Feature Article - February 2009
by Do-While Jones

Scientific American’s Evolution Issue - Part 2

Scientific American celebrates the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth.

Last month we began a review of the evolution articles in the January 2009 issue of Scientific American. Unfortunately, we didn’t have space to cover it completely, despite adding two extra pages to our six-page newsletter. This month we will take up where we left off.

Human Evolution

We were really looking forward to what Scientific American would say about human evolution. They finally got around to it on page 60. But they only devoted four paragraphs to human evolution, and they needed really big margins to make the article take up the whole page. The first two paragraphs don’t even talk about human evolution! Those first two paragraphs just say Darwin was reluctant to talk about human evolution, and so Huxley had to do it for him. Furthermore, they say, Huxley had “only a handful of human fossils” upon which to base his arguments. The article concludes with these two paragraphs of marginal substance.

Since then [Huxley’s time], abundant evidence from fossils and genetic analyses has validated Darwin’s claims. We now know that our closest living relative is the chimpanzee and that humans arose in Africa between five million and seven million years ago, after our lineage diverged from that of the chimp. We have also learned that for much of human prehistory, our predecessors shared the planet with one or more other hominid species. Indeed, far from being a linear succession of increasingly upright creatures, the human family tree contains many dead branches.

The story of our origins is far from complete. Paleontologists are eager to find fossils of the last common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans, for example. And exactly how, researchers have wondered, was Homo sapiens able to outcompete the Neandertals and other archaic humans? Many such mysteries about our collective past persist. Darwin’s insights will no doubt continue to light the way to solving them. 1

Despite her claims, they still don’t have abundant fossil evidence. They have a few more fossils, but only speculative interpretations of how they are related. (We will get to that shortly when we examine the “skeletons in our closet.”) They don’t have any DNA from any of the so-called hominid ancestors except Neanderthal man, so there can’t be any genetic analyses that validate Darwin’s claims. (We wonder what she thinks Darwin could have claimed about these fossils, since they were unknown in his time.) Yes, chimpanzees are more like humans than any other creatures (and more like some particular humans than others ), but that doesn’t mean they shared a common ancestor. Some people THINK humans arose in Africa, but we don’t know that; and there are some evolutionists who reject the Out of Africa theory. Modern evolutionists are rejecting the linear succession theory because they can’t make the dates of the fossils fit nicely into a linear pattern. Most of their so-called ancestors necessarily lead to dead ends, and are therefore irrelevant to the origin of human beings. The story doesn’t hang together, so “many such mysteries about our collective past persist.” Darwin didn’t have any particular insights on these mysteries he knew nothing about, so it seems unlikely that Darwin’s insights will “light the way to solving them.”

Following this mini-article is a three-page drawing of the “Skeletons in Our Closet.” Just under the heading, the text says,

The tree presented here is one of many interpretations of the hominid fossil record. Some scholars parse the remains into more species; others opt for fewer. And whereas some of the relationships between species are well supported (red solid lines), others remain tentative (red dashed lines). The accompanying panorama and portraits, for their part, imagine these hominids in the flesh and highlight the watershed events in the human odyssey. 2

This heading agrees with a later article which says,

Since then [the appearance of a small proto-human called Sahelanthropus tchadensis seven million years ago], our family has had a still disputed, but rather diverse, number of new species in it—as many as nine that we know of and others surely still hidden in the notoriously poor hominid fossil record. 3

There are as many interpretations as there are paleontologists because the “evidence” is neither conclusive nor compelling. It consists of fragments of skeletons that came from nobody-knows-how-many species, so there is an argument over how many different species there were. Even if they knew how many species there were, they would not know how (or even if) they are biologically related. They “imagine” what these creatures looked like, and imagine how they might have been related. Furthermore, the Scientific American drawing shows one “open question” associated with every imaginary portrait, as if that were the only open question associated with that fossil.

Future Humanity

Not content to speculate about our past in the name of science, Scientific American feels the need to speculate about our future. We found the following notion particularly amusing.

Another point of view is that genetic evolution continues to occur even today, but in reverse. Certain characteristics of modern life may drive evolutionary change that does not make us fitter for survival—or that even makes us less fit. Innumerable college students have noticed one potential way that such “inadaptive” evolution could happen: they put off reproduction while many of their high school classmates who did not make the grade started having babies right away. If less intelligent parents have more kids, then intelligence is a Darwinian liability in today’s world, and average intelligence might evolve downward.

Such arguments have a long and contentious history. 4

We get it now! Smart people believe in evolution, and dumb people don’t. Since smart people are having fewer children than dumb people, the number of people who believe in evolution is decreasing. That’s why the theory of evolution is in a crisis today! It all makes perfect sense.

Near the beginning of the article, the author asks these questions.

Will we become larger or smaller, smarter or dumber? How will the emergence of new diseases and the rise in global temperature shape us? Will a new human species arise one day? Or does the future evolution of humanity lie not within our genes but within our technology, as we augment our brains and bodies with silicon and steel? Are we but the builders of the next dominant intelligence on the earth—the machines? 5

He never answers these questions because he obviously can’t. He is just teasing you to get you to read the article.

