Posted by: The Amoeba | December 14, 2008

Evolution: The Neverending Squabble

This post first appeared on Felloffatruck Publications on 1 October 2007. What caused me to bring it back now is the online publication of Scientific American‘s January 2009 issue, which is all about the science of evolution and its place in today’s world. And, in particular, the article on creationism that appears there, coauthored by Glenn Branch and Eugenie C. Scott.

For what it’s worth, Scott featured (ahem) prominently in the satirical video Beware The Believers (for further information on this video, look here), a tribute (of sorts) to her anti-creationist activism.

Anyway. The article opens with a tale of a professor attempting to remind a former student of his education in the sciences. Trouble was, the professor was still a mere professor, while the student had grown up to be Governor of Louisiana. And His Excellency ignored the professor and signed a pro-creationist piece of educational legislation into law.

Needless to say, the professor, along with Scott and Branch and a pretty fair chunk of the scientific community, was appalled and incredulous. How could anyone educated in Darwin’s evolution of life by means of natural selection do something so damaging to self-evident truth? (A truth, by the way, that I fully accept.)

But. I don’t see the proponents of this truth ceremoniously welcoming infants and their families into the fold. I don’t see them communing with each other at birthdays and funerals, celebrations and crises. I don’t see them bonding at bake sales, or Christmas cantatas (earplugs optional), or on missions to Guatemala’s poorest. I don’t see them carrying picket signs, or getting out the vote on behalf of a common cause.

Most people, I reckon, do not encounter evolution as a means of looking at the world until long after they have absorbed the lessons of the religious creed in which they were raised. For these people to accept evolution as the principal explanation of the living world and how it works, and the atheism that is (let’s face it) the natural consequence of accepting evolution, they have to actively reject the basis for the social and ethical structure with which they grew up. On which, I argue, practically all of American society, outside of a select few of its professional guilds, depends. And replace it with the society of people who accept evolution.

A society which even Richard Dawkins (in The God Delusion) admits has all the cohesiveness of a herd of cats. Cats whose rugged individualism makes them the Libertarians of the ivory tower; who have allowed themselves to be thought of as doing the evolution rap only so they can “make more dollars than Allah” (an empty claim – ask any televangelist, if you can get the Lexus to stop). Evolutionists are great at arguing the fine points of sexual selection in damselfish. Helping you cope with the loss of your dog, or your job? Not so much.

Or getting enough votes together so that a politician has to pay attention.

In Louisiana, a professor of evolution presumed to educate his former pupil. His story makes me wonder: who needs to be educated by whom?

============

The other day [this was back in September 2007 – Amoeba], I learned of a recent Gallup Poll that asked Americans:

    True or False:
    A. Evolution; that is, the idea that human beings developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life.
    B. Creationism; that is, the idea that God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.

My first thought was “What? Again?!?” After all, I’ve had a professional interest in this debate, as a student of evolutionary patterns and processes in microorganisms, for thirty-two, count ’em, 32 years.

So I did a little web-browsing. And discovered that indeed, after thirty-two years, and multitudes of forests killed, and glass wires overheated, and speakers on both sides roasted (or worshiped, which is worse), little has changed. Unless you count the 25% of Americans who have come to believe, with Ambrose Bierce, that it is best to suspend judgment by believing both [theories]”.

Not even the tenor of the debate has changed much.

Creationists, in the eyes of the proponents of evolution, are dense at best, and at worst are willing participants in a global conspiracy to reduce humankind to slaves in a despotic theocracy. Who will make only niggardly contributions to scientific research (cf., declining National Science Foundation funding during the Bush Administrations).

Evolutionists, in the eyes of creationists, are religionists just like they are, except that they are worshipers of the Devil Charles Darwin (and, perhaps, Richard Dawkins). Worshipers who, if they are allowed to persist in their perfidy, will bring about Armageddon. And won’t be putting much money in the weekly collection plate.

The same arguments as in 1975. Hell, 1875. Darwin and his proponents copped the same dirt. Complete with death threats.

