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Darwin vs Creationists – All in Favor of Darwin Say Eye. The Eyes Have It!

New research suggests vision arose only once and earlier than expected, before 700 million years ago.

Until recently it was possible, even plausible, to think that the faculty of vision had originated several times during the course of animal evolution. New research suggests not: vision arose only once and earlier than expected, before 700 million years ago.

David Pisani and colleagues from the National University of Ireland have traced the ancestry of the three kinds of “opsin” protein that animals use, in combination with a pigment, to detect light. By comparing the genome sequences of sponges, jellyfish and other animals except sponges, but including a flat, shapeless thing called a placozoan. Some time after 755 million years ago, the common ancestor of ourselves and the placozoa duplicated a gene and changed one of the copies into a recognizable opsin.

Placozoans still have just that one kind of opsin, and it lacks the key amino acid change at position 296 that makes light detection possible, so Dr. Pisani concludes that the last opsin common ancestor, dubbed LOCA, had no vision. But on the other branch, the common ancestor of ourselves, insects and jellyfish made the change to light detection, then experienced two more duplications some time between 711 million and 700 million years ago to give the three kinds of light-sensing opsins we still possess today.

That vision was a single evolutionary innovation is a discovery that would have suprised an earlier generation of evolutionary biologists, who contrasted the compound eye of the insect with the the camera-like eye of human beings and imagined several parallel inventions. But some years ago it emerged that  the very same gene, called Pax6, commands the development of the insect eye and the human eye, hinting at a common origin. Still more surprising, a version of a Pax gene was then found directing the development of simple eyes in jellyfish. So the single origin of vision has become gradually more plausible.

All this would come as a relief to Charles Darwin, who worried about eyes, because their perfect complexity seemed to defy gradual evolutionary assembly: What use is half an eye? In 1860 he wrote to the American botanist Asa Gray: “The eye to this day gives me a cold shudder, but when I think of the fine known gradation my reason tells me I ought to conquer the odd shudder.”

In fact, the anatomy of eyes shows every gradation between simple light-sensitive spots and full cameras. The detailed genetic evidence of descent with modification from a single common ancestor further vindicates Darwin and has largely silenced the Intelligent Design movement’s use of the eye as a favored redoubt.

After the duplications that led to working opsin molecules, there seems to have been a long pause before complex eyes appeared. The first lensed eyes  that fossilized belonged to the trilobites which dominated the Cambrian oceans after 525 million years ago. Andrew Parker of Oxford University argued in a book a few years ago that newly perfected eyes explain the sudden appearance of many kinds of hard-bodied animals, the so-called Cambrian explosion. With predators hunting by sight for the first time, prey needed protection and mobility, so an arms race led to a plethora of new hard-body designs.

Just as eyes suddenly enabled our ancestors to see the world around them, so the capacity to read genomes enables us to see deep into the past. Long before LOCA there lived a creature called LUCA, the last universal common ancestor. It was only about 50 years ago that the unity of life became apparent for the first time. The molecular biologist Frances Crick, surveying the experiments that were deciphering the genetic code in bacteria, animals and yeast cells, and seeing that they were all converging on the same universal cipher, concluded that there is only one kind of life on the planet: that plants, animals and microbes must have once shared a common ancestor.

This wonderful scientific article first appeared in the Wall Street Journal, November 3, 2012 written by Matt Ridley.

If our eyes hadn’t developed over the millions of years to give us the gift of sight not only would I not have been able to write HOW TO BECOME A MAIL ORDER MILLIONAIRE, no one would be able to read it.

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