Proving Evolution by Devolution
A sadly misinformed press release tries to illustrate Darwinian evolution by breaking things.
Two scientists at Uppsala University make a big claim: “Evolutionary ‘selection of the fittest’ measured for the first time.” This is quite astounding on two fronts. One, that fitness could be measured, since it is merely a manifestation of the Stuff Happens Law. Two, that it took so long for someone to do it for the first time. Let’s see what this is about. (Prepare to pardon the translator from Swedish to English; Science Daily republished the story without criticism or proofreading.)
Darwin’s Theory of Evolution introduced the concept of ‘survival of the fittest’. At each generation the ‘fittest’ individuals are selected and this is a major force shaping the biological world we see today. Selection can explain why a cheetah runs fast – cheetah’s [sic] that run fast catch the food to feed their cubs. Those that don’t run fast get less food, and fewer cubs survive. Over time evolution selects against cheetahs that cannot run fast enough. But, how fast is fast enough, and big does [sic] the difference have to be before selection is effective? This question was asked by two researchers at Uppsala University, graduate student Gerrit Brandis and Professor Diarmaid Hughes.
Brandis and Hughes used Salmonella (a bacterium that causes infections in humans and animals) to measure the power of selection to choose the fittest individuals. Salmonella is similar to animals like cheetahs in the sense that it competes for food and is under intense selection to use that food to grow as fast or faster than any other individuals in the same environment. Evolution selects for the fittest variants.
Unfortunately, unless the reporter has misrepresented their views, Dr. Hughes and his grad student don’t get it. Natural selection is not a force, let alone a major force. If it forced all living things to get faster, then anything slower than a cheetah should have gone extinct. Why are there sloths? Why are there amoebas and worms? If natural selection produces opposite outcomes, it is merely a restatement of “stuff happens,” the antithesis of scientific explanation. It cannot explain why a cheetah runs fast or a sloth loafs all day. The cheetah could have learned to build antelope traps, or the antelope could have evolved to fly or climb trees. If whatever happens happens, natural selection has explained nothing. And if fitness equates to survival, the concept reduces to a tautology (see “Time to Ditch Natural Selection?“).
But it gets worse. The method they used to measure fitness actually measures the opposite: i.e., intelligent design. The Salmonella they played with were actually “fit” (or shall we say, robust) at the start of the experiment. The only thing they demonstrated was how many ways you can reduce a cell’s health by breaking things.
The genetic code has ‘redundancy’, meaning that there are several different ‘codons’ that can be translated into any one amino acid. For some amino acids up to 6 different codons can be used. Brandis and Hughes asked whether it mattered which particular codons were used to make EF-Tu, one of the most important proteins in Salmonella.
Brandis and Hughes changed many different codons and showed that changing even a single codon in the gene for this protein into any one of the alternative ‘synonymous’ codons reduced the ‘fitness’ of Salmonella. The codons that are actually used by Salmonella are the very best, and any change reduces the fitness of the bacteria.
To give this farce of an experiment the appearance of scientific rigor, Hughes and his hopeful novitiate determined that “On average, changing a single codon reduced the fitness of the bacteria, by 0.01 procent [sic] per generation.” No kidding; bugs in the code reduce fitness! This should have been predictable. If the codons are optimal to start with, any change is going to take them downhill. But Brandis and Hughes reasoned backward; that natural selection must have pushed the cells toward the optimum by small, incremental steps in the unobservable past.
The message is that evolution, working over very long time scales (hundreds of millions of years), can select tiny differences in relative fitness, as small or smaller than 0.01procent [sic] per generation for Salmonella. Cheetahs need to keep running fast!
The non-sequiturs in this statement should be beneath the dignity of scientists. Salmonella are not cheetahs. What happens in a petri dish under controlled conditions has nothing to say about mammals that can run fast. Brandis and Hughes worked at most for a few months by intelligent design, not hundreds of millions of years by blind, unguided forces. Worst of all, the triumphal tone of the news release about victory for Darwin actually demonstrates the opposite, that Salmonella cells are already optimally fit and cannot tolerate much change.
The role of synonymous codons is actually an interesting question. Some research has indicated that alternate codons are not less “fit,” as these researchers assume, but have a purpose. They regulate the speed of translation in the ribosome, and can actually result in different proteins from the same code (see Evolution News & Views). This makes synonymous codons further evidence for intelligent design, not Darwinian evolution. What may have appeared to Brandis and Hughes as a reduction in fitness may have been expression of a design feature that allows the cells to survive environmental stress.
To celebrate natural selection, they would need to observe the cells reaching the fitness peak without their help, not drag them down from the summit with their guided hands. They would also need to explain why different organisms within the same environment achieve “fitness” by opposite outcomes (see “Fitness for Dummies,” 6/19/14). Is it possible for evolutionary biologists to be this misinformed about neo-Darwinism? Sadly, yes (see “Misuse of Term Natural Selection Continues,” 2/11/16), and “Who Misunderstands Evolution?” (2/20/16).
Isn’t it tragic to see a grad student being congratulated for being stupid? Brandis looks like a sorcerer’s apprentice working for a clueless prof playing the part of the Blunderful Wizard of Flaws (see “How Not to Prove Positive Selection,” 9/05/08 commentary). This is how Darwinism perpetuates itself. Stupid professors teach their students how to think stupidly (defined not as lack of mental capacity, but as thinking uncritically and being misinformed about the subject matter). The students becomes professors who continue the vicious cycle.
Knowing how to keep germs alive in a petri dish has nothing to do with it. Knowing how to tinker with synonymous codons has nothing to do with it. Measurement has nothing to do with it. Science requires logic! “Experimental verification is not a new kind of assurance coming in to supply the deficiencies of mere logic,” C.S. Lewis said. “We should therefore abandon the distinction between scientific and non-scientific thought. The proper distinction is between logical and non-logical thought.”
We try to be charitable to evolutionists, but it’s hard sometimes. This is really an illogical news release. Anything illogical, by definition, is stupid. Brandis, before you become thoroughly anesthetized to logic, try to do something worthwhile with your life, like your smart colleagues at Uppsala who are working on a cure for cancer.