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Wednesday, February 05, 2003

micro macro muck row

In my travels around cyberspace I have read the repeated assertion on numerous egroups and websites that the distinction between microevolution and macroevolution is a "creationist construct"; that the terms "microevolution" and "macroevolution" are "a creationist characterisation", "a creationist strawman" or "a creationist invention", or that these two designations are "creationist terms". The corollary of this charge is that scientists do not use or recognise these terms.

I will not be disputing that the distinction between micro and macroevolution may be seized upon by creationists to bolster their own position and to attack evolutionary theories. Nor will I dispute that the distinction between micro and macroevolution may be downplayed by Neo-Darwinian evolutionists as being nothing more than arbitrary designations or measures of degree - thus claiming that macroevolution is merely (or essentially) microevolution writ large. My purpose is to examine the very specific assertion made in many places on the Internet that this distinction is in effect nothing more than a creationist construct or invention and not used by "real" scientists.

Here are those specific charges as given by an anti-creationist with whom I was dialoguing:

"But here you are taking a creationists characterisation of the
argument for evolution and declaring a triumph. But scientists do
not distinguish between 'micro-evolution' and 'macro-evolution', so
your triumph is quite hollow."

"Micro-evolution is creationist's term not one that scientists
generally recognise, so all of this ammunition is shooting at

" ...micro-evolution is a creationists' construct."

"Scientists do not usually use the term micro-evolution: that is a
term beloved of creationists."

"I see no distinction between micro and macro-evolution (creationists' terms) and no-one is able to explain how variation due to mutation and selection is limited."

[It is not the purpose of this post to examine the logic of the assertion here that because "no-one is able to explain how variation due to mutation and selection is limited" this is somehow supportive of the hypothesis that variation due to mutation and selection is unlimited. It is surely an invalid argument to propose that if something cannot be disproved it must by default be true. If one has not yet shown in the first instance that all variation is due to mutation and selection, it begs the question to demand evidence that it could not happen.]

Here is the same charge presented as presented on various sites by other Darwinians:

"The creationist invention of the terms "macroevolution" and "microevolution" is a good example of how they try to mutilate the terms of science to their own advantage. Biologists do not differentiate between micro-evolution and macro-evolution, any more than mathematicians differentiate between micro-addition and macro-addition.

"For example, he uses the meaningless Creationist strawman term "macroevolution" at one point, which leads me to think that he must either be a creationist or, at the very least, one who has read a lot of Creationist literature."

"Macroevolution" is not distinct at all from "microevolution." They are both the same concept. Besides, the terms are an invention of creationists. Evolutionary biologists have no need for such terms because there are no clear definitions of them... "Macroevolution" is simply the iteration of many instances of "microevolution.

"IMHO opinion micro-evolution (sounds like a creationist invention, such an un-word) does point towards evolution taking place."

Lately, I have noticed a few evolutionists using the term "macro evolution." I personally don't believe in macro evolution, because how many micro changes equal a macro change. I believe it is all micro evolution and to use the term macro just gives people like Kent Hovind more things to point at saying "that's impossible." I don't know if he is the one who has coined the term macro evolution, but he was the first one I noticed using it. I assume a Creationist came up with it in order to split the issue and create a red herring out of macro evolution.

"I've been reading about evolution for almost 45 years and I never heard of microevolution v. macroevolution until I began debating with creationists and they mentioned it. Once I got a sense of what they were talking about (that took about 15 minutes) I took the position that these are only semantical differences and not scientific ones, and that macro is only a lot of micro over a longer period of time."

[This shows, rather embarrassingly for him, just how little this guy has been reading!?]

So there are two very simple questions set before us:

1) Is the distinction between microevolution and macroevolution a creationist construct/invention/strawman? [i.e. Did someone named Kent Hovind or some other creationist come up with them?]

2) Is this distinction one that has been made by evolutionary scientists and that appears in various biological texts and writings?
[i.e.Who actually coined the terms and who has used them? Has their use only occurred just "lately"?]

So what are the facts about the origin and use of these terms? For a start the most influential paleontologist of the 20th century; "the only major participant in the Modern Synthesis to come from that field" was using them as early as 1944:

"Macro-evolution involves the rise and divergence of discontinuous groups, and it is still debatable whether it differs in kind or only in degree from micro-evolution. If the two proved to be basically different, the innumerable studies of micro-evolution would become relatively unimportant and would have minor value in the study of evolution as a whole."
G. G. Simpson. Tempo and Mode in Evolution, (1944), p97

One is forced to ask why would it have been debatable whether macroevolution was different in kind or only in degree from microevolution if the concepts were only a creationist construct or invention?

