Speciation and Macroevolution

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February 23, 2012 Tags: History of Life

Today's video features Kelsey Luoma. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

In our last two BioLogos podcasts, we looked at the question of transitional fossils and the genetic evidence for evolution. In our final installment of this three part series, we move on to the question of speciation and macroevolution. A common challenge to evolutionary theory is that while life does indeed change over time (what is known as microevolution), no one has ever seen one species evolve into another species (macroevolution). For example, no one has seen a dog evolve into something other than a dog. Because speciation has never been observed, and because science is based on observation, evolution cannot be considered scientific.

In fact, examples of speciation have been observed by scientists. We must also remember that we are able to observe just a tiny window of the long history of life on Earth, and the fact that any speciation has been noted at all is impressive indeed.


It’s pretty clear to most of us that life can change over time. For those who aren’t convinced, just take a quick trip to your local animal shelter. Each of the dog breeds there, from the Great Dane to the Chihuahua, descended from a single ancestral population. As you probably already know, that ancestral group was a wolf-like species. -How did these drastic changes take place? Well, basically, genetic variation within that original population was acted upon by selective forces. Now, just to be clear, the selection at work here wasn’t natural. It was the result of breeding done over hundreds of years. But the basic principle is the same. Genetic variation plus some sort of selection results in genetic change. This is evolution.

For the most part we are ok with accepting this. Yet many people still have a problem with the Theory of Evolution. Those suspicious of evolutionary Theory generally split evolution into two categories. Instead of arguing that evolution is completely impossible, they will say something like, “I know microevolution is real, but I just can’t accept macroevolution.”

Kent Hovind, an especially outspoken opponent of evolutionary theory, often makes this argument in his presentations:

“Maybe you’re talking about macroevolution. That’s where an animal changes into a different kind of animal. Nobody’s ever seen that. Nobody’s seen a dog produce a non-dog. I mean you may get a big dog or a little dog, I understand, but you’re going to get a dog, okay?” (source)

But what does this mean? What is the difference between micro and macroevolution anyway, and why is one of them ok while the other is condemned?

Well, like many terms used in the evolution debate, the definitions tend to differ depending on who you talk to. This can make rational discussion difficult. Most opponents of evolution, like Kent Hovind, say that macroevolution refers to one “type” or “kind” of organism evolving into another “kind”. Microevolution, they might say, is evolution within a “kind”. Evolution of one dog breed into another, they would say, is microevolution. Evolution of a “dog into a non-dog”, as Hovind puts it, would be “macroevolution.”’

One big problem with this argument is that “kind” is not clearly defined. It is a subjective term referring to organisms that seem similar to each other. Now, this is a definition that can easily be manipulated. And it doesn’t work very well when asking scientific questions. Because there is disagreement about what they actually mean, the terms micro and macroevolution aren’t often used in scientific literature. But when biologists do refer to “macroevolution”, most define it as “evolution above the species level”.

(Sources: http://ib.berkeley.edu/courses/ib200a/lect/ib200a_lect26_Lindberg_macroevolution.pdf, http://www.nescent.org/media/NABT/, http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evosite/evo101/VIADefinition.shtml, http://www.nhm.ac.uk/hosted_sites/paleonet/paleo21/mevolution.html)

In other words, at the smallest scale, macroevolution is the development of a new species. This definition is more useful because you can objectively determine whether two organisms are members the same species, but “kind” has no specific definition.

So what does “species” mean anyway? How is it different from “kind?” Well, the term species can be hard to define. Life is complex, and categorizing it into clear groups can be tricky. The currently accepted definition of species comes from what we call the “biological species concept.” Basically, the biological species concept says that a species is made of populations that actually or potentially interbreed in nature.

So, two populations that cannot mate to produce successful offspring are by definition separate species. Now, this definition doesn’t always work. For example, when you have a species that reproduces asexually, finding the boundaries between species can be a little tricky. But in most cases it does a pretty good job. It’s a good way to objectively determine where one species stops and another one begins.

The Biological Species Concept is especially useful when you have two species that look and act very similar. Eastern and Western Meadowlarks are a good example of this. They look almost exactly the same. But they cannot interbreed successfully. Therefore, they are separate species. This definition also helps when we study evolution. Where can we draw the line between microevolution and macroevolution? Well, it’s never easy, but having a working definition of this thing called a species helps out a lot. When enough genetic changes accumulate in a population, eventually it loses the ability to mate with others of its species. Then, by definition, it becomes a new species. In other words, macroevolution has occurred.

As we just discussed, many critics claim that macroevolution can never happen—one species can never cross over to become another one. This statement might sound valid, but a little bit of investigation shows that it is not well supported by evidence. For one thing, the only difference between micro and macroevolution is scope. When enough micro changes accumulate, a population will eventually lose its ability to interbreed with other members of its species. At this point, we say that macroevolution has occurred.

The same processes—random mutation and natural selection—cause both micro and macro evolution. There are no invisible boundaries that prevent organisms from evolving into new species. It just takes time. Usually, the amount time required for macroevolution to occur is significant—on the order of thousands or millions of years. That’s why you don’t normally see brand new forms of life appear every time you step out your front door. And that’s also why some people think that speciation never happens at all.

But sometimes macroevolution doesn’t take that much time. In fact, the evolution of new species sometimes happens so quickly that we can actually see it take place! Let’s look at a few recent examples.

