Good Biology Without Natural Selection
Excellent biological research that produces understanding and application can ignore natural selection completely.
If natural selection is useless in science, as we have argued recently (4 Jan 2019, 10 Jan 2019), then the flip side should also be true: scientists should be able to do useful work by ignoring natural selection entirely. They should be able to discover, analyze, explain, and apply biological discoveries without it. This contradicts Dobzhansky’s frequently quoted mythoid, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” Here are some examples in the news.
Divining roots: Revealing how plants branch out to access water (Science Daily). When seeking water in the dark underground, plant roots use a method called “hydropatterning” to succeed. The root only triggers root hairs to branch out when they sense water. Scientists at the University of Nottingham show the remarkable process in a video animation that looks for all the world like a smart drill bit finding its way down, down, with tiny root hairs occasionally branching out. They mention “divining roots” in jest. No water-witching or divining rod is implied. Instead, the plant controls the process by a “branching master gene called ARF7.” Without it, they found, the root cannot perform hydropatterning.
Professor Sadanandom explained: “Plants are relatively immobile and therefore their growth and development is very much dependent on their environment. Our research has identified the particular protein which can modify, and even inactivate root branching, therefore limiting plant growth and development.
“This is hugely exciting as it opens up the possibility for us to adapt this protein interaction and potentially develop plants that could continue to branch roots even in challenging conditions such as water scarcity.”
Professor Bennett concluded: “Water is critical for plant growth, development and, ultimately, their survival. Surprisingly, understanding how plants sense water availability has eluded scientists until now. By studying how plant roots modify their branching in response to water availability, we have uncovered a novel molecular mechanism.
Readers will look in vain for any mention of evolution or natural selection (NS) in these articles. They will see hydropatterning described as “an adaptive response,” but the researchers do not mean adaptation by NS, because that would require multiple generations selecting chance mutations in a population. They mean, instead, that the root is adapting to water presence as it grows. That had to be a pre-programmed response. In short, this research aided scientific discovery, analysis, understanding and application without any need for evolutionary storytelling.
The most important hair on your head is on the inside (Phys.org). This article tells about research on cilia on your brain cells. They look like little hairs sticking out of the cells, but are profoundly important for health and function in the brain. Researchers at the Norwegian Institute of Science and Technology apparently had no need for Darwin to come in and explain how cilia evolved. They are too busy working to understand how cilia work. Cilia, by the way, are one of the examples of irreducible complexity that Michael Behe gave in his leading-edge intelligent design book, Darwin’s Black Box.
The immune system’s fountain of youth (Medical Xpress). Scientists at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel are not thinking about natural selection. They are more concerned about people: “If only we could keep our bodies young, healthy and energetic, even as we attain the wisdom of our years.” To help on that goal, they are studying what the body does with senescent cells, cells “not completely dead but suffering loss of function or irreparable damage.” Inability to clear these damaged cells may contribute to aging by causing inflammation. By learning about how the body cleans out senescent cells in mice, and making it more effective, they feel they could prolong human lifespan. Would speculating about natural selection help their efforts in any way?
How did your shoulder form? (Medical Xpress). The headline seems made to order for a Darwinian just-so story about how your shoulder evolved by natural selection. Instead, we read from this press release from the University of Delaware,
Whether you’re pitching a baseball, playing a violin, or typing at your desk, your shoulder helps you get the job done. This joint is a complex machine, and in order to protect shoulders from injury, scientists want to develop a better understanding of how the most delicate parts of these joints work.
Surely they must employ NS in their understanding, right? Isn’t that what makes sense in biology? Apparently not: “assistant professor of biomedical engineering Megan Killian is using novel methods to study muscle activity during the maturation and healing of the rotator cuff, the group of muscles and tissues that helps to keep the shoulder joint in place.” She’s looking at the shoulder from an engineer’s perspective. Not only that, her university is promoting the engineering perspective for making sense of biology among its next generation of researchers:
Biomedical engineering students learned about how dissimilar tissues in our bodies attach in a course offered this past fall called Structural Interfaces in Biology. This course, developed at UD by Killian, covers how materials integrate and attach in biological systems, from tendon-to-bone attachments to the way gecko feet attach to smooth surfaces.
So how did your shoulder form? Ask an engineer. Do NOT ask a Darwinian, unless you just want to hear a story.
Bioengineers unveil surprising sensory and self-healing abilities of seashore creatures (Science Daily). Limpets are small shellfish that adhere to rocks in tidal waters. Again, bioengineers lead the way in helping us understand their remarkable repair abilities:
New research from bioengineers paints a surprisingly complex picture of limpets — the little seashore creatures that are ubiquitous on rocky patches of beaches in many parts of the world. The bioengineers have discovered that limpets are able to detect minor damage to their shells with surprising accuracy before remodelling them to make them stronger. In many ways, the way they heal is similar to the way broken bones mend in mammals.
The researchers at Trinity College Dublin not only ignored natural selection in their research, analysis and understanding of these little animals, they found something positively anti-evolutionary: that limpets use a “surprisingly complex” method of repair that is similar to what mammals do. Even more telling, the full paper in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface—usually a bastion of evolutionary storytelling—fails to mention evolution or natural selection at all.
Jonathan Wells has re-cast the Dobzhansky quote to say, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of the evidence.” Natural selection is not evidence. It is a story, a scenario, a narrative gloss applied on the surface of the phenomenon under study, turning it hideous. If you don’t want to imagine Michelangelo’s David perverted by a coat of garrish neon-glow paint, then keep natural selection out of your biology, too.
See also: “Will Humpty Darwin Fall in 2019” (3 Jan 2019).