Anyone want to take a run at anticipating the reaction from creationists to the news that “Finches on Galapagos Islands [are] Evolving” (Associated Press, July 14)? I’m thinking they will latch onto the story’s first paragraph, which ever so slightly introduces a microscopic degree of uncertainty into the most powerful unifying principle in biology.
I don’t fault reporter Randolph E. Schmid or his editors. They’re writing for the general public, so it makes sense to lead off a story on evolution thusly:
WASHINGTON — Finches on the Galapagos Islands that inspired Charles Darwin to develop the concept of evolution are now helping confirm it — by evolving.
Or maybe they’ll take Science magazine’s Elizabeth Pennisi out of context by quote mining this little snippet,
“…this is the first time they have seen it happen in real time in the wild, says Jonathan Losos, an animal ecologist at Harvard University: “This study will be an instant textbook classic.”
The story discusses the latest findings, published in today’s Science (Vol. 313. no. 5784), from Peter and Rosemary Grant, who have been churning out “confirmations” of biology from their base in the Galapagos for decades. Their research is already the sort of thing first-year biology teachers use as evidence of evolution in action, as opposed to long-dead fossil or molecular evidence. (Maybe Loos should have said “another textbook classic.”)
But the Grants never set out to prove evolutionary theory. The “this” in Pennisi’s story isn’t evolution itself, but one of the details of the mechanisms behind evolution. In the current paper, the Grants deal with a process until now never documented called “character displacement,” in which one characteristic of a species changes in response to competition. In this case, the character is beak size: when times got tough, the beaks shrank, as the finches with larger beaks died off and those with smaller beaks fared better. Sounds bit dry for those who don’t study evolution for a living, but this has been the meat and potatoes of evolutionary research since, well, Darwin’s day.
Indeed, the very fact that biologists don’t waste their time trying to prove evolution is real should tell the creationists something. Unfortunately, instead of marvelling at the how complex and fascinating evolution really is, the more hard-core among them will probably jump on the first sentence of the paper’s abstract, pointing out that language like “Competitor species can have evolutionary effects on each other” proves how narrow-minded biologists have become.
“Look how they assume the very thing they’re trying to prove,” is what they’ll say. Never mind that they aren’t trying to prove anything. As several of my fellow science bloggers (Jason, John, Tara and Ed) point out, John Derbyshire’s conclusion that arguing with creationists is tantamount to playing a game of whack-a-mole is bang on.