August 1, 2014 | David F. Coppedge

Lower Animals: "Lower" Does Not Mean "Simpler"

Here are a few “lower” animals worth knowing about.  They reveal astonishing design throughout the living world, but little support for evolution.

The turtle with the antenna:  A green sea turtle surprised researchers by migrating much farther than expected: a “huge distance” of 2,472 miles, the BBC News reported.  The article shows a picture of one of the 8 turtles equipped with antennas on their backs, allowing scientists to monitor their movements.  One individual traveled from the Indian Ocean to the coast of Somalia.  This is a “record-breaking” migration for turtles, Science Magazine said, arousing new worries about human impact on their seagoing migration routes.

The BBC article provides cool facts about sea turtles: they can live 80 years, they can grow 5 feet long and weigh 700 pounds, they live on seagrass, and they cannot pull their heads into their shells (like land turtles do).  As for how they originated, readers are told without explanation that they “are reptiles whose ancestors evolved on land and took to the sea to live about 150 million years ago.”

Cool beesScience Daily described how honeybees keep cool: the vasculature of the hive facilitates air flow.  What this implies is that each honeybee’s actions are part of a larger whole.  As with termites, which also air-condition their mounds, beehives, to be explained, require new concepts of “organism”—

Honey bees, especially the young, are highly sensitive to temperature and to protect developing bees, adults work together to maintain temperatures within a narrow range. New research also supports the theoretical construct of the bee hive as a superorganism — an entity in which its many members carry out specialized and vital functions to keep the whole functioning as a unit.

Incidentally, a Texas man recently survived a thousand stings from Africanized bees.  Live Science quoted an entomologist who thinks the highly-defensive insects aren’t driven by murderous intent.  “With honeybees, in particular, the venom isn’t really designed to kill,” he said.  “It’s designed to educate — basically, to drive away an enemy and make sure the enemy doesn’t repeat the threat.”  The bees, unfortunately for us, aren’t very good at discriminating actual threats from accidental intrusions.  The Texan who survived was luckier than another man who died last year from 3,000 bee stings when he disturbed a hive about 40,000 strong.  Best advice from the experts: run inside a building and shut the door.

Not just bumbling:  Speaking of bees, PhysOrg reports that bumblebees are “able to spot which flowers offer best rewards before landing.” They correlate a flower’s shape and color with pollen quality and remember it for return visits. How does all that tech fit into a tiny bee brain?

Butterfly eyes:  Do the eye spots on some butterflies really mimic predator eyes?  That’s the question Ella Davies tackled for the BBC News.  Short answer: we’re not sure; maybe not.  While it is known that the wings can send some predators running, it’s not clear that the eye spots provide the scare tactics (it might just be the flashy colors flickering about).  Whatever is going on, Davies provided some really beautiful photos of the UK’s peacock butterflies.  They look nothing like the black caterpillars from which they spring (see the issues involved in the documentary Metamorphosis).

Spider evolution:  O, what a tangled web: evolutionary theory was just handed a sticky situation when genomic analysis separated two groups of orb-weaving spiders, leading evolutionists to propose that (a) either web weaving originated in an unknown ancestor and was subsequently lost in several groups of spiders, or (b) the two groups evolved web weaving independently by convergent evolution.  Nature describes the predicament in “Spider gene study reveals tangled evolution.”  But why would a spider give up orb-weaving skill?  “Evolution is unpredictable,” one evolutionist sighed (see “Stuff Happens Law” in the Darwin Dictionary).

Forked tongue:  In an “explainer” on The Conversation, Andrew Durso explains why snakes speak with forked tongue.  It’s their sense of smell, he explains.  Like having two ears, having two tongues gives two separate readings on odors that the snake can interpret to smell in 3-D.  The tongue deposits the odor molecules inside the mouth, where the snake can touch it against odor receptors in the roof of the mouth.  So when you see them flicking their forked tongues up and down, snakes are smelling their environment in stereo.

A fish worth cuddling:  Cuttlefish are not fish, but like octopuses, are cephalopods (a word that simply means “head footed”).  Scientists writing in Current Biology found “unexpected complexity” in their chromatophores, the skin organs that allow them to rapidly change their coloration and skin patterns.  One amazing display is the cuttlefish’s ability to create moving arrays of patterns along their bodies (see video clip on PhysOrg).  These “traveling waves” or “passing clouds” require a lot of coordination, the scientists found: “These dynamic pigmentation patterns result from the coordinated activation of large chromatophore arrays,” something analogous to coordinated pixels on an electronic billboard.  The abstract fits with intelligent-design language:

Here, we introduce a new model system for the study of passing clouds, Metasepia tullbergi, in which wave displays are very frequent and thus amenable to laboratory investigations. The mantle of Metasepia contains four main regions of wave travel, each supporting a different propagation direction. The four regions are not always active simultaneously, but those that are show synchronized activity and maintain a constant wavelength and a period-independent duty cycle, despite a large range of possible periods (from 1.5 s to 10 s). The wave patterns can be superposed on a variety of other ongoing textural and chromatic patterns of the skin. Finally, a traveling wave can even disappear transiently and reappear in a different position (“blink”), revealing ongoing but invisible propagation. Our findings provide useful clues about classes of likely mechanisms for the generation and propagation of these traveling waves. They rule out wave propagation mechanisms based on delayed excitation from a pacemaker but are consistent with two other alternatives, such as coupled arrays of central pattern generators and dynamic attractors on a network with circular topology.

The only thing they had to say about evolution was to briefly mention another cuttlefish, Sepia, as a “possible evolutionary ancestor” for “our hypothesized premotor pattern-generating circuit” found in Metasepia.  The ancestor, however, produces the passing clouds too, and exhibits complex camouflage, hunting, or mating behavior with its own circuits.

Evolution-talk didn’t add anything to these reports.  To understand a sea turtle, a honeybee, or a cuttlefish, we don’t need to be told that some unobserved, theoretical ancestor mystically appeared with complex traits already fully formed.  We don’t need to be told that web-building appeared in a mythical ancestor but was lost repeatedly down the line, or that web-building “emerged” independently multiple times.  Statements like that do not facilitate understanding.  Like ancient Romans placating their local deities before sporting events, scientists feel some kind of urge to offer sacrifices to the Charlie idol before competing in the sport of understanding nature.  It makes them feel good but that’s all.  The sport of understanding would proceed fine without it.  We would be better off just marveling at the animals and their wondrous designs.

The NAS recently started another “In the Light of Evolution” colloquium (see Evolution News & Views).  The authors of the commentary claim that evolution provides a “unifying framework for interpreting biological phenomena that otherwise can often seem unrelated and perhaps unintelligible.”  So here’s how they made it all related and intelligible: by waving Darwin’s magic wand, and saying “Abracadabra! Stuff happens!”  In a perverse sense, they’re right: now everything makes sense.  Stuff happens; spiders evolve web-making skills, sea turtles swim 2,500 miles, and cuttlefish create complex light displays.  Because stuff happens, now we understand.  Now everything is intelligible.  We can now see that everything made of stuff that has anything happen to it is related.  My, how did we ever get along without Charlie to show us the way to scientific nirvana?


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