More Upsets for Darwin
For every hyped-up demonstration of evolution in action the media announces with gusto, there are setbacks that often do not get the splashy headlines. Here are three recent examples.
Treehopper evolution wasn’t: Recently a “spectacular” announcement that some bugs called treehoppers had evolved a new functional appendage has been found false. “Evidence for a spectacular evolutionary novelty was recently reported,” wrote nine scientists in PLoS ONE,1 claiming that the treehopper bugs evolved their odd-looking “helmet” as new thoracic appendages. Those evolutionists, publishing in Nature,2 were not at all modest in their pronouncement: “Here we show that the treehopper (Membracidae) ‘helmet’ is actually an appendage, a wing serial homologue on the first thoracic segment. This innovation in the insect body plan is an unprecedented situation in 250 Myr of insect evolution.”
Wrong, the new team reports. It’s not a novelty, but a common and widely-distributed feature among hemiptera (true bugs) – just an invagination of tissue, not a distinct limb. The new paper not only corrects the error but criticizes the evolutionists who proposed the wrong idea, telling them basically they should have consulted the insect experts (entomologists) before hopping to a Darwin-tree conclusion. “The treehopper pronotal wing hypothesis yields examples of misinterpretation that could have been avoided through updated best practices in phenotype knowledge representation and the broader development of anatomical references,” they said.
Wish Ida known: Remember Ida, the extinct lemur that briefly made a splash in the science headlines as being a possible human ancestor? (5/19/2009, 3/03/2010). The discoverer even paid homage to Darwin by naming it Darwinius masillae, and it became the star of a TV documentary. Live Science reported this month that new evidence is casting doubt on it having anything to do with the human line. Another similar lemur fossil from Wyoming shows a grooming claw characteristic of mammals on other branches of the assumed evolutionary line of primates. “After examining the data, both with and without information about the grooming claw,” therefore, “it appeared both these ancient primates were more closely related to lemurs than to monkeys, apes and humans.”
Darwin wouldn’t like this: Biologists can’t conjure up gradualism out of the data. Charles Darwin’s theory depended on the slow accumulation of gradual changes over long periods of time. In Current Biology last month,3 Douglas Erwin tried hard to put a happy face on the ugly problem of “punctuated equilibria” that causes mismatches between molecular methods of tracing the unfolding tree of evolution, and the fossil record that shows stasis and explosive diversification. Factoring in the ad hoc method of “rate heterogeneity” (something like artist Salvador Dali’s stretchy clocks in The Persistence of Memory) still doesn’t get the data in sync.
Erwin recalled the long-standing “tension between microevolutionists and macroevolutionists” – the former looking for processes they can tweak in the lab, the latter looking at the fossils. It’s a tension that has lasted for over a century. Even though Erwin grinned like a hungry flashlight salesman that “Several recent papers now shed new light on macroevolutionary processes,” his light was lacking batteries in the body of his Dispatch.
First, the darkness: “The discrepancy between plots of the diversity of taxa through time as inferred from molecular phylogenies and those based on counts documented by the fossil record has long been troubling,” he said, “largely because molecular phylogenies appear to underestimate the frequency of extinction.” In hopes of mitigating the damage, he presented three recent papers. One team of evolutionists found additional ways to tweak their models to get a better fit, particularly with dolphins and whales. But the next subtitle states, “Punctuations Are Not Passé.” The second study, this one more extensive, covering 40 species from fish to mammals, was not so gradual: “Their analysis supports a model of rare bursts of extensive evolutionary change in a sea of shorter-term fluctuations.” At the end of the section, Erwin lists three possible explanations for this:
The bursts of evolutionary change over longer timescales remain to be explained but could reflect episodic changes in the optimal adaptive phenotype as the environment changes, as the authors suggest, the construction of new ecological environments, or the longer waiting time for significant developmental innovations.
A third paper Erwin cited showed another episodic, not gradual, record of life, this time modeling developmental changes in light of the fossil record. Try as he might to save Darwin’s face, Erwin waved his hands, smiling, while writing what sounds like evolutionary gobbledygook to save macroevolution from the evidence of sudden, explosive change:
In each of these papers [2,3,4] the results document a greater range of evolutionary processes, including great differences in origin and extinction rates in different clades through time, bursts of phenotypic change interrupting intervals of greater phenotypic quiescence, and a structuring of the developmental sources of evolutionary change.
