Phenotypic plasticity

One of the concessions I once made to the Darwinists was on microevolution. Adaptations to environment on the small scale might well, in many cases, involve random mutation and “natural selection.” But these happen within parameters that do not extend to the macroevolutionary scale. To transcend species barriers is a work of ages, beyond the ages known to man. It can’t be seen to happen, anywhere in the fossil record, which nowhere reveals messy fluctuation. Dead or alive at the present day, you have a sharply-defined species in every single case.

This isn’t, “God of the gaps.” The record would be a universal meandering slur if the Darwinian account were true. It is instead crisp — consistently and eerily crisp. And the jumps are frequently astounding.

But “Darwin’s finches” were acceptable to me (and apparently to the finches on my balconata, though I have not quizzed them exhaustively). I accepted it as an example of natural selection — on the microevolutionary scale, only.

This wasn’t an example from Darwin, incidentally, but looked so much better than any of his, that it invaded all the textbooks. When the man himself was on the Galapagos Islands, he missed the story. He didn’t notice that there were different finches on the different islands. He certainly did not match the beak shapes to the diets. He had no idea how any of the birds had got there in the first place. Those finches danced circles around Charles Darwin.

Two million years (the assumed time available, for whatever Latin American finch or finches to adapt to conditions on the Galapagos, at their leisure with no serious predators except that pesky Galapagos Hawk), seemed sufficient to explain the differences by minute, incremental change. It is one of those numbers settled on by repetition; the geological assumption underneath “two million” having been long since kicked away. Biology schoolbooks are full of fluff like that: often not because the authors are disingenuous, but because their ignorance is comprehensive.

But, hey: “Jolly good, Darwinoids, you can have that one,” was my attitude going back to later adolescence, when as a science kid with a minor obsession in biology I first came to doubt the secular evolutionary “unholy grail.” (As an atheist, then, by the way. I didn’t think the account in Genesis was plausible. I just thought the Darwinian account less plausible.)

Fortysomething years later, I would like to take that back. I know natural selection is nonsense, as an explanation for macroevolutionary metamorphoses; every intelligent person should know that by now. But I am no longer convinced it explains anything significant, or perhaps anything at all, on the microevolutionary scale, either. This is because I have continued to take a passing interest in biological discoveries.

True enough, the maladapted animal gets eaten, and so becomes individually extinct. And certain niche environments disappear catastrophically — sometimes large ones — taking with them most, or conceivably all the creatures who once lived there. All living things on this planet die; and species, too, have their seasons. This much is truism. The puzzling question is how new creatures arrive, in environments to which they are — not more or less, but totally and invariably — wonderfully adapted.

Let us consider, for the duration of today’s Idlepost, the pupfish of Death Valley, our continent’s lowest, driest, and hottest environment. These pupfish are Darwin’s finches for today: nine species and sub-species, each taxon flourishing in geographic isolation from the others, in small, remote water habitats; a kind of archipelago in reverse.

How they got there in the first place can be easily explained by the recession of the last Ice Age. For, a mere fifteen millennia ago, Death Valley was a cooler and wetter place. It was at the deepest bottom of a very big lake through much of the Pleistocene epoch, and more recently part of a network of interconnected smaller lakes and marshes spreading across what is now the Mojave Desert — that dried up in a blink of the geological eye.

We are led irresistibly to assume that in this short time, a common ancestor “evolved,” and split into nine distinct lines, with variations in body shape and behaviour to match the demands of each of their respective niches — rather as the beaks of the descendant finches vary, island to island in the Galapagos. But in one-hundredth of the time.


Recall: we aren’t disputing that “evolution,” in the sense of temporal succession, occurs. Hardly anyone disputed that in Darwin’s day, either, for the notion of evolution was already a deeply implanted paradigm in biology, with a history going back to the Pre-Socratics. Indeed, Empedocles of Akragas in Sicily had proposed natural selection, in the fifth century before Christ, as had others, in the main. And, one full generation before the Origin of Species, the Scotsman, Patrick Matthews, had spelt out the whole Darwinian system in detail. (Alfred Russel Wallace may not have known about it, but despite his suspiciously sarcastic disclaimers, Darwin almost certainly did. His notes from the period went missing like Nixon’s White House tapes.)

