Convergence part 4: “an epic myth”

I promised in part one of this series that I would show why the argument that convergence is a problem for evolution is daft, and I haven’t really done that. What I’ve done so far is show that the argument includes a false premise, namely that evolutionary biologists have only recently become aware that convergence is widespread.

In parts onetwo, and three, I showed that some intelligent design proponents misrepresent the history of biological thought regarding convergence. They have created an alternate history in which biologists from Darwin to Dawkins were barely aware of convergent evolution, and have only in the last few decades been forced to confront it. Whether this is dishonesty or just bad scholarship, I can’t say, but it is a big, stinking pile of wrong.

But I haven’t really engaged their core argument, a fair paraphrase of which is that convergence, the appearance of similar phenotypes in distantly related species, is evidence against (or even falsifies) common descent. For example, Cornelius Hunter says convergence

…violates the evolutionary pattern. Regardless of adaptation versus constraint explanations, and any other mechanisms evolutionists can or will imagine, the basic fact remains: a fundamental evidence and prediction of evolution is falsified. —2017-05-25

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Convergence part 3: “the Darwinists’ lollapalooza”

In parts one and two, I showed that suggestions by some intelligent design advocates that evolutionary biologists have only recently become aware of widespread convergence are false. At least one ID proponent, though, has gone further, suggesting that convergence is a post hoc rationalization invented by ‘Darwinists’ to hide their dirty little secret that common descent is not supported by evidence.

Phylogenetic tree from The Origin of Species

Not the first tree of life. The one figure from The Origin of Species. By Charles Darwin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Physicist Lee M. Spetner makes this argument in his book The Evolution Revolution. I don’t own The Evolution Revolution, but Casey Luskin has helpfully, and approvingly, quoted some critical passages:

Convergent evolution is the Darwinists’ lollapalooza. They made it up to keep their phylogenetic tree from falling apart, but they can’t say how convergence happens. — As quoted by Casey Luskin, 2014-10-19

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Convergence part 2: “exceptions to the rule”

In part 1, I argued that some advocates of intelligent design give a misleading picture of the history of evolutionary thought on the topic of convergence. To hear them tell it, convergence, or at least convergence as a widespread phenomenon is a recent discovery, unknown to Darwin and to the architects of the modern synthesis. For example, Günter Bechly says,

One of the most essential doctrines of Darwinian evolution, apart from universal common descent with modification, is the notion that complex similarities indicate homology and are ordered in a congruent nested pattern that facilitates the hierarchical classification of life. When this pattern is disrupted by incongruent evidence, such conflicting evidence is readily explained away as homoplasies with ad hoc explanations like underlying apomorphies (parallelisms), secondary reductions, evolutionary convergences, long branch attraction, and incomplete lineage sorting.

When I studied in the 1980s at the University of Tübingen, where the founder of phylogenetic systematics, Professor Willi Hennig, was teaching a first generation of cladists, we still all thought that such homoplasies are the exceptions to the rule, usually restricted to simple or poorly known characters. Since then the situation has profoundly changed. Homoplasy is now recognized as a ubiquitous phenomenon (e.g., eyes evolved 45 times independently, and bioluminiscence 27 times; hundreds of more examples can be found at Cambridge University’s “Map of Life” website).

I don’t know who gave Dr. Bechly the idea that homoplasies are rare, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Willi Hennig. Dr. Bechly was there, and I wasn’t, but I’m going to go out on a limb here anyway and say that Willi Hennig wasn’t even at the University of Tübingen in the 1980s. I can be fairly confident that this is the case, because Willi Hennig died in 1976.

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Convergence part 1: “quite unexpected”

A number of advocates of intelligent design have written variations on the theme that convergence is a problem for evolution. I aim to show why this argument is daft.

First of all, what is convergence? Definitions differ, and I’m not going to get into an extended discussion of the differences. A definition that will serve well enough is Anurag Agrawal’s, “the independent evolution of similar phenotypes.” A phenotype, and this will be important, can refer to a single trait, multiple traits, or the entire set of traits expressed by an organism. Green-eyed is a phenotype. A calico pattern of fur color is a phenotype. All of the traits that make up a particular cat are also a phenotype. A phenotype can describe a trait (or set of traits) of an individual or of a species, so just as being 5’10” tall is a phenotype, so is being bipedal.

Convergence typically refers to the latter kind of phenotype, those that characterize a species. So if, for example, seasonal changes in coat color have independently evolved in a bird, a lagomorph, a mustelid, and a canid, that’s an example of convergence of a single trait.