Darwin, so far as I know, did not respond in kind. He was too busy with his “long catalogues of facts”. Others, however … I realize that Dawkins is passionate in what he believes, and besides, he’s trying to sell books (the rest of us in evolutionary research should be so lucky). But still, there are times that I wish he would, for once, stow his petrol cans back in the flammables locker of his lab and just shut the hell up.

Because I’m tired of all the thunder and lightning. Of all the wasted time and energy. Of all the thrashing and hashing that, over 150 years, seems to have advanced the debate not one frickin’ millimetre.

Why not? Forgive me, but the reason why not seems to me to be crystal clear. It’s based on these two observations, and the consequences of both.

1. The world began, continues, and will end (if it does) on the basis of the same natural laws that are observable today.

This is the premise from which Darwin, following the geologist Charles Lyell, began. If it were not true, then you wouldn’t be reading these words right now, for the world would not behave predictably enough for technologies like the computer to be conceived of, never mind invented. Our world would be the world of Albus Dumbledore, not Albert Einstein. As far as I am concerned, this is not a matter open to belief. It is a fact – nay, a long catalogue of facts – constantly observed, constantly supported by experimentation. And it applies to all entities in the world. Including the living ones. Who are, therefore, subject to evolution. The same processes of evolution that apply to mountains and oceans and atmospheric masses.

2. The entire social and ethical structure of the Western world is anchored on belief in a Being that has the power to transcend natural laws. Not only has the power, but:

    a. Will exercise that power on your behalf when asked, if you’re a follower in (more or less) good standing, and if the Being feels like it;
    b. Will exercise that power in your despite if you transgress against the social rules for which the Being stands (again, if the Being feels like it).

It was, indeed, one of the prime religious innovations of the Hebrews, as I understand the matter, to put the Divinity in the position of establishing, and regulating, human conduct. Prior Gods, the Greek ones for example, were just humans on steroids. Judging from their sexual and military exploits, they must have been some steroids.

And, as the theologian Søren Kierkegaard wrote, one accepts the existence of this Being not through logic, but through a process (“leap to faith”) that often goes against logic. And that cannot then be reversed without destroying the personality, if not the person, of the believer.

Therefore, by attacking the belief structure of a set of people who cannot afford to lose those beliefs, whose entire system of correct conduct in society is based on them, the attacking evolutionist does the cause of scientific acceptance no good. Indeed, if the Gallup Poll’s finding that, in America, “creationists” outnumber “evolutionists” by nearly two to one, enough so that a major candidate for the American presidency in 2008 openly professes creationism, the attacks are doing irreparable harm.

It is time for scientists – who tell the truth about our world and our place in it, but do not tie that truth to an acceptable set of ethical precepts and social support structures, or at least have allowed themselves to be portrayed as uninterested in, if not opposed to, such things – to adopt another strategy.

Hmmm …

  – O Ceallaigh
Copyright © 2007, 2008 Felloffatruck Publications. All wrongs deplored.
All opinions are mine as a private citizen.

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Responses

  1. How did this evolution all get started? See, I can believe creationism much more quickly than I can believe the Big Bang Theory, because I have never seen things crash together and cause anything but destruction. Collisions do not create, they destroy.

    And look at the way this world works. It is too intricate and precise to be an accident. If I put all the pieces necessary to make a CD player into a brown paper bag and shook it up, how long would I have to shake to get all the pieces to align themselves just right and become a CD player?

  2. how long would I have to shake to get all the pieces to align themselves just right and become a CD player?

    Oh, I’d say about 180 years … the time it took for the CD player to evolve [sic] from the first practical uses of electric power. This, I argue, is the key to uncracking the “complexity” riddle. Every complex object in nature can be traced back to something simpler. The pigment in our eyes (rhodopsin) that we use to form complex images is the same pigment used to detect and react to light in the cell membranes of unicellular algae, thought to have been present on this planet more than a billion years ago. A billion years is a long time, and eyes can and have evolved in several different lineages of life in that time. There are even “eyes” with good lenses in unicellular algae (some kinds of dinoflagellates).

