When creationists claim that evolution cannot create “new information” or that “macro-evolution” has not been observed, they rarely mean those terms in the way scientists use them, or even understand exactly what they themselves mean by them. In general, the overall meaning they are trying to convey is really more along the lines of “evolution can’t generate new and useful traits and functions.”
Indeed, oftentimes even the now-standard admission of micro-evolution is a ruse: instead of new genetic traits developing and getting refined within a species population, creationists really only accept that natural selection can weed out or play favorites amongst already existing traits, never generating anything truly new.
Top-notch science journalist Carl Zimmer has a new book, Microcosm, out, and it contains one of the clearest and best refutations of this creationist canard I’ve seen in a while. As described on Zimmer’s blog, the Loom, the basic setup was a sort of brute force approach: literally watching something evolve over a looong period of time, both in terms of its behavior, morphology, and its actual underlying genes.
A dozen flasks full of E. coli are sloshing around on a gently rocking table. The bacteria in those flasks has been evolving since 1988–for over 44,000 generations.
Lenski started off with a single microbe. It divided a few times into identical clones, from which Lenski started 12 colonies. He kept each of these 12 lines in its own flask. Each day he and his colleagues provided the bacteria with a little glucose, which was gobbled up by the afternoon. The next morning, the scientists took a small sample from each flask and put it in a new one with fresh glucose. And on and on and on, for 20 years and running.
He froze some of the original bacteria in each line, and then froze bacteria every 500 generations. Whenever he was so inclined, he could go back into this fossil record and thaw out some bacteria, bringing them back to life.
The point of all this was to allow the scientists to track evolutionary change directly, era to era, step by step, mutation by mutation. And one of the things they recorded in this fashion was an E. coli bacteria evolving in order to eat an entirely new food source: a radical change in its lifestyle, genes, and cellular machinery that scientists managed to record happening in real time.
As Zimmer notes, defining species in bacteria is an even murkier problem than defining it in sexual species, and though this new strain no longer fits the standard definition of E. coli, its not clear whether it’s important or even relevant to call this a speciation event.
But the point is simply that it’s a great illustration of evolution at work, undeniably generating new “stuff”, caught happening pretty much frame by frame.