Biologists Peter and Rosemary Grant had been studying finches since 1973. They lived on an island called Daphne Major in the Galapagos. It was here that they conducted their studies. When they first began their studies, only two species of Finch lived on Daphne Major: the medium ground finch and the cactus finch. But, in 1981, Peter and Rosemary noticed that an odd new finch had immigrated to the island. It was a hybrid, a mix between a cactus finch and a medium ground finch. It didn’t quite fit in with the other birds. The odd misfit had an extra large beak, an unusual hybrid genome, and a new kind of song. But somehow he was still able to find a mate. The female was also a bit of a misfit and had some hybrid chromosomes of her own. So their offspring were very different from the other birds on the island.

Rosemary and Peter continued to carefully watch the odd hybrid line. They wondered if the birds would become isolated from the other finch species on the island or if they would eventually re-assimilate. After four finch generations, a drought killed off many of the birds on Daphne Major. In fact, almost the entire hybrid line was exterminated. Only a brother and sister pair remained. The two family members mated with each other, producing offspring that were even more unique than their parent line. From that point on, as far as biologists Peter and Rosemary could tell, the odd population of finches mated only with each other. They were never seen to breed with the cactus finches or the medium ground finches on the island. The finches with the strange song had become a brand new species.

(Source: http://www.pnas.org/content/106/48/20141.full)

Another example of speciation, or macroevolution, also took place on an island—this time, on the beautiful Portuguese island of Madeira. According to history books, the Island of Madeira was colonized by the Portuguese about 600 years ago. The colonizers brought with them a few unassuming European House Mice, which they accidentally left on the island. It’s also possible that a group of Portuguese House Mice was dropped off later on.

Recently, Britton-Davidian, an evolutionary biologist at University Montpellier 2 in France, decided to collect samples of the Madeira mice and see how those original populations had changed over time. What she found was surprising. Rather than just one or two species of mouse, she found several. In only a few hundred years, the original populations of Mice had separated into six genetically unique species. The first mouse populations had 40 chromosomes altogether. But the new ones were quite different. Each new variety had its own unique combination of chromosomes, which ranged in number from 22 to 30.

What seems to have happened is that, over time, the mice spread out across the island and split into separate groups. Madeira is a rugged volcanic island with crags and cliffs. So it makes sense that this would have been easy to do. There were many isolated corners for the mice to occupy. Over time, random mutations occurred—some chromosomes became fused together.

Now, In order to reproduce successfully, both parents must have the same number of chromosomes. So when a population develops a chromosome fusion, suddenly that group cannot mate with the other members of its species. It becomes a brand new species. That’s exactly what happened on Madeira. And because of this phenomenon, 6 new species evolved from just 1 or 2 in an extremely short amount of time.

(Sources: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-294X.2009.04345.x/full, http://www.genomenewsnetwork.org/articles/04_00/island_mice.shtml, http://www.nature.com/hdy/journal/v99/n4/full/6801021a.html)

Another fascinating example of macroevolution was recently observed by researchers at Pennsylvania State University. This time, two species combined to make a single new one. In 1997, researchers at Penn State noticed a fruit maggot infestation on some recently introduced Asian Honeysuckle bushes. They decided to investigate the Honeysuckle fly population and determine how it was related to the other flies nearby. When they examined the honeysuckle fly’s genes, the researchers discovered something interesting. The fly appeared to be a hybrid of two native species—the blueberry fly and the snowberry fly.

But the honeysuckle fly’s genetic material was not an exact balance between that of the two parent species. The ratios of DNA varied from fly to fly. This showed the researchers that the honeysuckle flies had been breeding amongst themselves for many generations—probably at least 100. Also, they found that the Honeysuckle Flies were very unlikely to breed with any other species. They bred only on their host Honeysuckle plants. So they weren’t likely to mix with flies that lived on a different host.

According to Dr. Dietmar Schwarz, post-doctoral researcher in entomology, as far as the researchers can tell, “The new species is already reproductively isolated. They seem to be in a niche on the brushy honeysuckle where the parent species cannot compete."

(Source: http://www.psiee.psu.edu/news/2005_news/july_2005/hybrid_insects.asp)

While this kind of speciation—two species hybridizing to create a new one—seems odd, it is a significant mechanism of macroevolution. And it’s especially common in plants. In fact, a new species of weed recently arose this way in Great Britain. In 1991, Richard Abbot, a plant evolutionary biologist from St. Andrews University, noticed an unusual weed growing next to a car park in York. He discovered that the species, an unassuming scruffy weed, was a natural hybrid between the common groundsel and the Oxford ragwort, a plant that was introduced to Britain only 300 years ago. The York Groundsel lives in a different niche, or microenvironment, than either of its parent species. It is able to breed and reproduce, but only with other York Groundsel plants. It cannot successfully reproduce with any other species, including either of its parent plants. Thus, by definition, the York Groundsel is its own new species.

(Sources: http://www.nerc.ac.uk/publications/planetearth/2003/summer/sum03-evolution.pdf, http://www.nature.com/hdy/journal/v69/n5/abs/hdy1992147a.html)

So, as we have seen, macroevolution is an established process. Usually it takes thousands of years to occur, but sometimes we get lucky and catch it in the act. When Kent Hovind said that, “no one has ever seen a dog produce a non-dog” he was technically quite correct. But this statement infers that macroevolution means a drastic and obvious change from one type of organism into another. Those who think this way believe that macroevolution is something like two dogs breeding to suddenly produce a cat, or two guinea pigs mating to produce a mouse.

But this is not how evolution works at all. Over millions of years, a dog-like animal may indeed evolve into a something that looks completely unlike a dog. However, this is not something that we would expect to be able to observe. It just takes too much time. To put the scale of evolution into perspective, consider this. If the average lifespan of a United Stated citizen, 78 years, were a single minute, then single-celled life has been around for nearly 100 years. On this scale, all we get to see is one minute. And even in that time frame we sometimes see new species forming. God’s time is not our time and we tend to forget this. What we do expect to observe is a very slow step-by-step accumulation of tiny genetic changes that eventually result in speciation. And indeed, as we discussed today, this is exactly the sort of evidence revealed in nature.