    As for the theory of evolution itself, the forgotten part of Darwin’s Origin of Species is that he began by conducting experiments on so-called “artificial” selection – the selection that goes on every day to improve breeds of cattle, wheat, corn, etc. etc. Darwin bred pigeons; he followed lineages of cattle and sheep bred by local English farmers. And he inferred that what humans could do, Nature could do as well. Especially given billions of years of Earth history with which to work (a concept first evolved – that word again – in Darwin’s time) rather than the ca. 6,000 years inferred from Biblical family trees.

    The idea of creation is much easier to grasp than that of evolution (which Darwin reiterated was dependent on, his words, “long catalogues of facts” – and he complained that he could not get those facts compiled, never mind published, due to lack of time and support). Nevertheless, evolution permits the biologist to do useful work; it’s been said that nothing in biology makes any sense whatsoever except in the context of evolution.

    But it’s also been said that one should never allow facts to get in the way of a good story. The creation story doesn’t hold up under factual scrutiny. But neither does that of the Grinch … and that doesn’t appear to have much of an impact on sales of Dr. Seuss’s book, video, toys, games …

  3. We had a discussion (at Burger King, of all places) this weekend over evolution. My children announced that they didn’t believe in evolution. My husband was horrified, and said, “Wouldn’t the different breeds of dogs be enough evidence alone?” I explained the difference between microevolution and macroevolution. He asked why if microevolution was a fact, macro wouldn’t be. I said, “It’s a pretty long experiment to watch something for a few billion years continuously, and see if it changes. Until you actually observe it, I suppose it remains a just a theory” which, I hope was close to accurate. (The kids were unswayed, and apparently believe that Noah had cockapoos and one of each type of ant on the ark.)

    The Observer Effect. To detect an electron, you have to shoot a photon at it. But that interaction changes the path of the electron. So maybe I take the middle path. Can I believe that there was an electron that happened to get bumped, setting in motion an entire Universe? Sure. Can I believe that there’s some force that isn’t currently understood by science that caused it to bump? Until I find a better explanation of dark matter I can. Can I prove it either way? Absolutely not. My agnosticism extends to science. I don’t know, I can’t prove it, but I’ve got my fingers crossed. 😉

  4. Lisa, you make my point (dammit). The Biblical creation story is accessible to all, and has been for more than 2,000 years. Physics and biology have been understood as sciences for less than 300 years, and their stories are complicated. Quilly complains that she can’t grasp the Big Bang – not surprising, because it can’t be described adequately even to very sophisticated people without genius-level mathematics. It all works, beautifully. Whereas creation-type stories do, and can do, no work at all. But it takes work to understand how it works, and there’s not the social structure to support people in their understanding (unlike, say, the fundamentalist churches). The National Science Foundation has been pushing “science education” for more than a decade, now. I’m convinced that their push has resulted only in the greater mass of people deciding that science is too damned much work for too little reward (measured both in terms of social payback and the number on the paycheck). I do not know how to fix this. I’m becoming convinced that it cannot be fixed, and that the current economic downturn and the ignorant reactions we’re seeing to it (grassroots punishment of any “achievers”), signals the start of a new Dark Age. Which should make “end time” believers very happy – until they discover that the Rapture is a myth and they’re stuck here with the rest of us.

  5. I have no trouble believing in evolution. I still have trouble believing that independent little cells morphed themselves in to sight and sound and smell and touch and nerves systems and …. that CD player didn’t make itself, you know. There was an INTELLIGENT DESIGNER behind it.

  6. Quilly, the problem with the CD analogy (and the favorite watchmaker analogy) is that neither of these are organic life. A CD player never aspires to be a CD player. In fact, it doesn’t even aspire to play music. But a plant aspires to grow. A one celled organism aspires to consume and reproduce. That first organism, whatever it might have been, wasn’t trying to become a human. They were trying to get a bite to eat. We’re just an accident along the way. Besides, stem cells are already doing exactly what you said. Use an embryonic stem cell, and it can be eyes, ears, nose- whatever.

