Wintery Knight

…integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square

Convergence detected in the genetic structure of bats and dolphins

We have to start this post with the definition of convergence in biology.

In evolutionary biology, convergent evolution is the process whereby organisms not closely related (not monophyletic), independently evolve similar traits as a result of having to adapt to similar environments or ecological niches.

It is the opposite of divergent evolution, where related species evolve different traits.

On a molecular level, this can happen due to random mutation unrelated to adaptive changes; see long branch attraction. In cultural evolution, convergent evolution is the development of similar cultural adaptations to similar environmental conditions by different peoples with different ancestral cultures. An example of convergent evolution is the similar nature of the flight/wings of insects, birds, pterosaurs, and bats.

All four serve the same function and are similar in structure, but each evolved independently.

Jonathan Wells explains the problem that convergence poses for naturalistic evolution:

Human designers reuse designs that work well. Life forms also reuse certain structures (the camera eye, for example, appears in humans and octopuses). How well does this evidence support Darwinian evolution? Does it support intelligent design more strongly?

Evolutionary biologists attribute similar biological structures to either common descent or convergence. Structures are said to result from convergence if they evolved independently from distinct lines of organisms. Darwinian explanations of convergence strain credulity because they must account for how trial-and-error tinkering (natural selection acting on random variations) could produce strikingly similar structures in widely different organisms and environments. It’s one thing for evolution to explain similarity by common descent—the same structure is then just carried along in different lineages. It’s another to explain it as the result of blind tinkering that happened to hit on the same structure multiple times. Design proponents attribute such similar structures to common design (just as an engineer may use the same parts in different machines). If human designers frequently reuse successful designs, the designer of nature can surely do the same.

I’m a software engineer, and we re-use components all the time for different programs that have no “common ancestor”. E.g. – I can develop my String function library and use it in my web application and my Eclipse IDE plug-in, and those two Java programs have nothing in common. So you find the same bits in two different programs because I am the developer of both programs. But the two programs don’t extend from a common program that was used for some other purpose – they have no “common ancestor” program.

Now with that in mind, take a look at this recent article from Science Daily, which Mysterious Micah sent me.

Excerpt:

The evolution of similar traits in different species, a process known as convergent evolution, is widespread not only at the physical level, but also at the genetic level, according to new research led by scientists at Queen Mary University of London and published in Nature this week.

The scientists investigated the genomic basis for echolocation, one of the most well-known examples of convergent evolution to examine the frequency of the process at a genomic level.

Echolocation is a complex physical trait that involves the production, reception and auditory processing of ultrasonic pulses for detecting unseen obstacles or tracking down prey, and has evolved separately in different groups of bats and cetaceans (including dolphins).

The scientists carried out one of the largest genome-wide surveys of its type to discover the extent to which convergent evolution of a physical feature involves the same genes.

They compared genomic sequences of 22 mammals, including the genomes of bats and dolphins, which independently evolved echolocation, and found genetic signatures consistent with convergence in nearly 200 different genomic regions concentrated in several ‘hearing genes’.

[...]Consistent with an involvement in echolocation, signs of convergence among bats and the bottlenose dolphin were seen in many genes previously implicated in hearing or deafness.

“We had expected to find identical changes in maybe a dozen or so genes but to see nearly 200 is incredible,” explains Dr Joe Parker, from Queen Mary’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences and first author on the paper.

“We know natural selection is a potent driver of gene sequence evolution, but identifying so many examples where it produces nearly identical results in the genetic sequences of totally unrelated animals is astonishing.”

Nature is the most prestigious peer-reviewed science journal. This is solid material.

There is an earlier article from 2010 in New Scientist that talked about one of the previous genes that matched for hearing capability.

Excerpt:

Bats and dolphins trod an identical genetic path to evolve a vital component of the complex sonar systems they use to pursue and catch prey.

The finding is unusual, because although many creatures have independently evolved characteristics such as eyes, tusks or wings, they usually took diverse genetic routes to get there.

Analysis of a specific gene has now demonstrated that although bats live in air and dolphins in water, where sound travels five times faster, they independently evolved a near-identical gene that allows them to accept high-frequency sound in the ear – vital for sonar.

The gene makes prestin, a protein in hair cells of the cochlea, which is the organ in the inner ear where sonar signals are accepted and amplified. Prestin changes shape when exposed to high-frequency sound, and this in turn deforms the fine hair cells, setting off an electrical impulse to the brain. So the protein has the important jobs of detecting and selecting high-frequency sounds for amplification.

When researchers examined the molecular structure of the prestin gene from a range of animals, they found that the variants in echolocating bats and dolphins were virtually indistinguishable.

Indistinguishable genes in animals that don’t share a common ancestor? Maybe a better explanation for the evidence we have is – common designer.

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8 Responses

  1. Joshua says:

    In computer programming terms, why should scientists be surprised when they find similar input (though not “exact same”) behind a similar output? It’s like seeing that IE and Firefox both have a “Close” button and then being surprised that they both have similar codes written in C++ and JavaScript.

