Intelligent Design

Darwin in the fossils

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For me, the importance of this piece in Nature is not so much that, by assuming what is to be proven, it is possible to demonstrate the obvious (that heavily spined fish will not have an advantage where there are no predators). The significance is that this trivial example of existing trait filtering and selection is then touted as a major discovery of Natural Selection at work in the fossil record. Is this not an admission that microevolution is the best that the fossil record ever shows?

Evolutionary biology: Darwin in the fossils Andrew P. Hendry (heavily edited excerpts)

“Although adaptation by natural selection is thought to drive evolution, it has been difficult to confirm this process in the fossil record. The evidence has been there all along; we just haven’t been looking properly.

Statistical analyses of fossil data generally fail to confirm that natural selection strongly influences morphological evolution. Taken at face value, these results might suggest that organisms have evolved their distinctive phenotypes without much aid from directional selection and that Darwinian mechanisms might not be particularly important in generating the diversity of life.

In a series of fossil fishes from Nevada, Bell found that the existing methods inferred randomness almost every time. We have a pattern that is logical and manifestly obvious but cannot be confirmed by statistics. Bell concludes “current methods to study rates or patterns of phenotypic evolution in the fossil record are strongly biased against detecting directional selection”.

Hunt refined the existing methods and used these methods to provide strong support for directional selection in the stickleback fossils. Their analysis is akin to a positive control in showing that a new statistical method can infer the correct evolutionary process when that process is almost certain to be acting.

The retreat from a ‘one model to rule them all’ vision will almost certainly generate additional support from fossil sequences for the action of natural selection.”

 Nature 451, 779-780 (14 February 2008) | doi:10.1038/451779a

21 Replies to “Darwin in the fossils

  1. 1
    ptfxnjxn says:

    So basically, they have “intelligently designed” a statistical model that evolves when necessary in order to keep their currently unfit theory from being selected against?

    I had to recheck the username under the header to make sure it wasn’t Gallapagos Finch. I’m still chuckling.

  2. 2
    jerry says:

    I am not sure what this post is saying. If I am reading it right, is it saying that genetic drift is more frequent than natural selection as a determination of morphology? If so then this is the Larry Moran’s thesis who occasionally visits us to mock us.

    The modern evolutionary thesis includes genetic drift and gene flow along with natural selection as the major determinants of a phenotype given a gene pool and a specific environment. So when you think NS, include in it genetic drift and gene flow. Or is this saying something different.

  3. 3
    sabre says:

    I think what he’s saying is, keep trying different different statistical methods on any data set until you find one that supports your a priori conclusion.

    It’s quite simple, really, and highly gratifying. Seriously, does this author actually consider this “science”?

  4. 4
    ptfxnjxn says:

    If this isn’t a science-stopper, then I don’t know what is. 21st century science indeed.

    Nancy Pelosi once commented, “You can define victory any way you want.” How apropos.

    Copernicus must be turning over in his grave.

  5. 5
    Bob O'H says:

    jerry – don’t worry about not understanding the post. idnet.com.au doesn’t understand the paper either.

    Look folks, we have an example where it’s clear that natural selection is occurring. The statistical methods typically used to detect selection don’t work on this case – basically, they have poor power. So, what do we do? Throw our hands up in the air and say we can’t do anything? No, we try and develop better tools for detecting selection – ones which will detect it in cases when it’s clearly there.

    Conceptually, this is no different to things like cancer detection – we want a detection tool with high sensitivity and high specificity. If we have one with a sensitivity of about zero, then we should try to improve it.

    Bob

  6. 6
    leo says:

    We were actually talking about this commentary in the lab yesterday. What idnet.com.au conveniently failed to post was the part where the author admitted that there were some flaws with this approach. I don’t have a login at home so I can’t post that, but generally they said that this is a first step in finding a better statistical method of comparing fossil data. Pretty much what Bob said.

  7. 7
    PannenbergOmega says:

    What exactly is this article saying? Can someone (who knows what their talking about) explain this to me?

  8. 8
    larrynormanfan says:

    PannenbergOmega, Bob O’H knows exactly what he’s talking about. The article is a “News and Views” commentary on recent work by Gene Hunt at the Smithsonian, called “The relative importance of directional change, random walks, and stasis in the evolution of fossil lineages,” is available online here.

    Anyway, the article in Nature says that “The question to be addressed is whether directional selection really is absent in the fossil record, or whether the standard methods of analysis are simply biased against its detection.” Hunt’s work, it suggests, provides a partial answer to this question: “Hunt refined the existing methods and, with Bell and Mike Travis, used these methods to provide strong support for directional selection in the stickleback fossils.” So, it’s a question of how to measure directional selection. As Bob said.

    Read the PNAS article in the link, which is freely available. That should provide some guidance.

  9. 9
    larrynormanfan says:

    Whoops. I thought the article was freely available. I’ve only linked to the abstract. It’s freely available at my institution, but apparently not yet for everybody. Sorry.