Richard Goldschmidt was using the terms even earlier; 1940 to be precise:
"The facts of microevolution do not suffice for an understanding of macroevolution."
Richard B. Goldschmidt. (1940) "The Material Basis of Evolution", New Haven Connecticut: Yale University Press, p. 8

Why was Goldschmidt resorting to creationist inventions to describe the problem he perceived?

The geneticist Theodore Dobzhansky was writing about a "sign of equality" that exists between "the mechanisms of macro- and micro-evolution" in 1937, earlier still. ("Genetics and the Origin of Species", 1937 p. 12.)

Did he pick up those terms from creationists?

But neither Simpson or Goldschmidt or Dobzhansky originated the terms. A good place to investigate further is that bastion of neo-Darwinian orthodoxy on the Net, Talkorigins - perhaps the most cited and definitive collection of anti-creationist and pro-Darwinian rhetoric on the WWW. By referring to the site's definitive article on macroevolution by John Wilkins the following facts are obtained:

1) The terms macroevolution and microevolution were first coined in 1927 by the Russian entomologist Iurii Filipchenko, an evolutionist. [i.e. not a creationist].

2) The Darwinian evolutionist Theodosius Dobzhansky [not a creationist] in his "Genetics and the Origin of Species" (1937) introduced the terms into the English-speaking biological community.

3) Neo-Darwinians who used the term included Dobzhansky, Ernst Mayr, Bernhardt Rensch, Richard Goldschmidt, and Otto Schindewolf. [None were creationists]

4) The term fell into "limited disfavour" when it was taken over by such writers as the geneticist Richard Goldschmidt (1940) and the paleontologist Otto Schindewolf to describe their orthogenetic theories. [Neither were creationists]

5) The term was revived by a number of authors such as Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge, the authors of punctuated equilibrium theory [Neither were creationists] who posited that something other than within-species processes are causing macroevolution.

Please note that these details and the document from which they are drawn is from the talkorigins site and not from a site with any creationist sympathies. Here is the full article on Macroevolution by John Wilkins.

Wilkins in his article proceeds to bend over backwards to show that there is "no substantive difference" between micro and macroevolution while recognising that some scientists do in fact perceive such a distinction [!? - see also below], but that is not the matter in contention in the present context. This article clearly shows that the concepts of micro and macro evolution are NOT creationist inventions or constructs and that respected scientists both originated and have used them. That being so, is it ignorance or disingenuousness on the part of so many to repeatedly make such false and erroneous claims?

To further highlight that these terms are not a "creationist construct" or a "creationist invention" let me quote from some other mainstream sources:

"A long-standing issue in evolutionary biology is whether the processes observable in extant populations and species (microevolution) are sufficient to account for the larger scale changes evident over longer periods of life's history (macroevolution). Outsiders to this rich literature may be surprised that there is no consensus on this issue, and that strong viewpoints are held at both ends of the spectrum, with many undecided. "Sean B. Carroll, "The Big Picture" Nature (Volume 409. February 8, 2001),p.668.

How can "a long-standing issue in evolutionary biology" be a creationist construct or invention?

"The major question of paleobiology: Is macroevolution decoupled from microevolution? Two opposite views:

1. All macroevolutionary patterns can be explained by microevolutionary processes (the reductionstic neodarwinian view of R. Dawkins, A Hoffman,and many other neodarwinists).

2. Macroevolutionary patterns cannot be explained as a cumulative sum of microevolutionary processes. Therefore, there are unique macroevolutionary rules and processes (this view, prevailing among paleontologists, has been advocated by S. J. Gould, Steven Stanley, Niles Eldredge, and many others).”

Michal Kowalewski, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

How is it that "the major question in paleobiology" is a creationist construct or invention?

"Is macroevolution conceptually different than microevolution? The main driving forces are the same as at the species level: population growth, genetic variation, and behavioral plasticity. At both time scales, external factors of the biological and physical environment control the rate, scope, and direction of change....One of the outstanding problems in large-scale evolution has been the origin of major taxa, such as the tetrapods, birds, and whales, that had appeared to arise suddenly, without any obvious ancestors, over a comparatively short period of time."
R.L. Carroll, Pattern and Processes of Vertebrate Evolution. New York: Cambridge U Press; 1997. p391

How can "one of the outstanding problems in large-scale evolution" be a creationist construct or invention?

"Macroevolution is decoupled from microevolution."
Steven M. Stanley, Macroevolution: Pattern and Process (San Francisco: W. H. Freeman and Co., 1979), p. 187.

