Electrical charges direct the pursuit of nectar.
How do bees know which flowers to visit to load up on nectar? Which flowers have already been plundered? A team from the U.K.’s University of Bristol believes the attraction is electrical.
How does this bee know that this flower’s nectar hasn’t already been gathered? Her efficiency is apparently increased by her ability to detect the electrical footprint of previous visitors, guiding her to devote her time to more promising targets. Image credit: stock.xchng Bees through www.cbsnews.com
As a bumblebee visits this petunia, the graph shows the change in electrical potential measured in the flower’s stem. (1) The flower initially has a fairly negative charge. (2) The flower acquires a slightly more positive charge as the bee approaches and (3) gathers nectar. (4) The change in electrical potential “both precedes and outlasts the presence of the bee on the flower.” (Image and quotation from the video by Dominic Clarke et al. accompanying the online Science article “Detection and Learning of Floral Electric Fields by Bumblebees.” Be sure to watch the entire video available online.)
Bees’ wings generate a positive electrical charge. Because flowers normally carry a negative charge, the bees’ positive charge helps pollen stick to the little hairs on their bodies. Visits from nectar-seeking bees, in the study, made the charge on petunias temporarily less negative. (See the illustration.) Could this alteration in charge mark certain flowers as “already-harvested” for bees?
To find out, the team trained a group of bumblebees by providing sugar-laden charged artificial flowers and uncharged artificial flowers bearing a bitter solution. Soon the bees learned to preferentially visit the flowers offering sweet rewards. Presumably the bees identified positive prospects by the persistent charge.
To confirm this, the bees were re-released after the charge was turned off. Their visits became completely random, suggesting the bees had indeed been following flower power to find their sweets.
Insects have never before been documented to possess electrical sensitivity. “We think bumblebees are using this ability to perceive electrical fields to determine if flowers were recently visited by other bumblebees and are therefore worth visiting,” says the team’s leader, biologist Daniel Robert. “The last thing a flower wants is to attract a bee and then fail to provide nectar,” he says. “Bees are good learners and would soon lose interest in such [an] unrewarding flower.”1
The team isn’t sure how bees detect the charge difference but think it may involve how much the hairs on their bodies bristle up. “Animals are just constantly surprising us as to how good their senses are,” says lead author Dominic Clarke. “More and more we're starting to see that nature's senses are almost as good as they could possibly be.”1
Noting that electrical patterns change more quickly than other sensory cues, the authors write, “The ubiquity of electric fields in nature and their integration into the bees’ sensory ecology suggest that E-fields play a thus far unappreciated role in plant-insect interactions. The present study raises the possibility of reciprocal information transfer between plants and pollinators at time scales of milliseconds to seconds, much faster than previously described alterations in floral scent, color or humidity.”2
So how did bees acquire this amazing ability?3 Pollination is good for both bees and flowers, so evolutionists typically assume such mutually beneficial symbiotic relationships are a product of co-evolution.1 Yet nothing inherent in this highly responsive design suggests that evolution produced it.
Biblically we know that plants were created on the third day of Creation Week about 6,000 years ago and the flying animals that pollinate many of them just 2 days later. God created plants and animals able to reproduce successfully, so we can conclude He created them with these symbiotic relationships, or with the ability to adapt to form them. It has taken mankind 6,000 years to discover it, but now we know one way that God equipped bees to efficiently provide for their own nourishment and to produce honey, a food valued and enjoyed by humans from antiquity.
Scars of evolution or of a sin-cursed world?
“Scars of evolution,” a series at February’s meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, featured speakers explaining how human evolution has produced an inferior product. Speakers covered the un-wisdom of having wisdom teeth (which we recently discussed4), fumed about the foot’s failures, bemoaned the back-aching consequences of bipedalism, and belabored childbirth.
Ultimately, “Scars of Evolution” attributed the physical problems humans have to the limitations imposed by the necessity of working with the already-evolved material in ape-like ancestors. As anthropologist Matt Cartmill explained, “Evolution doesn’t ‘design’ anything” because it must slowly work on the genes and traits it has available, adding, “Evolution doesn’t act to yield perfection. It acts to yield function.”