    Also, can a CD player make itself? Well, not exactly. But a CD player is one machine, made by another machine that all spawned from a common ancestor (the printing press, or cotton gin). In that sense, the CD player is no different than a non-living version of evolution.

    OC, a dark age can only exist if the knowledge is lost. So far, I don’t see that being the case in the Information Age. I don’t need to know how a CD player works. I need to know that there is a factory that can build me one. Or that I can find instructions online, gather the parts, and build my own. It’s not apathy exactly. It’s the idea that there are people who will understand it much better than I do, and perhaps I should get out of their way. #1 reason I’m not a scientist, OR a preacher.

  7. How do you know that God didn’t set up the earth to be self sustaining and evolution is His plan?

    Harummph…know it alls. 🙂

  8. Quilly, the evidence abounds from fossils, and from contemporary analyses of molecular mechanisms, that the assembly of individual cells into multicellular organisms, including humans, is exactly what happened. Other explanations, including that of an ultimate “intelligent designer”, have far more difficulties explaining the world as it is, and far less power to predict future events (and therefore allow us to do useful work), than do explanations that invoke evolution (and exclude supernatural intervention).

    Brig, what you describe about technology comes perilously close to a fulfillment of Clarke’s Third Law. In the Foundation novels, Isaac Asimov treated the loss of understanding of technology, even among the scientists charged with mastery of it, as one of the main factors precipitating the fall of the Galactic Empire. Ol’ Isaac was a pretty sharp cookie.

    Amber, since God by definition works outside natural laws, God can have any plan God wishes to and make us like it. Since science, by definition, only works within the boundaries of natural laws, science can and should say exactly nothing about what God can and can’t do, except to say when something assigned to God can be adequately, even productively, explained without invoking (a) God. The idea that “God has set up a world that looks like it works entirely on the basis of natural laws to tempt us into apostasy, at which point God will pounce” is rather common. To which I, and many others, reply: “do you really wish to have such an arbitrary and capricious God looking over your shoulder 24/7/365 and telling you what your ethics and morals should be?”

  9. Hmm. I stand on the creationist side but the problem is that you bunch all creationists together. I am not waiting for a “rapture” nor do I believe God would trick us (God cannot try us with evil things – James 1:13). I do object a little to your assertion “Creationists, in the eyes of the proponents of evolution, are dense at best…” which I think is a bit of a sweeping statement. Compared to God, I could say the same about evolutionists. ;0)
    I could also say I have been studying creationism for forty three years. Count ’em – that’s 43 – so I respect your beliefs about evolution (and they are beliefs, as they are not fact. See below. They are a THEORY.) Please don’t call all those who believe that God created everything “dense”. 🙂

    I agree with Quilly. (Although I agree with you that this is an argument that has not moved forward in over 300 years!)
    “Of course, every house is constructed by some one, but he that constructed all things is God”. (Hebrews 3:4)
    CD players aside, if Darwin was right about his finches, why did they not evolve into eagles? They are still finches aren’t they? They haven’t “evolved” into anything else. If we are naturally evolved from apes and the natural law is “survival of the fittest” why didn’t the apes die out? If we are the ultimate “ape” there should be no apes on this planet now. Nor smaller organisms for that matter if we evolved from them as we were a “higher” form.

    On the other hand, the Bible tells us exactly, in detail, how the earth and it’s inhabitants were formed. It needs to be read closely. No one can learn in isolation. I am sure even the most prominent scientists would agree that others are needed to teach and learn. The same is true of the Bible. Do not see what you are told to see in it but look. There is not a single word in the Bible that is wasted. Not one.

    Kings of old and respected people in ancient days accepted the account in the Hebrew scriptures as being an accurate record of how the world was created. It compliments, not disputes, most of the scientific facts. The only THEORY it is at odds with is the THEORY of evolution, which is (of course) not a fact, but a theory. 🙂 The FACT is, the “missing link(s)” in this THEORY has (have) not been found, despite many fraudulent attempts to make them. There are a number of jumps from one species to another that are not explained. This is why scientists cannot call it anything but a THEORY.

