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A Classic Evolutionist’s Error, Berra’s Blunder Revs Up Again

Berra’s Blunder

If you thought Phillip Johnson had put Berra’s Blunder out of its logical misery in 1990s, guess what: it’s back again with a vengeance. To Darwinians, a blunder is a terrible thing to waste. 

Tim Berra had tried to compare biological evolution to the evolution of the Corvette. In his book Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds, Johnson aptly pointed out the intuitively obvious difference:

Of course, every one of those Corvettes was designed by engineers. The Corvette sequence — like the sequence of Beethoven’s symphonies to the opinions of the United States Supreme Court — does not illustrate naturalistic evolution at all. It illustrates how intelligent designers will typically achieve their purposes by adding variations to a basic design plan.

Even if comparisons can be made, one cannot logically use designed things to explain un-designed things. And yet the blunder goes on. We reported on iterations of the blunder in 2011, 2014, 2015, 2016, and in January 2018. Here’s the latest reincarnation: “Similarities in the evolution of plants and cars,” by Hartzell, Bartlett, Yin and Porporato, published in PLOS ONE.

While one system is animate and the other inanimate, both plants and cars are powered by a highly successful process which has evolved in a changing environment. Each process (the photosynthetic pathway and the car engine, respectively) originated from a basic scheme and evolved greater efficiency by adding components to the existing structure, which has remained largely unchanged. Here we present a comparative analysis of two variants on the original C3 photosynthetic pathway (C4 and CAM) and two variants on the internal combustion engine (the turbocharger and the hybrid electric vehicle). We compare the timeline of evolution, the interaction between system components, and the effects of environmental conditions on both systems. This analysis reveals striking similarities in the development of these processes, providing insight as to how complex systems — both natural and built — evolve and adapt to changing environmental conditions in a modular fashion. [Emphasis added.]

To be charitable, let’s not dismiss the entire paper as a blunder. Perhaps there will be some redeeming features. Maybe they will even share some worthwhile science. Like a jury, readers should consider the presentation with an open mind.

Counting Words

First, some word analysis. Here are some pertinent word counts:

  • Origin: 0
  • Darwin: 0
  • Mutation: 0 
  • Natural selection: 0
  • Evolution: 29
  • Evolve/Evolved: 10 
  • Similarities: 2
  • Designer: 2
  • Design: 2
  • Intelligent/Intelligence: 0
  • Innovation: 1 (in reference to car design)

Whatever they’re claiming, they don’t seem to tie it to neo-Darwinian mechanisms of mutation and selection. They’re mainly thinking of change through time — particularly, adaptation and improvement through time. That fact doesn’t let them escape Berra’s Blunder, though, because they liken what human engineers do to what nature does:

Today, plants make up the majority of living biomass on earth and the automobile is by far the most popular method of passenger transport worldwide. These systems, while quite different in their functions, are powered by processes which have evolved over time in a remarkably similar fashion. Both originated from a basic, highly successful scheme and improved by adding components in a process of modular evolution. Designers of cars limited by oxygen availability developed the turbocharger, which functions similarly to the C4 “carbon pump” by concentrating a limiting reactant to improve efficiency. As demand for fuel and water use efficiency increased, designers introduced the energy storage system of the Hybrid Electric Vehicle (HEV) to address inefficiencies caused by variable power demand, while plants evolved the Crassulacean Acid Metabolism (CAM) carbon storage system to reduce inefficiencies caused by diurnal variability in light and atmospheric humidity.

We can’t assume they would mean that a human “designer” would use mutation and natural selection to “develop” a turbocharger or “introduce” an energy storage system. But without any break, they compare this to what natural plants have done: “while plants evolved the…carbon storage system to reduce inefficiencies” etc.  How, exactly, does a plant do this?

Modular Evolution

The authors do not specify what kind of evolution they believe in: theistic, materialistic, gradual, or saltational, but they do use the term “modular evolution.” 

