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Hidden, Now Revealed: Amazonia, Fitness Landscapes, and Fibonacci Numbers

Photo: Spiral galaxy NGC 628, by NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Janice Lee (STScI), Thomas Williams (Oxford), and the PHANGS team.

Here are some news items of interest for those who have followed my previous articles about Amazonia, fitness landscapes, and Fibonacci numbers. They are united by the theme of “hidden” things now revealed.

Hidden Cities in the Jungle

In 2022 (here), I shared news about “mind blowing” discoveries made with LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) in the Amazon rainforest. The forest-penetrating technology uncovered “geoglyphs” (large structures) that were made by previously unknown people groups. Last fall (here) I updated the story with new estimates that there might be many thousands more to discover. This was a classic test of The Design Inference: eliminating chance by specified complexity and small probability.

Since then, a “huge ancient city” has been revealed by LIDAR, reports BBC News, and was explored by ground crews. Some 6,000 mounds are at the large site, probably foundations for homes. 

“It changes the way we see Amazonian cultures. Most people picture small groups, probably naked, living in huts and clearing land — this shows ancient people lived in complicated urban societies,” says co-author Antoine Dorison.

The city was built around 2,500 years ago, and people lived there for up to 1,000 years, according to archaeologists.

It is difficult to accurately estimate how many people lived there at any one time, but scientists say it is certainly in the 10,000s if not 100,000s. [Emphasis added.]

See New Scientist’s article on this find, with a LIDAR scan of the extensive site. It adds,

In 2015, Rostain’s team did an aerial survey with lidar, a laser scanning technique that can create a detailed 3D map of the surface beneath most vegetation, revealing features not normally visible to us. The findings, which have only now been published, show that the settlements were far more extensive than anyone realised….

The survey also revealed a network of straight roads created by digging out soil and piling it on the sides. The longest extends for at least 25 kilometres, but might continue beyond the area that was surveyed.

This month, Jay Silverstein, an archaeologist renowned for the detection of hidden artifacts in Amazonia and elsewhere, wrote in The Conversation about these amazing discoveries. The title of his essay promises big news ahead, “Valley of lost cities found in the Amazon — technological advances in archaeology are only the beginning of discovery.”

A valley of lost cities has been discovered in the Ecuadorian Amazon. When you hear of such a discovery you might think of archaeologists with chisels and brushes or explorers in pith helmets stumbling across sites deep in the forest. Instead, without needing to brave the hazards of the forest, Light Detection and Ranging (Lidar) has revealed networks of buried roads and earthen mounds.

The point of exploratory science is to reveal what has so far been hidden. Whether at the edge of the universe with the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the bottom of the sea with Underwater Autonomous Vehicles (UAVs), or through the canopy of the densest forests with Lidar, we are discovering things that reshape our understanding of the world. 

It’s like finding the key to a cryptogram, or the figures in a stereogram, to see these city-scale structures under the forest canopy for the first time. Silverstein believes that scientists are nowhere near running out of things to discover. LIDAR and aerial search systems have revolutionized archaeology, but there will always be a need for ground-based searches and excavations — meaning, there will continue to be ample opportunities for design detection. (This is not to imply that design in the forest leaves, loaded with ATP synthase motors, does not warrant its own design inference.)

Hidden Assumptions in the Fitness Landscape

Like letters crossing in the mail, scientific papers can contradict one another. The authors of a paper in Oxford’s International Journal of Organic Evolution, blithely assuming there is wisdom in Wright’s “fitness landscape” metaphor, were apparently unaware of the PNAS paper the previous month that debunked it (see my post on that paper here). True, authors can innocently miss others’ work due to lag times between research, writing, and publication, even if they do a literature search, but this points to a problem in peer-reviewed scientific publications: wrong notions can persist even after they have been falsified.

The Oxford Evolution paper, “The fitness landscape of a community of Darwin’s finches,” by 18 authors, builds its case on the notion of a Gaussian landscape, not realizing that the landscape is flat with trapdoors (according to the PNAS authors), and that “holey landscapes” represent “the dominant evolutionary process.” 

The drivers of adaptive radiation have often been conceptualized through the concept of “adaptive landscapes,” yet formal empirical estimates of adaptive landscapes for natural adaptive radiations have proven elusive. Here, we use a 17-year dataset of Darwin’s ground finches (Geospiza spp.) at an intensively studied site on Santa Cruz (Galápagos) to estimate individual apparent lifespan in relation to beak traits.

Onward they go, eager to perpetuate this icon of evolution that Jonathan Wells debunked 24 years ago. Now, with the collapse of Wright’s “fitness landscape” metaphor (at least the smooth Gaussian kind with curving hills and valleys), their work has been doubly debunked. It’s kind of sad. They mention fitness peaks 90 times, fitness valleys 16 times, landscape 154 times, and “fitness” 194 times. It would be one thing if they argued that Dochtermann et al. were wrong in their assessment of the landscape metaphor being “holey” in their PNAS paper, but these authors seem oblivious to the problem that composite traits cannot gain fitness on a flat landscape. They can only disappear through one of the trapdoors.

One can only wonder how long it will take for the landscape myth — organisms gradually ascending to higher fitness by natural selection — to collapse. Since the “fitness landscape” metaphor has been extremely useful to Darwinians, as in this new paper, it is likely to continue as a useful lie for some time. Perhaps Dr. Wells can use it as another case of Zombie Science.

Hidden Glories in the Infrared

The James Webb Space Telescope Mission Team revealed a blockbuster set of images at the end of January: a catalog of spiral galaxies displayed in exquisite detail. Adding to the splendor of the gallery, NASA scientists combined images from the Hubble Space Telescope and data from other instruments, including the “the Very Large Telescope’s Multi-Unit Spectroscopic Explorer, and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, including observations in ultraviolet, visible, and radio light.” The combined data sets provided a multicolored, high-resolution gallery of images that is sure to tantalize astronomers and delight the public.

The caption for one image of spiral galaxy NGC 628 (pictured at the top) includes this note: “The spiraling filamentary structure looks somewhat like a cross section of a nautilus shell.” This recalls posts here at Evolution News about the uncanny ubiquity of phenomena exhibiting the Fibonacci series (hereherehereherehere). Why should a nautilus shell mimic the structure of a spiral galaxy differing in size by many orders of magnitude? As I remarked in this link, the question remains unanswered in spite of modelers’ attempts to explain one example in plant stems.

Meanwhile, enjoy the NASA images. They’re awesome! Only a finely tuned universe could give rise to structures this grand, this brilliant, this humbling.