Evolution Science

A ScienceBlogger’s prediction about anti-evolutionists comes true

Over the weekend, between bouts of rounding on patients and seeing consults (I was on call), I perused the Last 24 Hours channel on the ScienceBlogs homepage, when I came across a fellow SB’er discussing a recent paper in Science about evolution. It was a study of the finches of the Galapagos Islands by Princeton evolutionary biologists Peter and Rosemary Grant. Being a physician and not a hardcore evolutionary biologist, I must confess that I don’t always get into the nitty-gritty of how biologists study evolution, but this was a compelling story that was fairly easy for me to understand. I even looked up the paper, which given that it appeared in Science, was only three pages long (typical for short reports to that particular journal). Given my history of arguing against the canards creationists and “intelligent design” creationists use to attack evolutionary theory, I was also interested in James’ prediction that anti-evolutionists and creationists would jump on the first paragraph of how the study was reported in the Associated Press, where the reporter phrased his sentence to suggest that there might be some uncertainty in the validity of evolutionary theory, or would quote mine a comment by an evolutionary biologist about how this study will be an “instant textbook classic.”

It didn’t take long before I came across an example of what John predicted, although perhaps not in the manner he had predicted. A rabidly conservative blogger going by the ‘nym Emperor Darth Misha I and blogging at The Anti-Idiotarian Rottweiler jumped all over the story about Darwin’s finches in an article he so cleverly entitled, Finch Beaks Change Size, Evolutionists Ejaculate Spontaneously, “Darwin Definitively Proven Right.” (Cute, eh?)

So, why, you may ask, would Orac want to address this clown’s idiocy?

Because he feels like it, that’s why. After a long week on call, it’s always refreshing to fisk a little anti-evolution idiocy. As another fellow SB’er Joan Bushwell put it, there are indeed very few things more grin-inducing than watching someone spleen-rupturingly stupid make confident, even smug comments about subjects far beyond the reach of his understanding. The Emperor, while occasionally a clever writer in a knuckle dragging sort of way, clearly has no clue about evolution and does not disappoint from the very title. There’s little better to cleanse the palate and bring a smile to my face after a hard week on call followed by a long clinic than a bit of enjoyment at such an arrogant “skeptic’s” expense, given his out of hand mocking of a study that he clearly did not understand.

In actuality, the title is the cleverest thing about this piece, which only shows little but utter ignorance regarding what this study was about laced with heavy sarcasm, in the process confirming James’ prediction about how anti-evolutionists would treat this study. Indeed, read what the article to which the Emperor refers (which comes from that liberal destroyer of fundamental values and champion of Darwin, Fox News) states:

For the first time, scientists have observed in real-time evolutionary changes in one species driven by competition for resources from another.

In a mere two decades, one of Charles Darwin’s finch species, Geospiza fortis, reduced its beak size to better equip itself to consume small-sized seeds, scientists report in the July 14 issue of the journal Science.

To which the Emperor replies:

This is a ground-breaking “NEW” discovery?

Er… OK.

We mean, we realize that it is a scant 12 years since the book was published, but still.

But His Majesty, being a cave-dwelling Christofascist and all, still doesn’t see what the “news” here are. Was the fact that individual species adapt to changes in their environment by changing coat color or beak size, just to name two examples, really in serious dispute?

Naturally, in all the sarcasm, His Majesty the Ann Coulter wannabe (at least with respect to evolution) seems not to realize that he is constructing one massive strawman. (Or perhaps he does and, in his eagerness to attack evolution, just doesn’t care.) No one, not even the writer of the article claims that this story “definitely proves that Darwin was right,” only that it is evidence in favor of one aspect of evolution. (At least Misha recognizes that adaptation of species in response to changes in environment occurs; there are a lot of young earth creationists out there who have trouble with even that.) Let’s look at that first sentence again, shall we? Here it is:

For the first time, scientists have observed in real-time evolutionary changes in one species driven by competition for resources from another.

[Emphasis mine.]

So, to anyone with a modicum of understanding of evolution (or even just halfway decent reading comprehension skills), it should be clear that this article is not about “proving” the theory of evolution. It is not about “proving” natural selection. It is a study looking a single aspect of evolution that had not been observed from start to finish in the wild before and finding evidence to support one potential mechanism behind evolution, specifically character displacement, an evolutionary process by which a characteristic of one species changes in response to competition with another species for the same resources. In the Grants’ study, the characteristic studied was beak size in the medium ground finch, as described in the abstract:

Competitor species can have evolutionary effects on each other that result in ecological character displacement; that is, divergence in resource-exploiting traits such as jaws and beaks. Nevertheless, the process of character displacement occurring in nature, from the initial encounter of competitors to the evolutionary change in one or more of them, has not previously been investigated. Here we report that a Darwin’s finch species (Geospiza fortis) on an undisturbed Galápagos island diverged in beak size from a competitor species (G. magnirostris) 22 years after the competitor’s arrival, when they jointly and severely depleted the food supply. The observed evolutionary response to natural selection was the strongest recorded in 33 years of study, and close to the value predicted from the high heritability of beak size. These findings support the role of competition in models of community assembly, speciation, and adaptive radiations.

