Just-So Stories for the Darwin Crowd
For the scientifically illiterate, bedtime stories of how things evolved bring contentment.
There are three levels of carelessness in the genre of evolutionary storytelling. One is the level of the evolutionary biologist, who feels scientific rigor can be skipped because evolution is already an accepted fact. Another is the level of the reporter, who likes to regurgitate whatever the evolutionist says, dressing it up in Kipling just-so story form. The bottom level is the uncritical reader who finds it comforting that scientists have figured out how the world came to be. Here are some examples of how the Darwin storytelling regime works.
How insects got their wings (PNAS): This journal-level story is a modification of the four-winged fruit fly icon of evolution. The evolutionary geneticists tinkered with genes in a “primitive” insect and got damaged wings to appear in other places on the thorax. Their conclusions are grandiose: “These innovations account for major features of insect wing origin and diversification.” But they didn’t see any wings originate that weren’t already coded for in the genes of the insect. Palaeopteran insects have fully-functional wings. They fly. They just don’t fold their wings back on their bodies like neopteran insects do. That doesn’t mean they are primitive. Anything that tiny that can control powered flight is better than what robot designers make.
How the stickleback sped up evolution (PNAS): Evolutionary biologists are fascinated with sticklebacks, little fish that seem to have accelerator pedals on their Darwinian evolution. This version of the story ties rapid change to the 1964 Alaska earthquake, showing they evolved in just 50 generations, not thousands of years. But is this really Darwinian evolution, or changes in expression of built-in genetic traits for robustness? And if they can interbreed (gene flow), where is the origin of species? The evolutionists themselves seem rather astonished at their own “intriguing” story.
Population genomic analyses of these data support the hypothesis of recent and repeated, independent colonization of freshwater habitats by oceanic ancestors. We find evidence of recurrent gene flow between oceanic and freshwater ecotypes where they co-occur. Our data implicate natural selection in phenotypic diversification and support the hypothesis that the metapopulation organization of this species helps maintain a large pool of genetic variation that can be redeployed rapidly when oceanic stickleback colonize freshwater environments. We find that the freshwater populations, despite population genetic analyses clearly supporting their young age, have diverged phenotypically from oceanic ancestors to nearly the same extent as populations that were likely founded thousands of years ago. Our results support the intriguing hypothesis that most stickleback evolution in fresh water occurs within the first few decades after invasion of a novel environment.
How the dog learned to drink (PNAS): This paper is actually a fascinating design story, showing the physics of dog drinking. Dogs can efficiently lift a column of water with their tongues, the paper explains. Science Daily‘s summary seems to emphasize the design—never mentioning evolution—focusing instead on the “precise method” that underlies the “sloppy madness of dog slurping.” But how does the PNAS paper, “Dogs lap using acceleration-driven open pumping,” begin? “Animals that interact with an air–fluid interface have evolved highly specialized behaviors to deal with the physical challenge of crossing fluidic regimes.” Any rigorous account of mutation and selection, or what chain of mutational events led dogs to this uniquely effective drinking behavior? Any appeals to the fossil record or transitional forms? None. Darwin gets all the credit by default for an ingenious, effective design.
How a joke can help us unlock the mystery of meaning in language (The Conversation): This story by Vyvyan Evans (male professor of linguistics at Bangor University) is not intended as a joke. It even came pre-packaged with a Kipling title. As a bonus, it came with a dangling modifier. One would think a linguistics professor would know his grammar, but maybe that’s another evolutionary mystery of meaning in language.
For humans, concepts are necessary for learning, categorisation and advanced planning for survival. Their primary purpose is not for communication. Unlike other species, the evolutionary development of language gives us a system that interacts with our body of concepts to repurpose them for communicating with others in our daily lives.
Evans continues by bringing a symphony conductor into the story, leaving the reader wondering if the orchestra is intelligently designed. Then, in all seriousness to his plot, he tells another Darwin joke:
This brings us back to the crucial question posed at the beginning, and sheds light on arguably the thorniest issue of human meaning-making: the nature of imagination and linguistic creativity. So, what do you get if you cross a kangaroo with an elephant? Answer: Holes all over Australia. When you’ve stopped laughing, consider what this reveals about the relative contributions of language and concepts in this most mundane act of human creativity.
But is it a valid assumption that the reader (1) was laughing, (2) will stop laughing, or (3) was laughing at the joke and not the writer for telling it?
How humans evolved to get more sleep in less time (Science Daily): Ask yourself if anyone witnessed the elements of this story:
The researchers attribute the shift towards shorter, more efficient sleep in part to the transition from sleeping in “beds” in the trees, as our early human ancestors probably did, to sleeping on the ground as we do today.
Once on the ground, Samson said, early humans likely started sleeping near fire and in larger groups in order to keep warm and ward off predators such as leopards and hyenas — habits which could have enabled our ancestors to get the most out of their sleep in the shortest time possible.
Shorter sleep also freed up time that could be devoted to other things, like learning new skills and forging social bonds, while deeper sleep helped to cement those skills, sharpen memory and boost brainpower, [David] Samson [Duke U] said.
Did anyone catalog the mutations for each of these changes? Did anyone calculate the spread of mutated genes through the population? If not, this is a Lamarckian story, or—heaven forbid—the work of intelligent design, where our supposed ancestors used their minds to intelligently figure out better time management strategies. Darwin would hate that, but as long as he gets the credit, he won’t make a fuss.
Isn’t this fun? It’s like reading the comic pages. Come back tomorrow for more!