August 14, 2017 | David F. Coppedge

Paleontologist Spills Beans on Evolutionary Emptiness

A noted evolutionary paleontologist reviews a new book on evolutionary mechanisms favorably, but gives Darwin skeptics ammo in the process.

Kevin Padian, a renowned evolutionary paleontologist, is certainly no friend of creation or intelligent design. When speaking to his Darwin buddies, he feels comfortable enough to be frank about problems. Here are some scraps from the table of his book review in Nature, “Evolution: Parallel lives,” a review of Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of Evolution, by Jonathan B. Losos (Riverhead: 2017). Padian highly recommends the book, but has to make some corrections to views that Losos presents. We summarize some tasty morsels:

Dinosaurs were not wiped out by an asteroid. Padian debunks a common myth that Losos perpetuates. The book “goes off the rails” early on, he complains:

There is one problem. Some research suggests that dinosaurs had been declining for millions of years before the impact as the climate changed, shallow inland seas receded and returned, temperatures dropped and inland environments destabilized. Their extinction rates did not increase at the end of the Cretaceous; rather, origination of new species plummeted, and so diversity dropped. If there were any dinosaurs left by the very end of the period, they would probably not have succeeded in the cooler, forested world of the Palaeogene period that followed. The Chicxulub asteroid and the large-scale volcanic activity around the same time may have been almost irrelevant to their fates.

Mammals did not arise because the dinosaurs went extinct.

Neither is it sensible to maintain that their demise paved the way for mammals. Recent discoveries show enormous ecological diversity in Cretaceous mammals, from swimmers to gliders; they rarely topped 10 kilograms at the time, but became larger in the Palaeogene. Just as importantly, they lived in environments quite different from those of the Cretaceous. So stories about “replaying the tape” of evolution can acquire a different cast, given further evidence.

Convergent evolution is not a law of nature.

We can catalogue examples all day, but is there any real theory of convergence? We cannot assert that some lineages are ‘fated’ to converge on these features. Biological ideas of determinism went out with Jean-Baptiste Lamarck in the late eighteenth century.

Natural selection is the Stuff Happens Law.

The idea of contingency is perhaps best based on palaeontologist Dolf Seilacher’s theory of constructional morphology. In this, features such as the elephant’s trunk or the osprey’s habit of catching fish with claws rather than beak result from three factors: adaptation (the selective component), evolutionary history (organisms must work with what they’ve inherited) and construction (how the material properties of living structures empower and constrain their form). From there, history takes over. Evolution is not a preordained, inevitable narrative. Neither is it a crapshoot, with random particulates disporting themselves until something works. Rather, it is like the game Monopoly. Where you go next is in part determined by where you are now; who you are is where you’ve been (your acquisitions); where you can go is determined by the throw of the dice, with limited possibilities and probabilities.

Padian doesn’t seem to reflect on the fact that Monopoly is played by intelligent minds with a goal. Evolution has no goal or desire to win; therefore, it is a complete throw of the dice (the Stuff Happens Law), where extinction is just as good an outcome as survival, because naturalism is blind, and nobody cares.

Padian threw his dice, landed on Chance and got a “Go to Jail” card. He should realize that in Evolution Monopoly, the board is the fitness landscape, and there are no “Get Out of Jail Free” cards in the deck. His only way out is to become a creationist and find grace.

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