He ventures into some dark speculation about what might happen if we help evolution along too much. It is pointless for us to comment on the details of all his fantastic speculation. But generally speaking, his article shows that what one believes about evolution can impact what one thinks about political issues. (Racism, eugenics, abortion, and genetic engineering come immediately to mind.) Ward’s article raises some political issues about which you can draw your own conclusions.

Psychology

The next article in Scientific American’s special issue discusses the theory of evolution’s impact on the field of modern psychology. The editors added a sidebar to the article outlining the key concepts of the article. Here is the first one:

Among Charles Darwin’s lasting legacies is our knowledge that the human mind evolved by some adaptive process. 6

We, of course, object to the word, “knowledge.” We think the word, “assumption,” would be more accurate. But we agree that the notion that the human brain evolved from an ape-like ancestor’s brain has influenced psychology to a significant degree.

The editors also provide us with this definition:

As used in this article, pop evolutionary psychology, or Pop EP, refers to a branch of theoretical psychology that employs evolutionary principles to support claims about human nature for popular consumption. 7

What this means is that the assumption that human brains evolved from ape-like ancestors leads to popular ideas about morality. This manifests itself in attitudes toward promiscuity, war, abortion, animal rights, racism, government, and religion. If the premise that human brains evolved from animal brains is incorrect, then it invalidates the foundation for the views an individual might have about these moral issues. It can be terribly traumatic to consider the possibility that everything one has previously believed about promiscuity, war, abortion, animal rights, etc., has been based on a lie. Therefore, some people refuse to even consider the possibility.

With that background, the importance of the article is evident from its title and subtitle.

Four Fallacies of Pop Evolutionary Psychology

Some evolutionary psychologists have made widely popularized claims about how the human mind evolved, but other scholars argue that the grand claims lack solid evidence 8

The body of the article argues that we really know nothing about the social interactions of hominids, and so the four fallacies are all based on unwarranted speculation. Buller effectively demolishes the speculation and the fallacies based upon them. We could talk about all the arguments in detail, but let’s just cut to the chase. Here’s the concluding paragraph of the article.

Of course, some speculations are worse than others. Those of Pop EP are deeply flawed. We are unlikely ever to learn much about our evolutionary past by slicing our Pleistocene history into discrete adaptive problems, supposing the mind to be partitioned into discrete solutions to those problems, and then supporting those suppositions with pencil-and-paper data. The field of evolutionary psychology will have to do better. Even its very best, however, [it] may never provide us knowledge of why all our complex human psychological characteristics evolved. 9

In other words, Pop EP is a completely useless field of study. It is waste of scientific time, talent, and money; and it is based on evolution. Remember, they claim evolution is “the most powerful idea in science,” but in this case it is leading scientists on a wild goose chase.

The Usefulness Claim

The Scientific American cover promised to tell us how useful the theory of evolution is in everyday life. Here are the first four paragraphs of the article that attempts to fulfill that promise.

Charles Darwin surely had no clue of the technological advances that his studies of beetles and birds would unleash. Our progress in comprehending the history and mechanisms of evolution has led to powerful applications that shape a wide variety of fields today.

For instance—as the CSI franchise of television shows has popularized—law-enforcement agencies now commonly use evolutionary analyses in their investigations. Knowledge of how different genes evolve determines the kind of information they can extract from DNA evidence.

In health care, phylogenetic analysis (studies of DNA sequences to infer their evolutionary relatedness, or genealogy) of a pathogen such as bird flu or West Nile virus can lead to vaccines and to guidelines for minimizing the disease’s transmission to and among people. A laboratory process called directed evolution that rapidly evolves proteins can improve vaccines and other useful proteins.

Among other examples, computer scientists have adapted the concepts and mechanisms of evolution to create a general system known as genetic programming that can solve complex optimization and design problems. And a recently developed approach known as metagenomics has revolutionized scientists’ ability to survey the kinds of microbes living in a region, bringing about the most dramatic change in our understanding of microbial diversity since the advent of microscopes. 10

All of the processes referred to as “evolution” in these paragraphs really have nothing to do with the controversial theory of evolution as taught in American public schools.

Yes, knowing about differences in genes can tell us what kind of information DNA analysis can yield; but it doesn’t matter at all how those differences arose. So, from a law enforcement point of view, it doesn’t matter if they evolved from apes or not. All that matters is that the differences are there.

Police can use tire tracks found at the scene of a crime to identify vehicles that have been there. A perfect tire track of an distinctively worn tire can uniquely identify a vehicle. Even a partial track can tell police if the getaway vehicle was an off-road vehicle, compact car, motorcycle, or bicycle. So, it is helpful for police to learn how to recognize distinguishing characteristics of tire treads. But it is of no use at all for police to speculate whether Goodyear or Michelin developed the tread design first, or whether both manufacturers’ designs evolved from an earlier manufacturer.

If the DNA evidence at the crime scene includes a very rare gene, and the suspect has that very rare gene, it is as incriminating as a distinctive tire tread. But it is of no use to the police to speculate how that rare gene arose.