Buffon, Lamarck, Cuvier, Charles’s own grandpa Erasmus Darwin, were all open evolutionists (not “closet evolutionists,” as the Darwinian textbooks falsely state). So, implicitly, were all the taxonomists, from Linnaeus back at least to the seventeenth-century John Ray. The notion that “evolution” came as something new and shocking to the Victorian educated public is — let us be clear — a bald, entirely purposeful, lie, designed to confuse people unfamiliar with the nineteenth century.

Darwin’s accomplishment was thus not in science, but in theology. He was a talented writer, and natural history buff, who rubbed in, subtly at first then more and more overtly, the atheist inferences of the scheme, and thereby advanced the High Victorian eugenics movement in which his family and friends had a major interest. (Malthusianism also comes into this.) It was part of an orchestrated, direct assault on religious resistance to tampering with nature, understood as such at the time. It was aimed primarily at Protestant biblical literalism, which is why Catholics to the present day have largely refused to take the bait, or for that matter show much interest in the devils. Darwin looms large only here in these White Anglo-Saxon Protestant realms; elsewhere he is just a name among many in the history of defunct biological ideas.

As recently as 2009, during the extravagant media celebration of the bicentenary of his birth, and sesquicentenary of his bestseller, I still believed Darwin was an honest man, if somewhat deluded or befuddled. What I’ve learnt since convinces me that he wasn’t.

But now I am wandering off-topic. The point here is not about Charles Darwin’s motives, but whether the hypothesis he plagiarized and popularized — his explanation of how evolution works — is true. Because in my crazy Roman Catholic universe, the truth is important.

So back to our Death Valley pupfishies. They get better.


In work over the past few years, researchers including prominently Sean Lema, have been playing games with them. Pupfish hatched in the Amargosa River were dumped into the seething conditions of Devil’s Hole; pupfish guppies from Devil’s Hole were transferred to a much pleasanter experimental refuge environment; and so forth. The wee fish took it in their stride, with significant adaptive variations showing within two — count ’em two — years. No new information had appeared in the guppies’ DNA; instead, the expression of the existing information had altered.

This phenomenon is known as phenotypic plasticity. As we have been quite recently discovering, it is built into all God’s creatures — an ability to change, often quite radically on multiple levels, when circumstances demand. It perfectly explains microevolutionary adaptations, though of course it does not preclude other factors which may work with or against this plasticity. And it does not require the tens or hundreds of thousands of years that “natural selection” would require, working with (usually counter-productive) tiny, random, genetic mutations.

Look at a little bat-faced Pomeranian, and then at a big happy Labrador. They are genetic expressions of the same species: variations on the theme of gray wolf. Humans bred them out that way, on purpose, over the short space of human history, in the course of which we have sometimes noticed the range of potentialities. But they haven’t been crossbred with any other species: that extraordinary range was built into just the one. Pupfish can, as impressively, but without human help, turn on a generational dime. They need not wait for a fresh DNA redaction: nature knows how to dance with the bullets.

Everywhere, the design of creatures involves anticipation. This is not the exception but the strict, unvarying rule. Biology thus requires an Aristotelian — a teleological — approach to gain genuine, provable knowledge. It always did. Even the Darwinians, to learn anything at all, must keep asking themselves the elementary question, “What is this for?”

The “neo-Darwinian synthesis” still tries to deny this: not on the basis of any experiment or proof, but because faith in Atheism demands this denial. Nature, to the godless Darwinoid apprehension, must be stupid, bumbling, uninformed and clueless. Their problem is: she’s not.

Note, I am not saying that our modern-day neo-Darwinian synthesis “has flaws.” I am not so shy. Rather I am saying that, so far as it is Darwinian at all, it is horse manure, wall-to-wall.

One may charitably understand the thuggish behaviour of the Darwinist academic establishment, towards any departure from their “settled science” party line, the better when one appreciates the desperation of their position. For they are meathead scientistic clowns, suspended on scaffolding that is visibly crumbling beneath them.

Yet, God made these meatheads, so they do half know it.