Dec 13 2007

Another Gap Filled – More Evidence for Eye Evolution

“If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.”
- Charles Darwin, On The Origin of Species

The champions of Intelligent Design (ID) and its core argument, that of irreducible complexity, love quoting this line from the seminal work that launched the modern theory of evolution. One of their favorite targets for this line of argument is the modern vertebrate eye – a highly complex and sophisticated organ.

The classical creationist argument is the logical fallacy known as the argument from personal incredulity – they say, how could something so complex have evolved. ID (or neocreationism, as some call it) makes essentially the same argument but phrased in new lingo, calling the eye “irreducibly complex” – meaning it is too complex to have evolved, but more specifically that the eye could not work if it were any simpler, if any of its parts were missing.

It is astounding that this argument is still often heard, even though Darwin himself put it to rest in Origin of the Species when he pointed to the numerous examples in nature of animals with simpler, yet functional, eyes. Of course, using extant species as examples does not provide an actual evolutionary pathway, but rather it addresses directly the question of irreducible complexity, which is a functional question. The notion is that simpler anatomical forms cannot function – examples from nature show that they do. In fact there are examples in nature that demonstrate the functionality of every step that would need to take place in eye evolution.

But creationists are famous for moving the goalpost, so they then challenge evolutionists to prove not only that the eye can evolve (can pass through functional stages every step of the way) but that it in fact did evolve – show the actual evolutionary path. There is genetic and fossil evidence for much of eye evolution, but answers to historical questions within evolutionary theory – what actually happened in the evolutionary past – are always incomplete. There are always gaps, and this opens the door for another of creationists’ favorite tactics, the god of the gaps arguments. In fact ID is nothing but an extension of the the god of the gaps logical fallacy – any gaps not currently explained by science were miracles performed by God (Oh, wait. I’m sorry. Ahem – the “Intelligent Designer.”)

But the theory of evolution does not predict nor should it be reasonably expected that all gaps will be filled. History is imperfectly preserved. It does predict that gaps will be filled over time – that as we gather new information, like pieces to a puzzle, they will fit into an evolutionary pattern. So far all the evidence fits exquisitely into an evolutionary pattern.

But it is always nice when a new piece of evidence comes to light that fills in a fossil gap, enriching our understanding of evolutionary history. Recently Dr Gavin Young from the Department of Earth and Marine Sciences at ANU published his analysis of a 400-million-year-old Devonian placoderm fossil. The placoderms were jawed ancestors of modern fish whose bodies were protected by thick bony armour – so they are transitional between jawless fish and jawed fish. Evolutionary theory predicts, therefore, that their eye structure is likely to be transitional between the eye structure of jawless and modern jawed fish, and that is exactly what Dr. Young found. (I always wonder if creationists squirm a little when this kind of evidence comes out.)

The article states:

“Part of the trouble in tracing the evolution of the eye is that soft tissues don’t tend to fossilise. But the eye cavities in the braincase of these 400 million-year-old fossil fish were lined with a delicate layer of very thin bone. All the details of the nerve canals and muscle insertions inside the eye socket are preserved – the first definite fossil evidence demonstrating an intermediate stage in the evolution of our most complex sensory organ.

“These extinct placoderms had the eyeball still connected to the braincase by cartilage, as in modern sharks, and a primitive eye muscle arrangement as in living jawless fish.”

Dr Young said that this anatomical arrangement is different from all modern vertebrates, in which there is a consistent pattern of tiny muscles for rotating each eyeball.

The history of the science of evolution and the denial of that science by creationists of all types (including ID’ers) is one of constant retreat by creationists from the evidence. First they argue that the eye could not function if it were anatomically simpler, so scientists give evidence of simpler functioning eyes. Then they say that we have not demonstrated the actual path of evolution, but it was only a matter of time before fossils of sufficient quality to preserve information about soft body parts emerged to show the actual path.

What ID truly represents for creationists is a strategic maneuver. In addition to replacing the Christian God with the more neutral sounding intelligent designer, ID proponents have largely retreated from macroscopic anatomy (which has a frustrating habit of revealing itself in the fossil record – like the current example) to microscopic biochemistry.

Here is a perfect example from Michael Behe, the father of this strategy. He writes:

Darwin succeeded brilliantly, not by actually describing a real pathway that evolution might have used in constructing the eye, but rather by pointing to a variety of animals that were known to have eyes of various constructions, ranging from a simple light sensitive spot to the complex vertebrate camera eye, and suggesting that the evolution of the human eye might have involved similar organs as intermediates.

