O’Leary for News’s new series here at Evolution News & Views:
A while back, I started a series here called “Science Fictions” that I began by asking a simple question: Why is the space alien understood as science but Bigfoot as mythology? The reason I asked is that, still lacking specimens of either entity, decade after decade, answers are likely to be revealing.
Those answers help us see how “science” is understood, allowing us to interpret claims about the origin of the universe, life, human life, and the human mind.
In general, naturalism (the idea that inanimate nature somehow created minds) seems to be the guiding principle of enterprises classed as science today, even though the evidence actually goes in the opposite direction.
In a new series, “Talk to the Fossils,” I would like now to look at ways evolution might happen (or not).
Contrary to what we sometimes hear, few people doubt that evolution occurs in principle. The scientifically serious questions revolve around mechanisms, that is, around the question of — as biochemist Michael Behe puts it in Darwin’s Black Box –how exactly does it occur?
The point of Behe’s critique is often missed: Anyone can come up with a “how” explanation — that is, “how, according to my own grand theory.”
Science is not about merely how. It is about how, exactly. More.
After fifteen years of news coverage on issues of interest to the ID community, I finally got to say what seems evident to a news writer (who doesn’t wave pom poms for Darwin’s followers):
First, the fossils speak, but hardly with one voice:
University of Chicago biochemist James Shapiro, not a design theorist, offers in one of his lectures four kinds of rapid, evolutionary change that Darwin “could not have imagined”: horizontal DNA transfer, symbiogenesis, genome doubling, and built-in mechanisms of genome restructuring. His approach is in sharp contrast to the “defend Darwin” strategy usually championed in the academy. So it is no surprise that he is a controversial figure. But is he right in saying that many possible mechanisms of evolution owe little or nothing to Darwin’s theory, the only concept of evolution most of us hear about?
It is reasonably estimated that there are 8.7 million species today (excluding bacteria), but that only about 14 percent have been identified — and only 9 percent of ocean life forms. Our picture of Earth’s life forms might change radically if we had more information about all the others. For example, an entire kingdom of life, the Archaea, was only identified in the 1970s.
How did all these life forms get to be where they are? As we examine some evidence-based mechanisms, we should keep in mind a critical question: How does a given mechanism fit our current picture of evolution? And how much change can it account for?
The welter of data coming back from paleontology, genome mapping, and other studies presents a challenging picture. With so much new information, the history of life begins increasingly to resemble the history of human civilizations. There is peril in that, principally to older ideas that depended on less information and more overarching theory.
Overarching theories often falter when evidence replaces speculation. Darwinian evolution is, despite legislative protection, certainly one of the victims. By contrast, discarded and ridiculed theories like Lamarck’s (inheritance of characteristics acquired in life by the parents) may turn out to have some basis in epigenetics.
So, to start this series, instead of contemplating yet another picture derived from grand theories, let us assemble, under eight headings, some of what we have learned in past decades that we did not expect. That might help us evaluate theories, new and old. More.
What is the true significance of convergent evolution?
A century or so ago, British paleontologist St. George Mivart noted that Darwin’s theory of evolution “does not harmonize with closely similar structures of diverse origin” (convergent evolution). There is more evidence for Mivart’s doubts now than ever.
According to current Darwinian evolutionary theory, each gain in information is the result of a great many tiny, modest gains in fitness over millions or billions of years, due to natural selection acting on random mutations. The resulting solutions should then follow inheritance laws, in the sense that the more similar life forms are according to biological classifications, the more similar their genome map should be.
That just did not work out. Different species can have surprisingly similar genes. For example, kangaroos are marsupial mammals, not placentals. Yet their genes are close to humans. Researchers: “We thought they’d be completely scrambled, but they’re not.”
Kangaroos? Shark and human proteins, meanwhile, are also “stunningly similar.” Indeed, sharks are genetically closer to humans than they are to aquarium zebrafish. Researchers: “We were very surprised… “
Sharks? But does all this not raise a serious question? The popular science literature claims that a near identity between the human and chimpanzee genome is irrefutable evidence of common descent. Why then do we hear so little about any of these findings, which muddy the waters? Why are science writers not even curious? More.
Horizontal gene transfer: Sorry, Darwin, it’s not your evolution any more
Horizontal gene transfer (HGT), sometimes called lateral gene transfer (LGT), is a profound recent discovery in genetics: Genome mapping has shown that bacteria can acquire genes from the bacteria around them –that is, horizontally — rather than from a previous generation (vertical transfer), as when a parent cell divides into two daughter cells. They can transfer multiple segments of DNA at once to fellow species members.
But that was hardly the critical finding. This is: Because bacteria are found everywhere and are comparatively simple, they can move newly acquired genes between life forms in the other domains of life. They can produce heritable changes with no recent common ancestor. …
So we are a long way from when biochemist Christian de Duve (1917-2013), grudgingly admitted the significance of horizontal gene transfer, noting that it “… has been recognized as a major complication when attempting to use molecular data to reconstruct the tree of life.”