Zimova 2018 Fig 1

Figure 1 from Zimova et al. 2018. Seasonal coat colour species in their winter (top row) and summer (bottom row) coats. (A) Rock ptarmigan; (B) mountain hare; (C) stoat; (D) Arctic fox. None of these species share a common ancestor with seasonal coat polymorphism; they evolved it convergently. Photos by stock.adobe.com: Pilipenko D, Paul Carpenter, Stephan Morris, Diego Cottino; Mills lab research photo, and Seoyun Choi.

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Jonathan Wells debunks something nobody believes

Black bear

Black bear, Glacier National Park, September 2014.

Charles Darwin speculated that whales might have evolved from bears. He was wrong, but then he didn’t have the benefit of molecular sequence data, detailed morphological comparisons, and sophisticated methods of phylogenetic inference. We’ve known for at least 50 years that cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) are most closely related to ungulates, specifically even-toed ungulates (artiodactyls). The current consensus is that the closest living relatives of cetaceans are hippopotamuses. Not everyone agrees with this specific relationship, but no one really doubts that whales are closely related to ungulates.

You wouldn’t learn that from reading Discovery Institute Senior Fellow Jonathan Wells’ recent post, “From Bears to Whales: A Difficult Transition.”

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A confused mess, part 2

xkcd Wrong on the Internet

Comic by Randall Munroe, xkcd (of course).

Maybe by the time I have part 2 written up, someone will tell me in the comments why we evolutionary biologists shouldn’t just hang up our hats in light of pre-antibiotic antibiotic resistance.

I really didn’t mean to leave that hanging for three weeks. That was the end of part 1 of my look at Phillip Cunningham’s video, “Darwin vs. Microbes,” in which Cunningham argues that antibiotic resistance is not an example of evolution because (among other reasons),

…contrary to Darwinian thought, it is now found that antibiotic resistance, instead of being an ability that is new for bacteria, is an ability that is ancient.

Boom, game over, creationists win, right? I mean, how can antibiotic resistance have evolved millions of years ago if Alexander Fleming didn’t invent penicillin until 1928? [Read more…]

A confused mess, part 1

I follow Uncommon Descent to keep up with what the cdesign proponentsists are up to, even though I’ve been banned from commentingUncommon Descent pushes out about three times as many articles as Evolution News & Views, and it’s clear that less than a third as much thought goes into each one. Worse, the articles’ authorship is rarely identified, robbing me of my second favorite sport after fly fishing, pointing out creationists’ self-contradictions. For both of these reasons, I don’t comment on their posts nearly as often. But if you read this blog at all, you must know that I can’t pass on a video that 1) claims to provide evidence against evolution and 2) has Volvox in it.

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In their own words, part 2

Evolution News & Views

I previously pointed out that Casey Luskin’s “false, straw-man [version] of ID” bears a striking resemblance to intelligent design advocate Michael Behe’s actual definition:

Let me get this straight:

life is so complex, it could not have evolved” is a “false, straw-man version” of

Cells are simply too complex to have evolved.

I promised that I would get to the second part of Luskin’s “straw-man version,”

…therefore it was designed by a supernatural intelligence,

and that’s what I mean to address in this post. Maybe Luskin wasn’t claiming that ID critics mischaracterize the logic that leads ID advocates to reject evolution, but rather that they mistakenly (or deceitfully) portray ID advocates as inferring supernatural causation. If so, he’s not alone. Advocates of intelligent design frequently deny that their theory has anything to do with the supernatural, and they imply that efforts to portray it as such are deceitful or, at best, misinformed.

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In their own words, part 1

Evolution News & Views

Cdesign proponentsists often complain that critics attack straw man versions rather than their actual arguments. That must be really frustrating; as I’ve said before, if you have good arguments, you don’t need to misrepresent your opponents’. Here, for example is Casey Luskin on Evolution News & Views:

Many critics of intelligent design have promoted false, straw-man versions of ID, typically going something like this:

“Intelligent design claims that life is so complex, it could not have evolved, therefore it was designed by a supernatural intelligence.”

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Get your story straight, will you?

Here are a few of the things that would or do support intelligent design, according to various authors on Evolution News & Views:

If evolving multicellularity is complicated. — Cornelius Hunter, Anne Gauger

If evolving multicellularity is simple. — Unsigned Evolution News & Views article

If the human and chimpanzee genomes are very different. — Denyse O’Leary, Casey Luskin, David Klinghoffer, Anne Gauger

If the human and chimpanzee genomes are very similar. — Cornelius Hunter

If life is uncommon in the universe. — David Klinghoffer

If life is common in the universe. — David Klinghoffer

So intelligent design is in the enviable position of being supported equally well by mutually exclusive predictions. Heads I win, tails you lose! Now we can add Kirk Dunston to that last entry (“Could Atheism Survive the Discovery of Extraterrestrial Life?“):

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