But the question remains, how do we see? Although Darwin was able to persuade much of the world that a modern eye could be produced gradually from a much simpler structure, he did not even attempt to explain how the simple light sensitive spot that was his starting point actually worked. When discussing the eye Darwin dismissed the question of its ultimate mechanism.

Behe goes on to discuss the complex biochemical process of how the retina produces a neuronal signal from a photon of light. He is retreating to where the fossils cannot reach him – to biochemistry. But he is just starting the “god of the gaps” cycle all over again. Just as the complexity of the modern human eye does not imply that simpler anatomies cannot function, the complexity of the modern retinal neuron and the biochemistry involved in seeing does not imply that simpler biochemical arrangements could not function.

Also, Behe’s strategy of retreat to biochemistry is ultimately a failed one. Just as with the bacterial flagellum, that Behe argued was irreducibly complex but was shown not to be, the evolution of retinal biochemistry is advancing quite nicely. Here is a review article from the same time as Behe’s article referenced above (1996-7), showing, for example, the branching pattern of relatedness in the amino acid structure of the opsin group of proteins used in vision. Here is a slightly more recent article from 2002 which reviews the phylogeny of visual protein systems.

The evidence is there, and growing, but creationists have never been bothered much by the evidence. Behe’s strategy is to just show how gee-whiz-complex the biochemistry of vision is then make the classic argument from personal incredulity. He fails to acknowledge, however, that such complexity evolves not so that the system can work at all but to make the system more sensitive, more specific, or more finely tuned. For example, a protein cascade can amplify the signal, allowing greater sensitivity to light. A less light-sensitive system can still work and provide a survival advantage.

Also, Behe and the ID’ers do not acknowledge what Darwin himself figured out – that of coaptation. Structures may develop for one purpose and then be coopted for another. For example, the bacterial flagellum likely evolved from a simpler structure that was not a motor but was used to inject proteins into prey.

As the evidence for the fact of evolution continues to pile up, the creationists are running out of places to hide. But then again, they are not genuinely interested in scientific inquiry. They are only interested in sowing confusion. What they are really doing is exploiting those areas where it is easiest to confuse the public. The fossil record is just getting too obvious, so for now they will seek refuge in the microscopic.

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19 responses so far

19 Responses to “Another Gap Filled – More Evidence for Eye Evolution”

  1. Horseon 13 Dec 2007 at 3:11 pm

    Thanks Steve! This nicely sums up and puts in one spot a number of resources for my daily arguments with ID Creationists.

  2. J. Conwayon 13 Dec 2007 at 4:07 pm

    I predict that the IDers will retreat so far from the original anti-evolution position that their position will become virtually indistinguishable from evolutionary biology. Their “wedge” will become a bleeding tail, sapping creationists into theistic evolution.

  3. Steven Novellaon 13 Dec 2007 at 4:14 pm

    Conway – I completely agree. We see this all the time. Pseudoscientific claims morph so as to become indistinguishable from the materialistic/scientific model except for the very unnecessary addition of an unfalsifiable spiritual/paranormal component.

  4. Steve Pageon 13 Dec 2007 at 4:58 pm

    Great article, Steve. I was listening to Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” today (I’ve read it, but I’m using the audiobook as a refresher) and, as chance would have it, I’m up to the chapter on ID and the whole Behe debacle. His beautifully succinct point about the “god of the gaps” argument is that bit by bit, science fills those gaps, eventually leaving nowhere for god to hide. Although, you’d think that we’d have incontrovertible proof of his existence by now…after all, if he’s everywhere at once, you’d expect him to have shown up in at least one experiment by now. :)

  5. Roseon 13 Dec 2007 at 5:06 pm

    Fascinating.

    One of the most frustrating things about debating with cintelligent design proponentists is that they repeat lines about irreducible complexity, or lack of transitional fossils, even when evidence abounds that contradicts their memorized talking points. So, I’ll point out that there are many well-known “transitional fossils” or that there is an evolutionary explanation for the eye, and they’ll turn the argument in another direction. And I only assume they forget the contradictory evidence and use their erroneous talking points again in the next discussion they have.

    It’s frustrating!

  6. Aaron Son 13 Dec 2007 at 5:28 pm

    The problem is that scientist and creationists look at this in two different ways:

    Scientists – “Here are the facts and relevant theories proven elsewhere, what can we conclude?”

    Creationists – “Here are are beliefs, what facts and irrefutable (unfalsifiable) arguments can we dig up to support it”

    Obviously, the scientist are the more reasonable ones here. You can blog about this with all of the science and the world till the sun burns out, the IDers, like J. Conway said, will still find some way to fit in an invisible hand. As the saying goes “you can’t reason someone out of something they didn’t reason their way into to begin with”.

