Plant Evolution to Avoid Humans?

A recent study came out that claimed that some plants have evolved explicitly to avoid harvesting by humans. The study claimed that a species of plant, Fritillaria delavayi, a plant whose bulb is used regularly in Chinese herbal medicine, has evolved to make it harder for humans to find it and harvest it. The study, published in the journal Current Biology, is very interesting, but equivocates on the word “evolution”, like most so called evidences for evolution do. Let’s look at the study and see what they found.

The plant in question seems to be basically immune to herbivores. The authors of the study report finding very few plants with any signs of a plant eater munching on it, and claim no studies have included it in an animals diet. This conditions is ideal for a plant. Nothing wants to eat it, so it should be able to explode in population. That, however, is where humans come in. Chinese herbal medicine uses a immense range of substances, including the bulbs from this plant. Since the plant is small, the bulb is also fairly small. The researchers estimated it would take 3500 of them to make a single kilogram. That means that a lot of them must be gathered for tradditional medicine every year. As the researchers point out, that places a strong pressure on the populations.

There is existing variation within the plant species. Some of the plants are green, while others are a dark brown or black in color. The environment they live in consists of very dark rock and gravel, so the darker plants are much more difficult to see against the background. This means that, when people go out to gather these plants for medicinal use, the darker ones are harder to find and therefore are less often harvested. The researchers tested this using an online, “spot the plant” picture quiz. I took the quiz and can attest, it is very difficult to see the dark plants against the dark background. The green plants, by contrast, were very easy to find.

The researchers postulated that humans were therefore influencing the evolution of this plant. Here is where the equivocation comes in. What is occurring here is not evolution. Instead, the plants are being subjected to very strong artificial selection conducted by humans. Because humans are looking to pick as many plants as possible in as short a time as possible, they will tend to select the ones that are the easiest to see: the green ones. Because of this, less green plants will be available in the population. This reduced the frequency of the genes for green leaves. That means that, as the plants reproduce, there is a much smaller chance of the genes for green leaves making it into the next generation. Over time, this will reduce the number of green plants in a population. The researchers call this evolution.

However, what was described above is no more evolution than any other selection experiment. Changes in gene frequencies in a population over time may be termed “evolution” if the evolutionists wish to use it as such, but the term must be used consistently. If evolution means changes in gene frequencies over time, it may not then be used to explain the origin of whole new types of organisms, with whole new genes and structures. If it means the origin of new kinds of organisms over time, then it does not simply mean shifting gene frequencies over time. The two are not equivalent, no matter how much hot air, ink, and electrons the evolutionists expend trying to make them so. The effects of natural (or artificial in this case) selection in a population are not equivalent to evolution.

While this study was very interesting, and affirmed that selection, if the pressure is strong enough, can change what a population looks like, it is not evidence for evolution. The dark plants already existed in the populations. They simply became more common due to artificial selection against their green counterparts. Nothing new was produced. The plants remained the same species even. The only things that happened here was genetic diversity was reduced. Creationists have no problem with any of the empirical science involved here. However, we do have issues with attempting to claim that evidence of artificial selection is evidence of molecules to man evolution.

Image from Nature article here: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-37358-0

Source paper: https://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(20)31655-9

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