So, macroevolution is not a “myth” by any means. It is supported by a vast amount of evidence. That evidence includes the fossil record and genetics, as discussed in previous BioLogos podcasts, and, when we get lucky, direct observation of speciation. God, being who God is, could conceivably have created species out of thin air in a single instant. But what if instead if God created and sustained the process by which new species are created? Does that make him less powerful or less "god-like"? Is it somehow more God’s process if it happened in an instant, than it is if it happened over a long period of time? Presumably even if it happened in an instant, it would still happen by some sort of process—only faster.

God’s time is not our time, and perhaps it’s a good idea for all of us to simply stand back in amazement while God does God’s work in God’s time through God’s process.

Commentary written by the BioLogos editorial team.

Kelsey Luoma is a graduate of Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, California, where she received a bachelor's degree in biology. She plans to continue her education in medical school. As an evangelical Christian and student of biology, Luoma is very interested in resolving the conflict between faith and science. She has spent two summers working as a student intern for BioLogos. In the future, she hopes to serve internationally as a physician.

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beaglelady - #68220

February 23rd 2012

Another excellent video! Thanks so much.

Steven Curry - #68225

February 23rd 2012

“But what if instead if God created and sustained the process by which new species are created?”

The problem with this is that it invites misunderstandings. It misses that 99.9% of species are now extinct. This is essential to understanding evolution: it creates the appearance of design by being extravagantly wasteful. The discarded species are out of sight. If a school reported only the top 0.1% of test scores, then it would give the false appearance of an all-genius student body.

So if it is proposed that God is lovingly creating new species, then it needs to be explained why He lovingly guides 99.9% of them to their annihilation.

Darrel Falk - #68229

February 24th 2012


Your question is a great one…a philosophical one.   I will attempt to address it (not solve it!), but ask that you keep in mind that I am a biologist not a philosopher.  So the answer will be of the sort that is best addressed over a cup of coffee in conversation between two friends—at least one of whom is an amateur (me).

I don’t worry about  death bringing forth new life as you apparently do.   Scripture, it seems to me, is full of examples of where suffering, turmoil, and even death bring about new life.  Consider Hebrews 12, Romans 5:4 and John12:24 as a few quick examples.  The church was born through martyrdom and Jesus of course, gave his own life that we might live.  The story that we see all around us is that death gives way to new life.  I don’t see it as some new problem that evolutionary biology presents to us.  Furthermore, I am not convinced that I can imagine a better way.  Can you?   How would you do it if you were God, and why?

Steven Curry - #68232

February 24th 2012

“I don’t worry about death bringing forth new life as you apparently do.”

This is out of left field. Obviously, nothing is more part of nature than death bringing forth new life. Predators eat prey, and carcasses are the food of bugs and worms. I cannot imagine why you would say that anyone “worries” about that.

I suppose you’ve missed the point. It is well evidenced and well understood that new species arise from variation, mutation, and natural selection acting over time. Now, if it claimed that God creates new species, then He necessarily does so undetectably through the process of variation, mutation, and natural selection acting over time.

The tree of life that includes all species—both living and extinct—is exceedingly dense with almost all of its leaves being dead. About 0.1% of the leaves are alive. It is the ratio of dead leaves to alive leaves which is the hallmark of the Darwinian process, the sieve which gradually builds life forms having the appearance of design.

If God is creating species, He is not creating the way people normally envision God creating. Instead, He does it through a trial-and-error processes, throwing away all the “bad ideas” that didn’t pan out. And 99.9% of the ideas are thrown away.

Now suppose the tree of life had NO dead leaves. In this case, God would be creating species with the knowledge of what he wanted and when. All species would do well and survive. There would be no messy “bad idea” species which get culled away. For someone having no knowledge of evolution who was told that God creates species, this model would probably come to mind.

Therefore we would like to understand why God creates using the wasteful trial-and-error process rather than the efficient no-wasted-species process. A less tactful way to say this is: Why is God acting like a bumbling absent-minded professor in the lab of nature?

Ashe - #68236

February 24th 2012

I think it’s interesting that there is an unbroken link between LUCA and humans, and that much of the intrinsic core processes remained unchanged. 

rgcolling - #68246

February 25th 2012

““Therefore we would like to understand why God creates using the wasteful
trial-and-error process rather than the efficient no-wasted-species
process. A less tactful way to say this is: Why is God acting like a
bumbling absent-minded professor in the lab of nature?”“

In complex systems, this randomness-driven trial and error type of approach appears to work best in creating solutions to unforeseen potentialities that may arise.  Mathematicians sometimes call it “brute force”.  It is not very efficient, and indeed does need some sort of “selection” criteria, but it is nevertheless stunningly effective!  It may possibly even perhaps be the only means by which a virtual limitless number of possible variants can be tested to determine suitability for survival in the present environmental conditions.  The immune system’s ability to produce (proactively and in advance) millions of different antibodies - even though the majority will never be needed - is an example of how these random processes establish remarkably higher order purpose for life. 
Humans have modeled this approach with aptamers seeking to randomly create millions of variants of nucleic acid sequences that are then tested for use against human disease targets.  These approaches illustrate higher order thinking and intelligence.  If God exists and ordains these truly amazing, remarkably effective, self-correcting and life-perpetuating processes (even before they are needed) as a part of life, I don’t see how such apparently  God-like character (for those who believe in God as Creator) could appropriately be characterized as resembling a “bumbling absent minded professor in the lab of nature.”  What if this is the only way that life could exist/thrive?  I personally cannot think of any system more magnificent or effective to successfully address the remarkable demands of a changing world on the life that inhabits the planet.) In short, this approach seems to speak of a greater intelligence and mind rather than a bumbling one. 

