November 29, 2021 | David F. Coppedge

Darwin-Free Science Is Possible

Scientists can just report the evidence without evolutionary
stories. Here’s a good example and a bad example.


Seals and sea lions, both pinnipeds, have whiskers. Sea lions have ear flaps and can ‘walk’ with their front flippers. (Corel Pro Photos)

Good Example: Sea Lions

Sea lion whiskers can move like human fingertips: here’s how we found out (Robyn Grant, The Conversation). This is an enjoyable story of good old-fashioned experimental science. Grant, a Senior Lecturer in Comparative Physiology and Behaviour at Manchester Metropolitan University, tells how her team answered a biological question: can other mammals use whiskers like humans use fingers? Her 100% Darwin-free article starts with awe of the human hand:

Humans have amazing fingertips. They are sensitive and can be moved over objects to feel its softness, texture, size and shape. These movements are both complex, and “task-specific”. This means that you adopt different movements depending on what you want to feel about an object. We squeeze or push objects to judge softness, and feel around the edges of objects to judge size and shape. And if you wanted to feel the texture of an object, you would sweep your fingertips over the surface.

Such “high level of control over our sensory perception,” called active touch sensing, is not known to exist in other mammals without fingers. But many animals have whiskers: rats, cats and sea lions. To investigate whether they have active touch sensing, Grant’s team trained Lo, a California sea lion, to recognize different shapes and surfaces while blindfolded, using her whiskers alone. They found that Lo and behold, they do.

The ability to switch whisker exploration strategies between tactile tasks enabled Lo to complete the tasks efficiently. Lo found the correct fish in almost all trials and made decisions quickly, in under half a second. Video footage of the other sea lions also showed them employing the same strategies, so we think that this might be common among California sea lions in general.

They published their results in the Journal of Experimental Biology, also 100% Darwin-free. As is common in experimental science, the results yielded more questions. They are next going to see if this is a general talent among other pinnipeds.

This is the first time that task-specific whisker touch sensing has been documented. It demonstrates that studying whiskers can give us important insights into animal movement control, as well as their perception and cognition.

That last sentence was a prime opportunity to say that the research added to their ‘understanding of sea lion evolution’ or something similar, but Grant restrained herself for unknown reasons, and just let the evidence speak for itself.

Bad Example: Jellyfish

Two other writers could not restrain the Darwin habit. In otherwise exemplary experimental work at Caltech on jellyfish neurons, awe-inspiring abilities of jellyfish were attributed to evolution.

How to Read a Jellyfish’s Mind (Caltech). Like the above article about sea lions, this press release begins with awe over a human ability:

The human brain has 100 billion neurons, making 100 trillion connections. Understanding the precise circuits of brain cells that orchestrate all of our day-to-day behaviors—such as moving our limbs, responding to fear and other emotions, and so on—is an incredibly complex puzzle for neuroscientists. But now, fundamental questions about the neuroscience of behavior may be answered through a new and much simpler model organism: tiny jellyfish.

The brain is obviously too big a challenge to understand in evolutionary terms. But then the article goes off the rails into Darwin fantasyland. The Caltech team studied the “simple” nerve net in tiny 1-cm-long jellies, and found them more sophisticated than expected. They must have evolved! This ability must have emerged in deep time!

This decentralized body plan seems to be a highly successful evolutionary strategy, as jellyfish have persisted throughout the animal kingdom for hundreds of millions of years.

The scientists, led by biologist David Anderson, studied the neurons of the tiny jellyfish that were genetically modified to make their neurons glow. They were amazed that jellyfish were as capable of stimulus-response actions as worms, able to bend their bells to ingest food and escape predators. That’s remarkable, they thought, given that “worms are evolutionarily closer to humans than they are to jellyfish.” They studied jellyfish as “the first nervous systems” that presumably evolved. And yet their actual experiments showed more organization than evolution: the nerve nets are divided into “pizza slice” sections that can be first responders to sensations of prey caught in the tentacles, bending over to bring the prey toward the stomach.

The Caltech team did not even try to imagine how a neuron ’emerged’ by unguided processes, or became organized into a neural net with ability to respond in functional ways. Neurons are oblivious to responses. They have rows of ion channels that are stimulated by touch, but have no way of controlling actions unless higher-order designs can read the signals and decide what to do about them. With its claim that jellyfish found “a highly successful evolutionary strategy,” they did not explain what random mutations were selected to innovate a strategy and make it successful.

How jellyfish control their lives (Nature). In its write-up on the Caltech research, Nature News also gave credit to evolution:

Jellyfish neurons seem to be organized in hierarchical patterns that independently control different body parts, the scientists say. Transgenic jellyfish could serve as a model for studying how brains and nervous systems evolved, they suggest.

Their own brains are descendants of these first evolved brains, they believe. This makes their readers wonder if Caltech brains are more stimulus-response evolutionary strategies to retrieve prey than organs capable of enabling rational thought. If they thought hard enough, they might wonder what Darwinism had to do with their findings about sophisticated jellyfish neural systems.

We have shown a good example and a bad example of scientific reasoning. Both cases demonstrated good experimental procedures. The first avoided mention of evolution at all. The second did not really focus on evolution, but inserting the phrase “how brains and nervous systems evolved” served no better purpose than a nervous twitch or knee jerk.

Scientists and reporters, pursue the day when this bad habit can be overcome, and science can be fun, amazing, and clean: free of the mind pollution that finds euphoria in repeating, “stuff happens.”

For relief, watch Illustra’s recent beautiful short film about jellyfish:

View this and other short nature films from Illustra Media at the John 10:10 Project, and consider signing up and supporting their work.

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Categories: Marine Biology

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