Hailed as a "Progress" article by the editors of Nature, a group of evolutionary biologists have responded to "our current ignorance of intermediates" in the trajectories of evolutionary transformation. The key concept is the adaptive landscape, a device developed by Wright in 1932. The difference is that these authors want to use the concept to "explore the step-by-step evolution of molecular functions." They acknowledge implicitly that the adaptive landscape is theory-laden (rather than a fruit of empirical research), because from Darwin onwards, evidence of intermediates as organisms moving around an adaptive landscape is thin. They write: "Although Darwin developed a convincing rationale for their absence, he did realize that the lack of intermediates as proof leaves room for criticism." (It should be noted that not everyone finds Darwins's rationale for their absence convincing).
They also comment: "Indeed, in their opposition to evolution, the proponents of 'intelligent design' have seized on our current ignorance of intermediates." It should be stated that ID proponents do not have a blanket opposition to evolution! Adaptive change does occur and is non-controversial. The real issue is whether adaptive change leads to novel specified complexity and, in particular, to irreducibly complex systems. Furthermore, ID proponents are not arguing from "our current ignorance" but from our current knowledge!
What has this research achieved? "The experimental reconstruction of evolutionary intermediates and putative pathways has provided an exciting first look at molecular adaptive landscapes" and "The molecular systems interrogated so far represent only a start, but one with great potential to spark further exploration." There is no hint that molecular systems suggested to be irreducibly complex have been addressed in this research. It really is a "first look" and "only a start". It is perhaps an indictment of evolutionary biologists that it has taken so long to realise that there are real challenges to the adaptive landscape concept and that serious research is only in the initial stages.
Empirical fitness landscapes reveal accessible evolutionary paths
Frank J. Poelwijk, Daniel J. Kiviet, Daniel M. Weinreich and Sander J. Tans
Nature, 445, 383-386 (25 January 2007) | doi:10.1038/nature05451
Abstract: When attempting to understand evolution, we traditionally rely on analysing evolutionary outcomes, despite the fact that unseen intermediates determine its course. A handful of recent studies has begun to explore these intermediate evolutionary forms, which can be reconstructed in the laboratory. With this first view on empirical evolutionary landscapes, we can now finally start asking why particular evolutionary paths are taken.
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