I’ve often highlighted the ludicrous missteps New Scientist makes when covering evolutionary biology (see here, here, and here, for instance). They seem to delight in publishing stupid and thoughtless articles about how Darwin was wrong, and how we need a whole new evolutionary paradigm. I thought they’d been set straight by petulant evolutionists interested in real science, but apparently not. They’ve pulled out all the stops with their new piece, “The chaos theory of evolution,” by Keith Bennett, described as
professor of late-Quaternary environmental change at Queen’s University Belfast, guest professor in palaeobiology at Uppsala University in Sweden, and author of Evolution and Ecology: The Pace of Life (Cambridge University Press). He holds a Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Award.
I weep for the Royal Society, which seems to have fallen on hard times. Professor Bennett has apparently decided that the entire corpus of modern evolutionary theory is simply wrong, and, in his genius, replaces it with what he calls the “chaos theory of evolution.” The entire edifice is rotten from ceiling to basement, argues Professor Bennett, including Darwin’s most important idea: natural selection. What does he replace it with? A bunch of buzzwords, like “fractal” and “nonlinearity”. It’s the most wrongheaded attack on the field by someone in it that I’ve seen in a long time. (Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini’s book, What Darwin Got Wrong, doesn’t count, since they’re not really evolutionists.)
What’s wrong with the theory of evolution? Rather, you should ask what’s right. Here’s Bennett’s “J’accuse” (I’ve put his quotes in italics):
- Punctuated equilibrium shows that macroevolution operates by processes completely different from those causing microevolution. Well, the debate is still on about whether there are forms of higher-level sorting occcurring in macroevolution (in my book Speciation, with Allen Orr, I accept a limited role of species selection), but nobody—even the most hidebound opponents of neo-Darwinism—claim that the features of organisms themselves were built by processes other than those causing microevolution: natural selection and genetic drift. Punctuated equilibrium is a theory that attempts to explain not the presence of traits in plants and animals, but their relative predominance among all species through evolutionary history.
- Bennett claims that there aren’t many good examples of natural selection in the wild (this is part of his idea that it’s not important). He says this about John Endler’s book Natural Selection in the Wild:
“Later, John Endler, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Exeter, UK, scrutinised claimed examples of natural selection but found a surprising lack of hard evidence (chronicled in his 1986 book Natural Selection in the Wild).”
Well, that’s just hogwash. I have Dr. Endler here behind this sign, and I’ll bring him out; he’ll tell you that you know nothing of his work. Endler’s book was in fact a documentation of several hundreds observed examples of natural selection, and since then there have been many more. Here’s the publisher’s precis:
“Professor Endler finds that there are a remarkable number of direct demonstrations of selection in a wide variety of animals and plants. The distribution of observed magnitudes of selection in natural populations is surprisingly broad, and it overlaps extensively the range of values found in artificial selection. He argues that the common assumption that selection is usually weak in natural populations is no longer tenable, but that natural selection is only one component of the process of evolution; natural selection can explain the change of frequencies of variants, but not their origins.”
- Bennett argues that “If macroevolution really is an extrapolation of natural selection and adaptation, we would expect to see environmental change driving evolutionary change.” He says that there’s precious little evidence for this, but what he cites is not convincing. He makes a huge deal about how North American trees moved north after the last glaciation. According to Bennett, they should all have moved in concert at the same rate, with the oaks marching lock step with the beeches:
“The distribution shifts were individualistic, with huge variations between species in the rate, time and direction of spread. For example, larch spread from south-west to north-east, white pine from south-east to north-west. Rates vary from 100 metres a year to over 1000 metres (Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden, vol 70, p 550). In other words, trees show no predictable response to climate change, and respond individually rather than as communities of species.”
WHAT? Who ever said that different trees, with their different ways of disseminating propagules and their different sensitivities to environmental variation, would all move at the same rate? And their movement was predictable: they recolonized favorable areas. Only a moron would think that that colonization must happen at exactly the same rate for different species.
Bennett further claims that because modern tree communities differ from ancient ones, this somehow vitiates the predictability of evolutionary theory:
“The fossil record also tells us that the make-up of modern forest communities differs from those of 20,000 years ago. Today we recognise various types of forest, such as boreal, deciduous and aspen parkland, each with a distinctive mix of tree species. Yet the fossil record tells us that these are just temporary groupings. Multi-species communities do not have long histories and do not shift their distributions in a coordinated way in response to climate changes, as Darwin supposed. We therefore cannot assume that the members of modern forest communities evolved together or are somehow dependent on each other.”
But of course evolution—and ecology—depend on contingency, and the response to disturbances depends on evolutionary history, fortuitous ecological circumstances, random mutations, who gets to a place first, and so on. When the meteorite decimated many dinosaurs, was it a violation of evolutionary theory that their ecological niches were largely filled by mammals? Over the history of life, many extinctions were followed by drastic differences in the subsequent composition of communities. It’s ludicrous to think that this somehow violates Darwinian evolution, or to claim that this shows that members of a community are not affected by each other either ecologically or evolutionarily.
- Bennett claims that there’s precious little evidence that speciation or extinction responds to environmental changes; things shuffle on and off the mortal coil at a rather constant rate regardless of what’s happening to the environment:
“The overall picture is that the main response to major environmental changes is individualistic movement and changes in abundance, rather than extinction or speciation. In other words, the connection between environmental change and evolutionary change is weak, which is not what might have been expected from Darwin’s hypothesis.”
