One of the challenges for discussing evolution within evangelical Christian circles is that there is widespread confusion about how evolution actually works. In this (intermittent) series, I discuss aspects of evolution that are commonly misunderstood in the Christian community. In this post, we explore how evolution is a theory in the scientific sense, how it is supported by converging lines of evidence, and how it can make accurate predictions about the natural world, using whale evolution as an example.
Evolution: just a theory
One game that my (young) children like to play is a guessing game where both players select a character from among many choices, and by process of elimination, tries to guess the character the other has selected. Questions like “does your character have red hair? glasses?” etc., are used to narrow down the possibilities. Once you have guessed correctly which character your opponent has selected, you can perfectly predict the answer to every question thereafter (and a good many parents likely prolong the questioning to keep the hopes of victory alive for their children). When considered separately, the individual features of each character—glasses, brown hair, purple hat, and so on—mean almost nothing, since they could be features shared with other characters in the game. Only the convergence of multiple features is indicative of a good guess, and the accuracy of that guess is put to the test every time a new question is asked.
A good theory is something like this: an educated guess, based on and consistent with all past work on the topic to date. It allows you to predict how future tests should pan out. In the guessing game, there are limited options to choose from (so the analogy, like all analogies, eventually breaks down). In science, we don’t really know the true way things actually work. What we have are theories—broad explanatory frameworks supported by experimentation, that make sense of our current collection of facts—that we can use to make testable predictions about the natural world. All theories in science are provisional in that they are not complete descriptions of how the world actually works and are subject to future revision; but at the same time they are robust frameworks that can be used to predict how experiments should behave with almost boring regularity. So, far from the colloquial usage of “theory” as speculation, “just a theory” is high praise in science.
The current understanding of evolutionary theory in all its scope and diversity is far more complex than Darwin himself could have ever envisaged. (As a geneticist, I’ve often wished I could have a cup of tea with him to show him how far his theory has grown, especially given his confusion about how heredity worked.) Our understanding of how evolution works has grown by leaps and bounds since the 1850s. What is remarkable is just how much Darwin got “right” given his time and place. His main hypotheses—that species descend from ancestral forms through descent with modification, that and natural selection acting on heritable variation is a significant force in that process—remains the core of modern evolutionary theory. We’ve added a lot of detail since then (population genetics, kin selection, neutral evolution/genetic drift, symbiosis, horizontal gene transfer, molecular exaptation, and so on), but Darwin’s core ideas have produced a wealth of successful predictions. They were a very good “guess” that continues to pay rich scientific dividends.
Whale evolution: an example of converging lines of evidence
One of the things I personally find quite enjoyable about evolutionary theory is the counter-intuitiveness of some of the predictions it makes. One example that is a personal favorite, and one I often use to illustrate how evolution makes sense of converging lines of evidence, is cetacean (whale) evolution. Let’s set up the “problem” that evolutionary biology forces upon us:
- Modern cetaceans are mammals – they nourish their young in utero through a placenta, give birth to live young, and feed newborns with milk – all features of standard mammalian biology.
- Mammals are tetrapods – organisms with four limbs. Mammalian life shows up in the fossil record as an innovation within tetrapods, so mammals are “nested within the set” of tetrapod forms. Not all tetrapods are mammals (amphibians, for example) but all mammals are tetrapods.
- Tetrapods are by and large terrestrial creatures. Having four limbs for locomotion is a distinctly land-based adaptation.
The “problem”, of course, is that modern whales are emphatically not terrestrial, nor do they have four limbs – they have two front flippers and a tail, with no hind limbs in sight. Yet they are mammals, which forces evolution’s hand as it were. Evolution thus is dragged, under protest, to the prediction that modern whales, as mammals, are descended, with modification, from ancestral terrestrial, tetrapod ancestors. Instantly this prediction raises a host of uncomfortable questions: where did their hind limbs go? How did they acquire a blowhole on the top of their heads when other mammals have two nostrils on the front of their faces? How did they transition to giving birth in the water? What happened to the teeth of the baleen whales? What happened to the hair characteristic of mammals? and so on. In some ways, evolutionary thinking about whales creates more difficulties than it appears to solve.
And yet, these difficulties are the stuff of science. If indeed our “educated guess” of terrestrial, tetrapod ancestry for whales is correct, the evidence will show that these transitions, challenging though they may seem, did indeed occur on the road to becoming “truly cetacean”.
Going out on a limb
Anyone who has seen a modern whale skeleton in a museum and noted it carefully may have noticed that though whales lack hind limbs, they do have a bit of bone back there where the hind limbs ought to be. While this is suggestive of a vestigial characteristic (a feature in a modern organism that has a reduced role relative to the role the structure played in an ancestral species), it’s hardly a smoking gun for evolution. Still, it’s consistent with the idea.
When we look at the cetacean fossil record, we also see forms suggestive of a progressive loss of hind limb function and structure over time, as David Kerk and Darrel Falk have elegantly explained before. Again, if one were resistant to evolutionary explanations, it would be possible (if a bit strained) to interpret these creatures as having been created directly as we find them in the fossil record. The facts that we do not see these forms in the present day, and that they seem to blur the distinctions between terrestrial tetrapods and whales might make one a bit uncomfortable, however.
Recent work on cetacean embryogenesis (how whales and their relatives develop from fertilized eggs into fully-formed baby whales) has shed even more light on the issue for modern species, however. Dolphin embryos actually have four limbs early in their development, as well as a few facial hairs, just as any good mammal should have. The hind limbs and hairs are lost later in development, and work on the molecular signaling events that halt hind limb growth and cause the limb bud to regress into the body wall have now been worked out in some detail. Moreover, early in dolphin development the nostrils are distinct and on the front of the face, and only fuse into a blowhole and migrate to the top of the head later in development. Early dolphin embryogenesis is distinctly mammalian and uncannily tetrapod-like.
… and passing the test
Taken in isolation, these facts about whales are interesting trivia. Taken together, however, they begin to form a picture entirely consistent with the prediction that modern whales are derived from terrestrial ancestors. The true strength of evolution as a scientific theory for the origin of whales is this: not that we can prove it, (for no theory is ever proven in science due to its permanently provisional nature), nor that we have full access to every bit of data we would like (consider how fragmentary the fossil record is, for example), but rather that we haven’t been able to disprove it yet, despite our best efforts. Descent with modification remains a productive educated guess that grows stronger with each investigation.
In the next post in this series, we’ll explore some additional lines of evidence for cetacean evolution that further illustrate the predictive power of evolutionary theory.