Cornelius Hunter struggles to understand convergent evolution

I was hunting around for some blogging ideas recently when I came across this post by Wintery Knight. It’s basically a copy and paste job because Mr. Knight is not qualified to speak of anything in biology (and he has amply demonstrated as much). However, the person he extensively quotes, Cornelius Hunter, is also 100% unqualified to analyze the world of biology. I’ve written about Hunter in the past.

As in his last post that just barely merited a response on FTSOS, Hunter makes a series of confused remarks about convergent evolution. (For those who don’t know – such as Hunter – convergent evolution is the process by which species of usually distant relatedness will acquire the same trait independent of their last common ancestor.) Let’s take a look at how Hunter mangles this:

The theory of evolution states that the species arose spontaneously, one from another via a pattern of common descent. This means the species should form an evolutionary tree, where species that share a recent common ancestor, such as two frog species, are highly similar, and species that share a distant common ancestor, such as humans and squids, are very different. But the species do not form such an evolutionary tree pattern. In fact this expectation has been violated so many times it is difficult to keep track. These violations are not rare or occasional anomalies, they are the rule.

Hunter is only leading into his mention of convergence here, but he’s already off to an embarrassing start. He’s attempting to claim that we don’t see an expected pattern of descent because that pattern is premised on the idea that similar traits must come from closely related organisms. He is factually incorrect. All he has described here is one method for determining relatedness between species: morphology. And even then, he has grossly over-simplified the process. For instance, take the skull of a dingo versus the skull of a Tasmanian tiger. They resemble each other quite closely, but they aren’t exactly the same. The latter has two holes in the roof of its mouth, a characteristic of marsupials. Go further and one will see that they also have different genetic codings.

Many examples are the repeated designs found in what, according to evolution, must be very distant species. Such evolutionary convergence is biology’s version of lightning striking twice. To explain this evolutionists must say that random mutations just happened to hit upon the same detailed, intricate design at different times, in different parts of the world, in different ecological niches, and so forth.

Were Hunter to take a peak at the genes in a Euphorbia, he might notice that they are markedly different from the genes in a cactus. That’s because, while both plants are prickly desert survivors, one is from the Malpighiales order whereas the other is from the Caryophyllales order. They have significantly different genotypes, but similar phenotypes. In other words, Hunter’s argument that random mutations are always hitting “upon the same detailed, intricate designs at different times, in different parts of the world, in different ecological niches” is not only verbose, but entirely wrong. It would be as though he said home builders have hit upon the same intricate design because some use cellulose insulation while others use spray foam. It’s the same result by a different means.

Everyone has heard of the kangaroo and its pouch. It is a marsupial—mammals that give birth at a relatively early stage in development, and then carry their young in a pouch. There are a great variety of marsupials that are curiously similar to a cousin placental species. The flying squirrel (a placental) and the flying phalanger (a marsupial) are one such example. Because of their reproductive differences evolutionists must say they are distantly related on the evolutionary tree. Yet they have strikingly similar designs which must have been created independently by random mutations. Every mutation leading to the two different species must, according to evolution, have been random (that is, independent of any need). No, natural selection doesn’t help.

First, his mutation argument is still wrong. Second, it isn’t merely reproductive differences that tell us the flying squirrels (which are two independent groups of rodents) are different from the flying phalanger. There is also evidence from their genetic relatedness, not to mention the obvious fact that one is placental and the other a marsupial. Third, of course natural selection is relevant here. That’s the whole reason two species are able to converge on the same solution to similar problems; natural selection has found an efficient solution to one problem faced by two species.

Though evolutionists sometimes deny biological convergence, it is a scientific fact.

I don’t know what Hunter is talking about, but that’s okay because I don’t think he does either.

He goes on to quote from a recent paper:

In mammals, hearing is dependent on three canonical processing stages: (i) an eardrum collecting sound, (ii) a middle ear impedance converter, and (iii) a cochlear frequency analyzer. Here, we show that some insects, such as rainforest katydids, possess equivalent biophysical mechanisms for auditory processing…

Thus, two phylogenetically remote organisms, katydids and mammals, have evolved a series of convergent solutions to common biophysical problems, despite their reliance on very different morphological substrates.

Now, remember the crux of Hunter’s opening: Similar morphology is the same thing as intricate design, thus Jesus. Yet here we see a “reliance on very different morphological substrates”. That is, natural selection in some insects has hit upon the same broad method for attaining hearing as it has in mammals, but it goes about the process in a largely different way, relying upon the insect phenotype it has already given itself. So not only is Hunter’s argument wrong from the get-go, but even if we’re generous and grant him his incorrect basis, he still gets blown out of the water. He has managed to somehow be wrong in his wrongness.

