Playing Fast and Loose with Evolution
The word evolution gets used and misused often. Strictly speaking, neo-Darwinian evolution demands that mutations and natural selection operate with no foresight or oversight, no purpose or direction, no impetus toward a desired outcome. In actual practice, scientists and reporters play fast and loose with the term, making it into a designer substitute.
Here are some quick samples of how the word evolution gets used and misused in the popular press:
- Yeast: Science Daily spoke of an “evolutionary force that led to multicellularity,” but the data referred only to living yeast cells that seem to operate better in clumps than alone.
- Rats: PhysOrg spoke of rats that “have evolved liver enzymes to metabolize large amounts” of plant toxins.
- Giant insects: National Geographic puzzled over how insects grew so large during the Carboniferous. It wasn’t higher oxygen; in fact, no theory won the day, but reporter Ker Than was certain that after the giant dragonflies (as big as seagulls) had their day on the evolutionary stage, “adults would have evolved to require more oxygen” and would have died out as oxygen levels dropped.
- Mitochondria: The powerhouses of the cell that house ATP synthase are surely some of the most complex regions in any cell, but to some reporters, it’s no problem for Darwin. “They are thought to have evolved more than a billion years ago from primitive bacterium which was engulfed by an early eukaryotic cell resulting in endosymbiotic relationships between the host cell and the newly formed organelle,” Science Daily tells us. “During evolution the vast majority of the mitochondrial genetic material left the organelle and got integrated into the nucleus of the host cell.”
- Man but a worm: PhysOrg used the E-word repeatedly in a short article titled “From worm to man,“ speaking of “our distant evolutionary cousins” the flatworms, the “evolutionary origin of mammalian kidneys,” two main “branches on the evolutionary tree of life,” and the “the evolution of certain attributes” in various animals.
- Everything: In an article about whether the moon is needed to stabilize the Earth, Space.com said that wild orbital swings “could potentially affect the evolution of complex life.” Reporter Nola Redd continued the theme, saying that even without a moon, a planet “may be stable enough for life to evolve”.
- Evolutionary overdrive: National Geographic also reported a new discovery of hydrothermal vents in the North Atlantic, with “evolution in overdrive” occurring there. “It’s an example of what happens to organisms when they become isolated and evolution goes into overdrive,” said one of the discoverers.
Normally we speak of intelligently-designed automobiles going into overdrive. Replace each of the stories with design language and they make a lot more sense: a designing force for multicellularity, designed liver enzymes, adults designed to adapt to oxygen levels, designed molecular powerhouses, an Earth-moon system designed to permit life, and designed overdrive for functional adaptation. This coincides with our normal, everyday understanding of the cause and effect structure of the world. One cannot use evolution in those senses; that is nonsense. Undirected, impersonal, purposeless processes do not adapt and function. Putting the word in passive voice (“had evolved”) or infinitive (“allowing life to evolve”), or omitting the subject (“thought to have evolved” – who thought such a ridiculous thing?) are distractions.
These and many other articles in the press show that the word “evolution” has become a meaningless catch-all assumption for anything biologists cannot explain. If it exists, it evolved; if it works, it evolved; if it went up or down or sideways, it evolved. It evolved because it evolved. For the simple-minded, there’s nothing else to say. Darwin Daddy-O said it, they believe it, that settles it.