New packaging on an old idea

26 09 2007

In 1857 scientist Philip Henry Gosse published a book called Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot (available online, although be forewarned that it is a very large .pdf), proposing that God had created the world with the illusion of great age, other researchers of his day being deceived into thinking the world was more than 6,000 years old. Today Gosse’s work is largely forgotten, and if Gosse had listened to his friend Charles Kingsley (author of The Water Babies) the book might not have been published at all. When Gosse asked Kingsley to review his book (probably thinking that he’d get a glowing summary from his friend), Kingsley replied;

Shall I tell you the truth? It is best. Your book is the first that ever made me doubt [the doctrine of absolute creation], and I fear it will make hundreds do so. Your book tends to prove this – that if we accept the fact of absolute creation, God becomes God-the-Sometime-Deceiver. I do not mean merely in the case of fossils which pretend to be the bones of dead animals; but in … your newly created Adam’s navel, you make God tell a lie. It is not my reason, but my conscience which revolts here … I cannot … believe that God has written on the rocks one enormous and superfluous lie for all mankind.

[Reproduced from Wikipedia]

Obviously, Gosse published anyway, and although American evangelicals would later suggest that fossils were “tricks of the devil,” no one seems to hold to the strong version of “Deceitful Creation” Gosse advocated. A weak version of Gosse’s ideas continue to survive in Christian apologetics to this day however, and evidence of this can be seen in an article in the Spring/Summer 2007 Harvard Divinity Bulletin entitled “God and Evolution: A New Solution.” The author of the work, Sarah Coakley, sets out to accomplish the following;

First, there is the issue of how we should understand the relation of God’s providence to prehuman dimensions of creation and their development. Second, there is the issue of how God’s providence can relate to the specific arena of human freedom and creativity. Then third, there is the problem of evil, the question of why what happens in the first two realms manifests so much destructiveness, suffering, and outright evil, if God is indeed omnipotent, omniscient, and omni-benevolent.

These are relatively “classic” areas of conflict in the evolution vs. Christian theology culture wars, and I do find it interesting that even modern apologists are doing the best they can to separate man from all other forms of life on earth (primarily through culture since anatomical differences have proven to be poor support for such distinctions). Dealing with the first question, Coakley writes;

As such, God is both “within” the process and “without” it. To put this in richly trinitarian terms: God, the Holy Spirit, is the perpetual invitation and lure of the creation to return to its source in the Father, yet never without the full—and suffering—implications of incarnate Sonship. Once we see the possibility of understanding the contingency of precultural evolution in this way, we need not—as so much science and religion “dialogue” has done in recent years—declare the evolutionary process as necessarily “deistically” distanced in some sense from God. Rather, I propose in contrast that God is “kenotically” infused (not by divine loss or withdrawal, but by effusive pouring out) into every causal joint of the creative process, yet precisely without overt derangement of apparent “randomness.”

Such might qualify as pious prose but it has little actually explanatory power; the references and allusions are more poetic than sharply attuned to the topic at hand. The first section relates to the popular Christian notion of a “God-shaped hole” (ok, ok, take a few minutes to get the laughter out of your system and then continue) in every person’s soul or spirit, attributing a spiritual need to every person on earth. There is no proof at all for such assertions, and so it seems to be a bit of popular Christian doctrine that ties itself to the belief that everyone must be saved by Christ to enter heaven (and who wouldn’t want that? Wait, don’t answer that…).

The second half of the paragraph is where it gets interesting; Gos is infused through “effusive pouring out” (so God is in a liquid state?) into the process of evolution, giving it an orthogenic pathway but still exhibiting randomness and contingency. This is the “weak” version of Gosse’s argument, God being present in the evolutionary process but making it look as if he was not, seeming to take a method once suggested in the show Futurama ; “When you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.” Things get a bit sillier as the explanation continues;

But how, the skeptic might object, is evolutionary contingency—and genuine human freedom—to be seen as logically compatible with secret divine guidance? The intuition pump I want to propose here is what Peter Geach once called the “chess master model.” The basic idea is this: God is like a chess master playing an 8-year-old chess novice. There is a game with regularities and rules; and although there are a huge number of different moves that the child can make, each of these can be successfully responded to by the chess master—they are all already familiar to him. And we have no overall doubt that he is going to win. The analogy with God and the evolutionary process, or with human freedom, admittedly involves some stretching. For a start, God has created the whole game. Also, God timelessly knows what will happen in any different scenario depending on what moves occur. But there is a crucial difference here between God knowing what will occur and God directly causing what occurs; for in this model the contingent variables and choices occur at the level of secondary causation (albeit undergirdingly sustained and thus primarily caused by God).

I assume the hapless 8-year-old playing chess against God was not Bobbie Fischer (and I thought it was Death who played cosmic chess… oh well). Nevertheless, such reflects another popular Christian notion that God is “in control” and “has a plan” even when it is not apparently so, and you have to beat him in chess in order to get what you want, I mean, you’re at the whim of seemingly undirected events that are in reality being directed, making you generally confused as to what the often-cited “will” of God really is. All of the assertions from the author’s essay operate out of unstated assertions about the definite reality of God (it is considered a given), therefore the history of life on earth must be crammed into tight theological boxes if it is to prevent people from abandoning their faith. It is really nothing more than Gosse’s argument with new paint on it, humanity ever playing the fool because they just can’t win against the omni-present “Chess Master.” Coakley’s discussion of resurrection after death/extinction (?) is also rather odd;

Here, once more, there is an equally seductive modern misapprehension to avert: the presumption that dying, or indeed evolutionary “extinction,” is the worst thing that can happen to anyone (or thing). Again, I would contest the misapprehension. This point is not to be misread as a seeming justification for avoidable suffering, victimization, and abuse; but it is to be heard christologically as an insistence that the deepest agony, loss, and apparent wastefulness in God’s creation may, from the perspective of atemporal divinity (and yet also in the Son’s agony and “wasted” death), be spanned by the Spirit’s announcement of resurrection hope. Evil, from this perspective, is mere absence of good; death is the prelude to resurrection. To be sure, the risk God takes in human “freedom” is the terrible risk that humans announce their false “autonomy” in cruelty and destructiveness. Yet the risk is the only risk out of which the worthiest—and, again, most incarnational—forms of participation in God can arise.

[emphasis mine]

Does this mean that there will be glyptodonts, mosasaurs, and tyrannosaurs in heaven? The extinction alluded to in this paragraph is probably that of Homo sapiens (although I’d be interested to see what the author would have to say about the presence of absence of Megatherium in heaven), again hearkening back to the somewhat scary Christian idea that death is necessary for “true life.” I won’t go into a long rant about the subjective use of “good” and “evil” here (I find the position that evil is merely the absence of good to be absurd), but I will briefly mention the dig aimed at atheists in the 2nd-to-last sentence. Human “autonomy” (as if such a thing had not existed at some point and had been given) is related to destructiveness and cruelty, reinforcing the misapprehension that in the absence of God (=good) there is only evil. Such a statement is patently untrue, even though those who are already inclined to agree with such a statement will nod there heads and move on.

And then I arrived at this bit, which I can only describe as “treacly”;

[I]f by that we mean that God is perpetually sustaining us, loving us into existence, pouring God’s self into every secret crack and joint of the created process, and inviting the human will, in the lure of the Spirit, into an ever-deepening engagement with the implications of the Incarnation, its “groanings” (Romans 8), for the sake of redemption.

So if God stopped loving us, we would cease to exist? Again, the psuedo-poetic religious buzzwords and catch phrases mask any sort of rigorous intellectual understanding of what is being said, but such off-key notes will gain the assent of those who have already trained themselves to respond to them without much further thought.

I will leave the reader of this post to continue on with the initial document if they so choose; I don’t want to spend all my time today pointing out fairly obvious defects within it. I will close by saying, however, that the author of the paper seems to desire a more active God (vs. a more distant God as in deism), found throughout nature but not being apparent, thus allowing Christians a sort of “secret knowledge” not shared by atheists or members of other religions. This approach is often diluted into evangelical techniques, like suggesting that some of the names of God sound like breathing, and therefore even when a atheist breathes they’re speaking the name of God. Such notions may make some people feel warm and fuzzy inside, but it seems to be little more than the construction of a person God that is just active enough to be influential in person life but not enough to intervene when needed the most (tragedy is assumed to be “God’s Will,” any number of reasons being ascribed to a trauma). Indeed, Coakley’s paper puts forth a deceitful and controlling deity that is present in everything but sees fit to let it run riot all the same, and as Laplace once replied to Napoleon on a similar subject “I had no need of that hypothesis.”





Beating fossil horses: Creationists take on an “Icon of Evolution”

17 09 2007

Horse Evolution MacFadden 2005
A representation of our modern understanding of horse evolution, having some beginning diversity, a sort of “Oligocene Bottleneck,” and then a wide profusion of diversity throughout the New and Old World. From McFadden, Bruce. 2005. “Fossil Horses – Evidence of Evolution.” Science Vol. 307. no. 5716, pp. 1728 – 1730

As discussed previously in my summary of horse evolution, the development and radiation of various equids over the past 55 million years is one of the most celebrated examples of evolution in action. While we are fortunate to have such detailed examples of past evolutionary transitions, the presentation of the evolution of horses proceeding in a straight line from small, four-toed Eohippus to the extant Equus has sometimes done more harm than good. While the branching bush of horse evolution has been recognized in scientific circles since the middle of the 20th century (at the latest), a more orthogenic model has often still been presented in popular works and taught in schools, and David Godfrey has corroborated this in the comment thread of my previous essay. It is this weakness in using a “simple” illustration that has opened the door up to creationist complaints, and in this appendix to my original work I will attempt to review some of the more recent remarks made by the likes of Jonathan Wells (affiliated with the Discovery Institute) and Ken Ham (president of Answers in Genesis) on the evolution of horses.

Simple horse diagram
Comparison of Eohippus to Equus. There’s a lot of evolution in that dashed line. From “The Dawn Horse or Eohippus” by Chester Stock (1947).

The book that introduced me (albeit painfully) to intelligent design and critics of evolution was the infamous Icons of Evolution by Jonathan Wells, and in it Wells spends an entire chapter attempting to discredit the idea that horses evolved. This is not surprising, especially given that horse evolution was so triumphantly heralded by none other than “Darwin’s Bulldog” Thomas Henry Huxley in 1876. Indeed, the rich amount of fossils uncovered, plus public interest and prestige allowed horses to take on an iconic status, caused the transitions among fossil horses to become one of the most widely-cited examples of evolution, the change from small, multi-toed ancestors to large, one-toed descendants making for a very compelling scientific narrative.

Despite the vast amount of fossil evidence available that proves, beyond doubt, the evolution of horses, Wells spends little time addressing the very topic that gives the chapter “Fossil Horses and Directed Evolution” it’s name. Wells quickly covers most of the history that I have myself summarized (and, at the risk of sounding conceited, I believe more aptly summarized), but he quickly turns to an attack on G.G. Simpson, Charles Darwin, and Richard Dawkins on tenuous philosophical ground rather than bring any closure to his chosen subject. In fact, it seems like the selection of horse evolution as one of his “Icons” was merely a set-up, and while it is not explicitly stated, the purpose of the chapter is to dust off the old idea of orthogenesis. Working primarily from the work of Matthew and Stirton (see the previous essay) from the first half of the 20th century, Wells states the following about the illustrations of horse evolution that appeared in the AMNH papers;

Despite having been revised, the picture of horse evolution still includes a line connecting Hyracotherium with its supposed descendants, all the way up to the modern horse. Ironically, this very Darwinian line of ancestor-descendant relationships still presents a problem for neo-Darwinists like Simpson, because it is as consistent with directed evolution as the linear series in the old icon. The mere existence of extinct side-branches doesn’t rule out the possibility that the evolution of modern horses was directed. A cattle drive has a planned destination, even though some steers might stray from a herd along the way. Or, to use another analogy, the branching pattern of arteries and veins in the human body has some randomness to it, but our very lives depend on the fact that the overall pattern is predetermined.

This doesn’t prove that directed evolution is true, but only that a branching-tree pattern in the fossil record doesn’t refute it. A straight line and a branching tree are equally consistent (or inconsistent) with the existence (or non-existence) of either a predetermined goal or an inherent directive mechanism. In other words, even if we knew for sure what the pattern was, that alone would not be sufficient to establish whether or not horse evolution was directed.

Stirton Horse Phylogeny
From Stirton, R. A. 1940. “Phylogeny of North American Equidae”. Bull. Dept. Geol. Sci., Univ. California 25(4): 165-198.

So there you have it, folks. Horse evolution appears to have a branching pattern because some lineages didn’t follow God’s plan during his 55-million-year-old evolutionary cattle drive. Wait, what? Either intentionally or as a result of lack of thought on the subject, Wells speaks out of both sides of his mouth in this passage, attempting to be a sort of Devil’s Advocate. In classic intelligent-design style, the identity of the force that Wells contends could have given direction to horse evolution is never mentioned, and it is only stated that such considerations cannot be ruled out. This sounds tentative, but the rest of the chapter is an attack on the concept that evolution does not have any sort of direction to it, diversity being a result of entirely natural processes (and not a divergence from some ill-defined bauplan ordained by a supernatural force). This sort of doubletalk is maddening and will appeal to those already inclined to agree with Wells, the gaping holes in his argument being obvious to anyone who is more familiar with the topic that the DI writer.

