across the world because evolution figured out it’s less costly to be nice to every person you meet, even if you will never see them, than to risk offending someone you might see again. This is the gist of a story on PhysOrg about how generosity evolved. Tooby and Cosmides had to fit this into evolution because, obviously, “one of the outstanding problems in the behavioral sciences was why natural selection had not weeded out this pleasing but apparently self-handicapping behavioral tendency” to be nice to strangers; “If traditional theories in these fields are true, such behaviors should have been weeded out long ago by evolution or by self-interest,” the article noticed.
5. How irreducibly complex blood clotting evolved:
The blood clotting cascade was one of the prime examples of irreducible complexity that Michael Behe used in his intelligent-design treatise, Darwin’s Black Box. PhysOrg, by contrast, contends that “Evolution provides clue to blood clotting.” One of the many proteins involved in clotting, called VWF, is essential. J. Evan Sadler was aware that “The challenge for the cell is how to build this massive protein without clogging the machinery,” so he “looked to evolution” for “evolutionary clues” about its origin. He found similarities in key amino acids across species, and then found what happens when he mutated them: they cease functioning. How this answered Behe’s argument or showed evolution instead of design was not clarified.
6. Bifocal fish:
Some fish in mangrove swamps need to see above and below the water surface simultaneously. They have eyes adapted to this need, with parts of the retina sensing light coming from below water sensitive to yellows, and parts sensing light above water more sensitive to blues. According to PhysOrg, a study at University of British Columbia attributed this adaptation to new functions emerging out of duplicated genes: it “illuminates how gene duplication can lead to innovation – in this case each half of the eye gets its own duplicate, tailored to its particular needs,” was the conclusion. How this represents mutation or innovation instead of tuning existing function was not illuminated.
7. Convergent butterflies:
According to PhysOrg, “Butterfly study sheds light on convergent evolution.” But the study by UC Irvine on how similar red patterns can be found on unrelated butterflies does not so much confirm convergent evolution (a term invented after the fact to explain common features that defy evolutionary theory), as much as to describe how innate genetic mechanisms (primarily gene expression) allow for common variations within common environments. The butterflies are still butterflies. The authors did not attempt to explain metamorphosis by evolution (see 07/26/2011).
Robert Reed, evolutionary biologist at UC Irvine, said “Out of the tens of thousands in a typical genome, it seems that only a handful tend to drive major evolutionary change over and over again.” Those must be super-powerful genes. Reed had more to say about that: “Biologists have been asking themselves, ‘Are there really so few genes that govern evolution?’” Reed said. “This is a beautiful example of how a single gene can control the evolution of complex patterns in nature. Now we want to understand why: What is it about this one gene in particular that makes it so good at driving rapid evolution?”
Another evolutionist quoted by Science Daily was ecstatic: “Now this group has discovered that a single gene underlies one of the most spectacular evolutionary radiations in nature! Perhaps the genetic basis for diversity will turn out to be far more simple than we expected.” Reducing evolution to single genes, though, puts more creative responsibility on them, and raises new questions: how did a gene with such enormous innovative potential evolve in the first place?
8. Of panda thumbs and mole investments:
Like pandas, moles have extra “thumbs” that grow out of the sesamoid bone. The BBC News announced, “Mystery of mole's second thumb solved.” Live Science merely claimed that the adaptation helps the animal, but then offered a composite explanation (including Lamarckism) for why other mole species don’t have the extra appendage: they “never developed the need to tunnel underground to the same extent, so never fully developed the outer thumb, or environmental changes no longer required them to develop it, so they stopped investing extra energy into growing them, the researchers say.” Jennifer Carpenter at the BBC News, though, was sure Darwin should take the credit for the five-finger salute, when other numbers of digits are possible: “But evolution seems to have favoured the five-fingered.”
9. On sex in insects:
A butterfly was found with both male and female traits [Earthweek]. Some ant species are sexual, some are asexual. Is there a law of nature that explains these differences? The Scientist honored a paper on this as a “tour de force of both field work and lab work” because it can “offer insight into a long standing question in evolutionary biology about what forces cause species to choose sex over asexual reproduction and vice versa,” according to an evolutionary biologist.
The idea is that asexuality should be favored by evolution because it is less costly. When looking at lineages of ants, though, the evolutionary explanation becomes more convoluted: “Tracking differences in other, slowly mutating genes to retrace the evolutionary history of the ants, the team confirmed that the common ancestor of the group probably reproduced sexually, and that asexuality had evolved multiple times independently.” How can we check out this idea? “If you come back in 5 million or 10 million years, there’s a good chance the asexual lineages go extinct, but the sexual lineages are still existing.” Any volunteers?
