Misguided Thoughts About Evolution

 

The August 25, 2006 edition of the Bonner County Daily Bee included an article by Harvey Pine entitled, “Evaluation of evolution offers many thoughts.”  While the premise of his title is correct, most of the thoughts Mr. Pine offered about evolution were ill-conceived and based false information.  The article also illustrates why evolutionary scientists are reluctant to engage in public debates with creationists.  They cram so many falsehoods into their anti-evolution diatribes that it is virtually impossible for the scientist to adequately address all of them in his/her allotted time frame.  Unfortunately, it takes much longer and involves considerably more effort to refute a falsehood than it does to tell one.  Likewise, since I cannot address the litany of errors in Mr. Pine’s article in the limited space afforded by a letter to the editor, I have prepared this rebuttal for presentation on my website.

 

In what follows, Mr. Pine’s statements are shown in regular type and my comments follow in bold type.

 

 

There are still arguments over how to teach evolution in our schools. 

 

There are no such arguments among mainstream scientists who are most knowledgeable about the subject.  The furor over teaching evolution in our public schools originates almost exclusively from various religious factions that perceive the theory to be a threat to their faith-based beliefs.  (Just as Galileo’s defense of the heliocentric theory was a threat to religious dogma in 1600’s).  Much of the anti-evolution rhetoric is now generated by scientifically naive politicians who are pandering to religious conservatives.  The pseudo-scientific claptrap disseminated by well-funded young-earth creationist and intelligent design (ID) organizations serves only to further confuse the matter – which, of course, is exactly what they are trying to do.      

 

The theory of evolution is one of the best-corroborated theories in all of science and is endorsed by every reputable scientific organization in the world.  The theory is foundational to all the biological sciences and has been an uncontroversial subject taught in the major universities worldwide since the 1870’s.  The National Academy of Sciences and The American Association for the Advancement of Science, whose members are the most respected and productive scientists in this country, are two of the most prestigious scientific organizations in the world.  Unequivocal support for the teaching of evolution in public schools from these organizations can be found here and here.  A position statement on the teaching of evolution from the National Science Teachers Association can be found here.  A statement from the National Association of Biology Teachers summarizes the situation succinctly as follows:

Scientists have firmly established evolution as an important natural process. Experimentation, logical analysis, and evidence-based revision are procedures that clearly differentiate and separate science from other ways of knowing.  Explanations or ways of knowing that invoke non-naturalistic or supernatural events or beings, whether called “creation science,” “scientific creationism,” “intelligent design theory,” “young earth theory,” or similar designations are outside the realm of science and not part of a valid science curriculum. (Taken from the National Association of Biology Teacher's Statement on Teaching Evolution, revised May, 2004)

Generally speaking, the only people who are hostile to the teaching of evolution in our public schools are those who are unfamiliar with (or ignore) the vast body of scientific evidence supporting it and/or who find it objectionable for religious reasons.

To some, the theory is science.

Yes indeed, to all legitimate scientists, who are not opposed to it for emotional reasons, evolution is considered to be one of the best-documented scientific theories in existence.  The theory is accepted as the best (and only current) scientific explanation for the development of life on earth by virtually the entire scientific community.  Contrary to the claims of anti-evolution propagandists, those so-called scientists who actually oppose it are in a piddling minority.  (See here.)  And, virtually without exception, those scientists who oppose the theory do so for religious reasons, not because of the lack of any supporting evidence.  More to the point, they oppose it in spite of the overwhelming evidence that supports it.

To others, adding “intelligent design” makes the concept mathematically possible. 

There is nothing that is known to be mathematically impossible about evolution to begin with.  Hence, there is no need to add metaphysical elements such as ID to render it feasible.  In order to compute accurate mathematical possibilities regarding evolution or any other complex process, the variables and mechanisms involved and their co-dependent interactions must be known to a high degree of certainty.  Since such information is not currently available regarding biological evolution, any probability calculations are pure speculation at this time.  Keep in mind that numbers can be carefully selected and juggled to produce statistical probabilities that can be used to support (or refute) almost any point of view.  See here for further discussion on the subject.

Rather than augmenting the theory of evolution in some manner, adding ID would have the opposite effect of disqualifying it from inclusion in the public school science classroom.  As discussed here, the federal court has made it abundantly clear that ID is nothing more than religion-based creationism dressed up in highfalutin scientific jargon.  And, as Mr. Pine should know, the teaching of religion-based creationism in public schools is not permitted by the First Amendment to the Constitution.  (See here.)  To learn more why ID is a religious concept masquerading as science, see here.   