Wells also attempts to confuse the reader as to how evolution proceedings by taking certain ideas to extremes. By Wells’ logic, a branching pattern means that every genus must have a diversity of descendants, and if there seems to be any sort of anagenesis then that shows that evolution had direction. This view is certainly mistaken, but Wells seems to use it primarily as a rhetorical device to spark incredulity in the reader, and it might be all-too-easy for those unfamiliar with evolution to be taken in. The truth of the matter is that we can create a lineage of representative types showing the transition of horses from Eohippus to Equus to the exclusion of other genera, but such is a narrow view. This sort of representation, which persisted much longer than it should have in general or popular accounts, has done much to confuse the issue, even though the very people who have put forth the “simplified” model have recognized there was a greater diversity. It seems to be something of a fight between showing evolution as we know it to be and between trying to convince the reader that evolution has occurred, usually showing a phylogeny that is close to that of O.C. Marsh.

OC marsh Phylogeny
O.C. Marsh’s concept of “The Geneology of the Horse,” a decidedly straight-line progression. From Marsh, O.C. 1879. “Polydactyly Horses, Recent and Extinct.”

The bait-and-switch tactic of Wells in his book, as we have seen, is not very straightforward or even conclusive, but young earth creationists (YEC’s) tackle the problem in a different way, attributing the existence of horses to a definite intelligent agent: God. While generally silent about horses in their popular tracts The Lie and Refuting Evolution, the #1 creationist group in the United States (for the moment, anyway, as creationist ministries seem to have a bang-and-bust cycle) Answers in Genesis has a few articles on the subject available on their website. In an 1999 article, Jonathan Sarfati (now with Creation Ministries International,due to a schism within AiG) wrote “The non-evolution of the horse: Special creation or evolved rock badger?” in which he pontificates on why there are so many fossil horses with extra toes, low-crowned teeth, and of smaller stature;

An important part of the biblical creation model is that different kinds of creatures were created with lots of genetic information. Natural selection can sort out this pre-existing genetic information, by eliminating creatures not suited to a particular environment. Thus many different varieties can be produced in different environments. Note that this sorting process involves a loss of information, so is irrelevant to particles-to-people evolution, which requires non-intelligent processes to add new information.

Also, much of this (created) genetic information may have been latent (hidden, i.e. the features coded for are not expressed in the offspring) in the original created kinds. They also had other controlling or regulatory genes that switch other genes ‘on’ or ‘off.’ That is, they control whether or not the information in a gene will be decoded, so the trait will be expressed in the creature. This would enable very rapid and ‘jumpy’ changes, which are still changes involving already created information, not generation of new information.

Applying these principles to the horse, the genetic information coding for extra toes is present, but is switched off in most modern horses. Sometimes a horse is born today where the genes are switched on, and certainly many fossil horses also had the genes switched on. This would explain why there are no transitional forms showing gradually smaller toe size. [emphasis mine]

As can be easily seen, Sarfati attempts to escape into the realm of genetics, throwing around lots of scientific-sounding arguments in a feeble attempt to dazzle readers. One of the central philosophical doctrines of modern creationists is the necessity of the Fall (or the entrance of death and disease into the world as a result of Adam & Eve’s sin in Eden), and much of what creation ministries write circles around the degeneration or “devolution” of all life since the eviction from Eden. This is not the entire story, however, as the Noachian Deluge is of nearly equal importance, all animals alive today being (in the YEC view) descendants of survivors of the great flood. In order to make the vast diversity of fossil horse species consonant with such views, Sarfati even has to invoke a kind of punctuated equilibria (although I’m sure he’d never admit it), three-toed horses evolving at an exceptional rate within the last few thousand years, only to instantaneously go extinct. Sarfati could have said that horses like Pliohippus were alive before the Flood (their fossils being explained by the catastrophe), and while still horribly wrong it would at least make a little more sense. Sarfati decides to stick with saltational changes in horses in a post-flood world, however, pointing to the products of artificial selection in horses (especially in terms of size) as if they had occurred on their own in nature.

As is often the case with creationists, Sarfati’s thesis seems based on what was cutting-edge science during the end of the 19th century, and there is nary a mention of newer research by scientists like Bruce MacFadden (or even many of the paleontologists who worked on horses during the mid-20th century like Stirton and Matthew). Indeed, it seems as if he merely picked up some other creationist tracts, dumped them into a blender with some snippets from a basic genetics book, mixed it up, and wrote down whatever came out of the amalgamated bits and pieces. Sarfati must be given some credit in putting forth an idea as to the origins of the vast diversity of fossil horses (see the illustration at the beginning of this appendix); most other creationists have been content to signal the “death knell” of horse evolution and merely state it as an abandoned hypothesis that evolutionary scientists no longer want to discuss. In the book The Amazing Story of Creation From Science and the Bible, YEC-fave Duane Gish writes;

Even evolutionists acknowledge, however, that we cannot find transitional forms between these various kinds of horses. There are no fossil horses with part-browsing, part-grazing teeth. We cannot find fossils of a horse with three-and-a-half toes or two-and-a-half toes. The fossils show no progressive increase in size. In fact, some “later” horses were smaller than “earlier” horses. The number of ribs did not progressively increase. The number of ribs in fossil horses go up and down. Just as there are different kinds of primates today – lemurs, monkeys, apes, and humans – so there were different kinds of horses in the past, with no evidence that one kind of horse evolved from another kind of horse. Just as dinosaurs and many other kinds of creatures have died out since creation, so, also, many different kinds of horses died out. Evolutionists still search, and will continue to do so, without success, for the transitional forms which much exist, if evolution is true.

What is truly odd about Gish’s statement is that he expects modern scientists to believe in an orthogenic progression (similar to the rhetorical attempts of Wells, as mentioned above), anything that runs counter to that decimating Gish’s straw man. Just like Wells, he also attempts to spark some amount of incredulity in the reader, suggesting that toes disappear piecemeal, bone by bone, rather than overall reductions and changes that have left vestiges in Equus today. Gish’s comment about teeth is also strange, as if he expected horses to think “Hmmm, I want to be a grazer, not a browser; better start changing my teeth!” It is the changes in ecology in which a population exists in and the branching out into new niches that puts pressure on existing characters to shape the organisms, and there is no cosmic force that decides that in 10 million years time the teeth of the animal should look a certain way and push it towards that goal. In fact, Gish’s creationist views are far closer to the straw man that he mocks than the scientific truth of the matter, but it seems that such a philosophical relationship is often lost on YEC’s.

Even stranger and false than Gish & Sarfati’s works, however, is Lawrence Richards’ It Couldn’t Just Happen. Rather than suggesting that scientists are merely misguided or that they have abandoned horses as an example of evolution, Richards attributes to them some amount of dishonesty (or at least fanciful thinking);

But why did evolutionists ever think fossils from different parts of the world should be linked together in the first place? Part of the reason is that they were tricked by their own theory. The Theory of Evolution said that modern animals should develop from similar but different animals of the past. It said that hooves should be an adaptation and have developed from several toes to one. Size would help a horse survive by enabling it to run faster, so animals should gradually become larger. Simply put, evolutionists fit the fossil bones of different animals into a series and said they were horses, because the bones fit their Theory of Evolution!

It’s almost as if you were outside one day and found a tennis ball, a soccer ball, and a basketball in a weedy field. You noticed that each ball is hollow, and each has an increasingly thicker skin. You’re really excited, and figure that each evolved from some common ancestor! Then you spend the rest of your life trying to figure out how that could possibly have happened. You invent story after story to explain that evolution, and even though the evidence is against each suggestion you make, many people believe you. They don’t seem to realize that finding the balls lined up in a particular order doesn’t prove descent at all.

If you’re spending all your time stealing equipment from PE class and trying to tell people that basketballs evolved from a tennis ball, I’d say you’ve got some rather important mental health problems. That aside, Richards’ example is yet another poor YEC analogy (I swear, half of creationist literature is bad analogy) that intimates that scientists are deluded fools that have essentially created a hypothesis and constructed a lineage to prove the ideas they already possessed. As can be seen from my earlier essay, that is most certainly not the case, and Richards’ passage is at best grossly misinformed and at worst malicious.

To be entirely honest, I was rather surprised by the overall paucity of creationist literature as pertaining to horse evolution. Given it’s prominence in textbooks and museums (and even though many books and institutions still present such evolution incorrectly) I would have expected at least a semi-rigorous creationist explanation for horses, but they seem content to merely criticize the work of Marsh and Huxley, praising Richard Owen for not associating the European Hyrcaotherium with living horses. Even in the one book (Icons of Evolution) that specifically targets horse evolution, the phylogeny is only a set up in order to allow Wells to attack Darwin and Dawkins, hinting that orthogenesis should still be considered as being a good hypothesis for evolution. If such attempts are the best that creationists can muster, I really must wonder how they have gained so much influence with such weak arguments. My question is a rhetorical one, being that pre-existing religious leanings often dictating what will be swallowed and what will be spat out when it comes to science, but perhaps the influence of creationist talking heads like Wells and Gish show just how intellectually lazy Americans have become, citizens being willing to agree with anything that won’t upset anyone during Sunday dinner after church.

As mentioned here and in my previous work, however, museums and those who write books (be they popular or for students) mentioning horse evolution are far from blameless. The “branching bush” of horse evolution is often ignored so that a general type of anagenesis from one type to another can be put forward, and this sort of technique does not serve anyone well. It will only cause confusion if presented alone, and over and over again it is apparent that evolutionary images are far more powerful than the text of any given book. While those who wish to bring about scientific understanding to the public should not let up in terms of accuracy within their writings, we must be mindful of what images we use to illustrate evolution, an inaccurate image being able to haunt educators for far longer than an obscure reference in a book. Often unintentionally, writers of popular science books and museum curators/designers have created “monstrous memes” that reproduce at an astonishing rate, persisting long after their original source material is forgotten, and if we are to be successful in getting the public to understand science, we must supplant and replace the illustrative errors of those who have come before.





There is a grandeur in this view of life…

7 09 2007

Gorilla
A female gorilla at the Bronx Zoo.

It is often all-too-easy to forget about the wonder that is in nature when one becomes embroiled in the culture war surrounding evolution and creationism. The battles are fought in public classrooms, sundry media outlets, and (perhaps most of all) the internet, but those who do recognize the intricacy and beauty of evolution should not forget to step back every once in a while and look at what so-inspired Darwin in the first place. Nature offers up more treasures and wonders than I could ever fully appreciate during my short tenure on this planet, and without this sense of unity and amazement science can quickly turn into a rather dry and forbidding set of mental exercises.

Aldo Leopold recognized this problem all too well. In his essay “Song of the Gavilan”, collected in the A Sand County Almanac (which should be required reading for any naturalist), Leopold tells of how bright minds are often told to ignore the “music” of nature;

There are men charged with the duty of examining the construction of the plants, animals, and soils which are the instruments of the great orchestra. These men are called professors. Each selects one instrument and spends his life taking it apart and describing its strings and sounding boards. This process of dismemberment is called research. The place for the dismemberment is called a university.

A professor may pluck the strings of this own instrument, but never that of another, and if he listens for music he must never admit it to his fellows or to his students. For all are restrained by an ironbound taboo which decrees that the construction of instruments is the domain of science, while the detection of harmony is the domain of poets.

Professors serve science and science serves progress. It serves progress so well that many of the more intricate instruments are stepped upon and broken in the rush to spread progress to all backward lands. One by one the parts are thus stricken from the songs of songs. If the professor is able to classify each instrument before it is broken, he is well content.

Science contributes moral as well as material blessings to the world. The great moral contribution is objectivity, or the scientific point of view. This means doubting everything except facts; it means hewing to the facts, let the chips fall where they may. One of the facts hewn to by science is that every river needs more people, and all people need more inventions, and hence more science; the good life depends on the indefinite extension of this chain of logic. That the good life on any river may likewise depend on the perception of its music, and the preservation of some music to perceive, is a form of doubt not yet entertained by science.

It would be a mistake to paint all practicing scientists with such a broad brush, but the danger of becoming so objective that the melodies of songbirds and the soft rushing of streams become muted is a very real one. This is strange, especially because it was from wonder that science was born, an attempt to explain what had hitherto been subjugated beneath superstition and religion as it exists, not how we may wish it to be. Still, despite the move away from superstition and natural theology, especially since the writings of Darwin came crashing into the public consciousness, religion attempts to retain a hold on “the birds of the air,” “the beasts of the field,” and “every thing that creepeth upon the earth.” In a recent post on the evolution/creationism debate, the author of the blog Doxoblogy opined;

I’ve got only this to say…looking at creation will inevitably point you to an ‘eternal power and divine nature’ that exists beyond us. Looking in Scripture will introduce this ‘eternal power and divine nature’ to you as the Creator God to whom we owe our love and worship (Romans 1:16-2:11). The God of creation is also the God of Scripture and He has a Son, Jesus.

