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Eerie Reflections

Eerie Reflections


It was just a matter of time, of course, following the discovery of geckos’ amazing ability to stick to smooth surfaces by means of molecular forces (see Let’s Learn from the Best), that another such animal would be discovered. One might have expected that the next discovery would be in another reptile, similar to the gecko. Imagine our surprise, then when we heard that the second example is nothing like the first. An article published last year in the Journal of Experimental Biology reveals that such a phenomenon has been discovered in a jumping spider (Evarcha aracuata) commonly found in Europe. While many creatures such as flies use an adhesive fluid (ugh) to stick themselves to surfaces, these jumping spiders use ‘dry adhesion’ like the geckos.

The exoskeleton that covers spiders (and insects and crustaceans like crayfish) is hard and very unsticky. The ‘feet’ of this jumping spider however feature a tuft of hairs, each hair of which has many smaller hairs (called setae) and these have yet smaller flat triangular hairs called setules. Each foot boasts about 78,000 setules for a total of about 624,000 setules per individual spider. A team of German scientists measured the force with which a tiny probe would stick to a setule. They found that the adhesive force was so strong that this system would still work for a spider 173 times heavier (2 g rather than the actual 15 mg).

The question as to how very different animals come to possess similar sophisticated designs, has recently much occupied the minds of secular scientists. While creationists see obvious design and irreducible complexity, evolutionists talk about ‘convergence’. Their interpretation is that separate evolutionary lines of descent “converged” on the same solution. Why this should be so is a difficult problem for evolutionists. One who has given the issue considerable thought is English palaeontologist Simon Conway Morris in his book Life’s Solution. Unintentionally he illustrates why ‘convergence’ is such a problem for evolution.

When the expectations of evolutionary science are not met, some people respond by questioning evolutionary assumptions, but not Simon Conway Morris. This man firmly declares his support for evolution: “Evolution is true, it happens, it is the way the world is…” (p. xv). One wonders if he protests too much when he later declares: “A recurrent theme of this book is not only the implications of convergence for evolution, but also the problems it can pose for its resolution. Not, I hasten to add, in terms of the reality of evolution. This is emphatically not in question; rather the reverse…” (p. 144).

The cause of Dr. Morris’ embarrassment concerning the evolutionary position quickly becomes apparent. Firstly in a section entitled ‘Eerie Perfection’ he considers the nature of DNA, the famous genetic code found in all living organisms. He cites a study, published in 1998, which examined the efficiency of millions of possible codes and which came to the ‘startling’ conclusion that the way in which DNA carries information is the best there is. Werner Gitt independently came to the same conclusion in his book In the Beginning was Information (p. 94 in the 1997 English edition). While Werner Gitt sees the hand of the Creator, Simon Conway Morris comes to the conclusion that such a result was natural but inevitable (p. 18).

The reader might wonder how anyone can declare a surprising phenomenon to be ‘inevitable’. His solution is to appeal to undiscovered physical laws which, he supposes, allow only certain natural forms to develop. This is a popular position these days. How often do we hear that chance and ‘necessity’ drive evolution? Philosopher Stephen C. Meyer however discusses this position in a new book entitled Darwinism, Design and Public Education. In it Dr. Meyer points out that scientific laws describe highly repetitive events, while “information sequences are complex, not repetitive.” Therefore he says “information mounts as improbabilities multiply. Thus, to say that scientific laws can produce information is essentially a contradiction in terms” (p. 255).

Despite the fact that he really lacks any explanation for the genetic code other than ‘inevitability’, Dr. Morris applies similar reasoning to all biological phenomena. He declares that “life is full of inherencies” (p. 8), that evolution is “constrained, if not bound” (p. 12). He therefore insists that “life shows a kind of homing instinct. Its central paradox revolves around the fact that despite its fecundity and baroque richness life is also strongly constrained. The net result is a genuine creation, almost unimaginably rich and beautiful, but one also with an underlying structure in which, given enough time, the inevitable must happen.” The mere declaration that nature, on its own, possesses astonishing properties however, does not make it true.

Before the author turns his attention to living organisms, he examines some peripheral issues. Firstly he considers origin of life scenarios. What he finds is “a picture that can only be described as distinctly discouraging” (p. 49) from an evolutionary point of view, that is. He then turns his attention to reasons why Earth is so ideally suited for life. When Dr. Morris considers the importance of the moon and the planets for our comfort, he confides: “the peculiarities of the Moon help to epitomize the principle theme of this book, the odd fortuitousness of the world in which we find ourselves, where again and again matters seem to be remarkably well arranged” (p. 69). This is certainly food for thought.

All the above details form the prologue to the main argument of the book, the amazing way in which organisms of entirely different body plans, nevertheless often possess complex features which are very similar. For example, consider the case of the camera-eye such as we possess. Everyone knows that this is a very complicated organ. Not only are animals with backbones and humans provided with such a fine-tuned light receptor, but also some invertebrates (without a backbone) such as the octopus, some marine annelids (similar to earthworms), and two shore-snails (e.g. the winkle Littorina), also a cubozoan jellyfish and the ogre-faced spider (Dinopis dinopis). Obviously the camera eye could not have appeared in this strange assortment of organisms through descent with modification from a common ancestor.

The point of Dr. Morris’ book is to declare that convergence happens since nature has only a few options available. This is what he means when he says nature is constrained. Thus even when very different organisms are faced with the same problem, they may well nevertheless come to the same solution. That is how he explains the appearance of camera-eyes in such a diverse collection of creatures. Even he, however, admits that the snails do not fit his explanation because their lifestyle is very different. There are many other instances too, of organisms with similar designs which nevertheless lack any needs in common (for example the sperm whale and a desert plant [jojoba] which both possess a unique liquid wax).

In the case of the gecko and the jumping spider, one wonders what common problems these two organisms share that other reptiles and spiders do not exhibit. Why, other than choice by the Designer, would these creatures be so unique?

It used to be that ‘convergence’ was regarded as unusual, an exception to the typical evolutionary process. However we now know, says Dr. Morris, that nature is full of such strange situations (p. 109). Some people conclude that here we see abundant testimony to intelligent design or creation. Not Dr. Morris. He may call convergence “eerie” (p. 128), but he is not about to change his mind about natural processes. Thus he declares “Evolutionary convergence shows that we live in a constrained world, where all may not be possible” (p. 298). Indeed he lumps all nature into these inevitabilities: “Not only is the Universe strangely fit to purpose, but so, too, as I have argued throughout this book, is life’s ability to navigate its solutions” (p. 327).

This book is full of fascinating examples of design which the author, in keeping with his evolutionary views, calls convergence. You don’t have to be an evolutionist to appreciate the examples, quite the contrary. When you understand the nature of the Creator, all these providential conditions and amazing situations, make sense.

Simon Conway Morris. 2003. Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe. Cambridge University Press. 464 pages.

Margaret Helder
June 2004

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