Many people claim evolution does not make sense, with or without “intelligent design.”

Many people also claim that Einstein’s theory of relativity and quantum mechanics do not make sense.  In fact, some aspects of these theories do defy common sense.  Does Mr. Pine think because many people make such claims, these theories are not scientifically valid?  Whoever these people are who claim evolution does not make sense are most certainly not the scientists who have spent a good portion of their lives educating themselves on the subject.  As stated above, those who badmouth evolution are invariably individuals who have only a rudimentary knowledge of the theory and the supporting evidence and/or who attack it on religious grounds.

An open-minded person should at least look at some of these arguments. 

I agree.  However, looking at an argument that is not evidence-based (or, more to the point, that flat out contradicts the evidence) and accepting it as true is not something an open-minded person who is also a critical thinker should do.  There is certainly nothing wrong with a person examining alternative explanations.   But when someone accepts an explanation that contradicts the factual evidence simply because it is more emotionally comforting to do so (as the anti-evolutionists do), that person is not thinking like a scientist.  As addressed above, ID has been looked at in great detail by the federal court and found to be lacking in any scientific merit whatsoever. 

Certainly, one should remain open to possibilities other than evolution if verifiable evidence were ever found to support them.  However, as the adage goes, one should not maintain such an open mind that they risk having his/her brains fall out.

I believe the following factors are credible.

Unfortunately, what Mr. Pine believes to be credible and reality are two different things.

1. For a theory to be considered science, it must be demonstrated and duplicated.  Evolution cannot be demonstrated or duplicated.

Mr. Pine, like others who have a limited understanding of the scientific method, suffer from the misconception that, in order for something to be scientifically corroborated, it must be reproduced in real time in an experimental setting.  In actuality, a critical requirement of science is that observations related to a phenomenon must only be consistent and coherent across all fields of investigation.  As an analogy, jurors do not have to have been at the scene of a crime when it occurred (nor does the crime have to be reenacted in its entirety the courtroom) in order for an informed verdict to be rendered.  Collection and testing of crime-scene evidence after the fact and systematic analysis of that evidence to determine how it relates to the crime are often all that are required to make a conviction.

A number of well-established disciplines fall under the category of historical science, e.g., geology, astronomy, archaeology, and evolutionary science.  Geologists do not have to reproduce functioning tectonic plates in the laboratory in order to arrive at the informed conclusion that their imperceptibly slow movement in the real world is responsible for such things as earthquakes and the positioning of the continents.  Astronomers do not have to recreate the history of the moon in order to determine that the craters on its surface were caused by meteor impacts.  Archaeologists do not have to recreate ancient Rome in order to glean meaningful information about how the Romans built roads and aqueducts at that time.  And evolutionary biologists do not have to turn a duck into a goose in the laboratory in order to establish ancestral relationships.  While relevant laboratory and field studies augment research in such disciplines, examination of evidence collected after the fact plays a large part in theory development and confirmation.

As far as duplication is concerned in science, results must be reproducible in the sense that they are consistently observable by all investigators.   It is the consistency of observed evidence (which can be historical) related to a phenomenon that confers scientific validity to the study of that phenomenon.  Full-scale reproduction of the phenomenon is not a scientific requirement.  In the case of evolutionary studies, for example, fossils of large mammals are never found in the same geologic strata as dinosaurs.  This evidence holds true for all scientists who investigate such things.  For a brief introduction to the scientific method and a response to the charge that evolution is not replicable, see here and here.

Another attribute of a scientific theory, such as the theory of evolution, is that it makes reliable predictions.  Evolutionary theory makes accurate predictions that are relevant to diverse fields of study such as comparative anatomy, comparative physiology, paleontology, comparative embryology, biogeography, general genetics, atavistic structures, and molecular genetics.  For some examples of this predictive power, see here.   Recently, evolutionary scientists discovered the fossil of an animal that represents a transitional form between fish and terrestrial tetrapods.  Both the morphology and location of this fossil were predicted by evolutionary theory.  See here for a discussion of this fossil.

As far as Mr. Pine’s claim that evolution cannot be demonstrated, I can only assume that he has restricted his reading on the subject to creationist propaganda tracts.  Otherwise, he would know that such a claim is made only by those who suffer from the dreaded cranial-rectal insertion syndrome.  Studies in such diverse fields as those listed in the preceding paragraph all confirm the operation of evolutionary processes in nature.  For a rather detailed discussion of the voluminous body of scientific evidence that “demonstrates” evolution, see here.