Clearly there is a sense of awe operating here, and there are seemingly countless flash-animated greeting cards, books, videos, and other resources enforcing the notion that every aggregate of soil, blade of grass, or molecule of water practically screams that life was created by the Judeo-Christian God of the Bible. Such arguments have even become politically fashionable, allowing current presidential candidate John McCain, in an attempt to eat his cake and have it too, to say “I believe in evolution. But I also believe, when I hike the Grand Canyon and see it at sunset, that the hand of God is there also” when asked if he “believed” in evolution. Such a notion clearly points to subjective notions of beauty, as McCain did not say “When I look at a lamprey or a hagfish, I see the hand of God at work.” The overall association of God with the aesthetically pleasing could explain why Thomas Kinkade paintings, which differ so little that I can scarcely tell one from another, as a staple in evangelical Christian households. Perhaps there are some on the fringe that would prefer to think of a tapeworm or liver fluke when contemplating the glory of God, but the vast majority of creeping, crawling, sucking, oozing, and pulsating things on the planet are not generally thought of as being “first in the ways of God.” Even Darwin expressed his doubts about a Creator that was seemingly so cruel. In a famous letter to the American botanist Asa Gray, Darwin confided;

I am bewildered. I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae [parasitic wasps] with the express intention of their [larvae] feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.

While generally forgotten today, the view that nature is filled with goodness or pleasurable things was, as far as I currently understand, put forth by William Paley in Natural Theology, one of Paley’s core beliefs being that the ability to feel pleasure (and not just pain) was evidence of a beneficent Creator. Still, the understanding that Darwin helped usher humanity, albeit kicking and screaming, into was an understanding of nature that is neither inherently good nor evil. The world is not “for” mankind just as it is not expressly for the benefit of water beetles, Cape Buffalo, or the Northern Flicker. If it were otherwise the world could perhaps divided into creatures that were “good” and others that were “evil,” but no clear distinction exists nor has it ever; attributing such labels to the world around us only speaks to our own ignorance and hubris.

Sometimes I have to wonder if those who propose to have seen God in nature have truly spent any time out in nature or studying its diversity. A poster of some far-flung locale at sunset with one of the Psalm’s printed on the bottom is not understanding nature, a motley organization of life that (try as we might) we are still very much a part of, and even the most repulsive or disgusting of creatures has a worth that does not rely on our “refined” tastes. When an animal dies, insects and bacteria take advantage of the bonanza, putrefying and decomposing the body , beginning the process that will return the creature to the earth. If special circumstances occur, it may well see the light of day again as a fossil, but more likely than not it was be completely broken up, the accumulation of energy and elements in its body being transferred into other organisms and into the ground, allowing different forms of life to flourish. This does not make a maggoty, decomposing carcass any more attractive (or smell any more fragrant), but if we divorce it from our rather superficial requirements of beauty, we can gain an understanding of nature that previously eluded us.

Perhaps my words are only those of a young man, “green” in terms of experience and landlocked in a land of impervious surface and strip malls. Such inexperience may hinder my perceptions, but when I look closely at nature I see neither angels nor demons, God and the Devil being absent from the crashing of the waves along the shore or the lighting strikes of a late-August thunderstorm. This does not mean, however, that I view nature divorced from any sense of awe or deeper emotional feeling, and I would imagine that many of my readers here would tell you the same. When I was covered in wet muck of the Inversand Marl Pit, my heart skipped a beat as a pulled out a chocolate-colored bone fragment that had been kept snug in the greensand for at least 65 million years; my mind reeled at what I could have discovered (and what else might remain buried), and I had to hold back my excitement as I asked my professor if I had really found bone or not. Any book describing the adventures and work of a more professional and seasoned paleontologist or field scientist will reveal much the same thing; objectivity is necessary for the sake of accuracy, but it often comes after a rush of excitement or amazement at a new observation or discovery.

This post is a bit of a throw-away, however, as Charles Darwin long-ago succinctly summed up the thesis of my long argument;

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having originally been breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. – Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection

Gorillas
A female gorilla and two babies at the Bronx Zoo





Icon of Delusion: Jonathan Wells

31 08 2007

If ever there were an unsavory, real-life creationist character that should be cryptically referred to as “You Know Who” as in the Harry Potter series, it would have to be Jonathan Wells. While I have not actually tested this as yet, the very mention of his name seems to make my blood pressure rise, and perhaps his goal is to be so annoying and deceitful that evolutionary scientists all die of stress-induced heart attacks because they can not even stand the mention of his name. If this is indeed the plan, then Wells has certainly taken another step towards its fruition. On the dubiously titled “Evolution News & Views” blog run by the Disco. Institute, Wells has issued a rather hateful screed about the terms “Darwinist” and “Darwinian.”

Starting out with a rather hateful attack on the quality of The Seattle Weekly, stating that “as [a source] of news [it's] probably about as reliable as Minju Choson, the official organ of the Democratic People’s Republic of [North] Korea. But homeless people make good use of [it],” Wells quotes a recent article in the paper in which Eugenie Scott of the NCSE as saying “a real follower of modern science would never call himself a ‘Darwinist’,” because “evolutionary biology has advanced way beyond Darwin’s 19th-century tracts.” This is rather strange, especially the quotation marks that Wells decided to “helpfully” insert as they do not appear in the original article. The original sentence reads as follows;

Scott isn’t buying it, not least because she says evolutionary biology has advanced way beyond Darwin’s 19th-century tracts, so that a real follower of modern science would never call himself a “Darwinist.”

Sounds more like the reporter, Nina Shapiro, tried to condense Scott’s argument down into a shorter sentence and was not quoting Scott directly, so once again Wells has shown us that he is either being deceitful or ignorant of how to properly use the copy-paste function on a computer. Still, he uses his doctored quote as a set-up to try and muddy the waters with cherrypicked examples from historical science, and Wells misses the entire point of the now outdated term “Darwinist.” Wells writes;

The reason that “Darwinism” and “Darwinian” – even “Darwinist” – are used by modern evolutionary biologists is that they are more precise than “evolution” and “evolutionist.” The latter have many meanings, most of them uncontroversial. For example, “evolution” can refer simply to change over time, something no sane person would deny. Or it can refer to minor changes within existing species, which breeders have known about for centuries.

Actually, the reason why “Darwinist” was the most popular term in years past is because Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection (and later sexual selection) proved to be the correct one. Prior to Darwin and even during his time “transmutation” of species was a hot topic, and there were various schools of thought as to how creatures evolved. Thus a more exact term for the school of evolutionary thought Darwin founded, “Darwinism,” was necessary to distinguish it from the competing hypotheses of Lamarck, Agassiz, the thoughts put forth in the popular book Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation by Robert Chambers, and the later criticisms of Darwin put forth by the likes of St. George Mivart. In fact, especially in America, evolution by natural selection was not immediately and fully embraced, the famed scientist Louis Agassiz being a critical of Darwin so vociferous that even Wells would have been likely to get his admiration. Even the noted paleontologist E.D. Cope ascribed to Neo-Lamarckian ideas of evolution, a evolutionary framework that has been long known to be insufficient.

But if Darwin was right, why would Eugenie Scott say his “tracts are outdated”? Well, Darwin was right in terms of his big ideas of natural & sexual selection (as well as many other points), but he did get some things wrong. Heredity was vastly unknown during his time, and even Darwin threw in a pinch of Lamarckism into his writings. In the 2nd edition of The Descent of Man, Darwin wrote the following in the preface;

I may take this opportunity of remarking that my critics frequently assume that I attribute all changes of corporeal structure and mental power exclusively to the natural selection of such variations as are often called spontaneous; whereas, even in the first edition of the ‘Origin of Species,’ I distinctly stated that great weight must be attributed to the inherited effects of use and disuse, with respect both to the body and mind. I also attributed some amount of modification to the direct and prolonged action of changed conditions of life. Some allowance, too, must be made for occasional reversions of structure; nor must we forget what I have called “correlated” growth, meaning, thereby, that various parts of the organization are in some unknown manner so connected, that when one part varies, so do others; and if variations in the one are accumulated by selection, other parts will be modified. Again, it has been said by several critics, that when I found that many details of structure in man could not be explained through natural selection, I invented sexual selection; I gave, however, a tolerably clear sketch of this principle in the first edition of the ‘Origin of Species,’ and I there stated that it was applicable to man.

And so I still cringe when I heard scientists refer to themselves as “Darwinists” (or even worse, “orthodox Darwinists,” as I once heard Ken Miller opine). The term is no longer necessary or even accurate because in scientific understanding Darwin’s big ideas won the day ages ago while some of his subjects he did not fully understand have become better known, the science we now have being based on Darwin but not adhering only to the thoughts within his published works. If we’re going to start tagging schools of thoughts with names, we could very well have “Gouldists,” “Dawkinsists,” “Simpsonists,” “Mayrists,” “Morganists,” “Copeists,” “Agassizists,” etc. etc. etc. The distinction that the term “Darwinist” used to have is now largely lost because of our greater understanding, time proving Darwin to be the victor in the battle that took place in evolutionary through between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but I know of no scientists who holds On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection who holds the great work to be a holy book that may not be added to or contradicted in any fashion whatsoever. Just like paleontology requires a historical understanding and a long-view of the subject at hand, so does the topic of the evolution of how we think about biological evolution.

After some more jabs at Scott and confusion of the origins of the words he’s talking about, Wells concludes;

So rather than learn Scott’s word games, biology students should begin by learning to distinguish “evolution” from “Darwinism” and “evolutionist” from “Darwinist.” Or “Darwinian” – it’s one and the same.

I assume that he’s not suggesting that school boards should hire Neo-Lamarckian staff to “Teach the Controversy!” about evolution. I think a biology class would largely benefit from understanding the historical aspect of the evolution idea, starting with the Ionians like Thales and Anaximander and working through Darwin and the Modern Synthesis to today. That way it can be clearly seen that there indeed was a time when evolution did not necessarily mean “natural selection, common descent, etc.” in the minds of some notable scientists, and how eventually their ideas (often influenced by their adherence to religious doctrine) came crumbling down. “Teach the Controversy!” seems like it could have just as well been the battle cry of Louis Agassiz or St. George Mivart as that of current ID thinkers, but apparently they cannot be bothered to go back and try and uncover the history of the evolution idea.

To put it concisely, Darwin was a highly intelligent man who uncovered the beginnings of one of nature’s greatest mysteries, but we would be fools to think that he was somehow all-knowing or that no data would later be found that would clarify or possibly refute his ideas. Nearly 150 years after On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection was published, however, natural selection working on variations in organisms is still a major mechanism of evolution, exemplified by Stephen J. Gould in his coral-branch analogy in The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. Can we expect any scientist never to make a mistake or never have their ideas overturned? For every important idea that has been put forth by great minds, how many ideas ended up being stillborn or eventually refuted? Are we to remember scientists for their failures only, disregarding their successes? To do so would mark us imbeciles, and we would pay a heavy price for judging those who strove to bring enlightenment to the work by sharing their ideas. Darwin was one of those great minds, and even though “the long argument” will likely continue, I see no reason why we should exhume the corpses of long-dead competing hypotheses of evolution when Charles so eloquently put laid to rest.





If this comes out on my birthday I’m going to be pissed…

22 08 2007

Why does Ben Stein have to go ahead and ruin the month in which I was born? According to a link supplied by PZ, the deadpan actor is going to release a film called “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed” about how us crazy “Neo-Darwinists” are trying to take over the hearts and minds of America’s youth through the public education system. (Also, the conservative screed Indoctrinate U is also meant to premiere this September) This propaganda piece documentary looks like it wants to be the answer to Randy Olson’s Flock of Dodos, although it appears that Stein’s venture is better financed. Still, having a look around the site already points to the overall lack of research and downright stupidity employed by our “hero” Stein in trying to scare conservatives into believing him. From the site’s blog;

Freedom of inquiry is basic to human advancement. There would be no modern medicine, no antibiotics, no brain surgery, no Internet, no air conditioning, no modern travel, no highways, no knowledge of the human body without freedom of inquiry.

This includes the ability to inquire whether a higher power, a being greater than man, is involved with how the universe operates. This has always been basic to science. ALWAYS.

Some of the greatest scientists of all time, including Galileo, Newton, Einstein, operated under the hypothesis that their work was to understand the principles and phenomena as designed by a creator.

Operating under that hypothesis, they discovered the most important laws of motion, gravity, thermodynamics, relativity, and even economics.

Now, I am sorry to say, freedom of inquiry in science is being suppressed.

Under a new anti-religious dogmatism, scientists and educators are not allowed to even think thoughts that involve an intelligent creator. Do you realize that some of the leading lights of “anti-intelligent design” would not allow a scientist who merely believed in the possibility of an intelligent designer/creator to work for him… EVEN IF HE NEVER MENTIONED the possibility of intelligent design in the universe?EVEN FOR HIS VERY THOUGHTS… HE WOULD BE BANNED.

In today’s world, at least in America, an Einstein or a Newton or a Galileo would probably not be allowed to receive grants to study or to publish his research.

The first thing that Stein does, in classic neo-con fashion, is equate science with technology. The only things vaguely biological mentioned are antibiotics and human anatomy, but these are directly tied to medicine and not understanding how humans (or other organisms) work in any other sense. This is one of the most difficult battlegrounds in any debate about science/religion/politics, as many see natural science as ultimately pointless. “Why do I need to know what sort of animal Pakicetus was when technology supplies me with MTV and plenty of porn via the internet?” This “What, me worry?” sort of mindset can be traced all the way back to the first Christians, who felt it was essentially pointless to study nature (or even medicine) because Jesus’ return was imminent. “Why learn about botany when the world will be destroyed and created anew next week?” Sooner or later people got the idea that such a way of thinking was impoverished and worthless and started to investigate the natural world, although new discoveries were often met with opposition from those who attempted to uphold the religious orthodoxy of the time (certain areas of science, like medicine, becoming acceptable as they could be brought into the ideological fold of helping others in Christianity).