Anthropologist Jeremy DeSilva, in “Starting Off on the Wrong Foot,” alleged that the human foot is a poor modification of a tree-climber’s foot. “Given that the modern human foot functions primarily as a stable platform and a propulsive lever, it is far from ideal that the anatomical precursor was a mobile, grasping appendage,” according to DeSilva. “But, because we are primates, and natural selection tinkers with pre-existing structures, the transformation of a flexible, grasping foot to a stiff propulsive lever is precisely the evolutionary legacy of our foot and ankle. The evolution of a stable structure from a grasping one has left us particularly susceptible to a variety of foot and ankle injuries.”5
The shapes and arrangement of the foot’s 26 bones, bound with ligaments, tendons, muscles, and the plantar aponeurosis (fascia), make it possible for the foot to morph between a flexible yet stable adjustable weight-bearing platform (early in each step) and a rigid foundation for propulsion into the next step. Plantar fasciitis, a painful inflammation, is particularly annoying because the plantar fascia draws the loosened bones together as the ankle dorsiflexes. Image with additional information about the causes and treatment of plantar fasciitis are at www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
DeSilva explained, “This anatomy isn’t what you’d design from scratch.” Noting the foot has 26 bones, he said, “You wouldn’t design it out of 26 moving parts. The foot was modified to remain rigid. A lot of BandAids were stuck on these bones.”
DeSilva notes the ostrich foot and leg are fused and only have two toes. “Why can’t I have a foot like that?” he says. DeSilva’s simplistic wish for a rigid foot hinges on the idea that with fewer moving parts there should be less friction-wear and fewer ways to inadvertently twist or break. Yet the prosthetic industry seeks ways to imitate the human foot’s excellent design to perfect their products for the handicapped.
The human foot’s 26 bones are strapped together and actuated by numerous ligaments, tendons, fascial planes, and muscles in order to achieve a dynamic design that actually changes its characteristics from moment to moment in every step. The American Academy of Orthotists and Prosthetists6 notes that the human foot works in synchrony with the hip and the entire leg as it transforms from being flexible and springy during the first part of a step to a rigid lever able to bear and transfer the body’s weight. Even when the foot becomes more rigid, its arches continue to function as shock absorbers and adapt to uneven surfaces.
The loosely arranged components of the foot and ankle complex enable it to remain stable while adjusting to weight transferred from the other foot. As the direction and magnitude of force (weight) change, the joints and bone alignment in the foot and ankle gradually shift. Through interaction with subtle joint rotations in the leg and ankle, the bones begin to lock into place. As the ankle bends (dorsiflexes), tension in the tough plantar fascia (a sheet of connective tissue on the bottom of the foot) steadily draws the bones into a locked position. The foot and ankle are thus transformed into a tightly packed, rigid structure. Yet if the foot were rigid throughout the entire step, it would be unable to make the dynamic adjustments needed for stability during the first portion of a step.7
Anatomist Bruce Latimer blames back problems on evolution’s inability to cope with human bipedality. Comparing our back to a stack of cups and saucers with a heavy dictionary resting on top, he says, “If you are really careful, you can balance it — otherwise there's a lot of porcelain on the ground. Then imagine taking this and putting in all the curves that you naturally have in the spine. I could give you all the duct tape in the world, and you still couldn't possibly balance it.8 Additional blame for stress on vertebral discs accrues to the repetitive “twisting motion”8 the swinging human gait imposes on the back, he says. Latimer considers the human back to be “cobbled together with duct tape and paper clips.”
