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UCLA Team Turbo-Charges Berra’s Blunder

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Berra’s Blunder has long been a prime example of how some evolutionists don’t understand their own theory. It started back in 1990 when Tim Berra illustrated Darwinian evolution by showing how Corvettes showed “descent with modification” between 1953 and 1955. Phillip Johnson was quick to point out that “every one of those Corvettes was designed by engineers.”

Far from illustrating naturalistic evolution, he argued, they illustrate “how intelligent designers will typically achieve their purposes by adding variations to a basic design plan.” Casey Luskin caught Francis Collins and Karl Giberson committing this blunder in 2011. In 2014, Adrian Bejan confused airplane design with Darwinian evolution. And last year, the BBC News committed the blunder by applying evolution to robotics.

Now Berra’s Blunder is back with a vengeance. If Berra restricted his evolution to Corvettes, Stuart Wolpert (writing for the UCLA Newsroom) applies it to every horseless carriage from the Model T to the DeLorean DMC-12, with color photos for emphasis. And Wolpert is not alone; he is backed up by Erik Gjesfjeld, a postdoctoral scholar in UCLA’s Institute for Society and Genetics, smiling for the camera, and by Michael Alfaro, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UCLA:

Cars are exceptionally diverse but also have a detailed history of changes, making them a model system for investigating the evolution of technology,” Gjesfjeld said.

The team drew data from 3,575 car models made by 172 different manufacturers, noting the first and last year each was manufactured.

“This is similar to when a paleontologist first dates a particular fossil and last sees a particular fossil,” Gjesfjeld said. [Emphasis added.]

Writers could be forgiven for using evolution as a figure of speech, knowing that cars are intelligently designed. But these writers see no difference between cars and fossils.

Alfaro said applying an evolutionary biology approach worked so well because the automotive industry’s technological records are very similar to the paleontological fossil record.

“In many instances, it is superior,” he said. “We find in only a handful of cases a fossil record this complete.”

Moreover, Gjesfjeld and Alfaro, with Wolpert in the newsroom, speak of competition, diversification, and survival as if cars are out in the jungle fending for themselves (fenders notwithstanding).

Based on the study, the researchers can project how the electric car marketplace will evolve over the next several years. Alfaro said the field now is in an early phase of rapid diversification, and although it’s likely that many more electric and hybrid models will be introduced over the next 15 to 20 years, many won’t survive for very long due to increasing competition. This, he said, will eventually lead to consolidation, with a small number of dominant models that will thrive.

Ultimately, Gjesfjeld said, the technique could help us make sense of the bewildering array of technologies humans have created. “Despite the use of numerous technologies in our everyday life, we lack a basic understanding of how all this technological diversity came to be,” he said.

That he lacks a basic understanding of how cars came to be is true indeed, if he really thinks they emerged by a Darwinian process.

Too harsh? The news item does speak of design and management. The evolutionists don’t say that random mutations in cars are selected. But the Darwinian comparison is clear from the opening paragraph:

A UCLA-led team of researchers has taken a unique approach to explain the way in which technologies evolve in modern society. Borrowing a technique that biologists might use to study the evolution of plants or animals, the scientists plotted the “births” and “deaths” of every American-made car and truck model from 1896 to 2014.

Surely the three men know cars are designed by intelligent engineers. What the article indicates, though, is a complete misunderstanding of Darwinian evolution. In its core essence, Darwinian evolution is unguided, purposeless, and mindless. That cannot be said of business managers who decide, using their minds, how best to beat the competition by designing their next models.

Maybe they committed artistic license. Let’s see if the blunder vanishes in the peer-reviewed paper in the open-access journal Palgrave Communications, titled “Competition and extinction explain the evolution of diversity in American automobiles.” The title, you notice right away, isn’t helpful.

Despite considerable focus on the evolution of technology by social scientists and philosophers, there have been few attempts to systematically quantify technological diversity, and therefore the dynamics of technological change remain poorly understood. Here we show a novel Bayesian model for examining technological diversification adopted from palaeontological analysis of occurrence data. We use this framework to estimate the tempo of diversification in American car and truck models produced between 1896 and 2014, and to test the relative importance of competition and extrinsic factors in shaping changes in macro-evolutionary rates.

And thus it goes. But like a ray of light in the darkness, there is one point in the paper where Gjesfeld, Alfaro, and their three co-authors do catch the difference between designed automobiles and biological evolution.

Evolution has been and continues to be a valuable source of methods and theories for the study of human culture. Previous research has demonstrated that human culture undeniably evolves, but to what degree cultural change mirrors biological change remains an unsettled question (Tëmkin and Eldredge, 2007). The evolution of technology is a topic in which the evolutionary analogy has been particularly contentious, with debate often centred on the unit of evolutionary analysis, the replication of technological designs and the applicability of branching models to understanding the evolution to intentionally designed objects. This article presents an alternative perspective to the study of technological evolution that highlights the concept of diversity and a suite of macro-evolutionary methods useful in quantifying the dynamics of technological diversification.

Score one for recognizing “intentionally designed objects.” But then, they leap right back into the blunder by comparing automobiles to organisms that they assumed evolved without intention or design. If Darwinian evolution fails to explain animal disparity and diversity in the fossil record, why on earth would they believe it can explain automobiles, which they surely recognize as intentionally designed objects?

In this research, technological diversity is conceptualized as the number of different technological lineages represented in a system. This definition of diversity is different from disciplines that acknowledge diversity as having the additional dimensions of balance and disparity (Stirling, 2007), but is analogous to the concept of species richness in biology, where a large number of methods are available for characterizing this component of diversity through time.

In no subsequent passage do they refer to intelligence, intention, or guidance. It’s all diversification by means of non-intelligent factors. The blunder is especially clear in their Conclusion:

Just as the fossil record provides evidence for biological change through time, the archaeological and historical record has an important role to play in our understanding of technological and cultural evolution by providing empirical evidence for change through time. Our analyses of American car models reveals the shifting roles that origination and extinction have played in shaping diversity in one of the most important and ubiquitous technologies of the twentieth century. Furthermore, we demonstrate how the analysis of cultural change in a birth-death framework provides a means for testing alternative hypotheses about the extrinsic and intrinsic controls on technological diversification. Our approach is flexible and easily adapted to other cultural systems where a record of first and last appearances of artifacts is available. Overall, the quantitative study of diversification within a macro-evolutionary framework offers enormous potential to enrich our understanding of cultural and technological change.

Sorry, one cannot even begin to understand “cultural evolution” by basing one’s explanation on a blunder. Darwinian evolution is not a theory of “change through time.” It is a materialistic creation story. It gives, or seeks to give, design without a designer. In Darwin’s theory, innovations occur randomly, and are selected by a mindless environment. Would it make any sense to speak of the evolution of a guided missile by unguided processes?

Such language is bound to confuse, not enlighten. Anything not reducible to unguided natural processes is not evolution; it is intelligent design. Before any progress can be made in the debate on origins, there must be clarity.

Photo: 1910 Ford Model T, by Harry Shipler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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Evolution News & Science Today (EN) provides original reporting and analysis about evolution, neuroscience, bioethics, intelligent design and other science-related issues, including breaking news about scientific research. It also covers the impact of science on culture and conflicts over free speech and academic freedom in science. Finally, it fact-checks and critiques media coverage of scientific issues.