Stein then goes on to play the name game; everyone will recognize the names Newton, Galileo, and Einstein, but how many people actually know anything about them? Stein is merely trading in on their recognition and seems to know little else about these men of science other than that they had some sort of idea about a creator god. If Stein had done his homework he would have found that Newton and Einstein did not hold concepts of a Judeo-Christian God that exactly fits the Old Testament bully so loved by modern evangelicals (Einstein over and over again professing his belief in “Spinoza’s God”, or the nature of the universe as God). The inclusion of Galileo was curious as well, especially given what the Church of Galileo’s time perpetrated upon the man and the overall resistance to his ideas. If we’re going to include Christian scientists, why not go ahead and add a young Charles Darwin, Charles Lyell, William Buckland, Gideon Mantell, or any number of other 19th century scientists involved with paleontology, geology, and evolution that showed the world was not created in the way the creation mythologies of the Bible state? Stein also seems to be ignorant of the many attempts through the early to mid-1900’s to reconcile science and evolution after the Modern Synthesis was formed, so why not mention some of the Christian and Jewish leaders from the first part of the last century who had no problem with evolution? I guess they’re on the naughty list.

Stein then moves on to an attempt to spread paranoia, picking up where Jonathan Wells left off in the latter part of Icons of Evolution. Evolutionary science (or at least evolutionary scientists) are said to be cultish, rabid bigots, stopping at nothing to stomp out any mention of a Christian god. They may as well burst into flames at the mention of the name “Jehovah.” No evidence is given for this assertion (I guess I’ll just have to watch the movie), but Stein goes back to trading in on the names of intellects far greater than his own by suggesting that such men would have been figuratively “burned at the stake” by modern academia. I guess it doesn’t matter to Stein that how religious a person may be is more a product of how they’re brought up rather in “Darwinist indoctrination” in public schools. Stein also doesn’t provide any reason why we should take creationists and ID advocates seriously, either; they’ve come up with absolutely no actual research to prove their point, despite continuous calls to do so (I guess Behe and his buddies would rather just keep pumping out the popular books). Why should we allow intelligent design into science class when it simply is not science?

Anyway, the film looks like it’s going to be absolutely horrible, and judging from the fact that Stein can’t even be bothered to open up a history book I’m sure the film is going to be a propaganda piece that will appeal primarily to those who already tend to agree anyhow.

Update: Mike P, in the Pharyngula comment, has provided us with the Press Release for this atrocious bit of drek.

Update the 2nd: The DI has now weighed in (how could I ever have guessed that they were involved?), and the film is set to come out on Darwin’s birthday, February 12th. I can’t imagine it getting a wide release, but I have to wonder if the production company is going to go around wooing churches as other companies did for The Passion of the Christ, The Chronicles of Narnia, and other films. Still, the movie will probably be greeted with cheers by those already convinced and be thoroughly trashed by those who can already smell that it’s rotten inside and out.





Adnan Oktar goes crying to the courts

20 08 2007

Adnan Oktar (AKA Harun Yahya), author of the massive & misguided Atlas of Creation, is having a hissy-fit because some WordPress blogs have brought attention to his creationist tomfoolery (thanks to Ed Darell for initially bringing this to everyone’s attention). Indeed, it appears that all access to WordPress has been blocked in Turkey, as per the ruling of the “Fatih 2nd Civil Court of First Instance, number 2007/195.” Luckily, some people have figured out how to get around the block (thanks to PZ for mentioning the resource), but this whole thing is a complete farce. As Ed has already pointed out, it’s hard to believe that the whole of WordPress is blocked in Turkey because Oktar can’t take criticism about his poorly-researched work.

This isn’t the first time Oktar has gone crying to the courts and got his way, either. As reported by IFEX, in April of this year Oktar restricted access to online forums/sites where the comments threads contained “defamatory” comments about him, the sites in question ultimately removing the content that so offends. I guess his actions show Oktar for what he really is, though; an arrogant creationist who wants to stamp out any other opinion through a court system that isn’t wise enough to understand the importance and value of free expression. I hope the WordPress admins will stand up for the freedom of speech and expression on here and not give Oktar an inch, especially since one of the most active spots I can see on my little clustrmap is Turkey and their is a solid blogging community from that region.





Homo sapiens: The Evolution of What We Think About Who We Are

11 08 2007

[Note: I definitely didn't expect the welcome reception this post has received from so many notable bloggers! Thank you all for your support and compliments. I took a few snapshots and have uploaded them, although I admit they are not of the best quality. I will come up with some better versions of these images when I have more time this week.]

Pondering
From the Wellcome Images Collection

How many ribs do humans have? Despite it being a fairly straightforward answer, you may get different replies depending on who you ask. Few people will know the exact number (12 pairs), but a surprisingly large amount of people might tell you that while women have a full set, men come up one short. Basic anatomy proves this to be wrong, but then again most people have not studied basic anatomy, so where would such an idea come from?

20: And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found an help meet for him.

21: And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof;

22: And the rib, which the LORD God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man.

23: And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.

– Genesis 2:20-23

It almost sounds like a Neo-Lamarckian belief; that because God took a rib from Adam (whether it was just one or one pair, the book does not say) to make Eve in the second Genesis creation story, all men should inherit the trait of missing one rib. In fact, it is possible (even likely) that the “rib” taken from Adam was not one of the bones in his chest at all, but rather a mythical baculum (or “penis bone“), which is present in most mammals but missing in man and a few others. Despite the Bible being opaque on the topic of general anatomy, however, the belief that the number of ribs in men and women are different is widespread and I am often met with astonished faces when I tell people who accept the idea that there is no difference between the sexes in that respect at all. Outside of a widespread unfamiliarity with basic human anatomy, the belief shows us something else; that just as Homo sapiens has evolved, so too have our ideas about ourselves, and vestiges of past beliefs still remain in the skeletal structure of our understanding.

Skeleton
From William Cheselden’s The Anatomy of Bones. This image also graces the cover of my copy of William Paley’s Natural Theology.

Although the Genesis account of the creation of man is probably the most familiar, it is far from being original. The concepts found in the first chapters of the book of Genesis correlate surprisingly closely to earlier beliefs of the Chaldeans and Babylonians, from the differing orders of the two creation accounts to the dispersal at the Towel of Babel. Seeing that the myths from which the Genesis account derive no longer exist in their original form, however, we will start our intellectual foray with the set of beliefs that rails against science even to this day; that humans were specially created by God less than 10,000 years ago, from little more than some dirt and a rib. As alluded to before, the accounts of the creation of humans contradict each other and cannot be reconciled (as many apologists attempt to do) by saying that the account given in Genesis 1 is merely an overview or outline, with Genesis 2 filled in the details.

If we look at Genesis 1, God creates plant life (before the “lights in the firmament”), then life in the water and the air, then all the “beasts” and “creeping things” (of which there are many more than the beasts), and then both sexes of Homo sapiens simultaneously;

27: So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

The God of Genesis 2 does things a little differently (perhaps even taking a more pragmatic approach). We are told that because there was “no man to till the ground,” there was no point in creating plants on earth before people. Thus God watered the entire face of the earth and then created man, “planting” the man in Eden. It might be impious to think this way, but whenever I read that verse (Genesis 2:8) I can’t help but imagine a gigantic hand picking up Adam by the scruff of his neck and literally placing him back down in the Garden. Imagery aside, God then populates the Garden with plant life (which in Genesis 1 was long established on earth before Adam came to be), and then decides that it isn’t good to have Adam wandering around Eden by himself. We are told that God then created all the “beasts of the field” and “fowl of the air” and had Adam name them (but neglected to form a proper system of taxonomy or systematics), but no “help mate” was to be found. Then comes to famous rib-story (see above), things finally being set right in Eden, at least until that whole forbidden-fruit business. Despite the strange inconsistencies, in both accounts humans are the crowning achievements of the Creation, told to “subdue” the planet and to reproduce in order to fill it. This idea of trampling nature beneath our heel has resonated with people for thousands of years, although theology has twisted various aspects of Genesis this way and that to suit certain needs.

Indeed, while Adam and Eve were supposed to be the ancestors of all humanity, some groups of people were left out of the picture. Just like certain lower classes of people in other cultures were said to be formed from the “dirt of the body” particular gods, denoting their inferior existence, people with darker skin were deemed to be bearing the “Mark of Cain” or to be “Sons of Ham,” in either case slavery being justified for the sins of the proginator of that line. Thankfully this view has now largely been abandoned, although vestiges of such superstitions remain today (and equality wasn’t even given to these people until the middle of the last century in the United States). Racism and the Biblical justifications for it is another complex issue however, and it is only mentioned here to elucidate the point that even in theology, the origins of man have not always been used for good or just ends.

Progress
The first section of the original “March of Progress” from F. Clark Howell’s Early Man

While basic researches into ancient Egypt and other cultures began to show that the chronology determined by Lightfoot, Ussher, and others was far too short to be accurate, our place as a special creation didn’t start to be truly challenged until the remains of ancient peoples unlike ourselves began to be discovered. Fossils found by many cultures had long been thought to be evidence of gods, titans, giants, dragons, and monsters (see Adrienne Mayor’s The First Fossil Hunters), but these remains seemed to be more curiosities or holy relics than the remains of people more ancient than anyone then conceived of. Andrew D. White tells us in his masterwork A History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom;

In France, the learned Benedictine, Calmet, in his great works on the Bible, accepted ["the doctrine that fossils are the remains of animals drowned at the Flood"] as late as the beginning of the eighteenth century, believing the mastodon’s bones exhibited by Mazurier to be those of King Teutobocus, and holding holding them valuable testimony to the existence of the giants mentioned in Scripture and of early inhabitants of the earth overwhelmed by the Flood.

Even in the 1854 edition of Gideon Mantell’s Medals of Creation, fossil remains of humans are not mentioned because they seemed to be conspicuously lacking. In the “Retrospect” of the book Mantell writes;

But of MAN and his works not a vestige appears throughout the vast periods embraced in this review. Yet were any of the existing islands or continents to be engulphed in the depths of the ocean, and loaded with marine detritus, and in future ages be elevated above the waters, covered with consolidated mud and sand, how different would be the characters of those strata from any which have preceded them! Their most striking features would be the remains of Man, and the production of human art – the domes of his temples, the columns of his palaces, the arches of his stupendous bridges of iron and stone, the ruins of his towns and cities, and the durable remains of his earthly tenement imbedded in the rocks and strata – these would be the “Medals of Creation” of the Human Epoch, and transmit to the remotest periods of time a faithful record of the present condition of the surface of the earth, and of its inhabitants.

This doesn’t mean that the remains of humans were not thought to be found, however. In an earlier chapter on reptiles (being that amphibians were included within the reptiles in Mantell’s work), the author writes;

A celebrated fossil of this class is the gigantic Salamander (Cryptobranchus), three feet in length found at Ceuingen, which a German physician of some note (Scheuchzer) supposed to be a fossil man!

Mantell
Scheuchzer’s tricky salamander, from the 2nd volume of Mantell’s Medals of Creation.

The view of fossils began to change, however, as creatures were found that could not simply be considered giants, gods, or heroes. A.D. White quotes Dr. Anton Westermeyer’s The Old Testament vindicated from Modern Infidel Objections as follows;

“By the fructifying brooding of the Divine Spirit on the waters of the deep, creative forces began to stir; the devils who inhabited the primeval darkness and considered it their own abode saw that they were to be driven from their possessions, or at least that their place of habitation was to be contracted, and they therefore tried to frustrate God’s plan of creation and exert all that remained to them of might and power to hinder or at least, to mar the new creation.” So came into being “the horrible and destructive monsters, these caricatures and distortions of creation,” of which we have fossil remains. Dr. Westermeyer goes on to insist that “whole generations called into existence by God succumbed to the corruption of the devil, and for that reason had to be destroyed”; and that “in the work of the six days of God caused the devil to feel his power in all earnest, and made Satan’s enterprise appear miserable and vain.”

Indeed, although the first known remains of Megalosaurus were confused to be the enormous testicles of an “Antediluvian Giant,” the rest of the skeletal remains found by Dr. Buckland (and those of Iguanodon found by Mantell) showed that these animals could not be considered to be characters introduced to us in the Biblical narrative of creation or history. While evolution or “transmutation” of species was not yet ready to make its full appearance on the scientific stage, some did recognize the fossils as representing animals long gone, and the concept of extinction that Cuvier did so much to establish became essential to scientific thought and was a great victory over the religious dogma that God would not create a “kind” of animals and then let them be destroyed. This does not mean that other explanations of these remains were not legion, however.

Despite his contributions to marine biology, Philip Henry Gosse published one of the most infamous attempts to reconcile the geologic column with a historically-accurate Genesis account in his 1857 book Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot. Taking the reader on a painfully protracted tour of creation, the author introduces us to Adam, the prose suggesting that Gosse has persuaded Adam to sit down for a full anatomical evaluation. After detailing certain aspects of Adam’s anatomy (including the ever-problematic navel), Gosse tells us that every bit of Adam’s anatomy tells of a full human life, from gestation to birth to growth, but this is merely a set-up. Gosse writes;

How is it possible to avoid this conclusion? Has not the physiologist irrefragable grounds for it, founded on universal experience? Has not observation abundantly shown, that, wherever the bones, flesh, blood, teeth, nails, hair of man exist, the aggregate body has passed through stages exactly correspondant to those alluded to above, and has originated in the uterus of a mother, it foetal life being, so to speak, a budding out of hers? Has the combined experience of mankind ever seen a solitary exception to this law? How, then, can we refuse the concession that, in the individual before us, in whom we find all the phenomena that we are accustomed to associate with adult Man, repeated in the most exact verisimilitude, without a single flaw-how, I say, can we hesitate to assert that such was his origin to?

