Evolution in Action?

It’s not unusual to read a headline proclaiming “evolution in action”. Such headlines imply that evolution is a fact, and they’re going to prove it by demonstrating that we can see it happening before our eyes.

In reality, however, there’s much more to consider than just the hype. Supposedly evolution is something that happens over millions and billions of years. For example, modern man is said to have evolved from Homo erectus about 1.8 million years ago, Australopithecus afarensis between 3.9 and 2.9 million years ago, and the first known life-form between 3.9 and 3.5 billion years ago. But now, in an effort to reinforce evolution among the public, scientists are attempting to demonstrate that it can happen very quickly over short periods of time.


An article in Biology & Nature titled “A snapshot of pupfish: evolution in action,” attempts to advance this narrative by following the pupfish- a tiny fish about an inch or so long that eats mostly algae off rocks and other detritus. In the article, UC Davis graduate student, Chris Martin, bred over 3,000 hybrid fish and created “one of the most comprehensive snapshots of natural selection in the wild and demonstrated a key prediction in evolutionary biology.”

While there are about 50 species of pupfish found across the Americas, Martin studied only species found in a few lakes on the island of San Salvador in the Bahamas. These fish are claimed to have evolved different shaped jaws, allowing them to feed on hard-shelled prey or snatch the scales off other fish. In a paper published in 2011 he showed that these fish are “evolving” at an explosively faster rate than other pupfish.

After bringing some of the fish back to the lab at UC Davis, Martin bred the fish for varying types of jaws. Once they were measured, photographed and tagged, he took about 2,000 of them back to San Salvador. Three months later he returned to check on them and analyze the data.

Martin found that most of the surviving fish were on separate peaks and adapted to their specific feeding style, such as general feeding or eating hard-shelled prey. But those fish that ate scales didn’t survive.

After reading the article, however, there’s really no evidence of “evolution in action” as claimed. The pupfish are still pupfish with variations in jaw size. The pupfish already had specialized jaws to begin with. Martin captured these fish and bred them to get certain traits, then released them back into the environment and observed the results. This is not what is generally meant by evolution.

Perhaps one of the most important things to take away is how “evolution” is defined. The general theory of evolution means that all living organisms are related to a single, common ancestor. In this article there’s a bait-and-switch tactic being used. It’s first assumed that these fish evolved a trait that never existed in its genome (jaws that could eat hard-shelled prey). Next it goes on to indirectly define evolution as any type of change, variation or adaptation in an organism over time. But most people are well aware that organisms change over time. For example, dog breeders breed different types of dogs to get dogs with variations in size, fur length, shape, abilities, etc. Over several generations, if we wanted a small German Shepherd with thick hair, then we’d select one that already has similar traits, and then separate its offspring with those desired traits until satisfied with the results. Therefore breeding fish with existing traits and releasing them back into their environment isn’t evolution (unless it’s redefined). The researchers never produced evidence demonstrating that the ancestors of these fish never possessed the genome that would allow future offspring to have these traits. Further, obtaining the desired traits in any particular organism doesn’t produce another kind of organism. A dog remains a dog, and doesn’t evolve into a cat or bear. The results in this article are not the kind of results that would change an ape-like creature into a human, or a dinosaur into a bird.

In reality the article has nothing to do with evolution. It’s has more to do with variation, natural selection, competition, adaptation, breeding, survival of the fittest, and observation. None of the predictions by Martin required a belief in the general theory of evolution. The predicted results could have been achieved with a basic understanding of any of these other concepts. Moreover, one of the assumed evolutionary predictions in the article is that natural selection is surprisingly complex, and that it drives new specialized species. Predictions are important in science for developing and testing theories. I’m just not sure what value this prediction has in the light of evolution since the prediction and results don’t require a belief in evolution. It just takes a basic understanding of biology to realize that natural selection is complex, and that specialized species will develop over time as they adapt to their environment, or as the less fit die out. The predictions are completely consistent with Biblical creation. Creationists, in fact, have long known that organisms adapt quickly to new environments. After Noah’s flood all the animals departing the ark would have gone into new, uncharted territories, and we would have seen the type of “explosion” they’re referring to, which is why we see all the different animal species there are today.

Such conflation of the term “evolution” often causes confusion and helps solidify the meme that evolution is a fact. If tiny adaptations are called “evolution”, then evolution can be called a fact since we can see those adaptations very quickly. Therefore, anyone who doesn’t believe that man evolved from an ape-like ancestor is often labeled anti-science in an effort to silence them or minimize their relevance. Never mind that different concepts are being used for the same term without any distinction. But this is why we need to have a solid understanding of exactly what evolution is and isn’t, and why we need to be diligent in dealing with it.

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