I know these are hard questions and difficult to think about.  You are in good company.  Many others share your concerns.  Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Steven Curry - #68251

February 26th 2012

Are you referring the claims Behe made about the immune system? These were debunked in the Dover trial:


Although in Darwin’s Black Box, Professor Behe wrote that not only were there no natural explanations for the immune system at the time, but that natural explanations were impossible regarding its origin. (P-647 at 139; 2:26-27 (Miller)). However, Dr. Miller presented peer-reviewed studies refuting Professor Behe’s claim that the immune system was irreducibly complex. Between 1996 and 2002, various studies confirmed each element of the evolutionary hypothesis explaining the origin of the immune system. (2:31 (Miller)). In fact, on cross-examination, Professor Behe was questioned concerning his 1996 claim that science would never find an evolutionary explanation for the immune system. He was presented with fiftyeight peer-reviewed publications, nine books, and several immunology textbook chapters about the evolution of the immune system; however, he simply insisted that this was still not sufficient evidence of evolution, and that it was not “good enough.” (23:19 (Behe)).


rgcolling - #68254

February 26th 2012

No.  I am not connecting in any way with Behe. I do not subscribe to his ID ideas.  Frankly I think they are silly, and thoroughly unscientific.

Mike Gene - #68240

February 25th 2012

So if it is proposed that God is lovingly creating new species, then it
needs to be explained why He lovingly guides 99.9% of them to their

Because we would not be here if he didn’t. 

rgcolling - #68244

February 25th 2012

Hi Steven,

I am not certain that one need conclude that god “lovingly guides 99.9% to annihilation”.  If one starts with a foundational premise that all life is mortal, evolution is simply a process that provides additional opportunities for some to “outlive” (in a multi-generational context) the norm.  It seems more to me that the random genetic shuffling that is the core ammunition driving evolutionary processes in living things provides opportunity for life NOT “a guidance of 99.9% to annihilation.  This idea, I think, is one of the most profound misunderstandings of evolutionary processes in the general culture, and also perhaps the one that is most problematic as relates to finding peace and harmony between evolution and faith.  When fundamental assumptions and general understandings are flawed and misunderstood from the beginning, it is rarely possible to reach viable and reasonable conclusions.   Your concern is one that is shared by many.

Merv - #68231

February 24th 2012

Steven, does the estimate that 93.5% of all people who ever lived are now dead—does that mean God loved that 93% less than the 7% who are still alive now?

If the mortality of individuals doesn’t negate God’s love for each of us, then why should the ‘mortality’ of species?


Steven Curry - #68233

February 24th 2012

If you really want to make the analogy from species to individuals, it would be like God giving 999 out of every 1000 newborn babies a terminal illness from which they die in minutes.

Merv - #68234

February 24th 2012

Well  ...    yes!  We don’t even have to really imagine your analogy at all.  1000 out of 1000 newborn babies actually ARE born with a ‘terminal illness’ called life; that’s a cynical way of putting it—but this is just my point.  Does our eventual death mean we will all be no more than ‘trial and error’ bumbling?  I guess what I’m challenging is your notion that death = waste or error.   Are the thousands of sperm that fail to fertilize the egg all “waste”?  Is the sunshine and rain that God lavishes on both the wicked and righteous or the seed scattered, even when much of it lands on rocks and barren ground—does that equal a “wasteful” God?  I suppose by our own measures and definitions of efficiency it could be.  But obviously the God shown in Scriptures hasn’t limited himself to our twentieth century concept of efficiency.


Merv - #68235

February 24th 2012

And even yet, my post above fails to rule out that God maybe IS being 100% efficient according to his purposes.  Even if only 10% of all rainfall actually ended up being consumed by plants or animals while all the rest evaporated or became river runoff, who is to say that each drop didn’t fulfill an intended purpose where it landed, even if only to contribute to the next cloud or rain storm.  What good does a ‘still-born’ fetus serve?  I have no earthly idea (in terms of good to the people who have to suffer through it).  But how can we judge what God will or won’t use in some larger tapestry.  Just because a given rain drop never actually touches the hull of a boat doesn’t mean that it isn’t part of a river carrying many boats somewhere.  Is it so hard to imagine that God has long term only partially ‘scrutable’ purposes? 

Steven Curry - #68238

February 25th 2012

The death of every infant from disease or congenital disorder or other complication should be an event which questions God’s role in the world. That it happens relatively infrequently is perplexing enough. If 999 out of 1000 infants died, the goodness of God would be ever more inscrutable. Incidentally this also opens the question of why modern medicine has been so effective in saving infants where pleas to God have failed.

Another analogy to consider is one between Newton and Laplace. Newton believed that God played a role in maintaining the planets in their orbits. Laplace, having found (among other things) natural explanations for planetary motion, famously said “I have no need of that hypothesis” when Napoleon asked him about a creator.

Now suppose there were a group of people today lobbying to reintroduce Newton’s view: they want God to play a role in keeping the planets in their orbits. What shall we say to them? Only that it is not necessary. We can never prove that God doesn’t guide planets, but if he did we should ask why He chose to do so in a manner that mimics natural law.

Likewise if it is proposed that God guides evolution, we should ask why He chose to mimic the process of variation, mutation, and selection so well that He disguises His role entirely.