No matter how you change the environment of a duck, it won’t become a goose.

Don’t be so sure.  Given enough time and the proper environment it might indeed evolve into something at least resembling a goose.  Just look at what selective breeding has accomplished in a relatively short time in redesigning the basic dog configuration.  Nonetheless, no evolutionary scientist would ever propose that such a significant transformation would occur by natural selection alone in the span of a few human generations.  Such a macro-scale change, if it were to occur in such a short time, would be inconsistent with evolutionary theory.  Only someone unfamiliar with the mechanisms involved would propose that evolution would ever cause such a thing to happen.

2.  The theory [of evolution] is based on the observations of Charles Darwin.  These observations are very limited and do not explain life on earth.

Yes, Darwin’s theory and current evolutionary theory pertain only to the subsequent development of life forms after the appearance of the first replicator(s).  So what?   Should we abandon the science of chemistry because it does not describe the creation of the first atoms?  Of course Darwin’s observations were rather limited.  After all, he is the one who started the ball rolling, so to speak.  One would not expect a huge repository of information initially, until other scientists joined in the search for supporting evidence.  Mr. Pine appears to be unaware that the evolutionary database has expanded enormously since the time of Charles Darwin.  (See the previous link and here for some examples of this evidence.)

The study of the origin of life belongs to a separate category of science known as abiogenesis.  A concerted scientific effort to solve this mystery has only been underway for the last fifty years or so.  Because life first appeared on earth some 3.8 billion years ago (See here.) and the residual evidence is extremely sketchy, a firm answer to this riddle may never be forthcoming.  Nonetheless, while hypotheses are largely speculative at this time, some progress has been made in formulating a feasible explanation.  See here for a discussion of one current hypothesis that addresses this phenomenon.

3.  Evolution was first advanced with the idea that time was not a factor.  Given infinite time, anything was possible.  Today we know time is a factor. 

Where did Mr. Pine get the ridiculous notion that evolution was initially based on the concept that the earth existed for an infinite period of time?  One of the biggest hurdles, early on, to the acceptance of evolution was the spurious Bible-based claim that the earth was only a few thousand years old.  It wasn’t until geologists like Hutton and Lyell presented convincing arguments that the earth was considerably older than the biblical account indicated (See here.) that biological evolution became theoretically justifiable.  At no time did Darwin (or any other evolutionary scientist) base his theory on the premise that evolution operated over infinite periods of time.  Evolutionary mechanisms did not need infinity to produce life’s diversity.  They needed only enough time for such things as mutation/natural selection, sexual selection, and genetic drift to produce successive and cumulative genetic modifications of sufficient magnitude to account for all the life forms on earth. 

Life on earth has a starting point.  Whichever guesstimate one believes, evolution runs into the problem of time constraints.

How much time does Mr. Pine want?  Over 3.5 billion years is not enough time for him?  (If he counted one number every second, it would take him some 32 years to get to just one billion!) Evolutionary scientists are unaware of any problems with time constraints.  One wonders what qualifies Mr. Pine to speak so authoritatively on the subject.  For more discussion on this topic, see “Prediction 5.8” here and here.

4.  There are countless missing links between species.  Why are most records missing from the fossils. [sic]

Ah yes, the creationists’ much-ballyhooed and oft-refuted “missing links" straw man.  If Mr. Pine had bothered to investigate the facts instead of simply regurgitating creationist baloney, he would know the answer to his question.  Had he done so, he would know that the process of fossilization and the subsequent discovery of those relatively few fossils that are formed is very problematic for a number of reasons.

First, organisms are best preserved as fossils if they live in or near aquatic environments.  It is only in these locations that the proper conditions commonly exist for deposition of silts and clays required to form the sedimentary rocks in which most fossils are found.  Many upland species were never fossilized for this reason.  

Second, organisms must survive decay, weathering, and predation by scavengers prior to burial, and they then must be buried in fine soils that will be undisturbed for very long periods of time.  Because all the proper conditions for fossilization occur so rarely, the vast majority of organisms are never converted into fossils.

Third, even under the best of conditions, many tissues are very poorly fossilized.  Most soft tissues and even some bones fall into this category.  Unfortunately, much of the evolutionary change occurs in soft tissues and is thus not well preserved in the fossil record. 

Fourth, many fossils that do form are eventually destroyed by natural geological occurrences such as landslides, volcanic eruptions, and other erosive processes.

Fifth, the stratigraphic record is incomplete in many places because of gaps in the deposition of sediments necessary to form fossils.