Despite the erroneous comment in the ScienceMag.com article that the lordotic (lower back) curve developed “so as not to obstruct the birth canal,” humans are not born with all the curves the back eventually develops. Secondary curves like the one in the lower back develop primarily in response to an upright posture during normal human development. They are not a millions-of-years evolutionary adaptation. This curve helps our balance by shifting our center of gravity over the hips and stabilizing the lower back. The back’s S-shape also provides a springy protection for the spine. Latimer claims that scoliosis, spontaneous vertebral fractures and those due to trauma, and herniated discs resulted from “turning a spine originally adapted for a quadruped into one that is perpendicular to the ground.”9
The conditions that Latimer mentions are not design flaws. They are unfortunate consequences of living in a sin-cursed world. Scoliosis, for instance, is thought to be a multigene dominant defect.10 And spontaneous vertebral fractures, though they are unique to humans because we are bipedal, are predominantly the result of osteoporosis in older people and hereditary disorders in the young. They are not a consequence of our uniquely S-shaped spine. Though Latimer derides normal arm-swinging walk of humans for causing wear-and-tear on our intervertebral discs, the fact that our bodies wear out does not condemn the original design.
Anthropologist Karen Rosenberg suggests that obstetrics provides strong evidence that we evolved. She said, “If you want to look for examples of how we're not the result of intelligent design, you don't have to go far — just look at the complicated, uncomfortable way we have babies. . . . If an engineer were given the task to design the human body, he or she would never have done it the way humans have evolved. Unfortunately, we can't go back to walking on four feet. We've undergone too much evolutionary change for that — and it is not the answer to our problems.”8
Yet the human pelvis is ideally designed to balance the demands of walking upright and bringing a baby with a large head into the world. Unlike a quadruped, our pelvis must tilt to create anatomy suitable for genuine bipedalism while keeping our organs suspended in defiance of gravity. The bones of the pelvis provide attachment points for rings and slings of muscles and connective tissue that keep our “insides” from falling out as we walk. Yet those bony prominences are arranged to create, not a gauntlet, but a path to guide the newborn through a series of rotations to a safe and successful exit.
The pelvic bones and muscles tend to bend and twist the baby in the direction of least resistance even as that direction continually changes. These structures cause the head—somewhat streamlined due to its unfused bones—to turn to allow the smallest dimension to enter the curvy birth canal at each level. Even in the face of individual pelvic variations and baby sizes, there is usually a route that will work.
Like the rest of the things about our bodies that can go wrong, childbirth doesn’t always occur as it should, yet for about 6,000 years the mechanism God designed has functioned nicely, albeit with the pain incurred as a result of Eve’s rebellion as described in Genesis chapter 3.
The real villain, from an evolutionary point-of-view, is human bipedality. Evolutionists attribute an ape-like ancestor’s opportunity to evolve upward to the fact it learned to walk upright. Anatomical features that make bipedality normal and natural for us, like anything else in our bodies, can wear out. These conference speakers say they wear out because they couldn’t evolve in a better way from ape-like raw material. The argument is very convenient, but it proceeds from the flawed and scientifically unverifiable presumption that we evolved from ape-like ancestors in the first place.
Creationists and intelligent design proponents find ready examples of God’s marvelous design in the human body. Anatomical intricacies creatively combine functional features in masterpieces of biological engineering. A recent spate of articles in the popular press, like these presentations, allege humans lack evidence of design. The assumption is that if something goes wrong, then it couldn’t have been designed—leaving God out of the picture and clearing the floor for evolution’s case. Some even imply that God must be a poor Designer because our bodies can malfunction. Of course, expectations for an evolutionary product would be considerably more forgiving than those demanded of God.
Yet that is not how things really work. God did, by His own account, create a perfect world devoid of evil and suffering.11 The Bible explains that suffering and death entered the world as a consequence of man’s sin and rebellion.12 As a consequence of human rebellion, people get sick, wear out, suffer traumatic injuries, and die. The fact an anatomical design or physiological process can have things go wrong or has limitations in the present sin-cursed world does not demonstrate that it wasn’t designed perfectly in the first place.
How 60,000 homing pigeons got lost when something disturbed the sounds of silence.