Nope. Nothing about “proving the theory of evolution” there. Just a solid study of one aspect of evolution, “Your Majesty.” Even a humble surgeon can figure that out. So, here, let me explain it to Misha in terms that he might understand (although he will, in his anti-evolution ejaculation, almost certainly dismiss out of ignorance).

Back to the 1970’s, the medium ground finch shared the island of Daphne Major in the Galapogos only with the cactus finch. The two species of birds ate different diets, and therefore there wasn’t any competition for resources between them. Without competition from other finches, the blunt-beaked medium ground finch was free to eat whatever it could, and it tended to eat small seeds, which were easier to eat. In 1977, there was a serious drought that hit the plants that produced smaller seeds especially hard. Birds with bigger, stronger beaks who were able to crack open larger seeds survived and were able to reproduce preferentially, and in just a few generations there was a significant change in beak size.

Then in 1982 the large ground finch arrived on Daphne Major. Twice the size of the medium ground finch, it was able to corner the market on a key food seed. At first, this was not a major problem for the medium ground finch because times were good and food was abundant. But the numbers of large finches grew to strain the food supply. Things came to a head in 2003, when there was another drought, leading to even more intense competition for food between the two species. Many of the birds died as the supply of large seeds was exhausted. In response to the competition from the newcomers for the large seeds, beak sizes in the medium ground finches decreased over generations, better equipping them to consume smaller seeds, a process that was accelerated by the 2003 drought. What was truly startling about the study was the speed with which the change occurred, and perhaps that’s what His Majesty misinterpreted as “ejaculating that Darwin was right” on the part of evolutionary biologists:

The change occurred with surprising rapidity, says David Pfennig, an evolutionary biologist at the University of North Carolina (UNC),Chapel Hill: “I expected [character displacement] to take much longer.” The Grants ruled out other possible causes of the change in beak size, such as the drought alone. After the 1977 drought, competition with another species was not a factor, and the beaks of the medium ground finches got bigger, not smaller. In this case, “you have the same drought, but selection is basically in the opposite direction,” points out Joel Kingsolver, an evolutionary ecologist also at UNC Chapel Hill. “For a nonexperimental study, [the setup] doesn’t get any better.”

Evolutionary biologists consider the paper important because it demonstrates the interplay between population numbers and environmental factors: The shift in beak size occurred only when there were enough large ground finches and large seeds were scarce enough to cause a problem, says Pfennig. “This study,” he adds, “will motivate researchers to go into the field and see if they can document other examples of character displacement in action.”

And, indeed, that’s what all good scientific papers do: They inspire scientists to do further research to answer the questions left unanswered by the data–unlike creationism or intelligent design, which inspire no real research.

Now, if His Majesty the poorly named “Anti-Idiotarian” had confined himself to a misunderstanding of this study, it wouldn’t have been so bad and probably wouldn’t have inspired this bit of Respectful Insolence™, my being post-call or not being post-call. (After all, why would His Majesty be interested in the beak sizes of finches when he can much more profitably spend his time feeding red meat to his right wing audience by urging the saturation bombing of southern Lebanon?) However, Misha couldn’t restraint himself and just had to dive headlong into anti-evolution idiocy:

Bacteriae “develop” new resistances all the time thanks to natural selection (and yet, to this day, refuse stubbornly to become anything other than, well, bacteriae, the Fundamentalist little bastards!), and we haven’t not once heard the Holy Father or any other of our dangerous Theocratic Leaders, who are allegedly this close to converting all non-Christians at gunpoint any moment now, suggest otherwise.

His Fundamentalist Majesty must have missed the memo from the Christo-Taliban again.

But hey, don’t let us piss on your parade. You’re all so wonderfully excited that we expect somebody to be elevated to Sainthood in the Church of Darwin any moment now. It doesn’t take Evolutionists that much to get excited these days, it would appear. Not surprisingly, since they haven’t found much, and nothing of any serious substance, in spite of 170 years of furiously looking.

So party on, dudes.

Ah, yes, the old “we accept microevolution but not macroevolution” canard, coupled with the whole “speciation has not been observed” canard. Sorry, Your Majesty, but speciation has been observed (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). Also, contrary to your claim that after 150 years there is no good evidence supporting evolution, in fact there an incredibly large, diverse, and abundant body of experimental and observational research supporting common descent, or, as the creationists like to call it with a sneer, macroevolution. You can blithely and sarcastically deny it all you want, dismissing it with a wave of your hand, as if you had a single clue what you were talking about, but just saying that there isn’t any evidence doesn’t make it so, Your Majesty.

Of course, Darth Misha couldn’t resist finishing with yet another canard that no doubt he was patting himself on the back for because he thought it was so clever:

And the finches, much to nobody’s surprise, remained finches throughout.