This of course neglects all the work showing that extinctions are correlated with major environmental changes (what about that meteorite, which was found simply by assuming that the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction must have had some environmental cause?) It neglects all the work showing that speciation is prompted by environmental changes, evidence amply documented in our book Speciation. The rise of the Isthmus of Panama, for example, gave rise to many pairs of animal species which, beginning as populations sundered by the Isthmus, went merrily on separate genetic paths and became different species. And what about all those species that invaded islands (an environmental change) and, finding new niches, speciated like crazy? The Hawaiian Drosophila and honeycreepers, the Galapagos finches, the radiation of marsupials in Australia—these are only a few examples. And I’m sure my paleontological readers could cite many more examples of connections between environment and speciation or extinction.
- So how does Bennett see evolution as working? He doesn’t say, exactly; he just throws out a lot of buzzwords:
“I suggest that the true source of macroevolutionary change lies in the non-linear, or chaotic, dynamics of the relationship between genotype and phenotype – the actual organism and all its traits. The relationship is non-linear because phenotype, or set of observable characteristics, is determined by a complex interplay between an organism’s genes – tens of thousands of them, all influencing one another’s behaviour – and its environment.”
That’s not an answer, and it’s not a source of “macroevolutionary change.” All it is is pointing out that organisms result from complicated networks of development. (I hate the word “nonlinear”, because it’s used so loosely, as in this context, that the reader doesn’t know what it means. It sure sounds fancy, though!) But even if a linear input into a developmental pathway doesn’t have a linear output, how on earth does that vitiate evolutionary theory? So long as there is some connection between a gene substitution and an organism’s traits and reproductive output, no matter how “nonlinear it is,” then natural selection can produce adaptive change. I hate to say this, but one gets the impression that beneath this fancy postmodern verbiage, Bennett doesn’t have the slightest idea what he’s talking about.
- Oh, and there are those “initial conditions”:
“Second, behaviour of the system is sensitive to initial conditions. We see this in responses to glaciations in the Quaternary period. The exact circumstances of the beginning of each interglacial determine the development of the whole period, leading to unpredictable differences between interglacials (Quaternary Science Reviews, vol 14, p 967).”
But who has ever denied that evolution is sensitive to what’s there in the first place? Marsupials got to Australia and took over; lemurs did the same in Madagascar. Contingency is important in evolution. Ditto for mutation: the entire course of evolution depends on what random mutations happen to pop up. But how, exactly, does that overturn neo-Darwinism? Contingency is part of neo-Darwinism!
- Here comes another buzzword!:
“Third, the history of life is fractal. Take away the labelling from any portion of the tree of life and we cannot tell at which scale we are looking (see diagram). This self-similarity also indicates that evolutionary change is a process of continual splitting of the branches of the tree.”
Yeah, so what? Splitting and common ancestry were important aspects of Darwin’s own theory produced in 1859. We just didn’t have the fancy word “fractal” back then.
- Echoing Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini, Bennett minimizes the importance of natural selection in favor of “self-generating evolution”:
“Iterating these unpredictable changes over hundreds or thousands of generations will inevitably lead to evolutionary changes in addition to any that come about by the preferential survival of certain phenotypes. It follows that macroevolution may, over the longer-term, be driven largely by internally generated genetic change, not adaptation to a changing environment.”
But how does “internally generated genetic change” produce adaptation? It may, through various genetic constraints, limit the type of variation available for the disposition of either selection or drift. But, pray tell, how do we explain the fishes’ fins, the polar bear’s coat, the flowers of angiosperms, the fangs of the tiger, the camouflage of the octopus, and all the myriad ways organisms make their living in adaptive ways, without invoking natural selection? Can “internally generated change” explain that appearance of design that was once taken as evidence for God, but is now seen as the product of natural selection. If Bennett has a third explanation for adaptive design, by all means let him give it.
This was the big problem with Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini’s What Darwin Got Wrong. They argued that natural selection was not only unimportant, but incoherent; yet they had no substitute explanation for the appearance of design in animals and plants. “Internally generated genetic change” won’t do it. It may explain why there’s one adaptation rather than another, but not why there’s adaptation in the first place.
- Finally, Bennett decries modern evolutionary theory because it can’t predict future evolution:
“There can be no “laws” of evolution. We may be able to reconstruct the sequence of events leading to the evolution of any given species or group after the fact, but we will not be able to generalise from these to other sequences of events. From a practical point of view, this means we will be unable to predict how species will respond to projected climate changes over next century. . . In the last analysis, evolution can be likened to the description of human history as “just one damn thing after another”, exactly as Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini have argued.”
In my critique of Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini’s book in The Nation, I showed how evolutionary explanations—even those dealing with the past—are indeed testable. Evolutionists are not just passive victims of history, doomed to make up post facto stories that can’t be tested. Clearly Bennett hasn’t though deeply about this issue, since even the most elementary evolution texts are filled with descriptions of experiments testing things like how mimicry works, the mechanisms of sexual selection, the effect of seed size on the evolution of bird beaks, and so on. And whoever said that the response of organisms to environmental changes must be absolutely predictable if evolutionary theory is to be seen as true? We have no idea what mutations will arise to help animals and plants adapt to new environments, nor about how evolution in one species may affect the environmental niches of another. So what? Nobody ever claimed—except for ignorant people like Bennett—that for evolutionary theory to be valid, we evolutionists must predict exactly how evolution is going to proceed. Nevertheless, we’re pretty good at one thing: predicting that microbes will adapt to new antibiotics! We just don’t know what mutations will be involved.
Articles like Bennett’s are infinitely depressing, not just because someone who seems to be credentialed in the field can misunderstand it so badly, but also because their drivel gets published in a place like New Scientist. I think most of us realized that the journal was going downhill anyway, but now it appears to be at rock bottom.