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There Was Berra’s Blunder; Now Lieberman’s Lapse

Photo credit: David Coppedge.

Ohio State biologist Tim Berra thought evolutionary progress was like the diversification seen in Corvette models. Now, another evolutionist makes an analogy for extinction. But can the “extinction” of the steam locomotive really bring understanding to Darwinian theory? 

Back in 1997, Phillip Johnson had fun with Tim Berra’s notion that biological evolution was like Corvette evolution (see his quips recounted by Casey Luskin here , and later instances of similar blunders here and here). He called it “Berra’s Blunder” because, like Darwin, Berra had confused intelligently directed processes with natural selection — Darwin, with animal breeding; Berra, with engineering. This is not to accuse either man of being completely unaware of the differences, but of trying to score points for natural selection theory with obviously flawed analogies.

Today’s “inverted Berra blunder” concerns extinction. Is the analogy just as flawed, or does it lead to increased understanding of the ebb and flow of biological life? The fact of extinction is empirically verified by fossils. It is not controversial in the way Darwinian progress up the tree of life is. What if the new claim overturns a Darwinian assumption about the extinction of species? Can the analogy be embraced by ID supporters?

Lieberman’s Lapse

Bruce Lieberman, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas and a curator of the school’s Natural History Museum, was featured in news from KU about his epiphany. Perhaps it was triggered by a song.

When the Kinks’ Ray Davies penned the tune “Last of the Steam-Powered Trains,” the vanishing locomotives stood as nostalgic symbols of a simpler English life. But for a paleontologist at the University of Kansas, the replacement of steam-powered trains with diesel and electric engines, as well as cars and trucks, might be a model of how some species in the fossil record died out. [Emphasis added.]

Lieberman thought about how diesel and electric engines rendered the old steam locomotives obsolete. A simple understanding of the history might lead one to conclude that the newer engines outcompeted the steam engine, and that’s why steam engines went extinct. Except for a few remaining antiques operated for railroad museums and vacation rides in the mountains, steam locomotives are rarely seen today. They just can’t compete with the faster, cleaner, cheaper, more powerful modern engines. Lieberman thought and he thought, and the light bulb went on: This could be a way to test the popular theory called “competitive exclusion” used by evolutionists to explain the extinction of biological species.

“There’s always been a bias to assume in the scientific community that competition is sort of the fundamental force that drives evolution and plays the biggest role on extinction,” Lieberman said. “That idea comes from a lot of different areas of research, including on the fossil record. But we, as paleontologists, have to dive down deeper into the data and analyze them.

It Seems an Honorable Quest

Don’t scientists want to debunk poor assumptions, overcome biases, and understand why things happen? Is competition a different kind of force when it comes to extinction than it is when Darwinists offer it up to explain innovation?

“I’d always been fascinated by steam engines because they’re the technological equivalent of dinosaurs,” Lieberman said. “They’re gigantic. We infer dinosaurs made a lot of noise. We know that steam locomotives made a lot of noise, but they’re no longer with us.”

Now that comparison sounds stretched, but let’s hear him out. Searching through a steam train database for examples, Lieberman and colleague Luke Strotz found evidence against the competitive exclusion model. Sure, there was competition at first. It looked like the newer engines were robbing steam locomotives of their ecological niche. A closer look, though, showed that competition only excludes an older technology when there is direct overlap for the same space.

“For a time when there’s no competitors to steam-locomotive technology, we see them almost diversify and diffuse into no particular direction,” Lieberman said. “But when these new locomotives appear, we see a profound shift to really active natural selection and adaptation of the steam locomotive. Often, it’s thought that adaptation is a good sign for a group. But what we would argue is, in fact, when things start to adapt and shift directionally — traditionally in evolution that’s not a good time for a group. We’d argue it’s a sign the group may be experiencing duress or pressure from other things.”

There’s the first sign of trouble with the analogy: Lieberman and Strotz are comparing the fates of engineered technologies with natural selection. Can they transfer the analogy to biology? In their paper, they make three comparisons of steam engine history with biological extinction.

In some cases, the idea that competitive exclusion was at play has been debunked; in other examples, evidence of competitive exclusion falls far short compared with the meticulous data available on the demise of steam engines.

“One of the classic examples involved mammals and non-flying dinosaurs, where the traditional view was, ‘Hey, the mammals were smarter and quicker and they dropped these dinosaurs to extinction,’” he said. “Now we know that it was a giant rock that fell out of the sky that caused this tremendous environmental damage, and bigger things are more likely to be susceptible to that.

This point, too, seems stretched and factually incorrect. Not all dinosaurs were big, but they all perished, while frogs and butterflies survived.

A Major Insight into Evolution?

In their paper in the journal Royal Society Open Science, Lieberman and Strotz list four criteria for a locomotive to be competitive in the transportation market. Then they justify the analogy for biological evolution, with some caveats. For example, they know that steam locomotives (SLs) are not truly extinct; there are a few still operating in various locations. But even with their caveats, they are adamant that they have hit on a major insight into the process of biological evolution.

While we provide evidence that SLs adhere to our four criteria, we do not propose that a technological entity can be considered truly homologous with a macroevolutionary unit. For instance, SLs cannot be considered monophyletic and they are incapable of speciation. We do consider them strongly analogous, however, as they do experience both ‘birth’ and ‘death’, and are subject to processes that fall within the purview of macroecology. In this sense, technological entities can be considered parallel to higher biological units, such as genera and above. Although the functional lifespan of the SL is several orders of magnitude shorter than typical macroevolutionary units, the rapid generation time of new locomotive forms (measured on a scale of months/years) means SLs can be considered comparable to a ‘temporally condensed’ macroevolutionary unit.

Just as Bad as Berra’s Blunder 

I’m sure most of our readers do not need an explanation of why this analogy is just as bad as Berra’s Blunder, so the summary here can be brief. Locomotives are designed by engineers with minds and knowledge of physics! Trains don’t have babies! They neither “emerge” by blind processes of nature, nor do they go extinct without reasoned decisions made by the intelligent minds of businessmen. This is crazy.

If it weren’t for the sad reality that Darwinism lives in university echo chambers without critical thinkers to object, Lieberman’s Lapse would have gone extinct itself before getting published. And extinct it would have gone not by natural blind processes nor by competitive exclusion, but by reasoned debate among thinking people who understand the difference between what minds can do and what chance does. This isolation from critique fosters loco motives for fantasizing.

Lieberman’s Lapse is actually worse than Berra’s Blunder, because Lieberman and Strotz think their “insight” has broad application to all of evolution, including macroevolution. We’ll let their own words provide the evidence that this was an exercise in futility on their part, ending with the customary Darwinian promissory notes for some “understanding” that never arrives at the dock.

It should also be noted that the relevant data needed to conduct a full assessment of both the frequency of our proposed model in the fossil record and the relative import of clade replacement in macroevolutionary dynamics is currently lacking, as the necessary functional trait data associated with putative examples of competition-driven extinction has not yet been compiled. The fossil record does, however, contain a plethora of suitable options from which such data could be obtained.

Our results thus cannot, at this time, resolve what role, if any, competition plays in driving extinction at the macroevolutionary scale. They do, however, provide a path forward that may serve to resolve the issue by addressing the existing impasse in identifying causal relationships in fossil time series. There is no doubt that the SL was derailed by its competitors; however, it still remains to be established if biological clades are frequently similarly sidetracked.

Sidetracked? This analogy has derailed and flipped over, spilling toxic chemicals in fantasyland.