    I also found it interesting that the article says:

    “Echolocation is a complex physical trait that involves the production, reception and auditory processing of ultrasonic pulses for detecting unseen obstacles or tracking down prey”.

    To call such a sophisticated system “complex” is a gross understatement. Is any part of it useful without the rest?

  2. jackhudson says:

    It’s interesting to see how the evolutionary argument is attempting to shift once again to explain away plain reality. Previously convergence was an attempt to explain away similar morphological structures which arose as the result of similar selective processes acting in similar environments. The problem in this instance is that while the end goal is similar (locate prey by echolocation) the environments and morphology are nothing alike – dolphins must interpret sound waves in fluid while swimming while bats have to interpret sound waves in air while flying.

    From an evolutionary standpoint dolphins and bats would have a very distant ancestor, as far back as the Cretaceous, so the last thing one would expect is for radically different environments selectively acting to produce radically different morphologies to produce of 200 hundred similar genomic regions so that a similar prey location strategy might result. It would be like concluding the Google maps application running on my computer and the GPS system in my car arose independently through non-directive means while sharing the fundamental code architecture. It’s nonsense.

    • Just the other day I heard a professor say something like, “the problem with those who deny evolution is that they lack imaginations.” If the process is logically sound and backed by evidence, then what need of imagination?

  3. One thing atheists and evolutionists always ask me when I point to common design is “Why would God reuse His designs?” They say that there are so many ways that an organism could be built, that it doesn’t make sense to reuse designs. Why not just make each organism completely different? They seem to think that making organisms with similarities would be somehow deceptive – making it look like common ancestry when it wasn’t.

    Of course, there’s several aspects to the answer. Obviously, God, as a good designer, reuses efficient designs since they already exist, they work, and in order to show His fingerprint, so to speak. But there’s another aspect of common design that I rarely hear anyone speak of. *There aren’t an unlimited number of designs that will work.* It’s not like God can make any number of totally different structures that make flight possible or that absorb oxygen from air or that can produce a walking motion. There are physical constraints on any design.

    Once God creates a set of physical laws for the universe and wants to create a biosphere with a common food chain, the constraints on the design for any organism are quite strict. All organisms, for example, must be carbon-based and built from the 4 basic types of macromolecules (proteins, carbs, lipids, and nucleic acids) in order for a common food chain to exist. Only DNA can provide the necessary chemical structure to allow for storage and transmission of the complex information necessary for living things. These are just a few examples, but there are many others. It’s not because organisms have a common ancestor that they all have these features. It’s not even due to common design, if by that you mean something analogous to an artist’s signature. The similarity of many features in living things is due simply to the fact that you can’t make such a creature any other way. It simply doesn’t work to do things differently. Physical constraints dictate the design far more often than most people realize.

    These physical constraints on design apply to macroscopic structures like lungs and legs and wings and also to individual proteins and other microscopic structures. Thus, we would expect, from a design perspective, to have organisms show similar structures when they are solving a similar problem. And, since DNA contains the instructions for building these structures, we would expect similar DNA sequences. It’s no surprise to us that organisms show a lot of similarity. Similarity is NOT proof of common descent. It fits at least as well (and in many cases, better) with the idea of common design.

  4. This is important for statistical reasons, which is where I believe evolution may be logically defeated. Since the nucleotide arrangements (genes) that code for proteins is presumably the result of a random process (not active and intentional “adaptation” as pop-science describes it) it is, firstly, improbable that a new and functional gene should arise. But it is even more improbable that a *specified* gene should be arrived at, i.e., the “convergent” gene.

    Secondly, this reinforces Douglas Axe’s work to demonstrate that there are ultimately only a small number of gene arrangements that will serve any given purpose (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15321723).

    Some may say that evolution is like a lottery, where it is surprising if you win, but anyone can win and somebody will. These kinds of studies reveal that it is more like the probability of being able to name the winner in advance, and then watching them win twice in a row.

  5. […] a software engineer, andwe re-use components all the time for different programs that have no “common ancestor”. E.g. – I can develop my String […]

  6. J.W. Wartick says:

    WK, very interesting post here. I appreciate you sharing it. I often wonder how we are to take cases wherein a similar function/mechanism shows up independently across different organisms.

    I do wonder about phrases like this: “Indistinguishable genes in animals that don’t share a common ancestor? ”

    I mean, one of the core assumptions of Neo-Darwinism is that there will be, at some point, a LUCA- last universal common ancestor. So they do, at some point, share a common ancestor. Could the argument then be made that perhaps these features were somehow in the DNA in non-coding sections just waiting to be activated?

    Of course, then one might wonder why they were there, and how they could have been developed without function far enough back to be given to both Dolphins and mammals. Again, that would seem to hint at a designer, so far as I can tell, for the ‘built in’ potential could not be selected for on a Neo-Darwinian account.

    • You’re right. What I meant is that the common ancestor is so far back that it is unlikely to have the component that they have in common already developed.

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