10. Evolutionists promote junk DNA to chief evolver:
Bold type tells readers of PhysOrg, “Scientists present evidence for groundbreaking evolution theory,” as if Darwin didn’t break enough ground. “The popular belief among scientists that certain sequences of DNA are relatively unimportant in the evolutionary process has been turned on its head by two Murdoch University researchers.” The dramatic proposal by Oliver and Greene is that “jumping genes are actually driving the evolutionary process in some species.”
So sure are they that differences between apes and humans can be explained by this idea, “it’s very hard to see how primates and humans could have evolved in the way they have, without the intervention of jumping genes.” It appeared necessary to rescue standard evolution theory from the evidence, so Oliver and Greene “further developed their theory into four modes that help shed light on why evolution sometimes occurs in fits and starts, sometimes gradually and sometimes hardly at all. Therefore, their jumping gene theory helps to explain a number of mysteries in biology, including why species suddenly appear in the fossil record, why some groups of organisms are species-rich and others are species-poor.” But can jumping genes generate a trilobite all at once? Not only that, they can solve multiple creationist arguments in a single blow:
“Lineages with active jumping genes or large uniform populations of them spawn new species readily because they possess a greater ability to evolve, diversify and survive. An example of this is bats,” said Mr Oliver.
“But species which are deficient in jumping genes or with inactive jumping genes tend to risk extinction because they lack the capacity to adapt, change and diversify. The so-called ‘living fossils’ like the fish coelacanth and the reptile tuatara are good examples.
“It also helps to explain why some species change little over millions of years like these living fossils. And why almost all species do not eliminate this junk DNA from their genomes.”
11. Origin of cancer species:
A new view of cancer is evolving in evolutionary minds: that it represents a new parasitic species. PhysOrg advertised the position by Peter Duesberg at UC Berkeley: “Duesberg and UC Berkeley colleagues describe their theory that carcinogenesis – the generation of cancer – is just another form of speciation, the evolution of new species.” The ghost of Julian Huxley got a cameo appearance on stage.
12. Lego evolution:
If individual mutations present a problem for evolutionary theory, maybe more is better. PhysOrg presented a view of “modular evolution” that allows Darwin to assemble innovations with pluggable parts. “Evolution seems to use the existing signaling pathways almost like a modular construction system,” the article explained, describing the work of Xiaoyue Wang on roundworms. He sees cancer as a useful Lego block: “ don’t believe that what we have discovered in our study of nematodes is an unusual exception,” Wang said. “Similar processes are known to lead to cancer development in humans. But likewise, they can initiate changes that can become subject to natural selection and eventually be propagated in the course of evolution.’”
In each of these articles, evolution was taken for granted as the catch-all explanation for anything and everything. No Darwin skeptics were quoted to challenge the evolutionary stories.
For an encore, consider an entry on Wired News (or should that be Weird?) that “Larger Brains May Have Evolved Due to Sports, Not Smarts.” Such a claim contradicts 150 years of evolutionary claims about the origin of human intelligence. The study compared brain sizes across species and correlated it with prowess in physical abilities. “While their data seemed to hold true for many mammals, it seemed to break down once humans were thrown into the mix,” reporter Brian Mossop admitted, indicating that data to support his headline was futureware: “In other words, comparing humans to other non-primate species may be skipping too many evolutionary steps, so Raichlen said his team are [sic] changing their strategy for the future, to see whether these evolutionary connections are still at work within humans.” To top it off, they could not provide a mechanism that would explain it: “Our paper makes some suggestions about how this might work on an evolutionary time scale,” [David] Raichlen [U of Arizona] said, “but I think there’s still a ton of work to do to figure out the mechanisms.”
Paradigms can be stifling things. They prevent scientists from thinking outside the box. One can imagine a creationist paradigm ruling biology that might similarly stifle thinking outside its box. The solution is not boxes, but open doors. Open the doors and windows and let the fresh air of lively debate enter. Evolutionists and creationists need each other to avoid intellectual laziness. Even a true position is sharpened by challenge, so long as the challenge is evidence-based and honest.
The Darwin box is a cylindrical echo chamber, with no openings for non-evolutionary paradigms – not even vent holes. The inhabitants don’t notice the increasing stench inside, because they have gotten used to it. Evolutionists seeking understanding in this arena are like the proverbial moron placed into a round room, told there is a penny in the corner. Ever learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth, they pride themselves on the energy spent in their endless quest. Until academia opens its doors to serious challenge from outside its Darwin lockbox, journals and reporters will continue to give scientific explanation the runaround with circular arguments, taking victory laps in a stadium with no contest.