It’s a modern mystery: how did 60,000 homing pigeons get lost between France and England on June 29, 1997, during the race commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the Royal Pigeon Racing Association? Unraveling the cause of this bizarre event, Jonathan Hagstrum of the U.S. Geological Survey may have finally filled in the pieces to the more ancient question of how these remarkable birds normally find their way home from distant unfamiliar places in all weather, day or night, in the first place.
Homing pigeons with their cryptic inborn GPS systems have been reliably delivering messages for at least three millennia. Pigeons announced the winners of ancient Olympiads. They delivered military messages for Genghis Khan and were the first to reach England with the outcome of the Battle of Waterloo. They’ve brought home the mail in war and peace. Many were awarded medals for distinguished service in World Wars One and Two.13 (No less amazing, of course, are the enormous migratory feats of other birds, but homing pigeons are easier to study because they travel on cue and not in response to the seasons.)
Homing pigeons likely rely on a number of sensory cues to find their way home. While vision may be valuable locally, birds with frosted contact lenses manage to arrive after long trips to within 500 meters of their destination, so sight doesn’t seem to be the key.14 And while “the magnetic sense of pigeons provides an excellent compass for orientation,” writes Hagstrum, “the geomagnetic field makes a poor map.”14
The June 1997 pigeon disaster was one of four pigeon races disrupted in 1997 and 1998 in Europe and the northeastern United States. The only common element, as Hagstrum reported back in the year 2000, was the intersection of the racecourses with the path of an accelerating Concorde supersonic transport.14 This finding supported the idea that pigeons don’t achieve their precision long-distance navigation through reliance on vision or the earth’s magnetic field, since sonic booms disrupt neither. Yet the question remained: how do sonic booms disturb the birds’ natural abilities?
Hagstrum said, “When I realized the birds in that race were on the same flight path as the Concorde, I knew it had to be infrasound.” Infrasound is extremely low frequency sound generated by deep ocean waves. These waves cause tiny vibrations of planetary surfaces and atmosphere, called microseisms and microbaroms, respectively. Because of variations in terrain, infrasonic characteristics can form a map of the landscape.
Hagstrum’s latest study, published 15 February 2013 in the Journal of Experimental Biology, sorted through data on pigeon flights in upstate New York between 1968 and 1987 and confirmed that sonic boom disruption of the “sounds of silence” was likely responsible for the 1997 loss of over 60,000 trained birds. Moreover, his study represents a major piece for the how-birds-navigate puzzle.
The New York birds were part of a Cornell University experimental program. For nearly two decades researchers recorded that birds released from one of three standard sites—Jersey Hill—generally failed to make it home. Those from the other sites could find their way. Only once in those two decades did the Jersey Hill birds make it home to Cornell: on August 13, 1969. Meteorological records demonstrated that the area on that day experienced a temperature inversion. Hagstrum believes, based on acoustic modeling, that the terrain of the path between Jersey Hill and Cornell normally creates a “sound shadow,” obscuring the home loft by directing the infrasonic signals associated with it high into the atmosphere. On the one good day, differing atmospheric conditions would have made the infrasonic signals detectable to birds from Jersey Hill.15
Hagstrum believes that infrasonic signals from a home loft normally act like a homing beacon for birds to get their bearings as they orient using other signals such as the sun or stars, the earth’s magnetic field, and visual or olfactory clues.16 Ill-timed sonic booms, earthquakes, and terrain that coincidentally misdirects the sound waves as they propagate through the air all have the potential to disrupt infrasonic signals that normally bring these birds home.
You may listen to these subtle sounds yourself in amplified recordings from the University of Hawaii Infrasound Laboratory at news.sciencemag.org. As you listen, marvel at the ways God designed for birds to find their way using an earthward-directed GPS-like system for more than 6,000 years since creation.
Oklahoma House attempts to protect students’ freedom of thought and expression.