And yet, in order to assert it, we must be prepared to adopt the old Pagan doctrine of the eternity of matter; ex nihilo nihil fit. But those with whom I argue are precluded from this, by my first Postulate.

Gosse’s first Postulate being;

If any geologist take the position of the necessary eternity of matter, dispensing with a Creator, on the old ground, ex nihilo nihil fit, – I do not argue with him. I assume that at some period or other in past eternity there existed nothing but the Eternal God, and that He called the universe into being out of nothing.

All such considerations from Gosse, Mantell, and others seem to ignore that remains like, yet unlike, humans were already being discovered during the 19th century. While the most noted discovery of Neanderthals occurred 151 years ago this past week, fossils of hominids we now call Neanderthals were found in 1829 and 1848, A.D. White mentioning unspecified “human remains” being found “as early as 1835 at Cannstadt near Stuttgart” as well. Still, the remains of Neanderthals and stone tools seemed to be too close to Homo sapiens to dissuade advocates of special creation that man had evolved, although scientists were able to confirm that the origins of mankind were probably far older than anyone had previously thought.

The publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection made evolution a scientifically credible and defensible idea, however, and while he generally avoided the evolution of humans in this work (it being more important to convince readers that evolution has in fact occurred rather than offending religious sensibilities of the time head-on), he later addressed the issue directly in The Descent of Man. Darwin writes in the Summary;

Man may be excused for feeling some pride at having risen, though not through his own exertions, to the very summit of the organic scale; and the fact of his having thus risen, instead of having been aboriginally placed there, may give him hope for a still higher destiny in the distant future. But we are not here concerned with hopes or fears, only with the truth as far as our reason permits us to discover it; and I have given the evidence to the best of my ability. We must, however, acknowledge, as it seems to me, that man with all his noble qualities, with sympathy which feels for the most debased, with benevolence which extends not only to other men but to the humblest living creature, with his god-like intellect which has penetrated into the movements and constitution of the solar system – with all these exalted powers – Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.

Mandrill
A Mandrill as it appears in the 2nd edition of Darwin’s The Descent of Man.

Darwin wasn’t the first to consider that men today had changed from earlier forms, although Darwin was much closer to the truth than other intellectual peers. The Ionic philosopher Anaximander proposed an idea that later would come back, in new form, as the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis. In his valuable book From the Greeks to Darwin, Henry Fairfield Osborn presents Anaximander’s thesis thusly;

He conceived of the earth as first existing in a fluid state. From its gradual drying up all living creatures were produced, beginning with men. These aquatic men first appeared in the form of fishes in the water, and they emerged from this element only after they had progressed so far as to be able to further develop and sustain themselves upon land. This is rather analogous development from a simpler to a more advanced structure by a change of organs, yet a germ of the Evolution idea is found here.

We find that Anaximander advanced some reasons for this view. He pointed to a man’s long helplessness after birth as one of the proofs that he cannot be in his original condition. His hypothetical ancestors of man were supposed to be first encased in horny capsules, floating and feeding in water; as soon as these ‘fish-men’ were in a condition to emerge, they came on land, the capsule burst, and they took their human form.

After evolution became established in both terms of fact and theory, the great fossil collectors of the late 19th and early 20th century began to come up with hypotheses as to from whence came Homo sapiens. In his Neo-Lamarckian 1896 treatise, Edward Drinker Cope proposed the following hypothesis;

The relation of this fact ["the high percentage of quadritubercular superior molars in the Malays, Polynesians, and Melanesians"] to phylogeny is to confirm Haeckel’s hypothesis of the lemurine ancestry of man. I have advanced the hypothesis that the Anthropomorpha (which include man and the anthropoid apes) have been derived directly from the lemurs, without passing through the monkeys proper. This close association of man with the apes, is based on various considerations.

Cope goes on to list some of the differences, focusing primarily on limbs and teeth, before coming to this passage;

Professor Virchow in a late address has thrown down the gage to the evolutionary anthropologists by asserting that “scientific anthropology begins with living races,” adding “that the first step in the construction of the doctrine of transformism will be the explanation of the way the human races have been formed,” etc. But the only way of solving the latter problem will be by the discovery of the ancestral races, which are extinct. The ad captandum remarks of the learned professor as to deriving an Aryan from a Negro, etc. remind one of the criticisms directed at the doctrine of evolution when it was first presented to the public, as to a horse never producing a cow, etc. It is well known to Professor Virchow that human races present greater or less approximations to the simian type in various respects… Professor Virchow states that the Neanderthal man is a diseased subject, but the disease has evidently not destroyed his race characters; and in his address he ignores the important and well-authenticated discovery of the man and woman of Spy. These observations are reinforced by recent discovery of a similar man by DuBois at Trinil in the island of Java ["Java Man," otherwise known as Pithecanthropus erectus].

Progress 2
The second part of the original “March of Progress” from F. Clark Howell’s Early Man

Cope goes on to describe the fossils, noting that the remains DuBois had found do not seem to be of a Neanderthal, and Neanderthals are sufficiently far from humans that Cope finds the scientific name Homo neanderthalensis somewhat objectionable, the more defining characteristics of Neanderthals being found nowhere in the aboriginal peoples then known. Nowhere does Cope suggest an anagenic relationship of Neanderthals or “Java Man” as a direct ancestor, although their utility in showing evolution has occurred is invaluable. Still, the fossil remains of hominids (and in turn, their ancestors) were certainly wanting during Cope’s time, but in the first half of the 20th century some scientists became to come across some bonanzas in Africa. Raymond Dart was one of the most noted scientists to study the great fossil-bearing caves from Taung, Sterkfontein, and Makapansgat in South Africa. In the fantastic book The Hunters of the Hunted?, C.K. Brain shares with us this passage of Dart’s from his early discoveries in the caves;

The fossil animals slain by the man-apes at Makapansgat were so big that in 1925 I was misled into believing that only human beings of advanced intelligence could have been responsible for such manlike hunting work as the bones revealed… These Makapansgat protomen, like Nimrod long after them, were might hunters.

They were also callous and brutal. The most shocking specimen was the fractured lower jaw of a 12-year-old son of a manlike ape. The lad had been killed by a violent blow delivered with calculated accuracy on the point of the chin, either by a smashing fist or a club. The bludgeon blow was so vicious that it had shattered the jaw on both sides of the face and knocked out all the front teeth. That dramatic specimen impelled me in 1948 and the seven years following to study further their murderous and cannibalistic way of life.

As Brain then notes, such was the murderous Australopithecus of R. A. Dart; brutal savages and cannibals, making their tools and weapons out of the bones and horns of the animals that they managed to kill. Examinations of the cave after Dart, however revealed something incredibly different from the terrifying reign of the “protomen.” Humans were, in fact, prey for a long time, many remains attributed to cannibalism instead being signs that the caves once belonged to fearsome predators. One of the most famous evidences is part of a skull with two puncture holes, nearly exactly matching the canine teeth of a leopard. Indeed, the real story seems to be a struggle for existence among the hominids found in these areas, not being very advanced in hunting at all. Nonetheless, they eventually overtook the predators (when they weren’t stealing from their kills), and came to reside in the caves themselves. Such revelations, however, would have to wait until the 2nd half of the 20th century, and there were plenty more ideas about human origins prior to Brain’s 1981 book.

Despite the progress of science there have always been “fringe” hypotheses about humans and their place in the universe, and perhaps nothing fueled crackpot claims so much as the popularity of UFOs and the possible existence of aliens on Mars during the first half of the 20th century. Humans became the products of alien engineering projects, bizarre sexual encounters between aliens and early hominids, or even aliens themselves, having no remembrance of coming from a civilization on another planet. Racist hypotheses also abounded, and there were many odd amalgamations of cherry-picked scientific discoveries and superstition.

While some were content to conjure up ideas of aliens laying down with “Lucy”, scientists continued to attempt to determine not only from what ancestors man arose from, but where those ancestors may be. A.S. Romer, in the 1933 book Man and the Vertebrates Vol. I, supports H.F. Osborn’s view that man’s origins were likely to be found somewhere in Asia. Indeed, the famous 1923 expedition undertaken to the Flaming Cliffs of Mongolia by Roy Chapman Andrews that yielded Protoceratops and so many dinosaur eggs was intended to be a search for the ancestors of humans. Romer writes;

The fossil of Tertiary tropical life is, however, still comparatively unknown. It is not only possible but extremely probable that the Asiatic hills will, upon further exploration, give us the certain knowledge we desire of the primate ancestors of man.

Despite the lack of early ancestors, however, there was enough scientific understanding for Romer to close out the 1st volume with the following words;

Man has gone far and, we trust, may go still farther along the lines of evolution. But in his every feature – brain, sense organs, limbs – he is a product of primitive evolutionary trends and owes, in his high estate, much to his arboreal ancestry, to features developed by his Tertiary forefathers for life in the trees.

Romer’s diagram of human evolution varies from that described by Cope earlier, however. While Cope saw humans evolving directly from lemur-like ancestors, Romer created a diagram of extant primates (lemurs, tarsiers, new world monkeys, old world monkeys, great apes, and man) connected by one line, each of the groups branching off from the main line leading to man and seemingly having no relation to each other. This is part of the classic model of anagenesis that seems to suggest non-stop progress to man, almost as if a vitalistic force was setting humans on a fast-track (although I am not suggesting Romer had this view or advocated it; it merely seems to be an underlying theme in such illustrations). As G.G Simpson noted in the 1950 popular work The Meaning of Evolution, however, contentious fossil remains so close to humans can easily stir up trouble;

Primate classification has been the diversion of so many students unfamiliar with the classification of other animals that it is, frankly, a mess. It involves matter of opinion on human origins and, humans being what they are, such opinions are endlessly varied and not always distinguished by competence or logic.

Simpson
G.G. Simpson’s tree diagram of primate evolution, from the 3rd edition of The Meaning of Evolution.

Simpson’s diagram of primate evolution is a bit closer to truth than Romer’s from nearly 20 years earlier, as well. It more closely resembled the “branching bush” of evolution, groups linked by common ancestors with some lineages dying out and leaving no living descendants. Still, great apes are distinguished from “early man” and the genus Homo, and given that details are not given it can’t be ascertained whether Simpson held the view that all hominids discovered by that time were linked in a straight-line of evolution. Edwin H. Colbert (also of the American Museum of Natural History), put forth a similar view in his popular work Evolution of the Vertebrates, stating;

Even though human beings may not be descended from the australopithecines as we know them, it is very possible that man arose from australopithecine-like ancestors. The origin of the human stock probably occurred in late Tertiary times, for man is essentially a Pleistocene animal. Having become differentiated from his primate relatives, man evolved during the Pleistocene period along certain lines that made him what his is today. The evolutionary development of human beings was not of great magnitude within the course of Pleistocene history; rather it was a matter of the perfection of details that set man apart from all other primates, and from all other animals for that matter.

Colbert
The hominid reconstructions as they appear in Colbert’s Evolution of the Vertebrates.

This isn’t an especially profound statement, more along the lines of “Man is different from other animals, thus different things must have happened to cause his ‘perfection,'” but it does point towards the “ladder” view of human evolution. What Colbert is essentially saying is during the latest parts of human evolution, there was a refinement of types rather than major evolutionary change, and while he doesn’t line up a point-by-point lineage some of the pictures accompanying his text do suggest a sort of anagenesis from Australopithecus to Pithecanthropus to Neanderthals to Homo sapiens. Chris Beard, in his indispensable book The Hunt For the Dawn Monkey, attributes this view of human evolutionary “progress” to Sir Wilfrid E. Le Gros Clark, quoting Clark’s work The Antecedents of Man as follows;

Among the Primates of today, the series tree shrew-lemur-tarsier-monkey-ape-man suggests progressive levels of organization in an actual evolutionary sequence. And that such a sequence did occur is demonstrated by the fossil series beginning with the early plesiadapids [so-called "archaic primates" from the Paleocene] and extending through the Palaeocene and Eocene prosimians, and through the cercopithecoid [Old World monkeys] and pongid [apes] Primates of the Oligocene, Miocene, and Pliocene, to the hominids of the Pleistocene. Thus the foundations of evolutionary development which finally culminated in our own species, Homo sapiens, were laid when the first little tree shrew-like creatures advanced beyond the level of the lowly insectivores which lived during the Cretaceous period and embarked on an arboreal career without the restrictions and limitations imposed by… a terrestrial mode of life.