It certainly has, because where HGT is in play, there just isn’t a tree of life. Even popular science writers are beginning to recognize the significance of this fact. More.
Epigenetic change: Lamarck, wake up, you’re wanted in the conference room!
To recap, Darwinism entails vertical transfer of genes from a common ancestor to descendants. Horizontal gene transfer means transfer of genes from one organism to another on contact, irrespective of the ancestry of either life form. HGT is a form of evolution, yes. But it drastically weakens the status of Darwinism as the “only known theory.” Any Darwinian claim about evolution must first rule out HGT as a possible explanation. And, as we shall shortly see, it must rule out epigenetics as well.
Why does this historic shift in the burden of proof receive comparatively little attention? Probably it’s due to the overwhelming acceptance of Darwinism as a cultural metaphor and philosophy of life. One thinks, for example, of Amazon citing “purposeful Darwinism” and taking Darwinian Theory to the max as a defense against a recent exposé of the firm’s labor conditions. The concepts Amazon advances are scientifically meaningless but culturally meaningful. And culture drowns out science.
Thus, when talking to fossils (or current living forms), our challenge is to listen to what they have to say, not what the Darwinian interpreters of the fossils (and of almost everything else) have to say.
Which brings us to epigenetics. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) was an early evolutionist who proposed that life forms could acquire information from their environment and pass it on in their genes. He was dismissed, when not ridiculed, by Darwinists for many decades (though not, as it happens, by Darwin). But the basic thrust of his idea has recently resurfaced in epigenetics.
There is an irony in the way the resurgence came about. A key science achievement of the 1990s was the mapping of the human genome.
Who guessed that the genome, of all things, would be, not Darwinism’s triumph, but its grave?
Devolution: Getting back to the simple life
Most of the time, when we think of evolution, we mean mechanisms for the growth of complex new information. After all, entropy (the tendency for disorder to increase over time) can satisfactorily explain loss of information. Yet, in the history of life, some forms survive while — or even by — losing information (devolution). Their history may tell us something useful too.
We all know devolution when we see it — a jar of pennies becomes a doorstop, a computer becomes a boat anchor, the XYZ volume of the Encyclopedia props up a too-short table leg.
But interest in devolution of life forms spiked with the recent discovery of giant viruses, which a 2014 editorial at The Scientist considered a possible fourth domain of life.
The giant mimivirus for example, unlike conventional viruses, “carries many genes thought to be unique to cellular life, suggesting that it evolved from a cell.”
If so, strictly speaking, it “devolved” from a cell. More.
Devolution caused researchers to think Incorrect thoughts.
Life continues to ignore what evolution experts say (look, this is becoming a habit!)
Readers may well wonder about the term “mechanism” of evolution, as used here. Consistent with Michael Behe’s question, “How, exactly?”, it means a process observed to account for inherited change. If a bacterium is observed to absorb antibiotic resistance genes from another bacterium and pass them on during cell division, we will term that a mechanism. It is not a theory about what “must have happened” over vast tracts of time; it is an event we have witnessed, produced by causes we can identify.
But what drives the process? That is, why do living cells attempt to protect themselves in ways that rocks and rotting wood do not? As we shall see, a number of non-Darwinian biologists now focus on the way that cells have changed and do change themselves to respond to challenges in their environment — natural genetic engineering. More.
Natural genetic engineering? Natural popcorn? Or something more important?
Why does the animal want to live?
We can build machines — we create them to do what we want — and then put them out with the trash. But not free-living life forms. They try to survive. To deny this would require us to say, as Barham notes, that purpose is an illusion.
Part of the problem between Barham and Shapiro, which led to an exchange of views, sounds conceptual. What does Dr. Shapiro mean by “natural” processes, as opposed to “more than strictly material” ones, as above? A strictly material process would be a series of events fully explained by material processes (for example, what happens when a loose stone falls off a cliff).
But some entities in nature are not material at all: the number 7 comes to mind. Some philosophers have argued that we can construct a theory of items grouped by sevens without using a concept like 7. But whatever advantages these philosophers’ suggestion may offer, it does not represent what people do. We have an immaterial concept of 7 that organizes items and events, instantiated in various media at various times. It is natural without being material in any meaningful way. More.
Natural selection: Could it be the single greatest idea ever invented?
Darwin’s theory of evolution (natural selection acting on random mutations) is a cultural icon, like the Big Bang, or e=mc2. One needn’t know anything specific about any of these ideas. Indeed, media professionals can be passionately devoted to Darwinism without knowing anything about it at all.
That makes sense. Professed loyalty to Darwin is an admission to good parties. And Darwinism’s relationship to modern warfare and eugenics is drowned out by cultural support. True, hillbillies thump the Bible against it, to the groans of the better educated. But what if…?
First, what exactly is Darwin’s theory anyway, other than an invite to the approved parties?
Here it is: Information can be created without intelligence. That is, natural selection acting on random mutation explains the order of life we see all around us. What can’t survive won’t, and that explains how very complex life forms and structures — including the human mind — get built up.
