Aiming Blindly: Darwinism Is Inherently Contradictory
Once in awhile, evolutionists see fundamental problems in Darwinism. But they continue believing it anyway.
How can a directionless process have direction? Matthew Willis, a Professor of Evolutionary Palaeobiology at the Milner Centre for Evolution at the University of Bath, probes this question at The Conversation: “Evolution: why it seems to have a direction and what to expect next.”
The diversity and complexity of life on Earth is astonishing: 8 million or more living species – from algae to elephants – all evolved from a simple, single-celled common ancestor around 3.5 billion years ago. But does that mean that evolution always and inevitably generates greater diversity and complexity, having a predictable direction?
Charles Darwin identified three ingredients necessary for natural selection to occur. Individuals must be different, so there is variation in the population. They must also be able to pass this variation on to offspring. Finally, individuals must compete for resources that limit the number of offspring they can produce. Individuals with variations that allow them to obtain more resources are likely to produce more offspring like themselves.
Some corrections and clarifications are necessary before proceeding with his answer: (1) Variation, which is small-scale, is not controversial, and is not unique to Darwinism. (2) Heredity of variation is not controversial, and is not unique to Darwinism. (3) Competition for resources is a Malthusian myth (see 30 April 2014 and 13 May 2016). Malthus influenced Darwin but both were wrong (hear Lee Spetner at ID the Future explain how predators never deplete their prey; both adjust birth rates to match the available resources). Malthusian dogma applied to humans also fed into Social Darwinism and genocidal atrocities, instigated by Darwin himself in The Descent of Man, where he anticipated that superior races would extinguish less-“fit” races (16 July 2017).
Just Add Oxygen
In short, Willis is already starting on the wrong foot. But can he defend the notion that evolution is directional? Nothing a little Darwinian magic can’t handle:
We can see this environmental interaction deep in the history of life. For billions of years, organisms were “stuck” as single cells within the seas. Several groups independently evolved multi-cellularity (perhaps 25 times). But the first animals, plants and fungi with complex development, different tissues and organs only appeared around 540 million years ago, with the Cambrian “explosion” of diversity.
This may have been triggered by increased levels of oxygen in the oceans, which was, in turn, the result of photosynthesis – the process by which plants and other organisms convert sunlight into energy while releasing oxygen – in much simpler forms of life over millions of years.
This is the miracle-working power of environmental selection. Just add oxygen. Poof! Trilobites! And that was after Poof! Photosynthesis! The poof spoof comes to the rescue.
On the one hand, Willis admits that evolution has no goal:
So natural selection operates from one generation to the next. It cannot plan ahead or have a goal. In addition, not all evolutionary change is a response to selection, but can be neutral or random. It is not even guaranteed to produce more species, since evolution can occur in a single lineage and this can go extinct at any time. How can we reconcile such an aimless process with the bewildering diversity and complexity we see?
On the other hand, it must seem that evolution is going somewhere. “From algae to elephants,” it appears that natural selection has made progress toward “greater diversity and complexity” over time – that is, if one already believes in Darwinism.
Ecology and evolution are two sides of the same coin. The environment is not just the physical surroundings of an organism, but also the other biological species with which it interacts.
Willis correctly describes “the environment,” but errs in establishing a false dichotomy between ecology and evolution. They are not related. For instance, the Garden of Eden had a rich ecology, but was not a product of evolution; it was created as a perfect ecosystem.
The environment cannot drive evolution. Earlier papers reported on at CEH showed two serious issues with the assumption that environments drive selection in particular directions: (1) a new competitive environment after supposed progress results in “slippage on the treadmill” (antagonistic pleiotropy) that devalues any purported fitness gain (13 May 2020); (2) beneficial mutations are almost always accompanied by damage in other parts of the genome (decompensatory epistasis) that nullifies fitness gains (14 May 2020). These problems ensue whether one considers the environment to be the physical surroundings or the ecosystem (“the other biological species with which it interacts”), “it” referring to an organism under selection. With that in mind, deconstruct the B.A.D. assumptions Willis makes in his portrayal of directional evolution:
Once animals had attained greater size and evolved guts, hard parts, jaws, teeth, eyes and legs, complex food webs became possible – along with “arms races” between predators and prey. Groups with adaptations that enabled them to live on land opened up even more opportunities. Once out of the bag, these innovations were difficult to “uninvent” – promoting diversity.
This piles contradiction upon contradiction. Willis has already said that directionality contradicts the aimless nature of Darwinian evolution. Now, he envisions evolution as such a powerful, miracle-working process that it can “evolve” almost anything, but it has difficulty when trying to “uninvent” things. Why would he limit the power of such an omnipotent designer substitute like Darwinian evolution that was able to “evolve guts, hard parts, jaws, teeth, eyes and legs”? Even other evolutionists don’t claim such a thing. They claim repeatedly that some animals gained innovations and also lost them, like wingless wasps. There’s no reason why a blind shooter couldn’t aim in any direction he feels like at the time. Even within “complex food webs,” re-adjustments should be possible.