Mike Gene - #68241

February 25th 2012

And even yet, my post above fails to rule out that God maybe IS being
100% efficient according to his purposes.  Even if only 10% of all
rainfall actually ended up being consumed by plants or animals while all
the rest evaporated or became river runoff, who is to say that each
drop didn’t fulfill an intended purpose where it landed, even if only to
contribute to the next cloud or rain storm.

Exactly.  Reality is not a series of discontinuous creations.  It is all  connected. What we can say is that if 99.9% of species had not gone extinct, this would be a very different world. And one without us.

Merv - #68242

February 25th 2012

Why can’t Newton and Laplace both be partially right?   Laplace wasn’t interested in explaining anything *other* than mechanical motions, which is the only reason he can pretend he has no need of a God hypothesis.  Millions of other people want to understand a whole lot more about life than merely the mechanics, and they very much do need a God hypothesis—more than the hypothesis, actually—we need God.  If all we want is the mechanical workings, then of course, we need look no further than mechanical agents.  It is Laplace’s own loss that he imagined this was all there is to reality.  Laplace wasn’t wrong about mechanical workings.  He just chose to have limited vision, and then made the classic error of thinking his limited vision encompasses all things.  Newton, like so many Christians today, wished to “preserve a place” for the Creator by trying to leave something mechanical unexplained.   And this, in turn, is the classic error of thinking that only unexplainable things can be attributed to God.  Both errors feed off each other.  But some of us get off that tread-mill entirely.

You keep insisting that infant mortality calls into question God’s role in the world.  And I could keep rhetorically asking:  why?  Nobody wants to suffer (or die—though we shouldn’t be too sure on that point).  But let’s grant your point that this is a problem for metaphysics.  Even as such, it is hardly a new problem for theology.  We haven’t explained it so much as learned to “live with it”, so to speak (and will always have to “live with it”, modern medicine or not).  So why is it suddenly a bigger problem now than before?  Sure medicine has been effective in helping many infants live longer—can’t God be praised for that in just the same way we’ve always been thanking him for the food on our tables (the food that we worked for and purchased, and prepared, and placed there?)  And yet we thank God without any expectation that he “magically” set the table without our having to do any work.  Many Christians from long before Laplace or Darwin had already dispensed with the erroneous “either-or” thinking in their mealtime prayers.


beaglelady - #68243

February 25th 2012

Excellent, Merv. 

Steven Curry - #68247

February 25th 2012

I had hoped it was clear that the problem lies in inserting the God hypothesis where it is not needed. We should be no more tempted to insert a God-governed species generator than a God-governed planetary orbit stabilizer. That is the mistake made in this blog post.

Note Laplace’s religious views are ambiguous (from what I can tell) and that his famous exchange with Napoleon is probably apocryphal.

You introduced the species-to-individual analogy, not me. Frankly I think the analogy makes no sense. But even if we run with the analogy, it goes against your point. 999 deaths out of every 1000 infants is crazy. You’re taking something that’s inexplicable and making it inexplicably worse.

Though the death of infants may be waved away by one theology or another, it will never be resolved—at least not by feeling persons. I am with the Archbishop of Canterbury on this one. The following is from his article “Of course this makes us doubt God’s existence”.


...He was speaking from the experience of losing one child; but he was able to speak about a much greater tragedy simply because of that, not because of having a better explanatory theory. “Making sense” of a great disaster will always be a challenge simply because those who are closest to the cost are the ones least likely to accept some sort of intellectual explanation, however polished. Why should they?

Every single random, accidental death is something that should upset a faith bound up with comfort and ready answers…The question: “How can you believe in a God who permits suffering on this scale?” is therefore very much around at the moment, and it would be surprising if it weren’t—indeed, it would be wrong if it weren’t.


Mike Gene - #68249

February 25th 2012

Though the death of infants may be waved away by one theology or another, it will never be resolved—at least not by feeling persons.

Christians believe the resolution comes at the end of time.  And it will be a resolution that is existential in nature rather than that of solving a puzzle.

Yet how does atheism resolve the death of infants?  Yes, if there is no God, there is no reason to be perplexed.  But that offers no solace to the feeling atheist.  On the contrary, if there is no God, the problem deepens - the death of infants becomes the meaningless death of infants. 

The death of children may cause bafflement and anger among Christians.  Yet even amidst the bafflement and rage, there is room for hope.  With atheism, there is no hope.  Only the black abyss of nihilism. 

Steven Curry - #68252

February 26th 2012

Not all those who wander are lost.

Not all those who are not like you are lost.

Merv - #68256

February 26th 2012

Steven, you wrote:
“Though the death of infants may be waved away by one theology or
another, it will never be resolved—at least not by feeling persons. I am
with the Archbishop of Canterbury on this one. The following is from
his article “Of course this makes us doubt God’s existence”.

I hear you on that.  It’s one matter for us to be having an “academic” discussion where we talk under the pretense that
we are detached observers away from the world of suffering.  But the moment we sit down like one of Job’s friends in the presence of a suffering soul and begin defending God—-that is the moment that I must put down all these arguments and just simply repent in silence and ashes so to speak.  But unless you are a currently suffering individual (regardless of level of ‘righteousness’) seeking solace here, then I am just matching academic arguments for doubt with academic replies to doubt the doubt.  If the archbishop wants to shake his fist at the sky in solidarity with sufferers, I think he may be following a venerable Biblical call.  But eventually people doing that will have diverging responses.  Some will become permanent ‘fist-shakers’ who eventually give in to despair and bitterness (curse God and die!), while others will eventually humble themselves and say to God ...“I don’t understand .... but oh well!  The Lord gives and takes away.”  And we struggle to just move on, clinging to the tatters of our faith like a precious crutch.  Let the ‘enlightened’ sneer at us for our weakness; we may live to look back at those lowest moments and rejoice to discover that God worked on us even there.—no, *especially* there.

p.s.  happy to hear that Laplace’s assertion may be apocryphal.  Regardless of attributions, though, it does give voice to a prevalent, if mistaken, vein of thought. 