"Macroevolution is not decoupled from microevolution."
Maurer, Brown & Rusler (1992) Evolution 46:939-953

If there is no distinction between microevolution and macroevolution - and if they are just creationist terms, inventions or constructs - why has there been ongoing debate in the scientific literature about whether or not macroevolution is decoupled from microevolution?

"Actually, "macroevolution" is a perfectly good scientific term ... There is a loose usage of the term by some scientists, though - they often mean patterns of macroevolution - trends in the fossil record like the increase in brain size in hominids, or the relative extinction rates of different but related antelope, and so forth. This looseness has caused all kinds of confusion, because some want to say that [the patterns of] macroevolution are not caused by the processes of microevolution - that is, there are some other processes that are responsible for evolutionary trends and the like than what happens within species. In short, some believe that microevolution does not add up to macroevolution. This is a contentious and to my mind unresolved issue in the science.

Creationists often quote this sort of debate out of context in order to gain comfort at the confusion in the ranks of their enemies, but actually, properly understood, it gives no such thing. All agree that evolution occurs, and that microevolutionary processes are the cause of certain kinds of change. The remaining issue is whether some evolutionary patterns are due to other processes as well."
John Wilkins Author of: Macroevolution FAQ on Talkorigins

How can macroevolution be both "a perfectly good scientific term" and a "creationist invention"?

Why and how is the relationship between microevolution and macroevolution a "contentious" and unresolved issue in science if it is just a creationist canard and therefore a non-issue at the same time?

Why do some scientists claim that macroevolution is not caused by the processes of microevolution if such a notion is just a creationist construct? [Claiming creationists "quote this sort of debate out of context" is not the same as claiming creationists invented the terms of debate.]

"The central question of the Chicago conference was whether the mechanisms underlying microevolution can be extrapolated to explain the phenomena of macroevolution. At the risk of doing violence to the positions of some of the people at the meeting, the answer can be given as a clear, No.

... Evolution, according to the Modern Synthesis, moves at a stately pace, with small changes accumulating over periods of many millions of years yielding a long heritage of steadily advancing lineages as revealed in the fossil record. However, the problem is that according to most paleontologists the principle feature of individual species within the fossil record is stasis, not change...

In a generous admission Francisco Ayala, a major figure in propounding the Modern Synthesis in the United States, said "We would not have predicted stasis from population genetics, but I am now convinced from what the paleontologists say that small changes do not accumulate."
R. Lewin, "Evolutionary Theory Under Fire" Science, vol. 210, 21 November, 1980 p. 883

20 years ago may be a long time in evolutionary theory if not in evolution itself but why did the attendees of Chicago conference deny the mechanisms underlying microevolution can be extrapolated to explain the phenomena of macroevolution if the concepts were only creationist terms not "ones that scientists generally recognise"?

Why, if scientists "do not distinguish between 'micro-evolution' and 'macro-evolution'", did they distinguish between them at this conference?

"Arguments over macroevolution versus microevolution have waxed and waned through most of the twentieth century. Initially, paleontologists and other evolutionary biologists advanced a variety of non-Darwinian evolutionary processes as explanations for patterns found in the fossil record, emphasizing macroevolution as a source of morphologic novelty. Later, paleontologists, from Simpson to Gould, Stanley, and others, accepted the primacy of natural selection but argued that rapid speciation produced a discontinuity between micro- and macroevolution... Recent developments in comparative developmental biology suggest a need to reconsider the possibility that some macroevolutionary discontinuities may be associated with the origination of evolutionary innovation. The attractiveness of macroevolution reflects the exhaustive documentation of large-scale patterns which reveal a richness to evolution unexplained by microevolution. If the goal of evolutionary biology is to understand the history of life, rather than simply document experimental analysis of evolution, studies from paleontology, phylogenetics, developmental biology, and other fields demand the deeper view provided by macroevolution.
D.H. Erwin (2000). Macroevolution is more than repeated rounds of microevolution. Evolution & Development 2:78-84.

Why have arguments over macroevolution versus microevolution waxed and waned through most of the twentieth century if the issue is only one of creationist terms, constructs or inventions?

"The Modern Synthesis is a remarkable achievement. However, starting in the 1970s, many biologists began questioning its adequacy in explaining evolution. Genetics might be adequate for explaining microevolution, but microevolutionary changes in gene frequency were not seen as able to turn a reptile into a mammal or to convert a fish into an amphibian. Microevolution looks at adaptations that concern only the survival of the fittest, not the arrival of the fittest. As Goodwin (1995) points out, "the origin of species -- Darwin's problem -- remains unsolved."
Scott Gilbert, John Opitz, and Rudolf Raff (1996) "Resynthesizing Evolutionary and Developmental Biology," Developmental Biology 173, Article No. 0032, 1996, p. 361

Why would "many biologists" begin questioning the adequacy of Neo-Darwinism's claim that microevolutionary change was able to convert a reptile into a mammal or a fish into an amphibian if these were merely creationist constructs?