The parallels in the evolution of these very different energy production systems provide interesting insight as to how such complex systems are modified over time. In response to moderate environmental pressures, both cars and plants have evolved secondary components to increase the efficiency of the core energy-generating mechanism, while the core mechanism itself remained largely unchanged. Both systems exhibit a high degree of modularity, whereby functional units develop, which are relatively distinct from the surrounding structure. While such modular systems tend to be non-optimal, they are believed to persist because they provide stability and robustness, and show higher adaptability and survival rates under changing environments. In both cars and plants, the unchanging central module may lend each system a certain robustness, while the development of auxiliary modules has allowed each system to adapt to changing goals presented by novel environments. The fact that such similar responses can be found in both animate and inanimate systems suggest that a universal mechanism or ‘design principle’ may be at play, e.g. Hartwell et al.; Variano et al.; Bejan et al.

Adrian Bejan, whom they cite at the end of the paragraph, committed Berra’s Blunder in 2014 by comparing airplane “evolution” to animal evolution. He imagined a “human-and-machine species” as a model species that evolves the same way as “animal evolution,” the advantage being that we can watch airplane evolution in human history without having to wait for the “immense” time scales required for biological evolution. Bejan also has promoted his “constructal law” theory since at least 1996, which we critiqued as “a mental imposition on nature that allows Bejan to salvage mindless Darwinism by making it appear law-driven.” In a 2011 paper in Physics of Life Reviews, Bejan elevates his “constructal law” to a new law of thermodynamics! This is equivalent to promoting mindless innovation to a law of nature.

By citing Bejan favorably, Hartzell et al. join hands with a Berra Blunderer. None of the blunderers ever distance themselves from neo-Darwinism. None of them ever redeem themselves by explaining the profound differences between intelligent designers (car engineers) and what they assume biological evolution entails: random mutations and natural selection. You can only find one sentence where Hartzell et al. contrast the two systems:

Some of the most common modifications to the ICE have striking similarities to the more recently evolved photosynthetic pathways. CAM plants and HEVs differ in a major regard, however, in that the structure of the HEV leaves potential for a redundant power system while that of the CAM plant does not….

The contrast is short-lived, however, because soon they are right back to comparing them: “both cars and plants have evolved secondary components to increase the efficiency…” etc. 

Look Hard, Now

Finally, can we discover any worthwhile science coming from this paper to possibly redeem it? Look hard for anything that might advance scientific knowledge or understanding:

We are likely to observe these dynamics at work in the near future, as, ironically, the pressures of climate change may drive the evolution of plants and cars in very different directions. Climate change is expected to affect plant function through increased levels of carbon dioxide, temperature, and, in many areas, aridity. At a first glance, these changes might be expected to increase the performance of CAM and decrease the performance of C4 relative to C3 photosynthesis. However, these outcomes are far from certain and depend on a complex interplay of other factors. In any case, the pressures of anthropogenic climate change are relatively modest compared with historical changes to which the photosynthetic pathway has already been subjected. Considering that photosynthesis has already withstood the test of time, the existing photosynthetic pathways may be expected to adapt to current changes without major evolution. In cars, the story may be different. Modular evolution has historically allowed innovation in automotive technology to adjust quickly to changing goals, yielding turbocharged and hybrid EVs. Yet the prospect of climate change is dramatically increasing pressure to lower carbon dioxide emissions, and perhaps even reduce them to zero. This pressure has lead [sic] to the exploration of novel technologies, some of which (including battery and fuel-cell electric vehicles) replace the original ICE altogether. Such technologies have taken more time to develop and may be considered more risky strategies in that they require massive updates to existing infrastructure and manufacturing practices. Compared with plants, which have existed on earth for millions of years, cars are a relatively young technology with interesting possibilities ahead.

This highly speculative paragraph says that climate change will likely drive the “evolution” of plants and cars in different directions. So what was the point of comparing them in the first place? If the premise starts with a blunder, can the conclusion be sound? Not only that, they just described humans like plants again! Engineers should be offended.

Try as you might, one cannot rescue this latest paper from the charge of Berra’s Blunder. Comparisons like this obfuscate rather than enlighten. One particularly sad conclusion is that after 28 years of complaints about this blunder within the ID community, Darwinians still seem oblivious to the fallacy, carrying on like Tim Berra did way back in 1990.

Photo credit: By Godmenfat002 [CC BY-SA 4.0 ], from Wikimedia Commons.