It’s one thing when someone branches into biology from time to time, relying upon the insight of others. We see that with Wintery Knight (the reason being that he hasn’t a clue about the field). We can’t expect everyone to be an expert, even if they should know better. However, Cornelius Hunter is another story. This is a guy who fancies himself qualified and reasoned, able to break down complex scientific ideas. Yet what we see is a man unable to even come remotely close to getting much of anything right about a relatively simple idea. And he keeps trying, getting things wrong every. single. time.

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Punching bags

Once again Neil has proved a great resource for punching bags. Following the link to one of his commenter’s blogs, I found this link to Cornelius Hunter. The guy has written an anti-science book or two and works for – you guessed it – the anti-science Discovery Institute. He has a post about convergent evolution, something he doesn’t appear to understand.

Imagine a future space explorer who travels to a distant galaxy and discovers an inhabited planet with an advanced civilization. In his visit he tours a great art museum. The halls are adorned with many beautiful paintings, but as the traveler walks through the museum an eerie feeling of deja vu overtakes him. The various exhibits he observes show different styles and movements that are uncannily similar to what he is familiar with from his home planet. Even particular paintings are incredibly similar to what he remembers.

Ergo, God.

But despite making his entire argument, and roughly half of the arguments from the Discovery Institute, Hunter continues.

This would be eerie because this high similarity has occurred for no apparent reason.

Well, gosh, he surely can’t be implying that convergent evolution happens for no apparent reason, can he? Because we do know that similar environments are a major cause. When two distantly related species which do not share a (recent) common ancestor are each in a similar environment with a similar niche to fill, they may both well fill it. Hunter may as well be saying that evolution itself happens for no apparent reason. We either know or can infer the reasons behind why many traits evolve. That they sometimes evolve independently and then converge does not throw the world of evolution on its head.

A million different paintings are possible, the traveler would never expect to see such similarity in independent masterpieces.

Except Earth doesn’t have a million different environments, broadly-speaking. And life has been around for 4 billion years. And not every option is equally viable. The odds, it turns out, really aren’t so bad. At least, ya know, when we feel like using facts and junk.

The level of convergence in biology has been found to be amazing in recent decades. Strikingly similar designs run all through the biological world. Such similarities do not bode well for evolution because (i) they are supposed to be independently created by chance events,

Chance? Nope. Wrong. They are created via nonrandom natural selection acting on populations that usually exist in similar environments and therefore have similar needs and/or possible outcomes.

(ii) often they must have arisen in different initial conditions,

The foundation of biology isn’t turned on its head because organisms use a different starting point. In fact, we ought to expect many different starting conditions; we see different biochemical pathways, different genes, and even different (sometimes subtle) morphology which all indicate differing evolutionary histories. That these pathways converge is indicative of patterns in the way life operates, not of the Jesus answer Hunter wants. Indeed, instead of Hunter’s anti-science response of “Nuh-uh, couldn’ta happen’d!”, we have some very interesting questions raised through ever-increasing discovery.

(iii) often they are found in different environments

So? Similar environment is the big cause, but that doesn’t make it the only cause.

(iv) the design space is large

This is just a repeat of his analogy. It’s still wrong.

How can we understand these strikingly similar masterpieces?

Well it really isn’t so difficult after all. You see, if our eye evolved once, then why not twice? Evolution is a story of serendipity, so why not add a bit more? Accepting the evolution of life requires a credulous mind. Once evolution is accepted as fact, all kind of events can be accommodated.

In other words, convergent evolution proves Jesus because it’s really hard to understand. If that’s the case, then I think Jesus is proven to Hunter all the time. Also, convergent evolution is false because, um, uh, ’cause things can’t convergently evolve.

Consider how evolutionist Simon Conway Morris explains convergence at the Map of Life website that documents convergences. Incredibly, for Morris, not only is convergence not a problem for evolution, it actually is yet another proof text. The message from biology’s massive convergence is “First, that evolution is true.”

First, Hunter doesn’t link to any explanation of convergence. He links to the page that describes the aims of Morris’ website. Second, it is the message of the website that evolution is true, not of convergent evolution. Call me crazy, but if a theory can be said to have a message, I would say convergent evolution’s message is that, in evolution, convergence happens. But maybe I’m just being wacky.

And how do these convergences help support such an amazing conclusion? Morris explains that biology’s very complex structures, such as the bacterial flagellar motor, “evolved independently at least twice.”

In other words, if you think complexity argues against evolution, just look—convergence reveals independent versions, which of course must have evolved. Such independent evolution proves such structures can’t be too complex.

…what? Convergent evolution doesn’t mean that something is therefore simple (though a strong case has been made for Hunter’s simplicity). Very complex structures or characteristics or traits can come about through evolution while landing on a similar spot or the same spot. Hunter’s conclusion has no relation to anything any real biologist has ever said.

Next please.