Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Creationists are "Surprised" That Convergent Evolution Works

I try to avoid commenting on anything from the "Discovery Institute" because any response lends legitimacy to their creationist drivel. But their latest attack on science is a subtle trick that once again relies on the ignorance of their readership.

Recently, scientists Christin, Weinreich (Brown University) and Besnard (Imperial College) discovered a fascinating side effect of evolution. Scientists have long known about something called convergent evolution, where species that evolve independently in different parts of the world end up looking remarkably similar. The tasmanian wolf (or thylacine, right) is a classic textbook case: it has remarkable similarities to North American and Eurasian wolves, yet it's actually a marsupial, related to the kangaroos.

The cause of convergent evolution is simple: a solution that works in one part of the world works everywhere. The traits that make wolves a successful predator in America also work for the thylacine in Australia.

Did you ever wonder why horses, cattle and antelopes and sparrows have eyes on the sides of their heads, while dogs, cats, owls and humans have eyes in the front? Simple: dogs, cats, owls and humans are predators, and they hunt horses, cattle, antelopes and sparrows. The prey animals need to have a 360-degree view because danger can be anywhere, while the predators need to see only the prey, and see it well. The stereoscopic front-facing eyes of predators converged (came about independently), as did the widely-spaced, 360-degree-view eyes of prey species.

Convergent evolution is a remarkable but well-understood part of the Theory of Evolution. But Christin et al reported on a remarkable evolutionary parallel that happens at the molecular level: in many cases the phenotype's convergent evolution (the eyes, teeth, organs or metabolic features that we can see) are accompanied by genetic convergent evolution. That is, the very same genes and gene sequences that control something in one species are found to control the same thing in another species!

That was quite surprising ... scientists had always assumed that when traits evolved separately and in complete isolation, there would be no genetic similarity. Yet there it was.

And that's where the trouble began. The Discovery Institute creationists seized on the word "surprising" in the scientists' article and started waving it around, like kids shouting "See! See! This proves it! It's a 'surprise' to these Darwinists, but if God was using his intelligence to design these animals, why it makes perfect sense for Him to re-use the same genes to do the same thing!"

In other words, "There's no mystery here, no important questions that science needs to answer. Why, it's just magic! God did it. Problem solved! We can all go home now." Or in their words,
An intelligent cause may reuse or redeploy the same module in different systems, without there necessarily being any material or physical connection between those systems. Even more simply, intelligent causes can generate identical patterns independently." (Paul Nelson and Jonathan Wells, "Homology in Biology," in Darwinism, Design, and Public Education, pg. 316) ... Might convergent genetic evolution actually be a pointer to intelligent design?
Luckily for science and the advancement of human knowledge, Christin, Weinreich and Besnard aren't creationists, they are scientists, devoted to finding the truth whether it's surprising or not. They're willing to challenge their own assumptions, to admit they might be mistaken, and are open to learn a new truth when they find it.

And in fact, their "surprising" discovery turned out to strengthen, not weaken, the Theory of Evolution. The reason that the convergent evolution of phenotypes is accompanied by convergent evolution of genotypes is that the genome has a limited number of genes to work with, and the genes that can be used to "build" something in one species are probably the same genes that will work in another species.

Suppose you had a big box of tools – wrenches, screwdrivers, cutting torches, chisels, hammers, tongs, pliers and so forth, and you ask two different people to install a door. Would you be surprised that both selected a screwdriver to use to install the hinges on the door, and a hammer to tap the hingepins down? Would you say it was remarkable that neither of them used the cutting torch?

Of course not. But that's exactly what the creationists are claiming. More particularly, that's what author Casey Luskin ("an attorney with graduate degrees in both science and law," so he's trained in both trickery and science) is writing in his article, "Convergent Genetic Evolution: 'Surprising' Under Unguided Evolution, Expected Under Intelligent Design." I won't link to it because I refuse to give Google-cred to their web site, but I'm sure you know how to find it if you really want to read his drivel.

(Update: A reader at reddit.com pointed out that the original text used the term "coevolution" in a couple places. The correct term is "convergent evolution.")


  1. I guess the fact that we find amazement in such an 'evil' concept as evolution is too much for them to wrap their minds around. A couple of years ago in journey to nonbelief, I did a lot study/reading on evolution just b/c I really didn't know that much about it. The more I read the more fascinated I became. It gave me a true appreciation for nature. Instead of fluff like "goddidit & isn't it
    beautiful? He made it all for me!".

  2. Like Pierre Teilhard De Chardin I see evolution as the face of God, the orderly unfolding of a creative universe leading to us - the mind of God.

    The flaw with the model used by Darwin, Dawkins, etc. is the idea of "randomness". As far as i'm aware nobody has ever proven that such a thing exists. it would seem to contravene the law of cause and effect.

    Yes, evolution is blind. There is no external designer.

    But its nature is the inevitable realisation of intrinsic potentials in atoms, cells, organisms, etc. in dialogue with their environment. Nothing can come in from outside the system and everything is connected by an intricate web of cause and effect. So there is nothing random. An amoeba grew into man in the same way a seed grows into a tree. There is no such thing as an accident. Some branches of the tree flourish, others die, but it was all inevitable. There is no directing hand, but because nature is orderly and balanced and interrelated, we never ended up with flowers without bees to pollinate them.

