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Vertebrates to Land Is an Evolutionary Transition Dripping with Teleology

David Klinghoffer

Transition to land

Cornelius Hunter, among other observers, has pointed out the recurring need on the part of evolutionary thinking to resort to the language of teleology. Darwinian evolution is supposed to have done away with the need for purpose or will in driving the history of life. The words of Darwinists themselves tend to refute that idea.

That’s especially the case when they don’t have the defense of highly technical language to obscure what’s going on. As an illustration, see how researchers describe their idea about how vertebrates made the transition from sea to land some 385 million years ago.

Getting to solid ground, according to previous thinking, was driven by the evolution of limbs. These scientists, however, say it was all in the eyes.

Large eyes are unhelpful in water, but a necessity on land. So to make the launch to dry earth, sea creatures “evolved” larger eyes. They explain in an article for Science Daily, “Vision, not limbs, led fish onto land 385 million years ago.” “Led“? Note the language suggestive of teleology, purpose, forethought, in bold:

A provocative new Northwestern University and Claremont McKenna, Scripps and Pitzer colleges study suggests it was the power of the eyes and not the limbs that first led our ancient aquatic ancestors to make the momentous leap from water to land. Crocodile-like animals first saw easy meals on land and then evolved limbs that enabled them to get there, the researchers argue.

[E]yes nearly tripled in size before — not after — the water-to-land transition. The tripling coincided with a shift in location of the eyes from the side of the head to the top. The expanded visual range of seeing through air may have eventually led to larger brains in early terrestrial vertebrates and the ability to plan and not merely react, as fish do.

It sounds like it was not only the early terrestrial vertebrates that were doing the “planning.” More:

“We found a huge increase in visual capability in vertebrates just before the transition from water to land. Our hypothesis is that maybe it was seeing an unexploited cornucopia of food on land — millipedes, centipedes, spiders and more — that drove evolution to come up with limbs from fins,” MacIver said.

“Seeing” the food “drove evolution” to “come up with,” i.e., to invent, limbs. A longing for tasty treats on land! They saw that the millipedes and whatnot were good for food, and that this “cornucopia” was a delight to the eyes, or they would have if they had eyes adapted for seeing through air instead of water — no small thing.

What Big Eyes You Have!

The problem, again: Who needs larger eyes in water? Nobody. Yet they “evolved” larger eyes, appropriately situated. The researchers wondered what the “point,” the purpose, might be.

“Bigger eyes are almost worthless in water because vision is largely limited to what’s directly in front of the animal,” said Schmitz, assistant professor of biology at the W.M. Keck Science Department, a joint program of Claremont McKenna, Scripps and Pitzer colleges.

“But larger eye size is very valuable when viewing through air. In evolution, it often comes down to a trade-off. Is it worth the metabolic toll to enlarge your eyes? What’s the point? Here we think the point was to be able to search out prey on land,” he said.

Teleology is the study of such “points” to things. The article concludes: “Rather than limbs, it was eyes that brought our ancestors to land.”

Obviously, in ordinary English “bringing” things, “leading” them, implies purposeful action. A report on the same study for Quanta Magazine puts it in intriguing terms: “The ancient creatures who first crawled onto land may have been lured by the informational benefit that comes from seeing through air.” The early vertebrates were lured ashore by information!

The reference is to information about food. But researcher Malcolm MacIver doesn’t seem to realize how much he sounds like an ID theorist when he tells Quanta, “It’s hard to look past limbs and think that maybe information, which doesn’t fossilize well, is really what brought us onto land.” Don’t worry, he’s not a design advocate, but it’s amusing to think you could just as easily have lifted that sentence out of a book by Stephen Meyer.

Greetings from Burbank

The paper in PNAS (“Massive increase in visual range preceded the origin of terrestrial vertebrates“) fills in the technical details and gives the theory a cute name:

The consequent combination of the increase in eye size and vision through air would have conferred a 1 million-fold increase in the amount of space within which objects could be seen. The “buena vista” hypothesis that our data suggest is that seeing opportunities from afar played a role in the subsequent evolution of fully terrestrial limbs as well as the emergence of elaborated action sequences through planning circuits in the nervous system.

If Buena Vista (“good vision”) rings a bell, by the way, that might be because it’s the street in Burbank, California, where the Walt Disney Studios has its headquarters, leading to a brand name, Buena Vista, long associated with Disney. The brand name is the result of the street name. It was chosen purposefully, consciously to match one with the other, a minor example of action directed toward an end.

As Dr. Hunter notes:

The teleology is not a mere slip-up. As we have documented many times, it is a common thread running throughout the genre of evolutionary literature. It is needed to make sense of the data, because evolution doesn’t.

Certainly, “buena vista” is a prerequisite to life on land. It seems to have been “selected” for, however, prior to there being much need for it. That kind of looking ahead to future requirements is a hallmark not of blind Darwinian shuffling but, of course, of intelligent design.

Image credit: Malcolm MacIver, Northwestern University via Science Daily.