December 5, 2020 | David F. Coppedge

How the Darwinist Got His Just-So Story

Evolutionists are not yet ashamed enough about their storytelling habit, but there are some hopeful signs of embarrassment.

Whenever you see a science headline saying, “How the [creature] got its [feature]” be prepared for a just-so story. That’s the way Rudyard Kipling wrote his farcical tales for children, like “How the camel got his hump” or “How the leopard got his spots.” (One can assume that the females got theirs the same way; “How the rhinoceros got her skin” or “How the whale got her throat.”) Kipling’s cute stories for children were never meant as scientific explanations. Those of Darwinians, however, are intended to be scientific. Even some evolutionists have complained about this bad storytelling habit. Hardcore Harvard materialist Richard Lewontin complained back in 1997 about “the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories” (which, he went on to say, was not bad enough to overthrow evolutionists’ “prior commitment to materialism”).

Lewontin’s description is redundant, because the very nature of a just-so story is that it is unsubstantiated. A scientific explanation that is true (i.e., substantiated) would not be just-so (i.e., “believe it because I said so; that’s just the way it is”).

The frequent complaint by creationists and some evolutionists has been enough to make some Darwinians defensive about their Kipling-like headlines. Here’s a recent example from the University of Chicago: “How the insect got its wings – scientists (at last!) tell the tale.” Note that it is still a tale. But can they make it substantiated this time?

It sounds like a just-so story—“How the Insect Got its Wings”—but it’s really a mystery that has puzzled biologists for over a century. Intriguing and competing theories of insect wing evolution have emerged in recent years, but none were entirely satisfactory.

The tale has graduated from story to mystery, an “intriguing” one at that. But a mystery is still arguably a story. Is that progress? Has it “emerged” by intelligent design?

Finally, a team from the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, has settled the controversy, using clues from long-ago scientific papers as well as state-of-the-art genomic approaches. The study—published this week in Nature Ecology & Evolution—was conducted by research associate Heather Bruce and director Nipam Patel of the Marine Biological Laboratory, which is affiliated with the University of Chicago.

The air of finality conveys the expectation of substantiation. So, UChicago, let’s hear it.

Insect wings, the team confirmed, evolved from an outgrowth or “lobe” on the legs of an ancestral crustacean (yes, crustacean). After this marine animal had transitioned to land-dwelling about 300 million years ago, the leg segments closest to its body became incorporated into the body wall during embryonic development, perhaps to better support its weight on land. “The leg lobes then moved up onto the insect’s back, and those later formed the wings,” said Bruce.

And from a long series of accidents in the nubs, butterflies emerged.

Still sounds like a just-so story. Perhaps we can call it the nub theory of insect wings, since “lobe” and “nub” are both synonyms for protuberance.

Next, the article shows Heather working at a microscope, something Kipling didn’t do, so she gets some points for that. We learn that she replaced the common ancestor of insects, from myriapods (e.g., centipedes) to crustaceans (a subgroup of arthropods). This allowed for her to do a switcheroo, taking a nub (or segment) from a crustacean and turn it into a future wing. Myriapods didn’t have those, so with the new ancestry, Heather doesn’t have to imagine a wing popping into existence by itself. The nub presumably fused into the body wall of a primitive ancestor of insects and crustaceans. With some juggling of nubs, and a little testing with CRISPR, she found some similarities in gene expression between the nubs. This was the basis of her “Aha!” or “wow!” moment:

“But I still didn’t have the wing part of the story,” she said. “So I kept reading and reading, and I came across this 1980s theory that not only did insects incorporate their proximal leg region into the body wall, but the little lobes on the leg later moved up onto the back and formed the wings. I thought, wow, my genomic and embryonic data supports these old theories.”

The article brags on UChicago’s equipment that made possible Heather’s insight. Then it ends with congratulations, putting unsolicited thoughts into the skeptical reader’s mind in Tontological form:

“People get very excited by the idea that something like insect wings may have been a novel innovation of evolution,” Patel said. “But one of the stories that is emerging from genomic comparisons is that nothing is brand new; everything came from somewhere. And you can, in fact, figure out from where.”

Are you excited? Do you get a thrill up your leg that evolution is so powerful it can produce novel innovations as well as derive novelty from pre-existing components? If not, don’t let Patel manipulate your emotions by the power of suggestion. It’s still a story that is ’emerging’ after all, he said, and quite a giant leap, one might conclude, to go from nub to wing by a blind, aimless process that knew nothing about wing design. Flying insects, we all know, are masters of aerodynamics.

In the scientific paper by Heather Bruce and Nipam Patel, Nature Ecology & Evolution, 4, 1703–1712 (1 December 2020), the power of suggestion begins right in the title: “Knockout of crustacean leg patterning genes suggests that insect wings and body walls evolved from ancient leg segments.” In their scientific-sounding jargonwocky, the power of suggestion blows fogma over the jargon to hide the just-so story beneath. The gene comparisons, the authors claim,

…leads to an alignment of insect and crustacean legs that suggests that two leg segments that were present in the common ancestor of insects and crustaceans were incorporated into the insect body wall, moving the proximal exite of the leg dorsally, up onto the back, to later form insect wings. Our results suggest that insect wings are not novel structures, but instead evolved from existing, ancestral structures.

How to Turn Storytelling into Scientific Explanation

How would such a tale graduate from suggestion to scientific explanation? The overall just-so story, “How the insect got its wings,” might be capable of substantiation by breaking it down into smaller just-so stories and then proving each one individually with old-fashioned empirical science:

  • How the scientist imagined the common ancestor of insects and crustaceans
  • How the ancestral nub was not eliminated by negative selection
  • How the nub moved up onto the back
  • How a second nub formed the same way on the other side
  • How the back nubs didn’t interfere with the ancestor’s viability
  • How the useless nubs became incorporated with muscles and nerves
  • How the nub muscles and nerves became incorporated into the brain
  • How the nubs began to vibrate in unison
  • How the vibrations didn’t shake the proto-insect silly
  • How membranes grew out from the nubs
  • How one proto-insect avoided dying by carrying around useless structures while trying to eat and avoid predators
  • How the membranes grew on the females, too
  • How the female proto-insect did not react in horror at the sight of a male with nubs
  • How the membranes grew flat and lightweight
  • How the membrane segments grew according to the Fibonacci series
  • How the proto-insect used membranes to slow its fall after billions of others died trying
  • How the membrane vibrations prevented acceleration of the fall instead of deceleration
  • How insect gyroscopic structures emerged by chance
  • How the membranes moved to the center of gravity
  • How the membranes matched each other’s position and flight-ready specifications
  • How the brain associated the vibrations with locomotion
  • How a heavier-than-air proto-insect learned powered flight by accident
  • How the brain stored the algorithm for powered flight
  • How the powered flight algorithm made it into the gametes for heritability
  • How the evolutionary biologist learned the art of self-deception

Readers can add additional sub-stories they deem to be requirements to see if a scientific explanation emerges. Remember that any sub-story that is not amenable to empirical verification becomes a show-stopper.

How many show-stoppers does it take to stop a show, class?

And so, Nipam and Heather, and the UChicago press office, methinks you are weaseling yourselves out of the responsibility of substantiating your just-so story. This is not science, and CRISPR readings do not make it science. Your paper belongs on the children’s storybook shelf along with Dr Seuss and Cat in the Hat.

CEH readers: Darwinians get away with this because you are not laughing hard enough. Now get out there and do your job!




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