While some states such as Louisiana and Tennessee have been successful in legislating protection for the rights of public school students and teachers to openly discuss the facts and assumptions underlying controversial scientific topics, others have been less successful. Oklahoma’s latest efforts have included Senate Bill 758 and House Bill 1674. Senate Bill 758, which was largely modeled on Tennessee’s new academic freedom law,17 died in committee a few days ago without being considered.18 House Bill 1674 has passed in committee by a narrow margin (9-8) and can now be sent to the House.
A distinctive element of HB 1674 is the specific prohibition against penalizing students for respectfully expressing their personal beliefs about the validity of controversial scientific ideas. Students are not, however, exempt from learning about evolution and other controversial topics and proving their understanding. The bill states:
Students may be evaluated based upon their understanding of course materials, but no student in any public school or institution shall be penalized in any way because the student may subscribe to a particular position on scientific theories. Nothing in this subsection shall be construed to exempt students from learning, understanding and being tested on curriculum as prescribed by state and local education standards.19
The bill’s author, state representative Gus Blackwell, says, “A student has the freedom to write a paper that points out that highly complex life may not be explained by chance mutations.” This bill if passed would guarantee that freedom while ensuring that students still learn both the facts and assumptions used to support evolution and other controversial ideas. “Students can't say because I don't believe in this, I don't want to learn it,” Blackwell says. “They have to learn it in order to look at the weaknesses.”
The bill contains other provisions similar to the successful laws in Louisiana and Tennessee. It would encourage local school authorities to help teachers develop effective ways to develop critical thinking skills in their students. The goal of the bill is:
to create an environment within public elementary and secondary schools that encourages students to explore scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues . . . [and]
to create an environment in which both the teacher and students can openly and objectively discuss the facts and observations of science, and the assumptions that underlie their interpretations.19
And the bill makes clear that this law will be about science, not religion, stating:
The Scientific Education and Academic Freedom Act shall only protect the teaching of scientific information, and shall not be construed to promote any religious or nonreligious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs or nonbeliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or nonreligion.19
The usual railing from the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), the Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education (OESC), and other opponents claims that a bill like this would “water down” or “undermine” science education. For instance, NCSE’s Eric Meikle says, “The problem with these bills is that they're so open-ended; it's a kind of code for people who are opposed to teaching climate change and evolution. . . . An extremely high percentage of scientists will tell you that evolution doesn't have scientific weaknesses. If every teacher, parent, and school board can decide what to teach on their own, you're going to have chaos. You can't deluge kids with every theory that's ever been considered since the beginning of time.”
Despite Meikle’s statement, of course, nothing in the bill suggests students should be taught creation in public school, but that they should be allowed to distinguish between the facts and the assumptions that underlie the positions held by that “high percentage.” No student is to be allowed to opt out of learning about evolution. But a student, having learned how to evaluate conventional but controversial scientific positions, should be allowed to respectfully say or write that he or she remains unconvinced. The NCSE equates learning and understanding with belief. In other words, the NCSE maintains that if anyone does not believe as that “high percentage” of scientists does, he or she obviously just doesn’t understand.
On the contrary, academic freedom to discuss scientific ideas openly has historically been the way real scientific progress has been made. The medieval Roman Catholic church, many point out, impeded scientific progress by muzzling Galileo. Now the NCSE wishes to muzzle budding scientists before they are out of the proverbial cradle. Being afraid to let students learn how to discern, the National Center for Science Education is—ironically—standing in the way of genuine science education.
“Creator of Species: How what lives on us and in us drives evolution” (New Scientist cover, 14 January 2013)
The cover art for the January 12 issue of New Scientist describes a rather unpopular view of evolution that has been periodically proposed by some evolutionary scientists. According to Richard Jefferson, who began promoting it in the 1980s, it can best be described as the “Bugs R Us” theory. This hologenomic theory of evolution proposes that natural selection acts not on individual organisms but on “holobiontic” units consisting of individuals and all their associated microorganisms.