Potto
Skeleton of a Potto (a prosimian like a Loris) from the American Museum of Natural History

As Beard notes in his book, however, most of the hominid fossils then known were almost like bookends to a series, with the lemur-like ancestors (i.e. Notharctus from North America and Adapis from France) of later primates and the famous African and European hominids being the most well known. As countries became more open to science, however, more and more fossils came out of the ground, and Beard does note that while Africa may very well be the “cradle of humanity” in terms of hominids, if you really want to go back to the beginnings of prosimians Asia is the place to search. This somewhat vindicates those who thought that Asia would be the place to look for human ancestors, though not quite in the way they imagined. Even so, the ladder view seemed to be the favored one, at least for all fossil hominids younger than the Australopithecus. In his Vertebrate Paleontology (3rd Edition), A.S. Romer writes;

A word may be added here with regard to the nomeclature of human finds. We have freely used several generic terms for various early human finds. Such a usage implies that the forms differed widely from one another, had independent evolutionary histories, and did not interbreed – that the differences between them were not merely of species value but of such a magnitude as, for example, those between a cow and an antelope, a dog and a fox. This is absurd. Because they are so close to us, we tend to magnify differences. Actually, the differences between modern man and “Pithecanthropus” are, viewed impersonally, rather minor ones (particularly if we keep in mind the considerable variations found even today), and quite surely all types on the human line above the Australopithecus level pertain to our own genus Homo. Further, while communications between the various Old World area in which man was early present were obviously poor, and there presumably was little interbreeding and consequently (as today) a tendency for the differentiation of regional races, it seems fair to assume that throughout our long Pleistocene history, our human ancestors formed at all stages a single, if variable, group.

Despite this rather homogenous view of human evolution (the idea that Pithecanthropus falls within human variation being an idea that has reared its ugly head in modern creationism, as we’ll see later), Romer does make a distinction when it comes to Neanderthals. He writes;

A type of man definitely assignable to our own species, Homo sapiens, appeared in Europe well toward the end of the last glaciation, not more than 50,000 years or so ago. One would at first assume that he had arisen from his Neanderthal predecessor. But the contrasts are too great; there in (in Europe, at least) no evidence of transitional types; the appearance of modern man was, the evidence suggests, relatively sudden. There is every indication that the “modernized” invaders wiped out their predecessors (Tasmania is a modern parallel).

Progress 3
The third part of the original “March of Progress” from F. Clark Howell’s Early Man

Thus, during the 1960’s the evolution of man was rather ladder-like as it approached culmination, with relatively little radiation of types. The links to Australopithecus and Homo neanderthalensis as understood then were both doubted, although it was certain that humans had gone through a similar stage in the evolutionary process from the apes. Indeed, the ladder-view seemed to use representative types to show the gradation of evolution than linking all known hominids into a straight line (at least this is the impression from the popular works cited). Still, visual representations of human ancestry seemed far-more powerful than the actual text of many of these books, which brings us to the (in)famous “March of Progress.” The artwork, appearing in the 1979 Time-Life book Early Man by F. Clark Howell, certainly became iconic, and I am lucky enough to have a copy of the “Young Readers Nature Library” version of the book from my childhood. The “march,” with all members standing upright, carries this caption, and proceeds as follows;

The stages in man’s development from an apelike ancestor to the modern human being are shown in drawings on this and the following three pages. Some of the stages have been drawn on the basis of very little evidence – a few teeth, a jaw or some leg bones. However, experts can often figure out a great deal about what a whole animal looked like from studying these few remains. In general, man’s ancestors have grown taller as they became more advanced. For purposes of comparison, this chart shows all of them standing although the ones on this page [Pliopithecus through Oreopithecus] actually walked on all fours.

PliopithecusProconsulDryopithecusOreopithecusRamapithecusAustralopithecus africanusAustralopithecus robustusAustralopithecus boiseiHomo habilisHomo erectus – Early Homo sapiens – Neanderthal Man – Cro-Magnon Man – Modern Man

Progress 4
The final part of the original “March of Progress” from F. Clark Howell’s Early Man

Proconsul
Skull of Proconsul from the American Museum of Natural History

The inclusion of “Early Homo sapiens” before “Neanderthal Man” is a strange one, and even on the following pages australopithecines are shown living during the same time or exhibiting variation. While the author and artists of the book may not have meant to show that all the primates in their line evolved directly from their predecessors in line, the power of the image overwhelmed any explanation, and the image certainly became iconic. Evolutionary scientists did not sit idly by while a fallacious notion of human evolution was promulgated, however; Stephen Jay Gould opens his 1989 book on the Cambrian fauna Wonderful Life with his astonishment that his books, translated into other languages, bear the incorrect image. Gould writes;

The march of progress is the canonical representation of evolution – the one picture immediately grasped and viscerally understood by all. This may best be appreciated by its prominent use in humor and in advertising. These professions provide our best test of public perceptions. Jokes and ads most click in the fleeting second that our attention grants them. …

Life is a copiously branching bush, continually pruned by the grim reaper of extinction, not a ladder of predictable progress. Most people may know this as a phrase to be uttered, but not as a concept brought into the deep interior of understanding. Hence we continually make errors inspired by unconscious allegiance to the ladder of progress, even when we explicitly deny such a superannuated view of life. …

First, in an error that I call “life’s little joke”, we are virtually compelled to the stunning mistake of citing unsuccessful lineages as classic “textbook cases” of “evolution.” We do this because we try to extract a single line of advance from the true topology of copious branching. In this misguided effort, we are inevitably drawn to bushes so near the brink of total annihilation that they retain only one surviving twig. We then view this twig as the acme of upward achievement, rather than the probable last gasp of richer ancestry.

Gould as absolutely right; the iconic imagery of the “March” is so wrong, yet so easily understood, that it survives even when it is inaccurate. Creationists use it as a symbol of evolution (or, more often, mistakes evolutionary scientists have made), while satirists often use it to show the “devolution” of one group or another, and I doubt that the overall imagery will lose its utility anytime soon. If nothing else, the lesson we must learn from “The March of Progress” is that we are to use the utmost care in selecting visual representations of evolution, for one image can stay in the collective understanding (or misunderstanding) of a subject even when it’s accuracy has long passed the expiration date.

Going back to the thoughts of human evolution during the 60’s and 70’s, the life of earlier hominids was deemed to be a violent one, centering around man as the hunter. Without the ability to hunt as a group on dangerous African plains, we wouldn’t have advanced to our current state, requiring plenty of red meat to provide human ancestors more protein for their growing brains (or so was the logic, anyway). Some people, however, didn’t buy into this view that humans owe everything that evolution bestowed upon them to the Great Hunter, and so a feminist reaction was proposed; the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis. Centuries after Anaximander proposed his own views on the aquatic nature of man, Alister Hardy presented a lecture on “Aquatic Man: Past, Present, and Future” in 1960, and soon after he presented the idea to the public in a series of articles for New Scientist magazine.

The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis did not really take off, however, until a writer named Elaine Morgan published the book The Descent of Woman in 1972. Hardly a scientific work, the book focused more on a rejection of male-centered anthropology, and Donna Kossy provides an excerpt of Morgan’s prose in the book Strange Creations;

She knew at once she wasn’t going to like it there. She had four hands better adapted for gripping than walking and she wasn’t very fast on the ground. She was a fruit eater and as far as she could see there wasn’t any fruit… She never thought of digging for roots – she wasn’t very bright. She got thirsty, too, and the water holes were death traps with large cats lurking hopefully around them. She got horribly skinny and scruffy-looking.

…The only thing she had going for her was the fact that she was one of a community, so that if they all ran away together a predator would be satisfied with catching the slowest and the rest would survive a little longer.

What then, did she do? Did she take a crash course in walking erect, convince some male overnight that he must now be the breadwinner, and back him up by agreeing to go hairless and thus constituting an even more vulnerable and conspicuous target for any passing carnivore? Did she turn into the Naked Ape?

Of course, she did nothing of the kind. There simply wasn’t time. In the circumstances, there was only one thing she could possibly turn into, and she promptly did it. She turned into a leopard’s dinner.

With piercing squeals of terror she [a different ancestral ape] ran straight into the sea. The carnivore was a species of cat and didn’t like wetting his feet; and moreover, though he had twice her body weight, she was accustomed like most tree-dwellers to adopting an upright posture, even though she used four legs for locomotion. She was thus able to go farther into the water than he could without drowning. She went right in up to her neck and waited there clutching her baby until the cat got fed up with waiting and went back to the grasslands…

…One idle afternoon after a good deal of trial and error she picked up a pebble – this required no luck at all because the beach was covered with thousands of pebbles – and hit one of the shells with it, and the shell cracked. She tried it again, and it worked every time. So she became a tool user, and a male watched her and imitated her (This doesn’t mean that she was any smarter than he was – only that necessity is the mother of invention. Later his necessities, and therefore his inventiveness, outstripped hers.)

… She began to turn into a naked ape for the same reason as the porpoise turned into a naked cetacean, the hippopotamus into a naked ungulate, the walrus into a naked pinniped, and the manatee into a naked sirenian.

Morgan wrote other books on the subject and there still is a bit of a following to the idea that humans arrived in their current configuration due to an “aquatic stage” sometime in their history. Long hair on the head is for babies to cling to, large breasts float better than small ones, hairlessness makes one more streamlined, and nearly any part of the body that has been adapted this way or that, is potentially explained by life in or around the water, and even recent popular science books have taken a bit of a shine to Morgan’s hypothesis (like Survival of the Sickest). Despite the popular appeal, there is not much to the hypothesis, however, and no actual evidence to confirm it, fossil or otherwise. Indeed, it almost starts with modern female anatomy and works backwards, trying to find an explanation for this trait or that, based upon how we act in the water now, although if we were ever well-adapted to life in the sea we have lost such abilities. While Morgan was right to criticize the lack of attention given to women in terms of anthropology and evolution, her view is as extreme (if not moreso) than the one she was trying to replace.

And now we come to the present. The evolution of Homo sapiens from older species now extinct has long been established, the evolutionary history of hominids now understood to represent more of a “bush” than a ladder of progress. There are lineages that do show anagenesis or transitions from one species to another, but in the last few decades so many unexpected finds have come out of the ground that imagining human evolution to be a straight-line, deigned to produce us in our present form, is utterly ridiculous. There are still battles to be fought over which fossil fits where, what kind of dispersal early hominids had, what pressures led to our ancestors being obligate bipeds, but the competing hypotheses in such debates become more and more refined with every discovery, and the evidence supporting the fact that we have evolved cannot be overturned. This isn’t to say, however, that some trends in understanding ourselves or our ancestry haven’t changed. As I mentioned earlier, some of the diagrams of human evolution during the first half of the 20th century based themselves on living primates and prosimians, looking to them for the order in which we should place human evolution. There has been something of a return to this as of late, but in the area of evolutionary psychology rather than paleoanthropology. Chimpanzees and bonobos, after being confirmed as our closest living relatives, are often used as the two polar archetypes for our own ancestry; we were either violent like chimpanzees, horny bohemians like bonobos, or something in-between. While it is often noted that we humans have the ability to do good in spite of our evolutionary past, the authors of Demonic Males make their premise clear; all living male apes are exceedingly violent;

This helps explain why humans are cursed with demonic males. First, why demonic? In other words, why are human males given to vicious, lethal aggression? Thinking only of war, putting aside for the moment rape and battering and murder, the curse stems from our species’ own special party-gang traits: coalitionary bonds among males, male dominion over an expandable territory, and variable party size. The combination of these traits means that killing a neighboring male is usually worthwhile, and can often be done safely.

Frans de Waal, in Our Inner Ape, also recognizes our dark side, but is more of an optimist; he sees the sexual (and “peaceful”) culture of bonobos to be proof that violence is not pre-ordained for us. He writes;

That such a creature could have been produced through the elimination of unsuccessful genotypes is what lends the Darwinian view its power. If we avoid confusing this process with its products – the Beethoven error – we see one of the most internally conflicted animals ever to walk the earth. It is a capable of unbelievable destruction of both its environment and its own kind, yet at the same time it possess wells of empathy and love deeper than ever seen before. Since this animal has gained dominance over all others, it’s all the more important that it takes an honest look in the mirror, so that it knows both the archenemy it faces and the ally that stands ready to help it build a better world.

While chimpanzees and bonobos are our closest living relatives, we proceeded on our own line of evolution for at least 4,000,000 years, evolving on an apparently accelerated trajectory while our evolutionary “cousins” have not been adapted in exactly the same way. This is not an appeal to say that humans are so distinct that we should not look to living primates for answers about why we are as we are, but rather that we must also keep the long view in perspective. Exclusively using the behavior of living apes to work backwards to the behavior of our own ancestors treats the subject as if chimpanzees and bonobos our are ancestors, one of the biggest mistakes still made by people unfamiliar with how evolution works. Speaking of the “If we’re evolved, why are there still monkeys?” argument, it is now time to look at modern creationism and its view of human evolution.

As covered at the beginning of this post, the contradictory Genesis accounts tell of humans being created at some point in the past by the Judeo-Christian God, exactly when this event occurred being inferred from chronologies in the Bible. Still, how could such stories stand up to the weight of scientific evidence for our own evolution? The truth of the matter is that it cannot, but that has not stopped some from trying to bring us back to a reliance on Genesis. The first unsuccessful attempt to debunk human evolution I came across was in Jonathan Wells’ odious work Icons of Evolution, which bears a scaled-down version of the “March of Progress” on its cover. In the chapter discussing this particular “icon”, Wells notes that he is familiar with Gould’s rejection of the ladder-view of human evolution in Wonderful Life, but this does not seem to be sufficient for Wells. He engages in the following rhetoric in trying to make his case;

But how does Gould know that extinctions are accidents? On the basis of fossil evidence, how could he possibly know? Clearly, it takes more than a pattern in the fossil record to answer sweeping questions about direction and purpose – even if we knew for sure what those patterns are. And even if extinctions are accidents, does that rule out the possibility that evolution is goal-oriented? Everyone’s death is contingent; does that make everyone’s birth and life an accident? The continued existence of the human species is contingent on many things: That we don’t blow ourselves up with nuclear weapons, that the earth isn’t struck by a large asteroid, and that we don’t poison our environment, among other things. But it doesn’t follow that our very existence is an accident, or that human life is purposeless.