Jon Garvey - #68237

February 25th 2012

Darwin has a lot to answer for in taking Malthus as his model for the pattern of life. The idea of life as a constant desperate struggle with only the toughest surviving dies hard - but it’s a skewed one.

I question the vastness of extinct species numbers because it seems wedded to old-fashioned gradualist ideas that for every species there are 100, or 1000 intermediates. But allopatric speciation seems a lot more plausible from the fossil record and some of the more recent theory, suggesting that the picture we see there of long stability and quite rapid speciation is the commonest one. In other words, the gaps aren’t necessarily full of mass graves.

Be that as it may, the picture you present is like a hardworking designer producing a multitude of cunning designs, only to have quality control put a hammer through all but one of them as useless failures.

A more realistic picture of natural selection would be the design shop of a motor manufacturer, producing a stream of modified or new designs, some of which last only a year or two because the public weren’t taken with them, and some of which became design icons. In this scenario, there are no rubbish designs (even the Edsel has its afficionados) - and neither does nature produce species of jellyfish foolishly equipped with lungs or can-openers. But they all have their time and place in global - I would say God’s - economy.

And surely reproductive success is not a valid criterion for worth, or even for being beloved, once one’s talking beyond the arbitrary human matter of “evolutionary success”. Think Mother Theresa, or Jesus Christ.

Having said all that, the piece seems like a textbook population genetics whitewash.

The same processes—random mutation and natural selection—cause both
micro and macro evolution.  There are no invisible boundaries that
prevent organisms from evolving into new species.

There are actually numerous scientists who think there are profound differences between the processes of micro- and macro-evolution, and they’re not creationists. One small example only: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/08/110822154752.htm It wo.uld be nice to see some of the debates acknowledged here.

Darrel Falk - #68239

February 25th 2012

Thank you, Jon, for pointing us to a recent very interesting article which, in turn, summarizes a  paper in the Aug. 23, 2011 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Below is a quote from the Abstract.  The larger question being addressed in this paper is different than what Kelsey has done.  Her work introduces the topic of new new species formation.  “Has anyone observed the process of speciation?” we are frequently asked.  The answer is yes and Kelsey has shown that beautifully (in my opinion) in this short podcast.  

Once scientists go beyond that to study long term trends in evolution, they get fascinating results.    The paper to which you refer readers is a wonderful example of what happens if one looks at periods extending over millions of years—the scientists see macro-evolutionary bursts.  I hope interested readers will take the time to read the paper.  It certainly doesn’t negate what Kelsey has said in the podcast, but it does extend what she has introduced very nicely. 

From the Abstract:
“By analyzing this large data set, we identify stochastic models that can explain evolutionary patterns on both short and long timescales and reveal a remarkably consistent pattern in the timing of divergence across taxonomic groups. Even though rapid, short-term evolution often occurs in intervals shorter than 1 Myr, the changes are constrained and do not accumulate over time. Over longer intervals (1–360 Myr), this pattern of bounded evolution yields to a pattern of increasing divergence with time. The best-fitting model to explain this pattern is a model that combines rare but substantial bursts of phenotypic change with bounded fluctuations on shorter timescales. We suggest that these rare bursts reflect permanent changes in adaptive zones, whereas the short term fluctuations represent local variations in niche optima due to restricted  environmental variation within a stable adaptive zone.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #68248

February 25th 2012

Darrell quoted:

We suggest that these rare bursts reflect permanent changes in adaptive zones, whereas the short term fluctuations represent  local variations in niche optima due to restricted environmental variation within a stable adaptive zone.

Darrell thank you for once again quoted a scientific study that clearly demonstrates that evolution is powered by ecological change that require life forms to adapt to their environment.  I really do not know why scientists have to prove this fact over and over again until Darwinists finally see the light that Malthus was dead wrong.

This issue is behind the false argument you are having about extinction.  Species do not become extinct because they are a mistake.  They fade out because the environment changes.  The dinosaurs did fine in the primordial swamps, but the climate changed and the swamps disappeared, so their time had passed. Still their genes live in reptiles and maybe even in birds. 

Evolution is history and history is change.  The Roman Empire was not a mistake because it no longer exists.  The Roman Empire laid the groundwork for today’s world, and that is true for every time and period. 

We as humans stand on the shoulders of all who have gone before, including home habilis and Moses and Miriam.  The same is exactly true of the natural world.  It is all of one piece, all of the parts work together to make the whole.  Past and present, no part is useless, each is helpful in creating the web of life.       

God created the universe as a historical process of change.  God did not create the universe as a play where each character is created from God’s imagination with his or her own script toward a preordained end.  We have to write our own script and create our own characters.  We cannot expect God to do for us what we need to do for ourselves.  Like it or not this is the way it is.  

Steven Curry - #68253

February 26th 2012

You appear to misunderstand the paper in the same way Jon does. Please see my response below.

Because of your position here, I would emphasize that you be aware of the intelligent design movement’s habit of misunderstanding research papers.

Steven Curry - #68245

February 25th 2012

Jon, what do you think that paper shows, exactly?

Steven Curry - #68250

February 26th 2012

On second thought, you’ve already said enough to elicidate your misunderstanding.

“There are actually numerous scientists who think there are profound differences between the processes of micro- and macro-evolution, and they’re not creationists. One small example only: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/08/110822154752.htm It wo.uld be nice to see some of the debates acknowledged here.”

