Science Corner: I’ll Be in Scotland Afore Ye

downtown pittsburgh photo

In Pittsburgh, there’s more than one river that will take you ‘dahntahn.’
Photo by jpellgen

In a lovely bit of metaconvergence, two studies on convergent evolution showed up in the news this week. The first looked at ants in Arizona and whether five distinct populations separately stopped producing queens with wings in favor of wingless ones. The second was more extensive, showing that a wide range of species across phyla all have the same solution at the genetic level for coping with a toxin produced by some plants and toads. Both studies suggest that natural history was not purely random, and “replaying the tape” as it were might not always produce wildly different results.

In fairness, interpreting these observations as evidence for convergent evolution is controversial in many ways. Some folks are committed to the essential randomness of evolution and acknowledge convergence as a minor contribution to natural history at most. Some may interpret this as evidence that God used the same solution to the same problem in different contexts, and that it only looks like convergent evolution if you assume an evolutionary natural history. And I believe some see in these data positive empirical evidence of design, that a particular outcome was intended regardless of the mechanism by which that outcome was achieved.

Are these options mutually exclusive? I’m comfortable saying these genomic and phenotypic observations resulted from mutation and selection. Selection responds to environmental conditions, so I expect similar conditions will yield similar results. I also believe God authors creation, and so these solutions are his. And I believe God has authorial intent. I believe creation is free to realize that intent or not on an individual basis, while certain macroscale elements of that intent can be realized no matter how that freedom is exercised; I see this as an expression of grace.

I imagine that all sounds like trying to eat one’s cake and have it too, and calculated to maximize the number of people who disagree with me, but I believe it is consistent with the data of both science and scripture. How do you approach convergent evolution?

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog. His book Faith across the Multiverse is available from Hendrickson.

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