  10. 10
    PannenbergOmega says:

    Hi Larry, thank you.
    So basically this article is saying that nature is contingent, and ID is wrong.

    Am I right?

  11. 11
    PannenbergOmega says:

    OHHH!! Got it!
    I’m not as dumb as you think I am.

    You two are Darwinists.

    First off, I’m skeptical of any claims you people make. There is a secular-progressive conspiracy.

  12. 12
    larrynormanfan says:

    No, I’m saying the article is tracing the working out of a methodological problem about how to measure directional selection. That’s a narrower kind of claim.

  13. 13
    jerry says:

    From what I can make out from the above and the abstract is that natural selection is only apparent in a small percentage of fossils. There rest show no change or a genetic drift of features. Even within the natural selection group there are no appearance of new or novel features.

    In other words this study completely supports ID and its position on the fossil record. There is no threat to anything here. In fact if one wanted to, you could classify this as ID research since it supports ID.

  14. 14
    larrynormanfan says:

    Well, jerry, Hunt says his work supports punctuated equilibrium, and punctuated equilibrium is critical of standard neo-Darwinism, so by the Law of Transferable Anti-Darwinism, ID gets to claim it for itself. Is that about right?

  15. 15
    Bob O'H says:

    From what I can make out from the above and the abstract is that natural selection is only apparent in a small percentage of fossils. There rest show no change or a genetic drift of features.

    Not quite. The statistical method for inferring selection says this, but the point of the article is that the method is crap.

    The paper is about methodology, and only indirectly about the underlying science. Basically, we have a crap method for detecting selection: we know it’s crap because it doesn’t work even when selection is strong. So, someone came up with a better approach.

    I think it really says nothing about the evolution/ID debate.

    Bob

  16. 16
    jerry says:

    larrynormanfan,

    you said

    ” so by the Law of Transferable Anti-Darwinism, ID gets to claim it for itself. Is that about right?”

    No. If the evidence provided in the study supports an ID proposition, then it supports ID. It makes no difference what the author says. I maintain that there is much research that supports ID that is not branded as such. Every fossil study which shows no movement towards complexity and novelty is another study that supports ID.

    Your evoking of punctuated equilibrium in no way undermines the fact that the data supports ID. The author can say what he wants.

    There is a big difference between ID and punctuated equilibrium. ID says that there is no examples of complexity and novelty forming by natural means. All the evidence ever done in biological research supports this proposition. Punctuated equilibrium says there is rapid change that produces novelty and complexity. This has never observed once and is only the product of someone’s imagination. So which is better supported by the data. So the author claim that the data supports punctuated equilibrium is nonsense.

    larrynormanfan, maybe you should make a name for yourself in the evolutionary debate by studying the Law of Transferable Anti-Darwinism and write a book on it. Sarcasm seems to be your best argument for anything and you could exploit it in your new book.

  17. 17
    jerry says:

    Bob O’H,

    Anything that reports data that shows no development in complexity and novelty in the fossil record supports ID. It is another sampling of the fossil record and like every other sampling of the fossil evidence, it supports ID.

    As I say ID positive research is all over the biological and paleontological records. It is just not labeled as such.

    I am sure the emphasis was on a methodology for detecting natural selection. However, that very fact is telling. If there were obvious examples to support natural selection, they would be mentioned in contrast to those cases where it has to be teased out by some sophisticated statistical techniques. But even in the obvious cases there is never anything that undermines the ID proposition that there is no evidence for the formation of complexity and novelty.

    All fossil evidence supports the Edge of Evolution whether it is about methodology or about the fossil findings themselves.

  18. 18
    PannenbergOmega says:

    I suspect ‘bililiad’ is a troll.

  19. 19
    Atom says:

    We can infer that any unknowable mechanism appears to be the intelligent designer. That is the beauty of Dr Dembski’s filter.

    Change the above to:

    “We can infer that any contingent information complex of greater than 500 bits that simultaneously matches an independent, compressible pattern, while not being due to the regularity of natural law is the product of design. And this tentative, currently best, scientific inference is potentially falsifiable by future evidence.”

    Then your quote would be correct.

  20. 20
    idnet.com.au says:

    Leo

    “What idnet.com.au conveniently failed to post was the part where the author admitted that there were some flaws with this approach.”

    Law does not allow me to quote the whols paper. I would if I could.

  21. 21
    gpuccio says:

    I have read the article in Nature. I wholly agree that it is a clear example of manipulating the methodological approach to demonstrate what one already believes. Have those people never heard of human biases?

    If you applied the same principles to medicine, for instance, (abandoning the traditional approach of rejecting the random null hypothesis, refining your statistical models to fit a single example where the causal model assumed is a typical “just so” darwinian story), then you could probably “find” evidence of anything you want. Maybe we should inform drug enterprises about that, and quit all those boring double blind RCTs…

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