  3. David -- Of course randomness exists ... true randomness. It's the essence of subatomic theory and is embodied uncountable times every second by things like radioactive decay, electron tunneling in semiconductors and many other natural phenomena. And it IS the driving force behind evolution, as has been demonstrated many times by modern studies of viruses and other fast-evolving species. If someone tells you otherwise, they haven't been doing their homework.

    If you want to call this "the face of God," I can hardly object, because you're essentially saying, "The universe and the laws of physics are God." But that's not much of a God ... it's like Plato's "Unmoved mover" who is so abstract as to be uninteresting to humans.

    There is nothing inevitable in life. Cause and effect are only manifest at the macroscopic level that you and I can see. Underneath, there is massive randomness, and it affects you and me directly every day.

    Just ask a mother whose child died of AIDS. AIDS evolves by random events caused by thermal energy, radiation, charged radicals in your body and other events that are truly random. I mean TRULY random, by any meaningful definition. God is not behind it, there is no cause and effect. The AIDS virus randomly mutates, and you die.

    The word "Accident" has human connotations, because it differentiates between things we wished would and wouldn't happen. Nature's randomness can't be described with this word.

  4. I am continuously amazed at the profound faith evolutionists have in a theory that has no real scientific evidence! The further into complexity the evolutionist reaches, the deeper and wider the chasm they must cross to link the non-living to the living. Ahh, but the ultimate wand of time becomes the hero to the plot! The creationist is the loathed antogonist who replaces time with a creator, and is accused of being unscientific, narrow minded, and unintelligent, but who really has closed themselves to no other possibility. You chase your tail into absurdities finding yourself in the same place with every cirlce! The box you look in has no way out, and everywhere you look you find the same thing; more questions. Look outside that box, and you will find answers. What appears to be drivel you will find to be wisdom. Beware the danger of having a "microscopic view of a telescopic realm!" The truth can be missed in the details!

  5. Duane – I am continuously amazed that creationists continue to claim there is no evidence for evolution. The evidence is massive and overwhelming. It comes from virtually every branch of science. It's incredible that creationists are still able to stifle our educational system to the point where people are able to make claims like yours. Your claim that there is no evidence is simply wrong, and it's a shame that we live in a society where beliefs like yours are rampant.

  6. Craig - The difference between my belief and yours is that I admit mine is by faith.

    Convergent evolution only compounds the problems the evolution theory had in the first place. Now organisms have to evolve simultaneously while having mutually beneficial attributes!

    The crucial points for me are matter arising from nothing, and life arising from non-living matter. I believe that "in the beginning God" is less absurd than "in the beginning dirt."

    It's often said by evolutionists that evolution doesn't and isn't supposed to deal with origins of life; that is cosmology. I suggest if that is the case, you have an incomplete system to study the world with. You cannot deal with the history of life without dealing with its conception.

    As far as I know, the prevailing teaching in all public education systems in North America and the rest of the western world is evolution. It is creationism that is not allowed to be taught in public schools. To that I ask why? If evolution is such a well proven 'fact,' what does the evolutionist have to worry about? Surely no proper thinking person presented with both theories would choose creation over evolution to be true! But there is worry from evolutionists, so creationism is taught privately at no expense to the tax payer. So who is really stifling the education system? But what is taught has nothing to do with what is true, so is a non-issue in the debate.

  7. No, Duane. The difference between your belief and mine is that I went to college and studied science and learned why it's not faith at all, but rather a system by which we can become more and more confident about which things are true, which are probably true, which are still tenuous, and which are probably false or false. There's no faith at all. Only knowledge.

    I see the sun come up every day, and then learn how gravity and planetary orbitals work. Is it "faith" that I predict the sun will come up tomorrow?

    And how is that any different than my knowledge of evolution? The theory of evolution is by FAR the most well-proved theory in the history of civilization. It has more evidence than the theory of relativity by several orders of magnitude. It has vastly more evidence than the theory of quantum mechanics. Yet creationists don't question relativity or quantum mechanics. Why? Because it doesn't conflict with the Bible.

    And by the way, if evolution is a "belief," then both quantum mechanics and relativity will have to turn out to be false. If you take the time to learn about relativity, quantum mechanics, and evolution, you too could understand why they're inextricably connected in a vast web of human knowledge.

  8. Just saying your belief isn't faith doesn't make it so. Look at your statement, "a system by which we can become more and more confident about which things are true, which are probably true, which are still tenuous, and which are probably false or false." If you think there is no faith involved there I don't believe you are being honest with yourself.

    Show me life coming from non-living matter. Where is the evidence? You can quantum mechanic and theory of relativity it all day long, but in the end you can not show me life coming from non-living matter. That Craig, takes faith to believe. Prove a fossil had offspring of a different kind of organism than itself. Prove a fossil had offspring period. I think appealing to the realm of possibility and probability buries evolution even deeper in the mire of impossibilities.

    Predicting the sun to come up tomorrow is basing the future on something testable today. To say a whale came from a cow a long time ago is... well, let's just say it's not the same. You are welcome to believe that, but it is strictly a faith based belief.

    And by the way, quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity have nothing to do with evolution. How did either one, or both together turn a rock into a dog? Please explain to me how this happens.

  9. I wish you and your family a blessed and merry Christmas!

  10. Just found this article. Your analogy makes no sense. You're giving them preset tools, fine, but don't give them a preset job. Convergent evolution works more like this: they are people with the same tools and same amount of materials, living in a harsh environment and need to build a shelter to protect themselves. Convergent evolution says that they build the exact same shelter in the exact same way...not merely put a hinge on a door. You give evolution too little credit.


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