There isn’t a debate. The scientists who wrote that paper would not accept your characterization of them.

There is no profound difference between micro- and macro-evolution, as you suggest. The former applies to smaller time scales and the latter applies to larger ones. That’s it. The same evolutionary processes are acting in each.

The “blunderbuss pattern” in the paper is Brownian motion graphed on a log scale. The shape itself is entirely expected and not at all notable. What makes the paper interesting is the convergence upon the same time scale for different taxonomic groups. None of this even remotely supports your bombastic claims.

There is a long tradition in the intelligent design community of grabbing recent research papers, misunderstanding them, and then proclaiming that they validate intelligent design. We should learn from their mistakes.

Jon Garvey - #68255

February 26th 2012


I hope you’re not suggesting that Uyeda’s observation of a stage of reversible change (overall stasis) and a later stage of increasing divergence is an artifact of the log scale used on the graph? If so, that would be a misrepresentation of the paper’s conclusions - and in any case the effect is still there on an arithmetical scale.

What do you make of Uyeda’s words in the news article?

“What’s interesting is not that we have so much biological diversity and
evolutionary change, but that we have so little,” Uyeda said. “It’s a
as to why evolution should be so slow.”

In fact he notes the phenomenon, and hypothesises two patterns of environment to account for it. So to answer your question (which I find better than having you answer it on my behalf), I think the paper shows that acroos species there is characteristically stasis in the short term and divergence in the longer term, with a transition at approx 1m years. It hypothesises that factor or factors unknown - maybe the nature of the environment - account for these differing outcomes, variation/natural selection being a constant factor in both phases.

It doesn’t help that “environment” is a virtual synonym for “natural selection”, because if natural selection were apparently to produce diametrically opposite effects, diametrically opposite environments would always be the hypothesis to account for them fully, whether or not evidence were forthcoming.

Steven Curry - #68257

February 26th 2012

The phrase “profound differences between the processes of micro- and macro-evolution” and the word “debate” indicated to me that you misunderstood something.

It seemed that you were suggesting something special happens at the flare of the blunderbuss, some mystery which evolution could not explain. This observation was correlated with what appeared to be intelligent-design-like musings. Indeed the last sentence of your most recent reply reads like one of those inscrutable strings of words that come out of ID.

Maybe you can start by explaining what exactly you think the “profound differences between the processes of micro- and macro-evolution” are, and how this relates to a deity, if at all. Citing a recent scientific paper as opposed to some standard biology text suggests that you are gap hunting.

Jon Garvey - #68258

February 27th 2012


You say I misunderstood something by using the word debate? I suggest you also complain to Scientific American, then: http://www.scientificamerican.com/blog/post.cfm?id=dubitable-darwin-why-some-smart-non-2010-07-06 The w.riter describing the debate seems to have no doubts that all the critics are wrong, but then he’s one of the debaters, isn’t he?

I never raised the question of Deity at all in relation to speciation, except to say that I believe the pattern we see overall is God’s economy as well as a global economy - which ought not to surprise you on a theistic evolution website. So I don’t see any need here to talk about God’s role merely in order to answer the irrational Naturalism Hypothesis.

You ask me to cite a standard biology text to show that there is dissent from standard biology! As Jerry Coyne’s very recent comments on his website about James Shapiro’s work show, mainstream Neodarwinian texts are hardly likely to give space to “heterodox”, “closet ID-creationists”, and similar undesirables. They exist, though, even though they’re nothing to to with ID. It’s also worth remembering that kneejerk anathemata on real ID people doesn’t stop them being part of the debate. Behe or Dembski write a paper - somebody tries to refute it in another. That’s called “debate” in the real world, whatever spin is put on it in the USA.

Gaia hypothesis and other emergence theories, symbiosis, genome multiplication, hybridisation, issues about fertility with chromosome changes etc are all of debated significance. Although some are mentioned by the author of this post, they all, by any normal reckoning extend evolution beyond:

 ... the only difference between micro and macroevolution is
scope.  When enough micro changes accumulate, a population will
eventually lose its ability to interbreed with other members of its
species.  At this point, we say that macroevolution has occurred.

Another reason for quoting a paper rather than a “standard text” is that a guy called John used to post here and would always be aggressively down on people for citing only textbooks, peer-reviewed books, or symposium articles rather than original research papers. I seem to remember that was taken as evidence that they were ID creationists - and who wants to be tarred by that brush?

Steven Curry - #68259

February 27th 2012

You said the authors of that paper “think there are profound differences between the processes of micro- and macro-evolution”. If you understood the paper, you would realize this is wrong. I offered to help clear up your misunderstanding, but in order to do that, you need to explain specifically why you think the paper shows “there are profound differences between the processes of micro- and macro-evolution”. Perhaps even in the process of explaining you will see your error.

This is important because you can’t go around saying that scientists ascribe to your ideas when they do not.

Steven Curry - #68276

February 28th 2012

I forwarded the initial exchange between Jon and myself to the paper’s first author, Josef Uyeda, whose response is below.

Jon, you should apologize for misrepresenting the work of these scientists.

=== Jon Garvey

There are actually numerous scientists who think there are profound differences between the processes of micro- and macro-evolution, and they’re not creationists. One small example only: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/08/110822154752.htm It wo.uld be nice to see some of the debates acknowledged here.

=== Steven Curry

There isn’t a debate. The scientists who wrote that paper would not accept your characterization of them.

There is no profound difference between micro- and macro-evolution, as you suggest. The former applies to smaller time scales and the latter applies to larger ones. That’s it. The same evolutionary processes are acting in each.

