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Living Fossils, Ancient Oxygen, Colorful Snapdragons: Anomalies Challenge Darwin’s Story

anomalies

Most science media try to put a glossy evolutionary shine on new discoveries, but if you read carefully, you often find elements of surprise and astonishment — indications of anomalies. Enough anomalies can wreck a paradigm. As if Darwinians were not already buried under a crushing pile of these, here are a few more upsets in recent news.

Astonishing Efficiency

The Santa Fe Institute decided to measure the computational efficiency of cells:

To understand how life evolved on earth, we need to first understand the constraints that biological systems have faced over time. One constraint which hasn’t been widely explored is how the laws of thermodynamics restrict biological function, and whether natural selection favors organisms with higher computational efficiency. [Emphasis added.]

Using a principle of thermodynamics known as Landauer’s Bound, which estimates the minimum energy needed to perform a computation, they got a taste of “The astonishing efficiency of life” (their headline).

“What we found is that biological translation is roughly 20 times less efficient than the absolute lower physical bound,” says lead author Christopher Kempes, an SFI Omidyar Fellow. “And that’s about 100,000 times more efficient than a computer.” DNA replication, another basic computation common across life, is about 165 times worse than Landauer’s Bound. “That’s not as efficient as biological translation, but still stunningly good compared to computers.”

False Positives in Ancient Oxygen Levels

Evolutionary paleontologists and geologists typically infer atmospheric oxygen levels by looking at isotope ratios of the element chromium in ancient rocks. These kinds of proxies underlie claims about the “rise of oxygen” in the history of life on earth, leading to speculations about the causes of the Cambrian explosion, for instance.

Unfortunately, the method has just been undermined by work at Georgia Tech, which reports, “A Popular Tool to Trace Earth’s Oxygen History Can Give False Positives.”

For researchers pursuing the primordial history of oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere, a new study might sour some “Eureka!” moments. A contemporary tool used to trace oxygen by examining ancient rock strata can produce false positives, according to the study, and the wayward results can mask as exhilarating discoveries.

Living Fossils

Bryozoans still exist today, as they have since Cambrian times. Have they evolved in 500 million years? At the University of Chicago, we find evolutionists tossing around terms like “missing link” and “evolutionary breakthrough.” The discoverers of a particular bryozoan are delighted to have the fossil named after them. But what of the actual creature? Does it help Darwin’s theory?

Lurking in oceans, rivers and lakes around the world are tiny, ancient animals known to few people. Bryozoans, tiny marine creatures that live in colonies, are “living fossils” — their lineage goes back to the time when multi-celled life was a newfangled concept. But until now, scientists were missing evidence of one important breakthrough that helped the bryozoans survive 500 million years as the world changed around them.

What was this “breakthrough” the scientists call an “evolutionary hack” in praise of Darwin? Not much. All the later bryozoans did was to start growing their colonies upright. So instead of sheets, they were able to “build a great range of structures, from fans to sheets to weird, brain-like blobs.” The basic anatomy of the bryozoans, though, did not evolve. They were bryozoans in the Cambrian; they are still bryozoans today.

Another “living fossil” was reported by Live Science. Deep sea fishermen pulled up a rare frilled shark, a “dinosaur-era” creature with 300 complex teeth. “The roughly 5-foot-long (1.5 meters) shark has barely changed in the past 80 million years, earning it a ‘living fossil’ title,” the article states. This creature may have given rise to stories of sea serpents by ancient mariners.

Snapdragon Surprise

Evolutionists at the John Innes Centre seem ready to throw a party for Darwin with their headline, “How Snapdragons keep their colour: signposting trick reveals evolutionary mechanism.” In the details, however, we find that the mechanism, far from being predicted by evolutionists, took the team “completely by surprise.” It was not a classic case of genetic mutation and natural selection, but rather a small RNA that changed the regulation of genes for color in one of the populations.

We also notice that the effect of the RNA was to maintain boundaries between populations of snapdragons with different colors. Is this enough of a mechanism to support the claim that humans have bacteria as ancestors? There’s no mention of innovation, adaptation, or beneficial mutation in the article. At best, it’s a case of stabilizing selection: “The historic difference between the sections either side of the valley is being maintained by natural selection in the hybrid zone.” Given that this mechanism caught them “completely by surprise,” it cannot be construed as a confirmation of neo-Darwinian theory, which did not predict it.

Adaptive Evolution in Passenger Pigeons?

News from the University of California, Santa Cruz sounds ready to praise Darwin: “Passenger pigeon genome shows effects of natural selection in a huge population.” Only the careful reader will notice that the evidence actually disconfirms evolutionary expectations. Despite talk of “adaptive evolution” and “beneficial mutations,” no actual innovations are mentioned — only enhancement of existing traits (such as the immune system and stress reduction), and purging of harmful mutations by “purifying selection” (which might be called “evolution by subtraction”).

But then, the reader is introduced to “Lewontin’s Paradox” — a long-admitted anomaly that “theoretical predictions about the relationship between population size and genetic diversity are not borne out in the real world.” That’s the case with passenger pigeons, the article says, leading the storytellers to explain it. Does this sound like a resounding endorsement of Darwin’s theory, considering that the passenger pigeon is extinct?

“The interaction between the recombination landscape and the enormous population size of passenger pigeons allows us to see what’s behind Lewontin’s paradox,” Shapiro said. “In most species, it is probably safe to assume the majority of the genome is evolving neutrally, but for species with very large populations we might want to hesitate. These tools that use genetic diversity to make inferences about historical changes in a population’s size don’t work at all for the passenger pigeon.”

Expert Cognition in Early Stone Tools

Stone tools found at a site in Israel, dated at 780,000 years old, show surprising cognitive abilities of their makers. Publishing in PLOS ONE, a team found evidence of “expert cognition” including long-term memory and cognitive complexity, such that the makers exhibited “the kind of thinking typical of modern human experts in their various domains.”

Chimpanzees may use an object for a specific immediate goal, like pounding a nut with a rock. They have a “task-oriented” technology. The “hominins” (they can’t bring themselves to call them humans), by contrast, had a “tool-oriented” technology, implying the ability to conceptualize a tool beforehand (even a general-purpose tool capable of multiple functions). They showed the ability to make different tools appropriate for different uses, and to make decisions about how to manufacture a tool for efficient use. These abilities also imply the ability to store the concepts in long-term memory.

The authors do their best to shoehorn their findings into an evolutionary scenario, but have to admit that the “expert cognition” of these tool makers (labeled GBY) looks modern.

When modern humans use named tools (e.g., screwdriver) areas of the fusiform gyrus are activated that are not activated when non-human primates use tools. Thus, thinking in terms of tool categories appears to have evolved at some point in hominin evolution. We suspect that this evolutionary development occurred long before the time of GBY, but it is certainly in evidence at GBY….

The nested organization of stages and discrete steps is precisely the kind of organization that underpins modern craft production.

Conclusions

What we have seen in each example is the propensity of Darwinians to explain away anomalies, not to predict them. Sudden appearance, stasis, and “astonishing efficiency” would better fit design theory, had not methodological naturalism prevented common sense from following the evidence where it leads.

Photo: Snapdragons, by ARGHADIP DEY (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.