Why would they assert that microevolution concerns only the "survival of the fittest, not the arrival of the fittest" if the term itself is merely a creation construct or invention?

To illustrate the point that there is not unanimity among evolutionary scientists about whether macroevolution can be simply extrapolated from microevolution i.e. whether they are merely the same phenomenon on different scales, some further quotes from non-creationists are presented here:

"New concepts and information from molecular, developmental biology, systematics, geology and the fossil record of all groups of organisms, need to be integrated into an expanded evolutionary synthesis. These fields of study show that large-scale evolutionary phenomena cannot be understood solely on the basis of extrapolation from processes observed at the level of modern populations and species. Patterns and rates of evolution are much more varied than had been conceived by Darwin or the evolutionary synthesis, and physical factors of the earth's history have had a significant, but extremely varied, impact on the evolution of life."
Robert L.Carroll, "Towards a new evolutionary synthesis," Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 2000, Vol. 15, pp.27-32, p.27

"The known fossil record fails to document a single example of
phyletic (gradual) evolution accomplishing a major morphologic
transition and hence offers no evidence that the gradualistic model
can be valid."

S.M. Stanley, "Macroevolution", W. H. Freeman and Co: San Francisco, 1979, p39

"The strict version, with its emphasis on copious, minute, random
variation molded with excruciating but persistent slowness by natural
selection, also implied that all events of large-scale evolution
(macroevolution) were the gradual, accumulated product of innumerable
steps, each a minute adaptation to changing conditions within a local
population. This "extrapolationist" theory denied any independence
to macroevolution and interpreted all large-scale evolutionary events
(origin of basic designs, long-term trends, patterns of extinction
and faunal turnover) as slowly accumulated microevolution (the study
of small-scale changes within species)."

Stephen Jay Gould. "Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes", Penguin: London, 1984, p13

"Macroevolution is decoupled from microevolution, and we must
envision the process governing its course as being analogous to
natural selection but operating at a higher level of organization.
[We would say that it is natural selection, working at a level higher
than the local population.] In this higher-level process species
become analogous to individuals, and speciation replaces
reproduction. The random aspects of speciation take the place of
mutation. Whereas, natural selection operates upon individuals
within populations, a process that can be termed species selection
operates upon species within higher taxa, determining statistical

S.J. Gould & N. Eldredge, "Punctuated equilibria: the tempo and mode of evolution reconsidered", Paleobiology, 1977, vol. 3, p140)

"The appearance of many novel morphologies, frequently expressed taxanomically as new phyla, classes, or orders, occurs with such rapidity in evolutionary time that microevolutionary substitutions involving structural genes seem and implausible mechanism."
"Hopeful monsters," transposons, and Metazoan radiation, Douglas H. Erwin and James W. Valentine in Proc Natl Acad. Sci. USA, Vol 81, pp 5482-5483, September 1984

"... the empirical distribution of evolutionary novelties through time suggests that the origin of evolutionary innovation may be distinct from much of traditional microevolution... One of the most striking macroevolutionary patterns is the nonrandom origination of evolutionary novelties in time. ... Microevolution provides no satisfactory explanation for the extraordinary burst of novelty during the late Neoproterozic-Cambrian radiation, nor the rapid production of novel plant architectures associated with the origin of land plants during the Devonian, followed by the origination of most major insect groups. Each burst was followed by relative quiescence, as the pace of morphological innovation fell."
D.H. Erwin. Macroevolution is more than repeated rounds of microevolution. Evolution & Development 2000, 2:78-84.

"The fact that phyla, classes, orders, and families had evolved in the remote past and never evolved again suggests that higher taxa, once evolved as a framework of variation, have stayed unchanged from the time of their emergence to today. The facts and logic indicate that the morphological evolution of multicellular animals has not been a spreading process but a process of diminishing dynamics where the magnitude of evolutionary effects on morphology decreased with time. Evolution is not a process of micro variations accumulating to macro effects but of macro effects preceding micro variations... its [Neodarwinism] applicability does not extend to evolution above the species level".
Kazuo Kawano, "How Far Can the Neodarwinism Be Extended? A Consideration from the History of Higher Taxa in Coleoptera," Biology Forum 91 (1998):50-52.

