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A “Nachos and Ice Cream” Theory of Evolution

David Klinghoffer

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If the old theory of evolution was so great, why do they keep rolling out new ones? You notice, however, that the “new,” “extended,” “fundamentally revised” theories – with the exception of the theory of intelligent design – always turn out to be more or less repackaged versions of the same old, same old. Without recourse to mind, they fail again and again to solve the main problem.

Case in point: Sarah Zhang in The Atlantic heralds, “A Grand New Theory of Life’s Evolution on Earth.” At long last, is this the “theory of the generative” we’ve been waiting for?

No. The “new theory” from Olivia Judson of Imperial College London is a neat way of classifying sweeping time frames, “energetic epochs,” where life had energy sources made freshly available, thus making increasingly complex life possible.

The modern world gives us such ready access to nachos and ice cream that it’s easy to forget: Humans bodies require a ridiculous and — for most of Earth’s history — improbable amount of energy to stay alive.

Consider a human dropped into primordial soup 3.8 billion years ago, when life first began. They would have nothing to eat. Earth then had no plants, no animals, no oxygen even. Good luck scrounging up 1600 calories a day drinking pond- or sea water. So how did we get sources of concentrated energy (i.e. food) growing on trees and lumbering through grass? How did we end up with a planet that can support billions of energy-hungry, big-brained, warm-blooded, upright-walking humans?

In “The Energy Expansions of Evolution,” an extraordinary new essay in Nature Ecology and Evolution, Olivia Judson sets out a theory of successive energy revolutions that purports to explain how our planet came to have such a diversity of environments that support such a rich array of life, from the cyanobacteria to daisies to humans.

Judson divides the history of the life on Earth into five energetic epochs, a novel schema that you will not find in geology or biology textbooks. In order, the energetic epochs are: geochemical energy, sunlight, oxygen, flesh, and fire. Each epoch represents the unlocking of a new source of energy, coinciding with new organisms able to exploit that source and alter their planet. The previous sources of energy stay around, so environments and life on Earth become ever more diverse. Judson calls it a “step-wise construction of a life-planet system.” [Emphasis added.]

The key word in that passage may be “coincide.” Energy – delivered in the form of “nachos and ice cream,” or whatever the case might be — is necessary but not sufficient in explaining how complex life arises. Merely “coinciding” with great leaps forward in biological complexity doesn’t cut it. The really grand mystery remains the origin of biological information. See our short video, “The Information Enigma.” Positing “energetic epochs” does nothing to resolve that enigma.

She mentions oxygen. In the context of explaining the Cambrian explosion, a classic fallacy is the “oxygen theory,” holding that new body plans arose thanks newly available oxygen. As we’ve noted many times before, oxygen has no ability to compose coded information, generating the software on which life runs.

The point about fire is interesting, and should ring a bell. Zhang summarizes:

Then one particular type of animal — those of the genus Homo — figure out fire. Fire lets us cook, which may have allowed us to get more nutrition out of the same food. It lets us forge labor-saving metal tools. It lets us create fertilizer through the Haber-Bosch process to grow food on industrial scales. It lets us burn fossil fuels for energy.

True enough. But this brief treatment falls well short of Michael Denton’s research and writing on the same subject. Fire does more than harness fuel to provide energy. It reveals how nature has been specially fitted for a creature like man, and vice versa. See, “Fire-Maker: How Humans Were Designed to Harness Fire & Transform Our Planet.”

Photo credit: Monkey eats an ice cream bar, © bchancha — stock.adobe.com.