The Origins of Respiration

A few years ago I saw this video piece produced by Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron’s ministry, Way of the Master.  In it, they interview the regular man on the street, asking them questions about biological evolution and marveling at the language being used:  “It’s possible”, “I think”, “probably”, and so forth.  Clearly such language when used in the world of science demonstrates that the scientific community has no idea what they’re talking about and that ideas like evolution and big bang cosmology are all simply taken on faith.

Why he didn’t just visit a university like Stanford or MIT to get a thorough scientific answer to these questions is pretty obvious – he doesn’t want to know.  He’s happy being just ignorant enough to ask the same uneducated questions over and over again to people with no background in science to somehow “prove” that evolution doesn’t have a basis in fact or reason.  Here’s s sample of the video:

The reason I bring it up is to provide the setting for the following article.  See, one of the questions Comfort posed to his interviewees was about how the first creatures to reach land were able to breathe.  Did they have lungs?  Gills?  He even asked at one point, “Did they just keep coming out of the water until lungs developed?”

Well, Ray can thank his lucky stars that the scientific community has his back on this one, and that he can finally stop asking these seemingly unanswerable questions.  And it all starts with a carbon dioxide sensitive coughing mechanism in a lamprey …

Scientists identify likely origins of vertebrate air breathing

University of Alaska Fairbanks scientists have identified what they think is the ancestral trait that allowed for the evolution of air breathing in vertebrates. [...]

“To breathe air with a lung you need more than a lung, you need neural circuitry that is sensitive to carbon dioxide,” said Michael Harris, a UAF neuroscientist and lead researcher on a project investigating the mechanisms that generate and control breathing. [...]  Harris and colleagues think that air breathing likely evolved in an ancestral vertebrate that did not have a lung, but did have a rhythm generator. [...]

Lampreys are ancient fish that have characteristics similar to the first vertebrates. They do not have lungs and do not breathe air. As larvae, they live in tubes dug into soft mud and breathe and feed by pumping water through their bodies. When mud or debris clogs a lamprey’s tube, they use a cough-like behavior to expel water and clear the tube.  A rhythm generator in their brain controls that behavior.

“We thought the lamprey ‘cough’ closely resembled air breathing in amphibians,” said Harris. “When we removed the brains from lampreys and measured nerve activity that would normally be associated with breathing, we found patterns that resemble breathing and found that the rhythm generator was sensitive to carbon dioxide.”

Air breathing evolved in fish and allowed the movement of vertebrates to land and the evolution of reptiles, birds and mammals. Without a carbon-dioxide-sensitive rhythm generator, the structure that would become the lung might not have worked as a lung.

“The evolution of lung breathing may be a repurposing of carbon dioxide sensitive cough that already existed in lungless vertebrates, like the lamprey,” said Harris.

Oh good lord, I don’t even … what?

The poster may be a little over people’s heads, but the executive summary is in the article I linked to above.  I truncated it a little just for brevity.  The bottom line is that there are some people in this country who remain content in – and profit greatly from – their staggering scientific illiteracy.  It’s not enough that they don’t know the basics of evolutionary theory or big bang cosmology; they seem to learn just enough to form easily answered questions, and then stop before they have a chance to learn what the answers are.  That way, then can convince their audience that those in the scientific community are simply making things up and the entire body of knowledge takes as much faith to accept as the claims of religion does.

Thankfully, science moves on, and chases down the answers to the questions surrounding the origins of life and the evolution of physiological features and processes that we observe today.  With every day that goes by, people like Cameron and Comfort appear even more foolish and backwards in the face of an ever increasing body of knowledge that has demonstrated decades ago that they – and people like them – are doing nothing more than lying to keep their god relevant in this day and age.

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2 Responses to The Origins of Respiration

  1. Ernie says:

    Wasn’t impressed. Using terms like propose, think and “are likely”, in “proving” the evolution of breathing does not prove anything. Theoretically speaking, if modern day science experiments prove that lamprey are carbon dioxide sensitive, it is proof only that they are carbon dioxide sensitive. Lets say that evolution allowed them to be able to do that today, were lamprey one of the original species in which everything evolved from? Mixing science with speculation is just no less foolish as what the writer is accusing Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort of being.

    • That’s right; using terms like “think” and “likely” don’t go far to prove anything … but no one in that article was claiming that anything was proven. This is, at best, the first step in being able to identify the genetic origins of respiration. In the end, after gathering additional data, it may end up their initial hypothesis was wrong and they have to start over with something new. That’s how science works. Those terms you mention are pretty common in the language of science because members of the community are well aware of this process, and are very careful about using strong language that projects more certainty than they’re willing to claim given the available evidence.

      With the example of the lamprey, it’s not just the fact that they are carbon dioxide sensitive; it’s that their neural response to this sensitivity in their brains closely resembles that which controls the act of breathing in more complex organisms. By examining these similarities – as observed in the rhythm generator in the brain of a lamprey – we can better understand about how the mechanism developed in similarly simple life forms from which we are directly descended.

      As for speculation, I’ll reiterate that the findings from the team at the University of Alaska suggest that the found a likely origin of respiration. Can we speculate that this is going to be supported by additional data? Maybe. It might be a dead end. It’s not that I believe that this scientific mystery has been solved … in fact, we’ve just started. These are perfectly reasonable conclusions give the data we have.

      My dig on Ray and Kirk – which I think you misunderstood – is based on the fact that their position on science is based on willful, perpetual ignorance. They learn just enough about evolution and big bang cosmology to ask some basic questions, but can’t be bothered to look for the answers. Instead, they take these lingering questions and ask them over and over again as a challenge to non-believers, as if it somehow proves that the theories are based not on a large body of evidence and collective review, but simply on faith. Even if you TELL them the answers to their questions or correct their misconceptions, they will conveniently forget them within the span of an hour and ask the same things again. I’ve seen this in action.

      So yes … findings like these are a way to show that science is working hard to find the answers to questions about our origins. It’s a long road with plenty of setbacks, but every discovery like this enhances our understanding about how we evolved and show – like everything else we’ve seen to date – that the ignorance andmisinformation being peddled by people like Kirk and Ray are nothing more than legends from a Bronze Age culture, and should be treated as such.

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