August 11, 2015 | David F. Coppedge

Evolutionary Enigmas

Neo-Darwinism is at war with the observations, and the observations might just win.

Living fossils battled dinosaurs, can’t survive humans: PhysOrg discusses the Danube sturgeon—fish that survived millions of years alongside dinosaurs but now are on the brink of extinction. Must be humans’ fault, of course. “They can grow to up to six meters in length and live for 100 years,” the article says. Only four of the six species that have lived in the Danube River remain. These “living fossils” survived since the dinosaurs “almost unchanged,” so where is the evolution?

Rethinking “adaptive radiation”:  It’s “one of biology’s most important concepts,” Science Daily says, but it needs revision. That’s the conclusion of UK scientists studying certain South American lizards. But can a theory survive changing its definition after numerous books and papers assumed it meant rapid “explosive” evolution in a new ecological niche?

“We therefore suggest that the definition of the adaptive radiation theory does not need to include reference to an ‘early-burst’. We instead propose that adaptive radiation should refer to lineages which, via natural selection, proliferate into multiple new species that differ in their ecological adaptations — regardless of whether this occurred early in the cycle or not.”

Sunflower explosion: Gotta push the evolution of sunflowers back 20 million years, PNAS says. The most abundant group of flowering plants began in the late Cretaceous, the scientists think based on pollen grains found in Antarctica. The find “drastically pushes back the timing of assumed origin of the family,” they say. But then, according to molecular studies, this implies that “the most recent common ancestor of the family lived at least 80 Mya in Gondwana, well before the thermal and biogeographical isolation of Antarctica.” Since this family represents flowering plants that underwent a significant “rapid ecological radiation” (see above)—a phenomenon that has been called ‘Darwin’s abominable mystery’ (DAM)—the find has “important implications in the evolution of flowering plants in general.

Newfound groups of bacteria are mixing up the tree of life: Smallest bacteria among more than 35 new phyla characterized by whole genome sequencing: Just when we were getting used to three domains of life (bacteria, archaea and eukarya), we are being told by Science Daily that everything is being turned upside down. Berkeley scientists have found 35 new phyla of bacteria, they claim.

The new groups make up more than 15 percent of all known groups or phyla of bacteria, the scientists say, and include the smallest life forms on Earth, microbes a mere 400 nanometers across. The number of new bacterial phyla is equal to all the known animal phyla on Earth.

The scientists, who recently also identified nine new groups of microbes known as Archaea, see these new additions to life on Earth as a sign that the accepted tree of life — a division into the three domains of eukaryotes, which includes animals and plants, bacteria and Archaea — needs to be revised.

“This is a new view of the tree of life,” said lead author Jill Banfield, a professor of earth and planetary science and of environmental science, policy and management. “These new major features on the tree of life mean that it probably won’t be the simple three-domain view we have now.

Natural selection, the barricade: “Natural selection, key to evolution, also can impede formation of new species,” Science Daily says of a study of stick insects. Research at the University of Sheffield “shows how natural selection, the engine of evolution, can also impede the formation of new species.” This apparently means that natural selection is the engine except when it is the parking brake. According to the scientists, “This is one of the best demonstrations we know of regarding the counteractive effects of natural selection on speciation.”

Here, kitty snow leopard: Snow leopards live at high altitudes in the Himalayas. According to common evolutionary belief, animals living in rarified air should evolve hemoglobins that store more oxygen. Unfortunately, nobody told the snow leopards how to evolve. Science Magazine says,

How the spotted, gray felines survive in such low oxygen environments has puzzled scientists for years. That’s because all cats—from the house cat to the African lion—have hemoglobin that isn’t very good at carrying oxygen in the blood. The trait can potentially cause hypoxia or oxygen deficiencies in tissues and should lead the creatures to linger in relatively low-lying areas where oxygen is plentiful. But no one told the snow leopard. Thinking the animals might have evolved specialized hemoglobin that transport more oxygen than other cats, scientists worked with zoos in the United States to obtain blood samples from five big cat species—African lion, tiger, leopard, snow leopard, and jaguar. After conducting genetic analyses, they discovered that the hemoglobin genes of snow leopards look and work pretty much the same as those in other cats, they report today in The Journal of Experimental Biology. For now, it seems, the snow leopard’s high-altitude tolerance remains as enigmatic as the seldom spotted wild cats themselves.

They “breathe like pussycats,” National Geographic says, but why?  Scientists have no idea. “We were very surprised,” an evolutionary biologist said. “Changing hemoglobin is one of the simplest ways to adapt to high altitudes.” Another evolutionist thinks there “must be something else going on” because “natural selection isn’t picky” about how to solve a problem.

Microbats without macroevolution: National Geographic posted a nice article about microbats, the small bats. Some are really micro (ranging from 1 to 5 inches). But the article says nothing about evolution, except for a hint that assumptions are wrong: “The oldest recorded microbat in the wild died at 41, which goes against the belief that small creatures live fast and die young,” a researcher said. The article mentions their flight and echolocation in the dark. Little is known about the 1,000 or so species of microbats. Since bats make up 20% of all mammal species, one would think they might show a good fossil record of evolution, but the earliest fossil bat is 100% bat (1/28/05, 3/06/08).

Once again, Darwinian theory was either useless or wrong for each of these stories. We think a focus on design of sunflowers, fish, bacteria, mammals and bats would generate understanding of nature much faster. For one thing, it would put the Darwin storytelling union out of business (6/25/14). For another, the design focus would undoubtedly advance biomimetics and bring many useful, environmentally-friendly products to human civilization. Finally, design is so much cooler than the Stuff Happens Law.


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  • Tilbot says:

    Your comments and the stories you present are wonderful. I don’t know how you can come up with such great material every day, but I just wanted to let you know I really appreciate it. Keep working on putting the “Darwin storytelling union” out of business. Love your clever way with words.

  • Jon Saboe says:

    I love the phrase “natural selection isn’t picky…”, which attempts to give the impression that natural selection is all-powerful and able to find a plethora of ways to improve a given species, when in fact, natural selection can only “select” from preexisting traits and is totally impotent in creating or improving anything.

  • John C says:

    “Changing hemoglobin is one of the simplest ways to adapt to hypoxia.” Oh, yeah? You try it! In the mean time, during the millions of years their hemoglobin is adapting, what do the poor snow leopards do? They die. Then what happens to natural selection? See above.

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