    If the Bible was just stories, how could so much be written 4000, 5000 years ago and only in this last couple of centuries be proven accurate? Didn’t they think in Columbus’ day that the earth was flat? That was about 550 years ago. They (and Columbus) should have looked in the Bible. Look at what it says at Isaiah 40:22 (written over 2,700 years ago) – “There is One who is dwelling above the circle of the earth.” Also at Job 26:7 – “He is stretching out the north over the empty place,
    Hanging the earth upon nothing.”
    There is loads of other evidence and evidence for the accuracy of the writings etc., I just won’t take up any more of your comments space!

    Interesting discussion thread you have here OC. Thanks for reading all this. I urge you to please look. Nothing this organised happened by accident. Truly it didn’t.

    (Soapbox returned with thanks!)

  10. Just FYI OC –
    Beyond Demonic Memes –
    Why Richard Dawkins is Wrong About Religion by David Sloan Wilson

    (David Sloan Wilson for anyone who doesn’t know is the author of “Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior”, “Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society”, and “Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives.”

    Whilst I do not agree that evolution is the way that all life on this planet arrived, I enjoy the debate (makes me think) and with regard to Richard Dawkins only, it is interesting that a renowned evolutionist actually criticises how Dawkins arrives at his conclusions.

    David Sloan Wilson is a Distinguished Professor in the Departments of Biology and Anthropology, Binghamton University. )

  11. Cath –

    A few hasty replies. I wish I had the time to respond fully.

    God cannot try us with evil things

    Hmm. I wonder if Job would agree with the author of the Letter of James. See also Q (Luke) 22: 39-46.

    The “dense” comment, by the way, was intended to mime the general tone taken by combatants in the evolution/creation debate, rather than my own opinion of anyone therein.

    They are still finches aren’t they?

    Yes, but an observer less astute than Darwin might not have thought so, because so many of the “finches” had un-finch-like morphology and behavior. A very recent scientific article has pointed out that Hawaiian honeycreeper birds, which closely resemble honeycreepers in Australia and were thought to have descended from Australian birds blown to Hawai`i ages ago, in fact are not related to anything from Australia, instead they belong, if I remember rightly, to the same group as the English sparrow. This is as close to a “finches to eagles” story as makes no difference, I think.

    Bible tells us exactly, in detail, how the earth and its inhabitants were formed.

    Yes it does. At least twice (Gen. 1:1 – 2:3; Gen. 2:4-25). In one story, humans are created after the beasts, and Adam and Eve are simultaneous; in the other, before, and Eve is spawned from Adam’s rib. There are other discrepancies between the two accounts.

    I will not enter here into the lengthy “just a theory” arguments. All I will point out is that the theory of evolution allows biological science to do useful work (crop development to keep seven billion of us fed, and vaccine development to keep us one step ahead of the bugs that would otherwise wipe us out, to name two). If evolution were not, practically, a fact, the green revolution would never have taken place (unless it were created by God and revealed by a prophet), and a whole lot more of us would be starving than is currently (and tragically) the case in today’s world.

    I was (to put it mildly) skeptical of Dawkins’s “meme” hypothesis, as set forth in The God Delusion, way before I heard of Wilson’s critique. It is important to remember that Dawkins published The God Delusion as a polemic, a rabble-rousing tome designed to raise awareness (and money). Rigorous analysis is not to be found there, which I find deplorable – on his part, for writing the thing and further polarizing a debate that despairs of resolution, and ours for accepting this sort of thing instead of close reasoning based on “long catalogues of facts”.

  12. OCeallaigh – Thanks for the response. I know the feeling about not having the time to respond fully. I reckon if the two of us were sat down with a beer we could discuss for hours, nay, days! And still not get an answer that would satisfy us both. Except that we will never entirely agree.

    Please let me respond to a couple of the things you say –

    Thanks for clarifying the ‘dense’ comment. I appreciate that – honest!
    Job’s opinion of God was that it was God who gave and God who took away.(Job 2:20) However, despite feeling that about God, he remained faithful (Job 2:20). Job’s wife urged Job to “Curse God and Die!” (Job 2:9) but he refused to do this.

