The Island of Doubt

i-11cb4c85b5ed04dbcaf789f703844142-finches.jpgAnyone 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.

Comments

  1. #1 Joe Shelby
    July 14, 2006

    i had this same discussion with someone on my own blog about this – that he assumed by my first stab at the creationist reaction (“but they’re still BIRDS”) that i was trying to show how this also “proved” evolution and then he tried to get into a macro-E vs micro-E semantics discussion that i felt was unnecessary.

    i had to take it back a notch and wrote the following

    there are two sides to scientific theory – 1) what predictions or patterns does it make to knowns and unknowns that will support or refute it, and 2) what predictions does it make that can increase our knowledge about other things unknown but in its field.

    there’s supporting the theory vs. applying the theory.

    the movement of the planets supported the Newtonian theory of gravity – Newton’s equations had to match the already observed behavior (and fit the mathematics Kepler and Galileo had already calculated – for exaple Kepler’s “K” constant ends up a ratio of Newton’s G constant to the mass of the sun – Kelper’s maths still hold up under Newtonian theory).

    the application of the theory of gravity supported the idea that there may be a planet or other large mass beyond Uranus that is causing Uranus’s orbit to fluctuate. Neptune was discovered using this application of gravity 150 years ago.

    the variety of finches at the time on the islands supported Darwin’s theory. the presence of these new finches is yet more evidence supporting the current theory of evolution (specifically, the Natural Selection part along with the concepts of invasive species) with all of its genetics and populations yada yada yada.

    the potential for a new species to arrive as a result of this population change is an application of modern evolutionary theory. a prediction of future events based on a solid understanding of the past with an awareness of current conditions. the science of evolution in action.

    i should have added that every prediction that is an application of the theory ALSO serves to support the theory (ie the discovery of tiktaalik). :)

  2. #2 Karl
    July 14, 2006

    Why is this news now? “The Beak of the Finch” by Jonathan Weiner told the story of the Grants back in 1994.

  3. #3 Writerious
    July 15, 2006

    “Finches on the Galapagos Islands that inspired Charles Darwin to develop the concept of evolution…”

    Nope. People are always getting this worng. Darwin’s theory was the theory of natural selection. It was Lamarck who first applied the term “evolution” to organic change, and it was Buffon who first proposed a theory of organic change (unless you count some of the things the Greeks were saying).

  4. #4 James Hrynyshyn
    July 15, 2006

    Writerious is correct, of course … technically. But I think we just have to be satisfied with the inevitable confusion of evolution with the primary mechanism of evolution in the popular press.

    It’s sort of like confusing gravity, which Newton first defined mathematically, with the curvature of space-time described by Einstein a couple of centuries later in his general theory of relativity. Popular journalism simply isn’t up to the task of making the distinction in every story. It’s been this way for generations, and there are more important battles to fight.

  5. #5 Joshua
    July 28, 2006

    Given the modern cultural climate, though, I think it’s refreshing to see a positive article about evolution at all, even if they missed the point of the specific research they were reporting on.

  6. #6 Michael Grogan
    July 30, 2006

    I think we should all remember, when joining the evolutionary debate, that it is quite useless to debate theories of any kind with those of insufficient education to understand what a theory is let alone the finer points of any given theory. In the end people who choose superstitious explanations for the universe they live in do so because they are quite incapable of understanding the concepts of modern physics and biology. This is not to say they don’t have the mental capacity but, rather, they lack both the technical education and the will to acquire that education.