Yes, doctors can compare strains of flu, and modify vaccines that work on a similar strain to work on the strain currently infecting the world; but that has nothing to do with preventing the flu virus from turning into a fish. There are two processes that are called “evolution.” One has to do with variations of exiting things. The other has to do with one living thing turning into another kind of living thing. The first process really happens; the second doesn’t. This article confuses the two.

Yes, “genetic programming” is a term preferred by some computer scientists for “trial and error programming” because it sounds more scientific. There are some computational problems that are most easily solved by brute force. Since modern computers can try thousands (or millions) of solutions in a second or two, sometimes that is the easiest way to solve a problem. It isn’t very elegant, but it works. It has nothing to do with whether or not a reptile can grow hair and breasts to become a mammal.

Simulated Evolution

Computer programmers have long simulated geometric patterns that grow and change based on certain rules. Spore is one such program. The subtitle of the article about Spore says,

A computer game illustrates the difference between building your own simulated creature and real-life natural selection 11

The difference is critical.

Which brings us to the greatest difference between Spore and evolution by natural selection, namely, that whereas evolution is an emergent phenomenon with no conscious “selector,” Spore quite obviously has one: the user. It is the user who selects for or against things at every juncture: body parts, traits, behaviors, colors, textures, patterns, shapes. Spore does not in fact proceed by natural selection at all but rather by artificial selection. Indeed, putting the player in the position of an omnipotent creator makes the game more a simulation of intelligent design than of real-world Darwinian selection.

Spore may well be the ultimate computer game, the high-water mark of computer animation. You may find it mesmerizing or boring, sophisticated or silly, more Disney than Darwin. 12

Computers can simulate anything, and routinely do to create special effects for modern movies. Some things on the movie theater screen look realistic, but they have no basis in reality. Computers can simulate evolution by any one of a variety of methods; but that doesn’t have anything to do with real life.

Tricks

The final article in the special evolution issue addresses the creationists “new tricks.” Actually, it is just Eugenie Scott’s same old claim that creationists are just attacking evolution to try to get Christianity into the public schools. She thinks that intelligent design is simply creationism in disguise.

Ironically, what Ms. Scott apparently fails to recognize is that the new evolutionary theory of evo-devo is really creationism on steroids in disguise.

Creationists believe that, in the beginning, God created many different “kinds” of creatures. There was a dog kind; a horse kind; a pigeon kind; a goldfish kind; and a human kind, et cetera. Each of these kinds was created with a rich genetic heritage allowing a certain amount of variation in size, shape, strength, color, agility, etc. which gives the creature some measure of adaptation to its environment.

For example, it is advantageous for people living in tropical zones to have dark skin to protect them from ultraviolet light. It is better for people living in polar regions to have fair skin because it facilitates the production of vitamin D. Biblical creationists believe that Noah’s three sons (and their wives) had enough genetic variation that their offspring could have light skin, dark skin, and various intermediate shades. Because dark skin is advantageous in tropical regions, that’s where it naturally predominates. Light skin predominates in northern climates because it is more advantageous there. Light-skinned people tan when exposed to long periods of sunlight. Skin color is a normal adaptation to environmental conditions.

Evo-deo is based on the notion that the first living thing (we like to call it “Frankencell”) came to life spontaneously through some unknown, but undirected natural process. For reasons not fully understood, Frankencell had a fantastically rich “tool kit” (Sean Carroll’s term) of genetic information. These tools used themselves to build different structures in different circumstances. In other words, Frankencell did not have eyes, but Frankencell had the genetic potential necessary to evolve lots of different kinds of eyes later in evolutionary history as the need arose.

Creationists believe an intelligent designer gave all living things some limited potential for adaptation. Evo-devo rests on the belief that some accidental, undirected process gave Frankencell unlimited potential for adaptation. That’s why we say evo-devo is really creationism on steroids.

Since it is difficult for some people to imagine different kinds of living things intentionally created with the ability to adapt within limits to their environment, it can be extremely difficult for people to believe that one kind of living thing accidentally arose from inanimate material with the ability to adapt apparently without limit to its environment. That’s why evo-devo is so controversial among evolutionists.

All Together Now

Last month and this month we examined Scientific American’s special issue on The Evolution of Evolution. What did we learn?

Happy 200th Birthday, Darwin, from your friends at Scientific American.

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Footnotes:

1 Wong, Scientific American, January 2009, “The Human Pedegree”, page 60
2 Scientific American, January 2009, “Skeletons in Our Closet”, page 61
3 Ward, Scientific American, January 2009, “What Will Become of Homo Sapiens?”, pages 68 - 73
4 ibid.
5 ibid.
6 The Editors, Scientific American, January 2009, page 74
7 ibid.
8 Buller, Scientific American, January 2009, “Four Fallacies of Pop Evolutionary Psychology”, pages 74 - 81
9 ibid.
10 Mindell, Scientific American, January 2009, “Evolution in the Everyday World”, pages 82 - 89
11 Regis, Scientific American, January 2009, “The Science of Spore”, pages 90 - 91
12 ibid.
13 Branch & Scott, Scientific American, January 2009, “The Latest Face of Creationism”, pages 92 - 99