Let us know when one of them turns into a giraffe.

Or an eagle. We like eagles.

Egads, does His Majesty really believe that evolutionary theory claims that finches can turn into giraffes? Or turn into eagles? In the course of 23 years? And he claims that his education was in the “natural sciences”?

Even some of the commenters saw through Misha’s moronic statement. As one of them put it, “Well yes, finches remain finches. That’s what we would expect. If they became eagles or giraffes that would be strong evidence against the theory of evolution.” Unfortunately, the majority of the commenters seemed to be racing to the bottom to see who could post the most jaw-droppingly ignorant and poorly-argued anti-evolution rants, like this:

Evolution is a theory, and a BAD theory at that, because it works first from a illogical assertion (God doesn’t have to exist for Life to exist), and crams everything into it.

Actually, evolutionary theory says nothing about whether God exists or not. It is your interpretation about evolutionary theory that evolution precludes God.

Problem is, the evidence doesn’t fit. Never has. Based on the THEORY of Evolution, a Lincoln Mark VIII evolved, by itself, from a bicyle. By random chance. A Lincoln Mark VIII is a VASTLY less complex entity than even a worm, and we KNOW it didn’t evolve by random chance.

You know, compared to the comment above, which uses one of the oldest and most easily debunked creationist strawman, likening evolution to a “tornado in a junkyard” that creates a 747, Darth Misha’s rantings sound only slightly less ignorant.

That is, until Misha sabotages his subjects’ attempt to make him look less ignorant by claiming that he’s just making fun of people who “are absolutely convinced that evolution is 100% correct and there is no other possiblilities.” Misha just couldn’t resist disabusing anyone of that notion by jumping into the comments himself pontificating on scientific peer review:

I have to jump in here because that, as regards Evolution, means absolutely nothing. Or, more precisely, it means the exact same as if you let a hundred imams review the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and then proclaimed them “true” because they’d been “peer-reviewed” and found correct.

Let me be more precise: You CANNOT question Evolution in the slightest in a peer-review, because you’ll find yourself out of a peerage in three seconds flat if you do. Not since the Spanish Inquisition has anything been that fanatically defended and not since then have repercussions for anybody who dared question it been as quick and as utterly destructive.

Ask Bill Dembski or, better still, ask Richard Sternberg, another well-renowned scientist with a stack of qualifications who didn’t even question Evolution, he just published an article by somebody else who happened to do so.

The Evotaliban had a smear-campaign running in seconds, spread lies about him and his credentials and he eventually had to retain a lawyer simply to defend himself from the vicious attacks from the Church of Darwin, all because he’d committed the “heresy” of allowing an article, a “peer-reviewed” one, no less, to be published.

If I’d spent my entire life in science, earning multiple doctorates and trying to make a living out of it, I too would be hesitant to risk losing it all by being branded a “heretic” by a bunch of fundamentalist nutcases, particularly after reading what happened to Dr. Sternberg who, I repeat, didn’t even question the Holy Gospel of Darwin. He just published an article by somebody who did.

Ugh. Word to the wise, Misha: When your subjects are trying to save you from embarrassing yourself, you should let them. Besides the old “evolution is a religion” canard, Misha’s using that favorite of cranks, the Galileo Gambit. He’s also neglecting to mention that Richard Sternberg abused his post as editor to publish a very bad paper. As for Sternberg’s supposedly “not questioning the Holy Gospel of Darwin,” if that is indeed so, perhaps His Majesty would be so benificent as to explain why Sternberg was a signatory of the Discovery Institute’s “Scientific Dissent from Darwin” and was on the editorial board of the creationist Baraminology Study Group at Bryan College in Tennessee. Sternberg may be perfectly truthful when he says he isn’t a young earth creationist and was providing a skeptical balance to Bariminology, but it’s more than a stretch to claim that he “doesn’t question the Holy Gospel of Darwin” when he’s signed a statement doing just that and has been involved with young earth creationists.

The evil fundamentalist (yet Godless) evotaliban inquisitors must be slipping, though. Not only did they let such a heretic work at the Smithsonian, even giving him access to important collections, but they even let him become editor of a scientific journal. And when he abused this trust they couldn’t even get him fired, much less burned at the stake. What kind of inquisition is that that can’t even eliminate its enemies efficiently without the entire antievolution blogosphere railing about the injustice of it all?

But, hey, cheer up, Your Majesty. All is not lost, despite your inability to get your facts correct and your proud trumpeting of your ignorance of biology and evolution for all to hear. If this antievolution gig doesn’t work out for you, blogwise, you can always go back to joking about hanging Supreme Court Justices, attacking the Pope for decrying the violence in Lebanon and Gaza, or making fun of 24 for going all left wing when it revealed the conspiracy at the heart of last season’s storyline.

I guess I’ll have to comfort myself by noting that at least some conservatives aren’t so dismissive of good science.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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