    If you actually read Job, it is apparent that it is not God who is trying Job, but Satan. (Job 1:6 to 2:8)

    Job later discovers that God has not done these things to him and retracts what he said earlier about God (Job 42:1,2,6)
    So Job would fully agree with James assertion that God cannot try us with evil things. In fact, it is “impossible for God to lie” (Hebrews 6:18) – the only thing that God CANNOT do. ;0)

    The finches – I need to read a bit more. I thought the idea of evolution was that each resulting species was superior and had “survived” due to being the fittest. I don’t understand why (if this is the case) all these species still exist. Especially apes if that is what we came from! But I have to admit I don’t know about those birds or the research into them (honeycreeper/ English sparrow).

    Okay, finally, the Genesis account. Bear in mind that these documents were hand written over a period of time. The account from 1:1 to 2:3 is detailed and tells us about the creative “days” (or periods of time). 2:4 to 25 summarises this and the two marry perfectly. This is a literary characteristic of this book and can be seen throughout it. For example, Gen 7:6 and 7:11 say similar things – “And Noah was six hundred years old when the deluge of waters occurred on the earth.” (verse 6) and “In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on this day all the springs of the vast watery deep were broken open and the floodgates of the heavens were opened.” (verse 11)
    Does that mean there were two floods? Two deluges? Of course not. It was repeated to summarise, get the picture together, as we still do today when giving an account.
    The same happened in Genesis 1-2 regarding the creation of Adam and Eve. Genesis 2:4 starts as a new paragraph summarising. The fact that it is in the middle of a chapter is irrelevant, as I don’t think it was divided into chapters or verses until much later.

    I appreciate why you are not starting a lengthy debate on theories (truly) and I agree with your sentiments about the state of disease and poverty in this world. I am not saying that good works should not happen. Far from it. However, I will not dismiss my God or blame him for it either. A God who allows such things to happen is not the same as a God who causes it to happen. We wanted self rule – we got it. Now look at the mess we are in. 🙂

    I think I emphasise the “theory” bit because, sadly, it is often taught as fact. In my book that is wrong on two levels – firstly it is deceitful as it is not a fact, and secondly because it means nothing else can be taken seriously when such major flaws (as being able to tell the difference between a hypothesis or theory and a fact) are hidden or denied. It does not do the evolutionist argument any good at all imho.

    Close reasoning based on “long catalogues of facts” are what I work with too. Oh I wish there were not so many miles and a huge pond between us! I could talk to you all night about this (and bore poor Quilly to death no doubt). Believe me, there are more facts in the Bible than people think and these are corroborated from secular sources too. Anyway, that is enough for now. I didn’t deal with the Luke scripture. Another time eh?

    I wish you peace anyway. I hope you see this as I do – a healthy exchange of ideas (which we will never actually agree on) and not an attack. It is after midnight here. I am calling it quits for tonight!

  13. Cath, while I agree with you, and wholly believe God created the world and everything in it, in the process providing the creatures with the capability of adapting to their environments, I want to tell you a bit about OC and his ideas.

    OC is soon to be 56 years old. He is a PhD bearing botanist and oceanographer. He set himself on that course at age 5. I think that gives him 51 years of study …. 😉

    At any rate, to change OC’s mind about God is going to take much more than dialogue, in fact, it might take God himself — which is something to pray for if you’re in mind of helping.

  14. Already helping Quill. ;0)
    And always had (have) the greatest respect for OC’s expertise. Hope it came across as such. Age has nothing to do with it for me.
    I already figured that he would take more convincing than a couple of comments from me, but I couldn’t let ’em go…. 🙂

  15. I wonder about this … of the those not being in evolution, how many can even say WHAT they are against?

  16. […] Evolutionary Squabbling Awhile ago, I wrote about the sad tale of the professor and the student. The professor who taught evolutionary […]

  17. […] marriage arrangements (gay marriage, plural marriage, etc. etc.), you know that this is a neverending squabble that gives the evolution-creation “debate” a run for its money. And each side claims […]


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