Sixth, one common mechanism of speciation, allopatric speciation, involves isolation of a small subset of a population of organisms away from the parental group.  In this isolated state, this subset can then undergo a series of relatively rapid transformations that eventually give rise to new species that are significantly modified from the parent stock.  When the final variant of this transformation process reenters the original parental territory and fossils are recovered from this area, it then appears (falsely) that the parent stock has undergone significant modification without any transitional forms being produced along the way.  Under such circumstances, the so-called “missing links” would be distributed in such small isolated groups over such large stretches of time and space that it would indeed be analogous to looking for a needle in a haystack in searching for them.     

Seventh, not all fossils have been discovered by a long shot.  Dinosaur bones are relatively easy to find.  Yet, though dinosaur fossils have been excavated for over 150 years, 40% of the know species were found in just the last 30 years or so.  It is reasonable to assume that many more fossils of dinosaurs and many other species, some of them transitional, will be found in the future.  Despite the rarity of fossil formation, many transitional series have been identified in the fossil record.  (See below.)     

To put the “missing link” argument into proper perspective, consider all the millions (billions?) of terrestrial vertebrates that must have inhabited the large area now encompassing all of Bonner County since their first appearance on earth - some 360 million years ago.  Consider also all the excavations and landslides that have occurred in the same area during historical times that would have uncovered any fossils that might have been present in the soil layers.  Now count all the fossils of terrestrial vertebrates that have been discovered in that area.  To my knowledge, the sum total is the next best thing to zero.  If Mr. Pine knows otherwise, I would appreciate it if he would let me know.   See here for further discussion on the subject of fossilization and why the discovery of fossils is a relatively rare event.

Furthermore, if evolution did not occur, perhaps Mr. Pine could explain why, in the absence of major geologic disturbances, the fossil record is one in which individuals belonging to different species appear at discreet levels in the geologic column with the less complex organisms occurring at the bottom of the column and with various major, more complex groups of organisms appearing through time as the column is ascended.  His explanation should take into account the fact that the lower strata are populated with the fossils of single-celled organisms while succeeding higher strata contain fossils of simple multi-celled species, then fishes, then amphibians, then reptiles, and eventually mammals, including humans.

To dispel the erroneous notion that an unexpectedly low number of transitional fossils have been identified, see here and here for a discussion of the topic and a listing of some examples of the known transitional fossil sequences.

As archeology science improves, it becomes more difficult to answer the question.

What do archeologists have to do with “missing links?”  Archeologists study human artifacts, not fossils.  The fact that Mr. Pine appears to be unaware of the difference between archeologists and paleontologists does not instill a great deal of confidence in his ability to speak knowledgably on the subject of evolution.  The question that is becoming more difficult for creationists to answer is, if evolution did not occur, why are there any transitional fossil sequences at all.

5.  If one counts the number of species, add [sic] the number of extinct species and then calculate [sic] the missing links, the number becomes astronomical.  No matter what guesstimate of time you use, dividing the number by the years gives so many species per decade.  Why have we not seen major specie [sic] develop during our lifetime?

We have.  And if Mr. Pine had been more diligent in researching this subject before going off half-cocked in his article, he would know that we have.  See here and here for some examples of speciation events that have been observed during human lifetimes.

6.  Considering the creativity of man as shown by music, art and science and the ability to change the environment in a short period of time, it is obvious that man has a purpose different from other creatures who have lived the same as ancestors for millions of years. 

If there is a basic purpose to life, it is to simply to reproduce itself.  This is an inherent function that is common to all successful life forms.  Beyond that, the purpose of human life is what one chooses it to be.  The companionship of family and friends, awe-inspiring art and music, and commitment to a cause (whatever it might be) are some of the things that give purpose and meaning to most peoples lives.  There is no compelling reason to think that the capacity to find meaning and purpose in one's life derives from anything other than the human ability to conceive of such things.

Humans, because of their more highly evolved brain and cognitive processes, are clearly capable of involving themselves in more intellectually demanding pursuits than other species on the planet.  Nonetheless, the difference in the intellectual capabilities between us and other species (especially closely related species such as chimpanzees) is often more a matter of degree than substance. Unfortunately, judging from the detrimental effects that human activity has had on the environment and the ferocity with which humans are attempting to exterminate one another in multiple wars (many religion inspired), their purpose does not appear to be an altogether constructive one.  Other animals (beavers building dams for example) can change the environment in a relatively short period of time.  Only humans have the ability (and apparent inclination) to render it uninhabitable for themselves and all other species.