True: Things that can’t survive don’t. But why would that fact alone drive nature to produce anything as simple as a kitten, let alone a math genius?
We’ve looked earlier at documented ways evolution can really happen — if all we really want to know is how life forms can change over time. That said, I spent the last fifteen years trying to understand the cultural part. Darwinism isn’t just about evolution as such. It is also a way of looking at life. It tries to explain life without assuming that there is any actual mind at all, dispensing with traditional philosophies and religions. More.
And how is that working out? Also, just out of interest, why do so many Christians support it?
Can sex explain evolution?
Picture a triplex: Tom, a world class cribbage addict in Apartment A, does no work and has no money (apart from social assistance and charity). Dick, in Apartment B, works eight shifts a week in trucking, so has no trouble paying his bills. Harry, formerly in Apartment C, went off and became a multimillionaire (legally) in packaging and shipping for the software industry.
Does work alone explain Harry’s success? Did he work a thousand times harder and more often than Dick? Is that even possible? Or is it all an accident of fate, such that Tom or Dick might have stumbled down the same way and done the same thing?
Most human beings tend to doubt that it is so simple. Also, there are not a billion generations between Tom, Dick, and Harry. Not even one, actually.
And if each of these guys somehow ends up with fertile heirs, is any of them “unfit”?
Very well, so let us now look at Darwin’s other theory, sexual selection: More.
Could we all get together and evolve as a group?
No subject apart from religion has vexed Darwin’s followers more than why people sacrifice themselves for others. They have embraced the ambiguous term “altruism” because it does not clearly mean “compassion” or “heroism.” Rather, it is to be seen as the same natural force that causes worker ants to pass on their genes by serving their queen, who lays lots of eggs, instead of reproducing themselves (kin selection). Maybe this force creates the change we are looking for.
A champion of this proposed mechanism was evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson.
But then Wilson dramatically abandoned kin selection in 2010 in a Nature paper, “The evolution of eusociality,” co-authored with mathematicians. He argued that strict Darwinism (natural selection) “provides an exact framework for interpreting empirical observations,” dispensing with the other theories he had promoted for decades. Over 140 leading biologists signed a letter to Nature, attacking the 2010 paper. Some called his new, strictly Darwin model “unscholarly,” “transparently wrong,” and “misguided.”
What? All this is said of a Darwin-only model? More.
Many species can’t be bothered with evolution. If we go by the fact that they survive tens or hundreds of millions of years pretty much unchanged.
That wasn’t what Darwin told us to expect.
Darwin explained clearly and eloquently the pattern we should find in the fossil record if his theory was correct, let alone the juggernaut that his present day supporters insist:
It may be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinizing, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good; silently and insensibly working, wherever and whenever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life.
However, it hasn’t turned out that way. Nature seems not to like such orderly schedules much.
Species often explode suddenly into life, as in the Cambrian explosion, which even Darwin found to be a problem for natural selection. (See the new short video from Discovery Institute, The Information Enigma.)
Some of them do not persist beyond the age to which they are adapted. That does not require an explanation.
But others just settle down to long eons where they don’t change much, no matter what the environment. … The cockroach, for example, is still around and still easily identifiable after perhaps 350 million years. The 350-million-year-old coelacanth fish and the 300-million-year-old horsetail grass survive largely unchanged.
When the coelacanth, supposed extinct for 70 million years, turned up in the Indian Ocean in 1938, it disappointed biologists who hoped for a living proof of Darwinism. It is a living proof of non-Darwinism.
Similarly, a recently discovered 425-million-year-old crustacean showed no significant changes in internal body parts, compared to present-day specimens. One researcher called it “a demonstration of unbelievable stability.” But the stability is only unbelievable if we start with Darwin’s assumption that “natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinizing, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest.” Apparently not. More.
Welcome to the world of stasis. To understand how evolution happens, we need to pay more attention to cases where it doesn’t happen.
Conclusions: What the fossils told us in their own words
Common ancestry was at one time mainly a religious dispute. Everyone thinks they know what happened at the iconic Scopes “Monkey” Trial (they don’t, actually).
But now, since genome mapping became routine, the unthinkable has happened: Actual genomes do not demonstrate the Tree of Life in the neat and orderly way that underlies Darwinian accounts of evolution. They could hardly be expected to do so, given the creativity many life forms exhibit with their own genes via natural genetic engineering, horizontal gene transfer, epigenetics, and a crowd of other mechanisms. The Tree of Life has become a bush or a circle of life.
Finally, when we add up all the demonstrable mechanisms of change in life forms over time, a great deal of the picture is still missing. Either there are many more mechanisms still to be discovered or there is a fundamental force we are not accounting for.
Part of the answer probably lies in the application of information theory to the history of life. On that score, see The Information Enigma More.
Read there, argue here.
See the other series: The cosmology series is here. The origin of life series is here. The human evolution series is here. The human mind series is here.
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