In this metaphysical muddle Wells offers up no evidence that extinctions have a purpose, that evolution is goal-oriented, or that human life has an inherent “purpose.” Indeed, he acts with such incredulity that he seemingly expects it to be contagious, luring the reader in with a string of absurd questions. There is no sign of evolution (or extinction) occurring as a part of a plan or having an ultimate goal and mind, and even if there was some sort of “directing force” to evolution it would seem to be an awfully wasteful process, never ensuring the permanence of a species (and would evolution, therefore, have an end?). What Wells essentially does is dress up Gould’s argument from Wonderful Life as a straw man, and apparently he doesn’t realize that Gould beat him to the punch about the famous illustration (and much more accurately, too) over a decade before Wells published his own book.

Young Earth Creationist ministries, like the well-known Answers in Genesis, take a slightly different approach; goading based upon the perceived authority of the Bible. In his tract The Lie, AiG leader Ken Ham includes cartoon after cartoon of the Bible being set up as the foundation for everything Christians believe, evolution being (often comically) set up as the origins of murder, abortion, and all sin. According to this view, even Old Testament figures like King David fell under the “evil influence” of evolution when they committed various sins, even though Darwin would not even be born until centuries later. The book states;

Society depends on moral foundations. By a mutual agreement which has sometimes been called a “social contract,” man, in an ordered and civilized society, sets limits to his own conduct. However, when such obligations are repudiated and the law collapses along with the order it brings, what option has the man who seeks peace? The psalmist is looking at the fact that whenever the foundations of society are undermined, then what have good and righteous men done to prevent its impending collapse?

Indeed, AiG sets the stakes high; nothing less than the existence of “civilized” and moral society rests on the battle being fought over evolution by creationists. Even those who accept evolution and are Christians are deemed to be compromisers, and generally looked down upon despite shared central theological beliefs. While the argument that there can be no morality without religion is certainly fallacious, it is a powerful concept, deeply tied to the evangelical desire to “save” those who have not accepted Jesus as God. What is even more surprising, however, is that creationists often state this weakness in their thought process up front; in the Young Earth Creationist view, nothing can contradict the Bible, and so anything that seems contradictory to accepted doctrine (which has, of course, been interpreted from the Bible by people) has to either be shoved into the Bible or dismissed as a lie or hoax. Case in point; AiG’s new geologist Andrew Snelling once tried to address the lack of human remains intermingled with those of dinosaurs and other fossil creatures from ages past (they should have been mixed together by the Flood) by stating that God made sure that no human remains survived the Flood so they would not be worshiped if found by subsequent generations of survivors. He wrote;

It would seem to us unloving of God to execute such relentless judgment, but such is God’s abhorrence of sin that its penalty must be seen for what it is—utter destruction and removal of all trace. If God cannot tolerate sin (His holiness cannot ‘look’ on sin), then all trace of sin has to be removed in judgment, which necessitates utter destruction. Should human remains have been allowed to survive the Flood as fossils, then there could also have been the possibility of such remains being worshiped and revered.

But what about the hominid remains that we do find? These are usually said to be “degenerate” people dispersed from the Tower of Babel, as God confused the languages of the people trying to build a tower to reach to heaven and dispersed them, feeling excessively threatened by the attempt for some reason (it is likely that those who wrote the Babel story thought God lived on the firmament in the vault of heaven, a place that actually could be reached if you just built high enough). It has even been argued that if you were to see a Neanderthal today on a subway, you would probably think them a boxer or wrestler, never being the wiser to the fact that you’re looking at another species. Generally members of the genus Homo are incorporated into such arguments, with the more basal Australopithecus and Paranthropus being relegated to merely being “apes.” In The Amazing Story of Creation From Science and the Bible, creationist-celebrity Duane Gish writes;

However, evolutionists’ faith in their theory makes it necessary for them to believe that a tooth, or a piece of skull, or a jawbone, or some other fossil bone came from a creature partway between ape and man. When all of the evidence is carefully and thoroughly studied by the best scientific methods, however, it turns out that these fossils were either from monkeys, apes, or people, and not from something that was part ape and part human.

This assertion is importance not only because it shows the YEC need to shoe-horn various hominids into the three categories mentioned above, but also because it involves one of creationism’s big tricks; trying to equate science with religion. If scientists can be said to “believe” in evolution, or have “faith” that more fossils will be found, then it becomes easy to make it sound like a parallel belief system to Christianity, evolution just being a secular creation myth. This, of course, is far from the truth, but many are easily drawn into this idea as all religions that are not Christian must therefore be incorrect by definition, once again putting the cart before the horse when considering the natural world. Young Earth Creationists aren’t the only ones attempting to refute evolution, however. Hugh Ross is a famous Old Earth Creationist, and his hypotheses are neither here nor there. Rejecting both evolution and the idea that the earth is less than 10,000 years old, Ross holds that Adam and Eve really were created by God just like the Bible says, only 7,000 to 60,000 years ago. As for other hominids, Ross puts them in a separate category with other animals, the primarily dividing factor being a lack of a relationship with God. In The Genesis Question Ross writes;

Although bipedal, tool-using, large-brained primates roamed Earth for hundreds of thousands (perhaps a million) years, religious relics date back only about either thousand to twenty-four thousand years. Thus, the anthropological date for the first spirit creatures agrees with the biblical date.

Thought most anthropologists still insist that the bipedal primates were “human,” the conflict lies more in semantics than in research data. Support for their views that modern humans descended from these primate species is rapidly eroding. Evidence now indicated that all bipedal primates went extinct, with the possible exception of Neanderthal, before the advent of human beings. As for Neanderthal, the possibility of a biological link with humanity has been conclusively ruled out.

Only such Neanderthal/Homo sapiens interactions, however improbable, haven’t been conclusively ruled out. There are strong arguments from both sides, and at present it doesn’t appear that we’ll be able to come up with a definitive answer. Still, Ross’ stance is just as silly as that of the YEC’s; he concedes scientific evidence for an old earth and universe, yet evolution is still too much of a detestable idea to be taken seriously. It’s not surprising that AiG issued a book, twice the length of Ross’ original, entitled Refuting Compromise, presenting a point-by-point breakdown of Ross’ arguments. All this is a great waste of intellect and paper, but I’m sure Jonathan Sarfati and Hugh Ross would say the same about what I’m doing here.

There is still at least one more trick in the creationist toolkit, however; bringing up past hypotheses that have been refuted or fossil lineages that have been changed and claiming that scientists are either ignorant or liars. Such is the setup provided to Jonathan Wells by the apologist Lee Strobel, who prides himself on being a “Devil’s Advocate” when he actually presents those he interviews with straw man after straw man. In the numbingly boring book The Case for a Creator, Strobel concocts a story of how he was convinced that evolution was true because of a reconstruction of “Java Man” (whom we’ve already met, see above), only to have Jonathan Wells crush his childhood memories of Pithecanthropus. he writes;

As I leaf back through my time-worn copies of the World Book from my childhood, I can now see how faulty science and Darwinian presuppositions forced my former friend Java man into an evolutionary parade that’s based much more on imagination than reality. Unfortunately, he’s not the only example of that phenomenon, which is rife to the point of rending the record of supposed human evolution totally untrustworthy.

I guess Strobel couldn’t be bothered to update himself on evolutionary theory between the time he received his World Book and when he met Wells, and if his “faith” in a topic can be so easily manipulated, I wonder why anyone considers him a good apologist. Still, creationists continue to bring up historical mistakes like “Nebraska Man” as if such errors were to strike terror into the hearts of scientists everywhere. Outside of the outright lies, however, Strobel’s prose shows us another important side to creationist tactics in trying to undermine evolution; science is not to be trusted at all. This strategy, like those mentioned before, works because it appeals to sentiments probably already held by many evangelicals, primarily that the Bible is the source of all truth and holds the answer to every conceivable question, any sort of knowledge or understanding produced by man being inherently flawed and untrustworthy. The fact that the Bible requires interpretation and that theology is constantly changing, however, does not seem to register, and so the evolution of humans is denied simply because the idea is unsavory.

And that, my friends, bring this post to a close. Despite the amount of resources I’ve used from my personal library, this is hardly an exhaustive study; I have largely ignored major fossil finds in order to focus on the ideas surrounding our own evolution, and any more detail would have greatly prolonged this post. What I hope to have shown, however, is that science does not crumble when taxa are reassigned or a new fossil shows up where it was not expected; it only furthers our understanding. If a hypothesis is shown to be false, then that is one more thing that we now understand to be wrong, therefore improving our knowledge and understanding. Some will continue to consider this a source of weakness, but as we are not gods, the constant desire to improve our understanding of nature is the best that we can hope for, and the correction of old ideas is what science thrives on. What would be the alternative? To hold on to favored ideas even when they’ve been proven wrong, hoping that the mere devotion to a notion would make it true? Such an idea is far from being unproductive; it is dangerous. Fossil finds will continue to be made, the genome will continue to be searched for clues to our evolution, and scientists will continue to ask questions, being both amazed but never satisfied by the latest information as to the history of life on earth.

Me
The author taking his place among the transitional forms in the branching bush that is hominid evolution, taken at the American Museum of Natural History.





I slept through the announcment of evolution’s demise?

9 08 2007

Holy smokes! Apparently evolution has been entirely debunked by a new Nature paper that shows evidence that Homo habilis and Homo erectus lived, at least for a bit, at the same time. The media, always looking for a hook, has burped up titles like “Evolution theory challenged,” and those inclined towards creationism have already jumped on the news reports. For those of you who have a subscription, the new paper “Implications of new early Homo fossils from Ileret, east of Lake Turkana, Kenya” by Spoor, et al. is up online, and a popular summary of the work (and it’s implications) is available as well. Even though I have a pile of posts that are begging for completion, given the amount of attention this story has been getting I’ll write up my own thoughts on it tonight, but in the meantime you can check out some of the responses of those who oppose evolution, based on the popular press reports (not one of them, as far as I can tell, has actually read the research).

Life Under the Blue Sky – When Will Science Make Up It’s Mind? Or, What Would Richard Say?

Life Under the Blue Sky – A Brilliant Scientist Linked to My Blog

Tattered Bits of Brain – Evolutionary Theory Takes Another Hit

J’s Cafe Nette – Gee, Do Ya Think God Really Did Create Man and We Didn’t Evolve?

Fancied Freedom – The evolution of human beings continue to evolve

There are, of course, some more reasonable responses out there, like;

Archie’s Archive – Intelligent Design Begins to Bray, Again

and certainly;

John Hawks Anthropology Weblog – Man Bites Dog

John Hawks and Afarensis can probably do a much better job than I can when it comes to the overall significance of the new paper, but from everything I’ve seen so far it’s not a “death blow” to evolution. The stereotyped notion of the “March of Progress” has been known to be incorrect for some time, yet creationists and ID advocates continue to keep bringing it up as if it were the #1 scientific hypothesis for human origins. For people so concerned with how incorrect evolution is, I’m surprised (well, not really) that they can’t even be bothered to pick up a copy of this edition of Nature on the newsstand or pop over to read the abstract or news summary on the journal’s web page. No, the popular press spits out of few short summaries with seemingly provocative titles and overnight the whole of evolutionary science is disproved, or at least that’s what some of the aforementioned bloggers would have us believe. Rather than say “Hmm, this is really interesting. I wonder what this means?” and putting forth their own ideas, they seem content to sit back, quote Scripture, and say “See! I was right! Case closed!” I’ll leave it up to you which is the more enlightened response to new ideas.

Update: Some of the Scienceblogs folks are starting to chime in (you’ll have to wait for my take on the subject until I get home and get my hands on some books to put the straight-line evolution model in context);

Evolutionblog – New Hominid Fossils Reported

Pharyngula – Two New Homo Fossils

The Questionable Authority – New Fossils and Our Understanding of Human Evolution

And also check out Professor Olson @ Large for a bit about a older significant hominid find





Why I bother

6 08 2007

I’ve spent plenty of time over the past few days going over arguments about creationism in its weak and strong forms, and frankly I’m a bit too tired to write up another long response (nor do I think that anyone needs to read any more re-statements of my position; click the “creationism” tag if you’re really that curious as see for yourself). Nevertheless, a blogging friend with a different take on the evolution/creationism debate has posted a response to my (in)famous “Why Fight Creationism?” post entitled “Why Talk About Origins At All?.” [which has been temporarily removed for a re-write]

I’ve had some friends who have taken a similar approach, essentially employing the belief that the issue of evolution is so divisive amongst Christians that it is better-off locked up in the closest, the salvation message of the “Good News” being of primary importance. Indeed, one of my old pastors would never respond to any of my thoughts or questions about evolution/creationism when I’d e-mail him about it, and I have more than a few more conservative Christian friends/acquaintances that simply ignore the fact that evolution is what I want to study and my more favorite topic of discussion (even though they seem a bit irked when I show up wearing my “Future Transitional Fossil” t-shirt or am reading books like The Beak of the Finch while they’re around). In any case, avoiding discussions of evolution may work for churches/ministries that want to create a cohesive group more focused on belief/outreach/simply believing in Christ, but I think this cheats people a bit, making me think of the great “Wizard of Oz” who didn’t want anyone to look behind the curtain.

