November 12, 2018 | David F. Coppedge

Does the Stuff Happens Law Converge?

Similar features show up in evolutionary-unrelated groups. What does this mean?

Stephen Jay Gould famously asked what what happen in evolution if one could “replay the tape of life” and start over. Would humans result, or would the products of natural selection be unrecognizable? Gould strongly defended the latter position. He even doubted that intelligence or consciousness would emerge. This view is called contingency: so many unpredictable factors influence the direction of evolution, it is impossible to predict what would happen. Supporters of contingency can find plenty of examples of highly divergent organisms evolving in the same environment.

Other evolutionists disagree that natural selection is governed completely by chance. They think that the environment channels mutation and selection toward particular outcomes. While the details might differ, the forms of organisms would be constrained by environmental factors. This view is called determinism; it lends a certain degree of predictability to evolution. One of its defenders is paleontologist Simon Conway Morris, who can draw on a multitude of examples of convergent evolution, some of them quite remarkable. A recent paper in PNAS, for instance, argues that similar structures have arisen independently three times in fungus-farming ants. It seems to these evolutionists that the environment somehow channels natural selection toward similar designs or solutions to problems (but see 3 Oct 2015).

In its extreme form, the anti-contingency view is called structuralism. Proposed by D’Arcy Thompson, author of the influential book On Growth and Form, this view suggests that properties of the universe drive biology toward particular kinds of organisms. Michael Denton, who defends this view in Evolution: Still a Theory in Crisis (2016), points out numerous examples of patterns in nature that persist despite being non-adaptive. Even though he believes in universal common descent, Denton argues that the patterns defy natural selection. Extreme structuralism borders on Platonism: the idea that particular organisms are reflections of ideal forms beyond our experience. Theistic evolutionists might be attracted to this view.

These differing views boil down to the role of chance in biological evolution. A new article from Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL), “Replaying the tape of life: Is it possible?” weighs in on this debate.

How predictable is evolution? The answer long has been debated by biologists grappling with the extent to which history affects the repeatability of evolution.

A review published in the Nov. 9 issue of Science explores the complexity of evolution’s predictability in extraordinary detail. In it, researchers from Kenyon College, Michigan State University and Washington University in St. Louis closely examine evidence from a number of empirical studies of evolutionary repeatability and contingency in an effort to fully interrogate ideas about contingency’s role in evolution.

The paper in Science was co-authored by Zachary Blount, Richard Lenski and Jonathan Losos. Lenski has run the longest biological experiment on evolution, called the Long-Term Evolution Experiment (LTEE). For 30 years, he has transferred test tubes of E. coli to new cultures over 65,000 generations to see what evolution comes up with. Ever since Gould wrote his thought experiment on “replaying the tape of life” in his 1989 book about the Burgess Shale, Wonderful Life, other attempts have been made to determine the role of contingency in evolution. What is the thinking of current Darwinians, almost 30 years since Gould?

In WUSTL’s press release, Blount wrongly ascribes directionality to natural selection:

“How history plays out isn’t really predictable. Historical outcomes are contingent on long chains of events loaded with tiny little details,” said Zachary Blount, senior research associate at Michigan State and a visiting assistant professor of biology at Kenyon, and lead author of the review. “Unlike history, though, evolution has the deterministic force of natural selection, but that determinism is always in tension with the chanciness. How does that tension affect what evolves? Which is more important: contingency on details of history, or determinism?”

The statement errs on two points: natural selection is not a force, and it is not deterministic: otherwise, all organisms in the same environment would end up the same. A third problem, even more severe, is that natural selection has never been observed to create a new, functional, complex organ or system. It cannot operate on anything until it’s already there. It has no creative power; it is passive; and it is utterly blind and aimless, caring nothing what what heppens.

At the end of the paper, though, the authors cannot decide which view, determinism or contingency, is more important:

Where to now? Clearly, evolution can be both contingent and deterministic, and often in complicated and fascinating ways. Recognizing this mixed nature will allow future research to investigate how contingency and determinism interact. Many questions remain to be addressed; for example, what circumstances promote contingent and deterministic outcomes, how does the extent of prior genetic divergence affect the propensity for future parallelism versus contingency, what types of divergence—say, a few mutations of large effect versus the accumulation of minor variants over long periods—lead to which outcomes, and what circumstances allow convergence even in distantly related taxa? Theory and experiments show that the structure of the adaptive landscape plays a critical role in determining the potential for contingent outcomes. Therefore, a deeper understanding of adaptive landscapes will be important for understanding evolutionary contingency. In short, there’s no shortage of work to do, and interesting outcomes to be discovered and quantified. Gould would be pleased that the field he inspired has such bright prospects, as the tape of life plays on.

They’re basically thinking that they can have their cake and eat it, too.

Are these evolutionists really seeing patterns in nature emerging by Darwin’s theory? A press release from Uppsala University warns, “Well established theories on patterns in evolution might be wrong.” The top illustration is the “march of man” icon. In the article, Graham Budd and Richard Mann argue that many of the famous patterns and trends evolutionists claim to see in the fossil record, including instances of diversification and extinction, are artifacts of their own biases.

This makes no sense except to those drunk on Darwine. Think about it: we’ve shown that natural selection is merely a restatement of the Stuff Happens Law (SHL, see 13 Oct 2018). It’s the absence of a law of nature. It’s the absence of scientific explanation. It’s the abdication of science, merely concluding, “stuff happens.” How can a blind, aimless, purposeless process be anything else?

This doesn’t mean that the SHL is incapable of keeping scientists busy. For analogy, imagine these same scientists studying Brownian motion. They ask themselves, “If we replay the tape of Brownian motion, can we predict what will happen?” For years, they make measurements and charts of paths that particles take under Brownian “forces” (although it is not a force, either, but an effect of blind, aimless, purposeless chance events). For decades, they debate whether the tape of Brownian motion is deterministic or contingent. Sometimes the particle seems to make progress in one direction. Other times, it goes nowhere. Sometimes, two paths appear to ‘converge’ on the same direction. Now, picture the government throwing money to these scientists to keep them busy. Finally, after a lot of wasted effort, they conclude, ‘Clearly, Brownian motion can be both contingent and deterministic, and often in complicated and fascinating ways.’ Is humanity better off for knowing this? Is it a good example of scientific progress?

Someone will complain that the analogy is flawed, because natural selection has a goal – fitness! If an organism does not survive, it drops out of the gene pool, unlike particles under Brownian motion. Such a criticism errs, because fitness is just as vacuous as the SHL. It can mean anything, as we showed in “The Story of Evolution” (13 Oct 2018). Evolution can move up, down, backward, forward or sideways. Natural selection doesn’t care. If the organism goes extinct, so what? It’s like the particle under Brownian motion dropping off the slide. Brownian motion doesn’t care, and neither does natural selection. The analogy holds. No matter what happens – good, bad or indifferent – evolutionists are all too content to say, “It evolved,” and claim their work has produced “understanding.”

Do you see why we call Darwinian evolution “job security for storytellers”? (25 June 2014). These Darwine-oholics need to sober up and unlock the door.



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