The “blunderbuss pattern” in the paper is Brownian motion graphed on a log scale. The shape itself is entirely expected and not at all notable. What makes the paper interesting is the convergence upon the same time scale for different taxonomic groups. None of this even remotely supports your bombastic claims.

=== Josef Uyeda

I absolutely do not believe there is a profound difference between micro- and macroevolution. As we explicitly state in our paper, “The million-year wait for macroevolutionary bursts”, we believe the causes of microevolution and macroevolution are one in the same, but merely scaled up over larger geographic and temporal scales.

I am perpetually astounded by the fact that creationists use my paper to support their positions, as I think that if they truly understood what the paper said and what we found, they would realize that the pattern we find convincingly undermines every argument that has been leveled against evolution based on misunderstandings of punctuated equilibrium.

First, looking at Figure 1, notice that there is a smooth and continuous pattern. It is true that the best fitting model was a burst-like model, but as you rightly point out, this model is only slightly different than a Brownian motion model. The bigger point here is that there is a strikingly and consistently seamless transition between all datasets, as if they are all uncovering different parts of the exact same pattern. There are no gaps in our knowledge, no missing links, just a continuous pattern of evolution across time.

Second, you are correct that a blunderbuss pattern emerges out of a Brownian motion model (or our multiple burst model) on the log-scale. And what’s paradoxical is not the flaring of the blunderbuss; we know that this must occur. What is paradoxical is the width of the barrel. In other words, in order to explain the amount of diversity we see in body size across the tree of life, we would only need to see essentially immeasurable amounts of divergence on short timescales. That would be a constant rate of evolution. What do we see instead? TOO MUCH EVOLUTION on short timescales. This is the paradox, and the proposed mechanism we propose to answer this paradox is Futuyma’s ephemeral divergence model, although there are alternatives. So imagine my surprise when I find out that creationists use this point to support their claims!! It’s as if I’m a runner. You use a radar gun and clock me running at 10 MPH, and every time you clock me, I’m running at 10 MPH. But after 10 hours I’ve only traveled 10 miles. After 100 hours, I’ve traveled 10 miles. After 1000 hours, I’ve only traveled 10 miles. Yes, that’s surprising! But you cannot claim that my legs (i.e. evolution by natural selection) do not have the capacity to travel 10 miles in 1000 hours, I clearly could have done it in only 1 hr!! The paradox is in EXACTLY THE OPPOSITE DIRECTION FROM WHICH CREATIONISTS WOULD WANT IT TO BE. Evolution’s legs are so powerful, we are surprised that it doesn’t travel farther than it does, not that it can’t explain the distance we have seen it travel!

To drive this point home more, look at the actual parameter values from our model. In 100 years, species regularly increase or decrease in body size up to 20% by evolution. Those bursts that we estimate only happen every 1,000,000 years? They increase body size by 30%. Does that sound like something that is impossible to explain by microevolutionary processes? Clearly not.

In my talks I say that what we would expect given a constant rate of evolution and the existing diversity of life is an evolutionary vuvuzela, rather than an evolutionary blunderbuss. The paradox is the barrel, not the flared end. That paradox is exactly what a creationist would not want, as it’s the opposite direction from what they want it to be. Again, there are no gaps, there is only one amazingly consistent pattern that is well explained by evolution by natural selection and provides no evidence of breaks in the process.

beaglelady - #68284

February 29th 2012


I thank you for taking the time to clear this up.  No one should be misrepresenting the work of scientists.

Jon Garvey - #68280

February 29th 2012


I return to BioLogos after a few days and find you’ve got the bit truly between your teeth! Still, you bothered Uyeda to get his comments on his own paper, and one can’t argue with those. I don’t normally expect off the cuff blog comments to be dissected for their rigour like a peer-reviewed article, but looking back at the thread, I can see that my careless wording caused confusion.

My original comment was simply intended to say (a) that I disagreed with the OP’s seeming implication that macroevolution was simply microevolution extended in time and (b) that there were serious challenges to RM & NS as a sufficient explanation of macroevolution. Though I did not make it at all clear, I cited the Uyeda paper as “a small example” of (a), not intending (b) - I never understood the author to be challenging Neodarwinian processes. I just happened to have the paper in mind as showing an interesting pattern.

That said, and due apologies made for accidentally maligning the orthodoxy of Uyeda, I’m not sure why you or he should start talking about creationist (or ID) agendas. The point of my post was certainly to question that RM & NS are alone a complete explanation of evolution. However I’m not a creationist but, if you like, a “Warfieldian” evolutionist. Regarding the paper, my reply #68255 still stands: it’s immaterial to my argument that the issue is the constraint of the barrel rather than the expansion of the trumpet. The fact is that there are two phases requiring explanation beyond simply “more microevolution” (ie the previously expected constant rate of evolution, as per Uyeda’s remarks). Ephemeral divergence (if that is truly the explanation) is an epicycle, if a justified one, to gradualist Neodarwinism.

Another reason for the infelicity of my citation of this particular paper is that its scope is limited only to the size of organisms, on which the alternative processes suggested by the iconoclasts I mentioned (your reply to them?) have little bearing. As I said from the start, it was only a small example to challenge an oversimplification.

But finally, to paraphrase your correspondent, “I am perpetually astounded that people use my posts to make points about creationism.” As far as I know, creationists don’t accept macroevolution, EXACTLY THE OPPOSITE DIRECTION to where I was going.

Steven Curry - #68283

February 29th 2012

This response indicates that you still misunderstand in exactly the way I originally addressed. There are not two phases, as you assert. Do you know what Brownian motion is? Do you understand log plots? The Brownian motion diverges (no surprise) and the log plot exaggerates the tail (no surprise). The are no gaps in the data. We see only continuous evolution over time.

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