"The origin of no innovation of large evolutionary significance is known."
Robert Wesson (1991) Beyond Natural Selection MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, p.45

"Large evolutionary innovations are not well understood. None has ever been observed, and we have no idea whether any may be in progress. There is no good fossil record of any."
R. Wesson (1991) Beyond Natural Selection p. 206

But of course, it would be unfair to deny that there is an opposing
argument. Darwin's theory as presented in "On the Origin of Species" is
quite persuasive. Starting at the lowest taxonomic level - and taking note of varieties within a single species - he argued that over the course of several generations, the members of a species may diverge to the point where they are no longer able to interbreed, thus producing a new species. He used the example of animal breeding - artificial selection - to develop this hypothesis. Darwin then extended the time scale of this model to include thousands, then millions of generations. By the same process of small-scale divergence, he argued, eventually new genera, families, and orders would arise, to the highest ranks of the taxonomic hierarchy. While he himself was somewhat unsure about the mechanism his theory was bolstered by the synthesis of Darwinism with genetics in the mid-twentieth century. To use modern biological terms, macroevolution is simply microevolution extended over much longer time scales. Thus, the steady and gradual step by step extrapolation of ordinary variation and selection is considered able to explain the full range of biological forms.

There are many, many defenders of the neo-Darwinian mechanism, especially in fields such as population genetics, zoology, comparative anatomy and molecular biology - and of course on the Internet. Following is a selection of quotes from some of these. I believe it is plain however that, given that there is diversity of opinion and genuine controversy within the scientific community, one's integrity and honesty should demand that attempts to paint this issue as simply a case of creationist invention should cease - being a false and deceitful tactic.

On to the quotes:

"The very same processes . . . that cause evolution within populations (microevolution) also cause populations to differentiate and form different kinds of organisms. The creation of new species is, along with evolutionary changes within species, the mechanism that generates major evolutionary patterns-such as the diversification of vertebrates into fishes, amphibian, reptiles, birds, mammals, and so on."Paul R. Ehrlich, Human Natures Washington, D.C. Shearwater Books, 2000 p.46.

"The distinction between microevolution and macroevolution is becoming a favorite one for creationists. Actually, it's no big deal. Macroevolution is nothing more than microevolution stretched out over a much greater time span."
Richard Dawkins

"macroevolution is microevolution summed over time"
Cuffey, 1984.

"...all macro- and megaevolution is an outcome of the interaction between microevolutionary processes operating within myriads of individual populations and species, on the one hand, and the global environment evolving on various continents and in various seas and oceans over millions of years, on the other."
Hoffman 1989.

Their argument that there is no evidence for "macroevolution" is ridiculous because "macroevolution" is simply the result of adding a lot of "microevolution" together, and "microevolution" is, by their own admission, completely supported by various forms of evidence."

"microevolution: 'minor evolutionary events usually viewed over a short
period of time, consisting of changes in gene frequencies, chromosome
structure or number within a population over a few generations.'
macroevolution: 'major evolutionary events or trends usually viewed through the perspective of geological time'

So, mostly here we have a discussion that hinges on words and their meaning. When does a minor event become a major event? When does a short period of time become a long ('geological') period of time?... the distinction between micro- and macroevolution is also arbitrary and is made by evolutionary biologists simply for convenience in making it easier to discuss whether they are referring to relatively short-term studies (i.e. direct studies of natural selection in operation) or studies with a longer-term perspective that consider natural selection and other evolutionary mechanisms accumulating over extremely long time periods."
Douglas Theobald, 29 Evidences for Macroevolution: Scientific Evidences for the Theory of Common Descent with Gradual Modification

"the biological present is the key to the evolutionary past."

My thesis has been that the micro/macro distinction is one that many evolutionists recognize and use so it is not just some creationist invention or strawman. I believe I have presented enough supporting evidence by way of quotes to show that the concepts of microevolution and macroevolution are NOT mere creationist canards but real concerns in science. (Let me add that because of space considerations I have deleted much evidence drawn from biological texts, dictionaries and glossaries as well as introductory biology course outlines from a number of recognised universities - a search using Google or some other engine will confirm my statement for the skeptical reader wishing to check the validity of this.)

Statements and accusations that these terms are creationist constructs are therefore revealed to be without foundation. Frequently the accusations are couched in inflammatory and derogatory terms such as "Creationist lies!" or "Creationist liars!" but it is not my intention in this post to get down into the gutter where far too many Darwinian polemicist feel most at home. Regarding the terms micro and macro evolution, those who represent them as "meaningless creationist strawmen" or "creationist inventions", "constructs" or "un-words" should get their head out of the gutter and into a book - the very charge that is usually thrown at creationists. Those who use them are either ignorant or ill-informed or deliberately misrepresenting the true situation. I will refrain from using the "L" word...

5:33:00 pm