  7. Aaron Son 13 Dec 2007 at 5:31 pm

    Typo, should be “Here are our beliefs”…

  8. nfpendletonon 14 Dec 2007 at 3:51 am

    I don’t really go in for name calling, but Behe really is an asshat.

  9. DLCon 14 Dec 2007 at 6:36 am

    Well done. Good to see another bit of the cdesign proponentsists nonsense fall by the wayside. Of course, this won’t stop them.
    I predict that in the not-so-distant future you’ll see cdesign proponentsists blogs come out with why this doesn’t rule out a “designer”, and Behe and his merry crew will go on as if it never happened.
    To the DI people I again ask; Is your faith so weak that a single, well-documented scientific theory will crush it ?
    Can you not stand any one iota of scientific truth to the point you must lash out against it with every weapon available, including dissimulation, misdirection, quote-mining, ad hominem and logical fallacy ? I find this highly irrational.

  10. Larry Coonon 14 Dec 2007 at 5:31 pm

    Oh yeah?

  11. e.thunderon 30 Dec 2007 at 2:00 pm

    You can call things like “retreat”, “god of the gaps cycle” and “strategic maneuvers” but there is just the assumption that life evolved from nothing. And there are a lot of wrong assumptions in the path of the current evolution theory, that has been proven.
    The theory is actually one big cap.

    Anyway, where is this topic all about? Proving something new (where is it)? Or bashing creationists?

  12. CodeSculptoron 31 Dec 2007 at 8:27 pm

    The “assumption” that life evolved from nothing has nothing to do with the theory of evolution. That position is not included in any legitimately scientific account of the theory of evolution.

    But it “feels” kinda silly, doesn’t it? You are using intuition there. The problem is, the concept that an invisible, genocidal entity created everything from nothing has got to feel just a little sillier, doesn’t it?

    Creationists are “bashed” because their arguments are illogical whenever they aren’t outright illegitimate.

    Evolution makes predictions, and those predictions have proven correct over the last hundred or so years. Some interpretations have been made which have proved wrong, but it was the work of other evolutionist that have proved them wrong.

    Evolution isn’t about proving things that are new, it’s about proving things that are old.

  13. Taylor Con 08 Apr 2008 at 2:37 pm

    Rose – There is infact a lack of transitional fossils, every set of “transitional fossils” have been incomplete. These archeologists that claim to have found them only pick out bits and pieces here and there. Only about one fossil in every thousand.

    Aaron – it is far less likely for everything to magicly put itself together to become functional and complex than for us to be created. The chances of simple bacteria building itself over millions of years is less likely to happen than to come up with a dictionary after throwing letters at the ground.

  14. Steven Novellaon 08 Apr 2008 at 3:03 pm

    Taylor,

    All species, fossil and extant, are transitional species. They are transitional between other related species. Fossil species can also be transitional from ancestors to descendants. No species is not transitional in at least one of those two ways.

    Your characterization is based upon a flawed concept of transitional and is factually wrong. The fossil evidence for change over time is overwhelming – not just bits and pieces.

    But of course it is incomplete – it will always be incomplete. All scientific theories are incomplete.

    And evolution does not entail life “magically putting itself together” – that is a straw man. Evolution involves accumulating changes non-randomly through variation and natural selection (predominantly). Not just random chance.

    Seriously – I suggest you read some primary sources on evolution. If all you read is creationist propaganda you will have a very distorted view of what scientists actually believe and will waste your time attacking straw men and looking foolish.

  15. Taylor Con 09 Apr 2008 at 9:18 am

    alright thanks for your help. im writing two seperate papers, one trying to prove creation, and the other trying to prove evolution.

    How is the concept of transitional flawed? Although species are said to change over millions of years, wouldnt we see at least SOME variation in fossils and what is alive now?

    How do you explain infinite regress? The fact that every cell comes from a different cell is undeniable, where did the first cell come from?

  16. Taylor Con 09 Apr 2008 at 7:51 pm

    i need some feedback

  17. weingon 10 Apr 2008 at 9:24 am

    Just look for evidence that supports the theory of evolution and remember that we are also a transitional species. To prove creation, just cite the relevant passages in the bible and you are done.

  18. Taylor Con 10 Apr 2008 at 9:36 am

    I wouldnt use the bible to prove something to people who have no respect for it or beleif in it. Why would you say we are a transitional species?

  19. [...] Another Gap Filled – More Evidence for Eye Evolution (Steven Novella, 12/07) [...]

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