Next, Willis tries to argue that mutations are not really random. Lee Spetner, an advocate of intelligent design, has argued the same, showing how this violates Darwinism (ID the Future, 29 May 2020). Here’s how Willis makes his case:
For example, nearly all mammals – from giraffes to humans – are stuck with just seven neck bones. Whenever different numbers develop or evolve, they bring other anatomical problems. Birds are entirely different, and seem to evolve new numbers of neck vertebrae with remarkable ease: Swans alone have between 22 and 25. But in general, while evolution produces new species, the flexibility of the body plans of those species may decrease with rising complexity.
Notice another contradiction: mammals got stuck, but birds did not. Both groups “evolved” around the same time, so why the difference? What does he mean, “birds seem to evolve new numbers of neck vertebrae with remarkable ease”? If birds and mammals both evolved in a Darwinian fashion, there is no reason mammals could not have gained or lost neck vertebrae. This illustrates how natural selection is so flexible, it explains opposite outcomes with equal facility.
Quite often, closely related species end up being selected along similar paths. Moreover, “developmental bias” means that anatomical variation is not produced at random.
Take mammals. They come from a common ancestor, and have taken strikingly similar forms even though they have evolved on different continents. This is another example of the fact that evolution isn’t entirely unpredictable – there are only so many solutions to the same physical and biological problems, like seeing, digging or flying.
Willis is back to using contradictions to rescue Darwinism. One would think that mammals on another continent, facing entirely different environments, could have pioneered a new path, but they didn’t. He employs the term “developmental bias” (definition: “Phenotypic variation is generated by the processes of development, with some variants arising more readily than others”). This idea, as his referred-to source says, influences natural selection except when natural selection influences it. So which is it? If natural selection can create wings and eyes, why should it be hindered by established genetic networks? He thinks convergent evolution is possible; why should developmental bias restrict it? Is the magic wand of selection not powerful enough?
Evolutionists sometimes use the term “canalization” for the concept that natural selection can get organisms stuck in a rut and keep them evolving in the direction they started in. Marshall used this idea to defend evolution against the Cambrian explosion (23 April 2006). Willis uses the concept (without using the word) in the same way he uses the concept of convergent evolution. These are theory-rescue devices to allow Darwin to explain everything, even opposites and anomalies. On canalization, see 29 May 2019.
Another rescue device is to embrace the contradiction and use it to argue for Darwinism anyway.
Clearly, there is an apparent contradiction at the heart of evolutionary biology. On one hand, the mechanisms of evolution have no predisposition for change in any particular direction. On the other hand, let those mechanisms get going, and beyond some threshold, the interwoven ecological and developmental systems they generate tend to yield more and more species with greater maximum complexity.
How scientific is it to say “beyond some threshold”? What threshold? Can Dr Willis quantify it, like a good scientist? Can he describe it in an equation that another biologist can use to make predictions? Can he say what Darwinism “will” do, instead of what it “may” do?
On other planets, we may one day find alien life. Would that follow the same evolutionary trajectory as life on Earth? From one cell, the transition to multi-cellularity may be an easy hurdle to jump. Although it came quite late on Earth, it nevertheless happened many times. More complicated development with different tissue types evolved in only a few groups on Earth, so may represent a higher bar.
This only makes sense to someone who already accepts evolution. As such, it represents circular reasoning. Evolution “happened” on Earth, he confidently says, because that is what the Stuff Happens Law predicts: stuff will happen. Anything that happens, therefore, must be a product of Darwinian evolution! Only science deniers would have a problem with this obvious truth.
Fortunately for Willis, his speculations about alien life will not likely be confirmed or falsified any time soon. Even if alien life is discovered some day, he has covered his bases, using the word “may” for any eventuality.
Welcome to Darwinism: the most elegant, erudite, intuitive, convincing, flexible, adaptable, comprehensive, extensible, all-embracing, compendious, sumptuous, heuristic, probing, malleable, all-encompassing, captivating, enthralling, seductive con job in the history of science.
- Evolution is directional but aimless.
- Evolution is intuitive but confusing.
- Evolution is coherent but contradictory.
- Evolution is powerful but constrained.
- Evolution is simple but complex.
- Evolution is law-like yet unpredictable.
- Evolution explains divergence, but also convergence.
- Evolution explains convergence, but also canalization.
- Evolution is hard, yet easy.
- Evolution is confident yet suggestive.
- Evolution is obvious, but must be enforced by censorship.
Where would science be* without this sensational theory bequeathed to us by King Charles? (scroll down).