As scientists such as Vanderbilt University’s Seth Bordenstein explained in his August 2012 article, “Speciation by Symbiosis,”20 the theory is an effort to explain the dynamics of speciation by viewing organisms and the microbes in their immediate environment as if they were one evolving organism. Together, they are known as a holobiont—“a collective entity formed by symbionts”—and their combined genomes are therefore termed a hologenome.
This proposed mechanism for speciation does not suggest that microbes contribute genetic information to the actual genomes of the organisms with which they coexist. Instead, proponents suggest considering all the organisms, including microbes, that coexist together to be the “performance unit” on which natural selection acts.
For evidence, proponents point to Eugene Rosenberg’s discovery that Vibrio infected coral—which normally receive a supply of food from photosynthetic algae that live symbiotically on them—managed to recover from the bacterial infection that devastated their algae symbionts. Rosenberg believes the coral recovered without any detectable change in the coral or the bacteria because other microorganisms in the biome killed off the Vibrio bacteria.
Probably the most obvious example to support the hologenomic view would be the symbiotic role of gut flora—at least if it could be shown to lead to speciation. A 2011 study showed that gut flora were essential to the proper brain development of mice.21
Could symbiosis with microbes lead to speciation? Bordenstein showed that termites treated with an antibiotic to kill the microbes living in their digestive tracts reproduced poorly. Presumably, the treated termites became malnourished without the gut bacteria to assist in digestion, decreasing their reproductive fitness.
One of the greatest problems with hologenomic theory is that some mechanism by which an organism’s microbiome can be inherited must be identified. Bordenstein has experimented with bacteria inherited as parasites living in the cytoplasm of wasp cells. He believes variations in these cytoplasmic travelers could lead to speciation, yet hologenomic theory still remains controversial.22
An experiment actually demonstrating a clear change in mating habits related to microbial association was published in 2010.23 Some fruit fly larvae were raised on molasses and some on starch. Flies so raised apparently developed different populations of gut microbes. Within one generation, the molasses flies and the starch flies spurned one another as mates. They continued to do so for 37 generations. Such behavior is a form of reproductive isolation, which is an important element in the formation of new species. Yet an antibiotic treatment killing the microbes eliminated the mating preference of the populations and therefore the basis for eventual speciation. Scientists do not have a clear and uniform definition of “species,” but most definitions involve the ability to mate. Since antibiotics removed the barrier to mating, scientists infer that the microbial part of the fruit flies’ hologenomes was responsible for the reproductive isolation that, in theory, would have eventually led to new species of fruit flies.
Jefferson points out that “fast-evolving microbes” could enable large organisms that “can only evolve slowly” to adapt rapidly and produce new species without any actual genomic changes in the larger organism. Other evolutionary biologists disagree. Scott Gilbert, for instance, commented, “I don’t think we have any evidence yet that there has been speciation caused by microbes. . . . I’m not willing to go that far yet.” Nevertheless, he agrees that “symbionts are capable of giving us selectable variation.” University of Chicago’s Jerry Coyne is also skeptical that speciation by symbiosis is a significant mechanism, noting, “I know of very, very few cases in which endosymbionts cause speciation, and a ton of cases in which changes in [host] genes do, and in which those genes have been mapped.”
Whether the response of the “hologenome” to the pressures of natural selection is a significant mechanism of speciation remains to be proven. Speciation, which is a form of variation within created kinds, certainly can occur quite rapidly. This is not a huge surprise, of course, as organisms clearly are designed to vary within their kinds. It may well be that such microbial influences, perhaps even through epigenetic mechanisms, contributed to the great biodiversity produced in a short time from animals preserved on Noah’s Ark. But speciation by this or any other mechanisms is not evidence for the evolution of one kind of organism into new and more complex kinds of organisms.
God originally created a perfect world in which microbes without a doubt fulfilled their proper roles in their proper niches, helping the environment and the other living things God created. Only after sin’s curse entered our world did the ordinary processes by which microbes vary (without evolving into new kinds of organisms) lead some to become harmful. Studies like those cited here call our attention to just a few of the important roles microbes—most of which are still harmless—fulfill in the world God created.
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