So why bother about origins? As a relative of mine once opined about scientists and creationists, “Why can’t people just not think about these things?” The most direct answer that I can give is that the question of origins demands an answer. I don’t expect everyone to be as interested in evolution as I am, nor to put the amount of time/money/effort into reading up on it as I or other more knowledgeable folks have, but it’s difficult for me to understand how anyone can be unconcerned with how we came to be the way we are. Everyone has an opinion, that much is for sure, and oddly enough many people seem to prefer one version of mankind’s origin or another based upon religion (or lack thereof) or what is most comfortable/intuitive. I am a bit baffled that, in this age of discovery when we have uncovered so much of our past (be it through fossils or genetics), there is so much disinterest in learning about from whence we came.

I suppose why I spend so much time thinking about and talking about a subject that many don’t seem to care very much about (or have already formed an opinion about, one way or another) is that I don’t think it’s a good thing to merely pick a version of the origins of humans (or other life) and simply close the book on the subject. This method is almost like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” story, where it doesn’t really matter what we think so long as we ascribe to one belief or another. I also must admit that while religion does have its virtues, I do worry of the repercussions of allowing bad science and bad theology in the form of creationism to spread and become generally acceptable; I have the feeling that a return to the Bible as the plainly-written infallible, unchanging text breathed by God might have other unsavory repercussions. Are we to return to an era where mental illness was really possession by Satan himself? Where storms were caused by witches? Where lightning rods were shunning and plagues allowed to spread because doing anything to enhance human safety in the face of natural phenomena was robbing God of His armaments? Such things would be regarded as foolish now, but if we allow ourselves to think that belief is a higher virtue than thought, where we will end up? I really do hope that my above questions have no real basis in reality, that I have no reason to fear a return to the militant and dangerous religious funamentalism that has marked so much of Western history over the past few centuries, but I am still reminded of Mark Twain’s famous quote;

“During many ages there were witches. The Bible said so. The Bible commanded that they should not be allowed to live. Therefore the Church, after doing its duty in but a lazy and indolent way for 800 years, gathered up its halters, thumbscrews, and firebrands, and set about its holy work in earnest. She worked hard at it night and day during nine centuries and imprisoned, tortured, hanged, and burned whole hordes and armies of witches, and washed the Christian world clean with their foul blood. Then it was discovered that there was no such thing as witches, and never had been. One does not know whether to laugh or to cry.”

On the surface, this issue is about the evolution/creationism debate, and if that was all there was to it then there wouldn’t be much else to say. What concerns me, however, are some of the other attitudes that seem to come along with creationism. It seems that many creationists (and ID advocates) do not believe that Global Climate Change is a real problem, or even if it is God is coming back soon so why worry about it? Science, in general, is mistrusted unless it has some economic value to it (particularly the fields that produce new technologies and medicines), but I don’t especially think a return to the natural theology of the 18th and 19th century is going to help the natural sciences like geology, biology, ecology, etc. grow very much. This isn’t merely about whether I think a chimpanzee is an evolutionary relative of mine or not, but rather a larger way of looking at the world, choices made whether to have faith in the infallibility of a particular religious text or to let the natural world speak for itself.

As Ann Druyan noted in the introduction to the recently published Varities of Scientific Experience, “We batter this planet as if we had someplace else to go,” and I feel that much of it has stemmed, either directly or indirectly, from the Biblical command to subdue the earth. I am heartened to see some evangelicals realize that either as a gift or by luck we’ve been entrusted with the planet and abused it for far too long at our own peril, but it still seems this is a minority response to current problems. Again, this is not a blanket statement because there are notable exceptions to the problems I am mentioning here, but in general I just wonder why those who don’t care about origins (or would rather ascribe scientific questions to a religious text) are so often apathetic about ecology or other important issues, and at times I feel that many have not moved far beyond the belief that Jesus is essentially coming back any day now, so there is no real reason to care for, preserve, or understand life on earth. If people hadn’t been so easily fooled by such platitudes and false logic early on, who knows what we would have discovered or come to understand by now? Clutching to Genesis tightly, taking no time to look at “the creation” itself, has only brought humanity misery, and now that we’re finally released from those mental shackles (although still a bit sore), I would hate to see is catapulted backwards into a time of hate and superstition fueled by bad theology, there being a Bible verse to support every variety of misdeed and ignorance if only interpreted in this way or that.

In the end, though, I know feel that my time is not wasted. The questions of how we can to be how we are, and what happened to those who came before, demand answers from us, and for every one thing I learn there’s a dozen other questions that I have. The natural world is so wonderful that I can’t help but be awed by it and want to know more, even to the point of not being able to understand how anyone can be apathetic towards all the amazing things we’ve learned about it. I could function in society and make a living without knowing anything about evolution, perhaps that is true, but what sort of existence would I lead? Simply working for a paycheck, working to be comfortable, seems rather hollow; I would much rather struggle to understand even one great truth than to simply ignore nature, and at least for me, there is no greater topic that requires discussion and understanding than “origins.”





You can bring a Rhipidistid to land but you can’t make it walk

6 08 2007

Background reading:
Combating Creationism With History
Why Fight Creationism?

Steven Berven of the blog Tattered Bits of Brain was kind enough to respond to my post “Why Fight Creationism?” (see link above) in a new post called “It’s alive (or, yet another creationism post).” I don’t mean to be unkind, but there is a bit of goal-post-shifting, reductio ad absurdum, and other “classic” rhetorical devices used throughout, suggesting that evolution is every bit as much as “just-so story” as creationism is.

Steven starts off with a disclaimer;

If I haven’t made it clear before, let me reiterate: I don’t in any way mean to suggest that creationist views and religious ideology should supplant the scientific method. I enjoy science. I love learning about the way our world works and the amazing complexity and interdependence of the life and natural processes of this world.

I just don’t happen to think it within the realms of possibility that it could all just ”happen” through a series of random accidents and fortuitous spontaneous breakthroughs.

I never suggested Steve was a YEC, only that YEC arguments are not only unscientific, they’re simply ill-founded assertions that find their roots in devotion to Biblical authority. Steve seems to fall along the theistic evolution/intelligent design section of the continuum, and while Steve is more than welcome to have whatever beliefs he wants regarding the origin and evolution of life, I feel that both theistic evolution and intelligent design require at least some amount of special pleading and a requirement to bend a bit to spiritual/religious notions.

Anyway, on to the meat of the argument. In the last post in this series, I gave a summation of early tetrapod evolution in non-technical terms (see “Why Fight Creationism?“, and also “Taking in the Carboniferous Atmosphere“). Steve has some problems with my explanations/use of rhetoric language, however;

An external change gave the tetrapods a “good reason to develop their lungs.” Okay, so they’ve got the reason. Now what? Do they think to themselves, “Hmm, guess it’s probably a good time to develop lungs. Ready…..GO!“

Clearly a silly example; or is it? Examples such as these seem so suggest that species respond in an almost cognitive fashion, and that this somehow results in a kind of genetic memory that is imprinted on their DNA. What’s the real answer? “Evolution,” (as in the proper noun) was kind enough to “pre-adapt” species (and by that I take to mean “build in?”) the capability to exploit a new niche? So Evolution pre-engineered in capabilities? Tetrapods were given a reason to developed their lungs? Lobe-finned fish responded to selective pressure, pushed up on their arms, and “decided” to leave the water in order to avoid death? The water murks up, the plants move in, and you have a choice: adapt or die. So you adapt. Huh?

H-O-W!?!?!

In this little discourse Steve is trying to paint my summation in an anthropomorphic or vitalistic light, something I myself have spoken against before. If one looks back at the original post we’re discussing, I try to take an ecological approach to tetrapod evolution, showing how selective pressures would have favored those animals better able to survive and reproduce in plant-clogged swamps near the edge of insect-filled forests. I did not suggest some vitalistic force, driving the animals on internally, nor the early tetrapods thinking “I want to have some bugs for lunch, so I’m going to develop lungs and do away with my gills.” This is clearly absurd, and perhaps I could have chosen my words better when I said that tetrapods had “good reason” to become more developed to land. I had assumed that there was a basic understanding that those early tetrapods that were better able to exploit the changing environment would be more successful, leaving more offspring which would have their own variations, and the duel pressures to develop lungs and to take advantage of new food sources provided plenty of selective pressures for populations of these animals to change.

Steve also mentions my explanation that tetrapods were pre-adapted to evolve in that they already possessed rudimentary lungs and a locomotor system that could easily be modified. I was not suggesting that evolution “knew what was coming” or acted like some spiritual guiding force, urging on the animals. Rather the previous evolution of the tetrapods gave them an advantage when things started to change, and if the early tetrapods did not have lungs or fleshy fins with strong-enough bone structure, the vertebrate “invasion” of the land would likely have had to wait. The point I was attempting to get across is that as ecology changes, some animals are favored over others, natural selection (and other factors) working on variations and systems already present in animals, further modifying them into new forms. It is no accident that all living tetrapods share the same basic body plan; it was inherited from our early ancestors, and it has proved efficient enough that it only need be modified through evolution rather than constructed from scratch every few hundred million years. In any event, in case it was not already clear, evolution does not work like some abstract supernatural force, like some natural toolkit of “Mother Nature”; organisms change together in ecologies, and there is no prediction of what is going to happen next, so changes in ecology favor some and not others, those that were pre-adapted to do better in a different world allowing natural selection and other mechanisms to further adapt the organisms.

Steve continues along with a similar absurd argument, implying that early tetrapods just didn’t know they could breathe air until they were forced to, somehow then realizing their opportunities. As I’ve just described, this is an attempt to ridicule a straw-man argument so much as to make the position of the opposing side seem untenable, but I said nothing of fish as prescient as the ones Steven describes. Steve continues;

This is exactly the kind of intellectual sleight of hand that causes me the most trouble with much of the current evolutionist theories. To vaguely suggest that “Nature” did it or “Evolution” did it is NO DIFFERENT than saying that “God” did it! Do you see what I’m trying to get at here?

Again, this is creating a straw-man argument via reductio ad absurdum. The whole point of my last entry, taking special care to mention Romer’s “drying pond hypothesis” was to present the best model we now have, even though the model may change. It’s a good hypothesis, but we don’t have all the information as yet (there’d be no work to do if we did), and part of the major difference between evolutionary science and ID/creationism is that evolutionary scientists actually make hypotheses and modify them as better evidence becomes available. Trying to ascribe a belief in the God of Evolution like that of creationists in the Judeo/Christian God is a poor argument at best, and as I’ve already shown, has little to do with what I actually described. Then Steve shifts the goalpost down the field;

What I want evolutionary theory to provide me, to provide us, to provide science the world over, is reproducible evidence of the the internal, bio-chemical mechanism whereby RNA and DNA, all those little peptides and amino acids are re-arranged or reprogrammed, how from one generation to the next they are imparted with new replication data that results in a different species, one now better suited to live on land, rather than water. How does “Nature” pre-adapt a species to a range of potential changes? And on a wide enough scale to ensure viability?

This is quite a different aim than wanting to know how tetrapods crawled out of plant-choked swamps onto land, involving the sciences of inheritance, genetics, biochemistry, and many others. Indeed, science has made great strides in figuring out the genetic code and how mutations come to be expressed in future generations, but such explanations would be a book in and of themselves, and fortunately, other authors have already carried this subject. For those unfamiliar with such sciences, a good place to start would be Futuyma’s textbook Evolution and Sean B. Carroll’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful and The Making of the Fittest. As always, there’s still plenty of work to be done, but evolutionary science isn’t merely playing connect-the-dots with fossils, either.

Steve leaves us with this;

I’ll readily admit that much of my data on evolution might be a bit dated, as I’ve kind of been out of the “fight” for a few years. However, from what I’ve been able to gather, evolutionary theory is still long on what happened, and a little short on the how it happened. And to me, if you continue to insist on the what, without being able to provide the how, well then my friends, you are operating in faith as surely as that Bible-thumping creationist.

Again, this reflects a bit of goal-shifting. The “what” and the “how” can vary greatly depending on what level of organization we’re talking about, even though it’s all connected together. Lines of research intertwine and support each other, and scientists are not obligated to agree whatever is new or just seems to “make sense.” A recent example of a smaller-scale evolutionary change involved male butterflies decimated by bacteria, only to bounce back within a few generations. I’ve already covered the story here, and it provides a good example of scientists looking into researching evolutionary changes. Still, as far as fossils go, some information is just not available to us; we’re probably never going to find any genetic material from early tetrapods or be able to study it directly. Does this mean that everything scientists say is therefore “junk”? Of course not, and studying ancient ecosytems as a whole through time can give us some great information about changes in ecology working on individuals and populations of animals. In the end, however, those who would prefer to subscribe agency to a deity or other supernatural force will continue to do so and continue to disagree with me, and that’s fine, but I utterly reject the idea that evolutionary science is merely a new form of religion that seeks to design it’s own creation mythology than learn about how life came to be on this planet.








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