7.  The basic theory [of evolution] relies on “random variation.”  To explain life as we see it as chance is mathematically impossible to those who understand probability and just unbelievable to many who do not.

 If all there was to evolution was random variation, then there might be some merit to Mr. Pine’s statements.  But there is another factor involved in the process that he neglected to take into consideration.  A well-established evolutionary mechanism involves mutation (largely random genetic variation) plus another very critical nonrandom process, natural selection.  Natural selection is the antithesis of randomness.  Natural selection arbitrarily retains those variations that confer a reproductive advantage on an organism and selectively eliminates those that confer a disadvantage.  Genetic mutation (random) provides the raw material for evolutionary change and natural selection (nonrandom) sorts out those mutations to increase the frequency in the population of those mutations that enhance reproductive success.  Therefore, because of this selective sorting effect that is influenced by the environment in which an organism lives, evolution is, in the final analysis, a nonrandom phenomenon.  Furthermore, natural selection is a cumulative as well as a selective process.  Genetic changes build sequentially on one another from one generation to the next with the result that significant changes can accumulate over extended periods of time.

Those who understand probability but reject evolution for reasons related to probability calculations can only do so if they fail to take into account the cumulative filtering effects of natural selection.  (For some examples of the problem-solving power of genetic algorithms based on the Darwinian principles of mutation plus natural selection, see here.) Those who understand probability and the contribution that nonrandom natural selection makes to evolutionary change find “life as we see it” not only possible, but readily explicable.  Those who find evolution unbelievable and do not understand probability can be safely said to be poorly educated in at least two subjects.  For more discussion on the nonrandom aspects of natural selection, see here and here.

For the record, this is not the first time the Mr. Pine has been set straight on this matter.  See the item, 5/17/05; My response to Harvey Pine’s article of 4/22/05, here.

What conclusion does the above suggest?

The above commentary by Mr. Pine does more than simply suggest something.  The numerous misstatements and falsehoods about evolution in Mr. Pine’s article demonstrate unequivocally that he is sadly misinformed about a subject he has chosen to discuss in the newspaper.  One would think that, if someone were going public with a critique of a particular subject, they would at least make an effort to properly educate themselves on that subject.  Mr. Pine obviously does not consider that to be necessary prerequisite.  Furthermore, by dredging up the random chance argument once again after he had been shown previously that it was baseless, it appears he, like most other anti-evolutionists, simply ignores facts that he finds inconvenient.  (See here for more on this common evasive tactic.)

Some might suggest traditional religion or the Bible as an answer.  Others may find the Bible too unbelievable for consideration.

Indeed, virtually every person who is not a proponent of biblical fundamentalism finds the literally interpreted creation story in the Bible to be too unbelievable for consideration.

What about a third alternative?   

That depends on how well the third alternative jibes with the evidence.  In order for Mr. Pine’s alternative to have any relevance from a scientific standpoint, it would have to account for the observed evidence at least as effectively as does the current theory of evolution.  I suggest that Mr. Pine examine his alternative using the criteria set forth in my Challenge to Young-Earth Creationists.  If he can show definitively that his alternative has more explanatory power than the theory of evolution in that test, then he will be a shoo-in for a Nobel Prize.  If he cannot, he should promptly return his rented tuxedo for a refund and cancel his travel plans to Sweden.

What third alternative?

Why keep us guessing if there is any substance to this mysterious alternative of his?

If I were to suggest one, most would accuse me of spouting far-fetched fantasy or science fiction.

Personally, I think Mr. Pine should run his alternative up a flagpole and see if anyone salutes it.  After all, it is difficult to imagine how it could be anymore farfetched than the literally interpreted biblical story of creation.  Besides, Mr. Pine has already spouted an article full of farfetched fantasy and science fiction in his polemic against evolution,   What harm would there be in letting him spout a bit more?

Maybe our inability to conceive of another possibility is what is keeping us from ever finding the truth.

There is every indication we have found the correct answer in evolution.  Unfortunately, ingrained anthropocentric delusions of grandeur prevent a good many of us from accepting the fact that we share a common genetic ancestry with the most primitive forms of life on earth.  Many people have a difficult time coming to grips with the fact that they are 96% genetically identical to their nearest living evolutionary relatives, the chimpanzees.  (See here.)  For such people, the truth about the origin of life forms on the planet is the last thing they want to find.  Rather than the inability to conceive of new possibilities, it is the reluctance to concede that we are simply a link (temporary perhaps) in the great chain of evolutionary succession, and not some favored creation of the gods, that keeps most people from acknowledging the truth.