If anyone can understand that last clause without invoking intelligent design, it would make a good project in the psychology of evolution.
1. Mikó I , Friedrich F , Yoder MJ , Hines HM , Deitz LL , et al. 2012 On Dorsal Prothoracic Appendages in Treehoppers (Hemiptera: Membracidae) and the Nature of Morphological Evidence. PLoS ONE 7(1): e30137. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0030137.
2. Prud’homme et al., “Body plan innovation in treehoppers through the evolution of an extra wing-like appendage,” Nature 473 (05 May 2011), pp. 83–86, doi:10.1038/nature09977.
3. Douglas H. Erwin, “Macroevolution: Dynamics of Diversity,” Current Biology, Volume 21, Issue 24, R1000-R1001, 20 December 2011, 10.1016/j.cub.2011.11.007.
What do we have here? (1) Treehoppers are out as evidence for evolution. (2) Ida is out as evidence for human evolution. And (3) punctuated equilibria, completely contrary to what Darwin envisioned, is a gremlin in the Darwin camp that cannot be escaped with prodigious exercise in hand-waving, ad hoc models and gobbledygook.
Erwin’s statement above is classic Darwinian obfuscational confability. Let’s parse it with our Baloney Detectors on:
The bursts of evolutionary change…. [He acknowledges the evidence is bursty, but then embeds his own evolutionary assumptions into the phrase “evolutionary change” here. What if it is not evolutionary (i.e., gradual) change? What if it is creationary change?]
over longer timescales… [Longer timescales embeds more of his evolutionary assumptions of slow, gradual change over millions of years.]
remain to be explained… [Notice the subtle use of passive voice infinitive here; some nebulous entity will have to explain it someday over the rainbow. He should fess up and write in active voice, declarative sentences: “We can’t explain it. They can’t explain it. I can’t explain it. We are all clueless. I can only wish upon a star that someday, somebody will explain it.”]
but could reflect episodic changes in the optimal adaptive phenotype as the environment changes,… [Stop right there! We put you under citizen’s arrest for impersonating a scientist (9/30/2007 commentary). That’s miracle talk. Erwin is assuming that if a landslide occurs, or the sea level changes, or a volcano blows its top, the Goddess of Evolution will produce an “optimal adaptive phenotype” on demand. How? By snapping her fingers? By waving her Tinker Bell Mutation Wand? This is crazy! Don’t let them get away with obfuscation like this.]
as the authors suggest,… [You know, we’re really not interested in your suggestions. We want our scientists to do real science – observable, testable, repeatable science.]
the construction of new ecological environments,… [More hand-waving and gobbledygook. This is an offhand reference to “niche construction” theory, that organisms not only adapt to environments but construct them. Such notions personify evolution and beg the question of how adaptation occurs.]
or the longer waiting time for significant developmental innovations…. [Aaagh! Stop it. This is more miracle-talk assuming the Stuff Happens Law. Wait long enough and “significant developmental innovations” will just occur. How? Will they just arise? Will they just emerge? Will they somehow develop? When the “waiting time” is up, will they pop into existence, like the Pop-Eye theory of evolution? Stop the funnies. We thought we were watching The Science Channel, not the Cartoon Network.]
Learn how to slice, dice and analyze these baloney tales from the evolutionists. Learn how to blow away the fogma* and get to the evidence. We naturally tend to defer to “scientists” because they are supposedly so smart. Their jargon sounds intimidating. The list of references to other baloney-generating scientists in science journals presents an aura of credibility. But it’s all aura and no substance, aurora with no charged particles of data, a roar a minute with no teeth.
Understand that the structure in which Erwin and the evolutionists act with rhetorical flourish is just a façade like a movie set, with the script already written. Darwin’s script is being directed by ideologues that care less about the facts of nature than preserving their epic tale. Charlie’s Angles is one script so implausible, so out of touch with reality, it deserves to be left on the cutting room floor.
*Fogma (n.), dogma so thick you can’t see through it unless you are outside of it (5/14/2007 commentary).