Selected Responses to the
January 1997 Post of the Month
Response by Peter Nyikos
owen Simmons (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes:
>In article <email@example.com>, firstname.lastname@example.org >(Peter Nyikos) wrote: >> ... >> That doesn't excite much confidence in the FAQ archive. If you >> want to know what a REAL scientific prediction is like, look >> at before-the-fact predictions of solar and lunar eclipses. >> >> Now, evolution being such a slow process, we can't really hope >> for that kind of prediction, but as a minimum I would like >> to see some before-the-fact predictions that such-and-such >> an as-yet-undiscovered phenomenon would be observed, complete >> with the source of that prediction. > >How about this with regard to the ancestry of ants? > > >"Journey to the Ants", Edward O. Wilson, page 75-78:
I'd much prefer a peer-reviewed article. Wilson understates and overstates things, by turns.
>In 1966 the missing link of ant evolution, the Ur-ant that joins the >modern forms to their ancestors among the wasps, was finally >discovered...Prior to this find, there had been mostly frustration. The >known fossil record had stopped cold in Eocene sediments some 40 to 60 >million years old; earlier rocks and amber pieces seemed to offer no >clues. The few specimens from the earliest, Eocene, record at the >disposal of myrmecologists were poorly preserved but clearly belonged to >modern groups. They were not much different in anatomy from living forms >and offered no clues as to how ants came into existance. >... >Creationists had taken note of this absence in their campaign to discredit >the theory of evolution. Ants, they argued, are an example of a group put >on earth by a single act of special creation.
Any published works containing their arguments? You do give an excerpt from an Arthur Biele post below, but did he give any references?
>Those of us reconstructing >the evolutionary history of ants believed otherwise. We guessed that the >earliest species were simply very scarce, and that the fossil beds >containing them were just poorly explored, so that in time at least a few >specimens would turn up.
This is strangely understated. One could hardly be convinced of the reality of evolution and "guess" anything else, except for putting an "or" in place of "and".
>We believed that the missing link existed in >deposits of early Eocene age, perhaps 60 million years old, or further >back still, into the Mesozoic Era. The Ur-ant may well have stung an >occaisonal dinosaur.
Also very understated, since the early Eocene is the LAST possible time for such a missing link, and a rather unlikely one at that.
>the Ur-ant was discovered by Mr. and Mrs. Edmund Frey...[they] sent an >amber piece containing two worker ants to Donald Baird of Princeton >University. Baird, recognizing its scientific importance, passed it on to >Frank M. Carpenter of Harvard University, the world authority on insect >paleontology and teacher of Edward Wilson.
Why "the world authority" rather than "a world authority"? Was he really acknowledged to be peerless? Or is Edward Wilson being carried away by his (understandable) admiration for his mentor? Why is he writing of himself in the third person, when he was earlier using the first-person "we" and "us"?
>Carpenter called Wilson on the telephone, two floors above him in >Harvard's Biological Laboratories. > >"The ants are here," said Carpenter. > >"I'll be down in two milliseconds," Wilson replied, adrenalin surging. > >Wilson ran down the stairs and into Carpenter's office, picked up the >specimen, fumbled with it and dropped it on the floor, whereupon it broke >into two pieces. Fortunately, each fragment contained an ant still in >place and undamaged. Both pieces were composed of clear, pale, golden >matrix. When polished they provided beautiful views of the ants, >wonderfully preserved, as though the insects had been entombed only the >day before. > >The amber was the fossilized resin of sequoia trees that grew at the >Cliffwood Beach locality 90 million years agao, near the middle of the >Cretaceous Period, when dinosaurs were still the dominant large land >vertebrates.
About where they would be expected to be. Not a bad "prediction" so far, but hardly the sort of test case by which evolution either rises or falls.
Yes, the history of paleontology contains quite a few such "missing links" turning up, though seldom one that fits a big gap so neatly. However, it seems more appropriate for a "Transitional Invertebrate Fossils FAQ" [any being planned? it would make a nice pair with Kathleen Hunt's Transitional Vertebrate Fossils FAQ] than to a predictions FAQ, unless some good answers to my subsequent questions are forthcoming.
>Wilson put the fossils under the microscope and began to sketch and >measure them from all sides. After several hours he picked up the >telephone and called William L. Brown at Cornell University. Brown was a >fellow specialist in ant classification who had for years shared his dream >of finding a Mesozoic ant and thereby, perhaps, to learn the identity of >the missing link to the ancestral wasps. Both men had guessed from >comparisons to living species what traits the ancestral form might, or, if >evolutionary theory is correct, SHOULD possess.
This, on the other hand, is strongly overstated. Evolution can take many pathways from here to there, and any such "SHOULD" smacks of playing to the gallery.
So, what were the guesses?
>Wilson reported that the >ants were indeed as primitive as expected. They had a mosaic of >anatomical features found variously in modern ants or in wasps as well as >some that were intermediate between the two groups.
Here is the rub: why should evolution dictate such a strong mosaic as appears below?
And, more to the point: which if any of the following features had been predicted by any of the esteemed men listed above? Preferably in peer-reviewed literature, and preferably by Carpenter or Wilson. Can readers see why a prediction by Brown would not be nearly so impressive, unless we had a catalogue of ALL such predictions and most of them agreed with Brown's?
>The diagnosis of the >Ur-ant was astounding: short jaws with only two teeth, like those of >wasps;
The soldier ant of Pheidole has jaws with two teeth, short in comparison to the head. [Goetsch, The Ants, U. of Michigan Press, 1957, p. 135.]
Some ant jaws, such as in the Amazon ant, have no teeth but end in a single sharp point. There is a huge variety in jaw sizes and tooth numbers for ants. Are wasps uniformly two-toothed?
>what appears to be the blisterlike cover of a metapleural gland the >scretory organ (located at the thorax, or mid-part of the body) that >defines modern ants but is unknown in wasps; the first segment of the >antennae elongated to give them the elbowed look characterizing ants, yet >here, in the Mesozoic fossils, only to a degree intermediate between >modern ants and wasps; the remaining, outer part of the antennae long and >flexible, as in wasps; the thorax with a distinct scutum and scutellum >(two plates forming the middle part of the body); also a trait of wasps; >and an antlike waist;
What is the difference between an antlike waist and a wasplike waist?
>yet one that is simple in form, as though it had >only recently evolved.
Yup, quite a mosaic. Did any of those researchers predict that it would be a mosaic with several prominent features ant-like, several wasp-like, and several in between?
>I would suggest that this is a multi-faceted prediction: > >(1) that an ant-wasp intermediate would exist at all.
Evolutionary theory could hardly do otherwise, there being no real alternative to a wasp ancestry.
>(2) the attributes it would possess.
No specifics given.
>(3) the strata in which it would be found.
Huh? I must have missed out on something. I did a search of your entire post, and the letter-string "strat" occurs in only one other place, in "frustration".
Fossilized resin of sequoias is not a stratum, and there is no mention of it having been predicted. Time-wise the prediction is notoriously open-ended, with no part of the Mesozoic excluded, including the great end-of-Triassic extinction.
>I think this fits the bill: a bold prediction based on a theory, directly >contested by those opposing the theory, stunningly confirmed by a >discovery.
Not particularly bold, unless you can give some references where specifically worded predictions can be found.
Article originally posted January 14, 1997
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