April 6, 2014 | David F. Coppedge

Bumming Herds of Hummingbirds into Evolution

Any well-designed animal can be forced into an evolutionary story if you allow the rules to evolve, too.

A new paper in Current Biology claims to organize the phylogeny of hummingbirds, those “iridescent… jewel-like” stars of Illustra Media’s film Flight: The Genius of Birds, with their unique flying abilities and specialized nectar-trapping tongues.  Do the authors succeed?  It depends; tweak enough parameters, and anything can happen.

We studied hummingbird diversification by estimating a time-calibrated phylogeny for 284 hummingbird species, demonstrating that hummingbirds invaded South America by ∼22 million years ago, and subsequently diversified into nine principal clades… Using ancestral state reconstruction and diversification analyses, we (1) estimate the age of the crown-group hummingbird assemblage, (2) investigate the timing and patterns of lineage accumulation for hummingbirds overall and regionally, and (3) evaluate the role of Andean uplift in hummingbird speciation. Detailed analyses reveal disparate clade-specific processes that allowed for ongoing species diversification. One factor was significant variation among clades in diversification rates. For example, the nine principal clades of hummingbirds exhibit ∼15-fold variation in net diversification rates, with evidence for accelerated speciation of a clade that includes the Bee, Emerald, and Mountain Gem groups of hummingbirds. A second factor was colonization of key geographic regions, which opened up new ecological niches. For example, some clades diversified in the context of the uplift of the Andes Mountains, whereas others were affected by the formation of the Panamanian land bridge. Finally, although species accumulation is slowing in all groups of hummingbirds, several major clades maintain rapid rates of diversification on par with classical examples of rapid adaptive radiation.

In short, evolution is slow except when it’s fast, it speeds up except when it slows down, and rules for one group don’t apply to other groups.  Diversification rates can change as much as 15-fold to keep the story in order.  Since these evolutionary biologists expected hummingbirds to evolve in the time allowed for them according to evolutionary theory, the whole exercise was a case of theory incest (see DIDO in the Darwin Dictionary).  There is no reference to fossils or other hard evidence independent of Darwinian assumptions.

The authors commit a logical flaw as well, confusing cause and effect.  They attribute mountains and land bridges as causes of diversification.  There’s nothing in a mountain that can force a bird to develop a specialized tongue to fit a flower, or to evolve a unique shoulder joint that permits hovering.  If that were a law of nature, why didn’t it happen to every bird?

The popular press, predictably, celebrated this wondrous confirmation of Darwin without any critique.  Science Daily quoted a smiling co-author Jimmie McGuire: “One of the really cool features of hummingbird evolution is that they all eat the same thing yet have diversified dramatically,” McGuire says. “It really is a big surprise that hummingbirds have divided the nectarivore niche so extensively.”

Live Science posted a photo gallery of hummingbirds of the world.  While they differ in terms of coloration and details of beak or wing shape, they are all clearly hummingbirds.  Science Daily, though, says that this “marvel of evolutionary engineering” (12/05/13) evolved from non-hummingbirds:

The new, time-calibrated evolutionary tree shows that ancestral hummingbirds split from the swifts and treeswifts about 42 million years ago, probably in Eurasia. By about 22 million years ago, the ancestral species of all modern hummingbirds had made its way to South America, and that’s when things really took off.

In other words, their presumed ancestral home in Eurasia was left vacant.  Now, all hummingbirds inhabit the American hemisphere.  By “time-calibrated,” the sentence implies that data about hummingbirds were forced into evolutionary time.  That’s why the authors speculate that diversification rates varied so dramatically among different groups.  The Eurasian hummers presumably lived happily on the other side of the world for 20 million years, until by unexplained processes, one “made its way” to South America.  Then, they all migrated en masse or died out in the Old World.

Nothing was mentioned about fossils.  A link to a May 2013 story tells about a potential ancestor of swifts and hummingbirds, but that fossil was from Wyoming, and its interpretation is vague.  In addition, it contained melanosomes, casting doubt on its assumed age of 50 million years.

One can only wonder what took evolutionists so long to look at these amazing birds with Darwin eyes.  “Hummingbirds have radiated into a diverse assemblage of specialized nectarivores comprising 338 species,” the authors said, “but their evolutionary history has not, until now, been comprehensively explored.”

Creationists do not deny a degree of diversification among hummingbirds in terms of coloration and specificity of flowers they feed on, but those are minor considerations within the range of built-in variability.  It’s the underlying flight systems that defy naturalistic explanations.  We don’t need to elaborate here; watch Flight: The Genius of Birds for arguments why Darwinism cannot explain hummingbirds (or any other bird), and why intelligent design is the best explanation for avian flight.  The sequence on hummingbirds is particularly compelling.  Take away the speculation out of the evolutionary paper, and what is left?  Darwinists ignoring the obvious, and repeating “Evolution is a fact” among themselves in an echo chamber.  Their puzzle-solving project of forcing every creature into a Darwinian phylogenetic scheme apparently gives them pleasure, but it’s not science, if by science we mean understanding the natural world (see “How Not to Work a Puzzle,” 5/01/08 commentary).


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